Riding the Phoenix

Riding the Phoenix

vector illustration of silhouette of amusment park

By Elrena Evans

My nine-year-old son is terrified of roller coasters.

Or, more accurately, my son is terrified of many things, “roller coasters” being only one entry in a long list of terror-producing entities. Roller coasters are notable here, not because they cause anxiety, but because, despite being petrified of them, my son also loves them.

“When I grow up I’m gonna design this roller coaster!” It’s a common refrain in our household, followed by several minutes (or sometimes, agonizingly, what feels like hours) of technical descriptions, sound effects, and high-energy charades. When questioned by his siblings if he’s actually going to ride any of these roller coasters he plans to design, his answer is always the same:

“No way. But Mom will ride them for me.”

I’m a bit of a roller coaster enthusiast myself, but I’m quick to qualify that enthusiasm lest I be confused with a true Coaster Head. I’m not hot in pursuit of the biggest, baddest coasters ever, because while I like a good thrill, some rides are definitely too much for me (Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, I’m looking at you). What I’m really looking for is a ride that will take all of the worries and anxiety I live with on a daily basis, translate them into physical fear, and then fling that fear from my body as I fall from dizzying heights—leaving me blissfully, if only momentarily, completely anxiety-free.

So my son is correct in saying that I’ll ride his roller coasters for him, even if it’s not a coaster I’d choose of my own volition, and even if it leaves me weak-kneed and crying. I’ll ride his roller coasters forever, because I know what it feels like to live with anxiety, and I can’t erase the responsibility I feel for giving this genetic bequest to my son.


The week school let out for the year, my son made an announcement on the car ride home. “I have set a goal for myself this summer!” he said. There’s nothing inherently revealing in that statement; I am a goal-setting mother and have managed to spawn a succession of goal-setting children. But his actual goal nearly made me drive off the road.

“I am going to ride the Phoenix!”

I didn’t even have to try and formulate a coherent response, because his siblings were all over that.

“You what?” “But the Phoenix is a roller coaster!” “You’re scared of roller coasters! You won’t even ride half the kiddie rides!”

Listening to them react, and watching my son’s face, all I could think was: This is a bad, bad idea.

Don’t misunderstand: I am delighted that my son is setting goals for himself, and I am thrilled that he’s deliberately trying to tackle some of his greatest fears. I enthusiastically recommend this tactic as an excellent way to live. (I drive, don’t I?) But…a roller coaster? How can I gently tell my son that he might be setting his aim too high? I can’t see this ending in anything other than failure, a failure that will only serve to reinforce for him that he can’t, in fact, triumph over his anxiety in any meaningful ways.

If he had consulted me first, perhaps we could have set a goal—a better goal—together. Something more attainable. Something within his reach. But he set this goal all by himself. And thinking about that, I know I have to help him accomplish it. All of his other major achievements over anxiety (learning to swim, riding a bike) have been my goals, goals that I set for him and that I saw him through. This is his goal. That he set all by himself. Ergo, he has to succeed.

Armed with The Plan to help him, a few weeks into the summer we load up the car and drive to the amusement park. Our front tires have barely crunched over the gravel of the entrance when my son’s voice pipes up from the backseat of the minivan. “I’ve changed my goal for the summer! I’m not going to ride the Phoenix anymore.” But I am prepared for this—it is part of The Plan—and as my husband and I exchange glances I say, nonchalantly, “Let’s not decide that right now. Let’s just go and have some fun first.”

We go and have some fun. I am mentally cataloging all my various ways to reintroduce the idea of the Phoenix via The Plan when my son appears at my elbow. “Ride the Merry Mixer with me!” he says—his favorite ride in the park, and one that I hate, and that we have mutually agreed I will ride once per year.

“Okay,” I shoot back. “If then you’ll ride the Phoenix.”

What did I just say? That line wasn’t in The Plan. I have compromised my approach! I am panicking, but my son grows still for a moment, looks me right in the eye, and says “Okay.”

We ride the Merry Mixer until my insides are so scrambled I swear there are bits of intestine lodged in my ears. And then we walk over to the Phoenix.

As we draw near the line, my son is scared, but he isn’t scared like I expected him to be. He isn’t out of control, he isn’t dysregulated. His head is up and his chest is out and he is marching toward the Phoenix, ahead of me. There is something about the set of his shoulders that I recognize, something I’m vaguely, almost subliminally aware also comes from me, along with the red hair and the anxiety. It takes a moment before I can correctly identify what I see: determination. He has made up his mind he’s going to ride the Phoenix, and he’s going to do it.

I count out the tickets for two riders and he looks surprised. “You’re coming with me?” he asks.

Um, no, I want to say. I’m sending you to face your greatest fear alone, while I sit on the wuss bench with some cotton candy. Because that sounds like something I would do, doesn’t it? Have you missed the last nine years of your childhood?! Of course I’m coming with you!

But I don’t say that. I merely remind him that the Phoenix is one of my favorite roller coasters, and we hand over our tickets and get in line.

As we wait, my son is bouncing around, telling me all about yet another roller coaster he is going to design someday, and every other sentence or so yelling, as if a punctuation mark, “I’m scared!” When the line inches closer, he graduates to “I’m terrified!” Then, “I’M PETRIFIED!”

Yet he’s okay. I can see that he’s okay. He’s voicing his fear, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to throw up. He’s holding it together, in his own way. He’s going to be fine.

We have exactly one moment in line where his anxiety shifts from “manageable” to “maybe not so manageable,” and I think I may need The Plan, after all. But before I can launch into my attack, a ride operator leans out over the crowd and asks “Any groups of two?” And just like that, our twosome is whisked to the very front of the line. We’re next. We’re doing it. We are going to ride the Phoenix.

Our acceleration through the line has landed us next to another group of two, a girl about my son’s age who is openly crying, and a father who seems, at first, uninterested in her tears. But as I watch closely, I start to wonder if the father isn’t, in fact, running his own version of The Plan, providing exactly what he knows his child needs, even though it might not look like what someone else would label “good parenting.” I am filled with empathy for duo beside us, and at one point—while my son’s screams of “I’M PETRIFIED!” echo through the loading station—I grin at the girl.

“It’s going to be okay, you know,” I tell her. And she grins back, through her tears. She does know it’s going to be okay. We are all going to be just fine.

And then the coaster is here and we are climbing in, I am handing over our hats, and the lap bar is coming down. As the car begins to tick-tick-tick up the ascent my son starts screaming “Wait, stop, I changed my mind!” and trying to wriggle out from under the restraint. Because the shared lap bar is sized to me, I have no doubt he could slither his skinny frame out from under it and escape, but I quickly put one hand on his shoulder and grab his hand with my other.

“Do you want to hold the lap bar, or my hand?” I ask him, and this question brings him back to me, he yells “Both!” as we crest the top of the hill and hang, for a moment, suspended in midair.

And then we are falling, faster and faster and faster, and all of my anxiety is leaving my brain—breast cancer, bankruptcy, failing as a parent—and it’s swooping to my stomach and then, as we achieve true weightlessness for a fraction of a second and my stomach flips over, it’s gone. We’re careening around a curve and I’m holding my son’s hand, and he is screaming, and I am screaming, but we’re screaming because we’re okay, we’re doing it, we’re conquering our fear. We’re riding the Phoenix.

When the coaster car finally pulls to a stop my son starts yelling, impossibly even louder than before, “I DID IT! I RODE THE PHOENIX!” We disembark, not to the emotional meltdown I had prepared for, but instead to exuberant joy. He is running up to complete strangers in the park yelling “I RODE THE PHOENIX!” and they congratulate him, because how can they not? His hair is so red, his voice is so loud, his joy is so real. I see the crying girl skipping along beside her father and I see that she, too, is reveling in her own joy—we decided to do this scary thing, and we did it.

And if we rode the Phoenix, what other scary things might we now conquer?

The world is ours. It’s summer, my son has met and achieved the very first big goal he set, and he didn’t even need The Plan I created to help him. All he needed was to decide he was going to do it. The coming years unfold before my imagination in rapid succession, all the goals he will someday make, and all the goals he will someday achieve. He is going to ride the roller coasters life brings him all on his very own. He can do it: I know that now, and more importantly, he knows that now. We are basking in the freedom that knowledge brings as he runs up to anyone in the park who will listen and yells, “HEY! I JUST RODE THE PHOENIX!”

Author’s Note: A few days after we conquered the Phoenix, I asked my son if he wanted to take the deep water swim test at the pool. “MOM,” he replied. “I rode the PHOENIX. That was BIG. I am not setting any more goals for this summer!” Five weeks later, he announced one evening that he did want to try for the deep water swim band, after all. He passed on the first try.

Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.

Read the prequel to this essay “Riding Away.”



Making Room for Joy

Making Room for Joy

By Jennifer Berney


I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

Too often when my children are full of joy, I take it as my job to curb it.

Take the following scene, for instance:

“Get your pajamas on!” I yell to my older son for the umpteenth time. It’s eight thirty in the evening and I wanted my two sons in bed half an hour ago. But instead they are still naked from their bath, chasing each other through the living room. My toddler jumps out at my older son from behind a half-closed door. He shrieks, and our small house fills with peals of laughter. “Enough!” I shout. I put my hand on my son’s bare back, and guide him into his bedroom. I close the door between him and his little brother. In moments like this, I don’t participate in my children’s fun or even bear witness to it. Instead, I make myself joy’s adversary. I’m trying to change that.

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve ever received came from an older friend, her child already grown. “I was good at being present through the hard emotions,” she said. “But I wish I’d been more present for the joy.”

When she said this, my jaw dropped a little. So far I had measured my parenting on how well I tended to my children through their daily disappointments, their struggles and grievances. But when it came to how well I engaged with their happiness, I never measured that.

I began to consider the moments when I interfere with my children’s fun. There’s always a reason: it’s bedtime or it’s time to leave for school. They’re messing up the bed I just made, or their shrieks are hurting my ears. It’s true that sometimes the fun must end. But it’s also true that sometimes I can make room for it by starting our bedtime routine earlier, for instance, or training them to help me remake the bed that they’ve unmade.

The more I think about these things, the more I must face a truth about myself: Joy is a challenging emotion for me. Sadness comes easily. Anger hovers in the background. Anxiety is ever-present. These are my resting emotions. I don’t want to overstate it here. It’s not that my life has been particularly hard, or that I’m a chronically unhappy person. It’s just that joy is such a big emotion. One I find hard to inhabit comfortably. When I embody it, I feel like I’ve put on an outfit that doesn’t quite suit me—like I’ve borrowed a friend’s neon party dress to wear to a PTA meeting.  

I suspect that I’m not the only adult who feels this way. I suspect that for many of us, by adulthood joy has left our emotional landscape or we must go to special lengths to engage it: we might finish a bottle of wine on Friday night, or empty our wallets for brief thrills like sky diving or bungee jumping. Some of us might have even wanted children, in part, because we thought they might help us regain the sense of joy that has dimmed over the years. But then, after a year or so of parenting, we might claim to be so overburdened with the tasks of work and keeping house that there is no room in our lives for such a big and frivolous emotion.

At first glance, joy doesn’t help us to vacuum the car or put away the groceries. But I do wonder if joy may act as a medicine, a balm, if it might help me move with ease through life’s sharp turns and corners, if yesterday’s dose of joy might make today’s to-do list feel less daunting, or less important. And so lately I try to take note when my children are joyful. I try to open myself to this strange and foreign feeling.

Yesterday morning my children were ready for school and we still had ten minutes to spare—a small miracle in my world. To entertain themselves, they took turns jumping off the coffee table and into my arms. As they leapt, they shouted random words like cat-face! or jellyfish!

In the past, I might have acted as catcher for a hundred jumps and never noticed what a good time this was. I might never have noticed how good it felt to have their full weight land on me, each of their bodies creating a gentle ache with each landing. But at some point, after at least a dozen falls and catches, it registered: this is joy. I opened my arms wider. I cheered. When they finally landed, I held them tighter.

On the couch that morning, no miracle occurred. All of my resting emotions—my sorrow, my anger, my worry—remained. But for those minutes I also felt suspended, held inside a bright and hazy light. I was at once two selves, present and distant, joyful and fearful, a human existing in time, space, and also light.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.




At my son Carter’s last visit with his psychiatrist, he answered all of Dr. S’s usual questions: Was he sleeping? How was his mood? Did he see or hear anything that other people didn’t?

He answered her and as always filled in the gaps in conversation with chatter about his hobbies and his dogs. He told Dr. S about plans for his 13th birthday the following weekend, launching into an extensive list of the gifts he hoped to receive, but Dr. S has known Carter for a long time and has learned how to interrupt him gently to get the information she needs. At the end of the appointment, she ran Carter through a brief neurological exam (all normal), ordered labs (standard), and said, “Well, it seems like you’re doing really well, dude. I think you can come back in three months.”

Carter whooped. “Three months! Yes! Mom, can I have your phone?” and he charged out of Dr. S’s office and down the hall while he tapped at the phone screen, trying to connect to any family member so he could spread the good news.

I smiled at Dr. S, saying, “He’s never gone three months before.”

Dr. S returned my smile with her gentle one and said, “He’s come a long way.”

Once in the car, Carter called my dad, my mom, his own dad, then his dad’s mom. I don’t think any of the people he called were clear on what Carter was telling them, but they understood his excitement and congratulated him.

Elated as he was, I’m not sure even Carter understands how momentous this is. It’s true that he’s never gone three months between visits with Dr. S, and that Dr. S has been his psychiatrist for seven years, but what he doesn’t remember is that he’s never gone three months in his life without seeing at least one doctor. There were months when he saw multiple doctors and weeks when he had three or more appointments. There were days in his first six years when I drove him to more than one appointment as we tried to identify the causes of his frequent vomiting episodes, his sleeplessness, and his unrelenting terror. Later, there were weeks when I spoke to Dr. S every single day as we struggled to keep Carter out of the hospital and safe while he rocketed between suicidal depression and overwhelming mania.

I remember those years in the haziest of ways and if I didn’t have files overflowing with reports and assessments from doctors, psychologists, and schools, plus my own journal and blog entries, my memory would make everything smaller, more manageable. Carter screamed like a child afire almost from birth. He was beset by physical and emotional challenges whose causes we wouldn’t begin to understand for years, and the fear and sleeplessness we endured came within a breath of killing me and destroying our family. Carter suffered, and I suffered with him.

My primary occupation during that time was wishing. I wished that my child was well. I wished, if he couldn’t be well, that whatever was wrong was something visible and easy to identify so someone would name it and ease his suffering. I wished the unbearable and dangerous lives we were living would either improve or end because I couldn’t imagine continuing on for years as we were living then. I lost any hope I’d had that things would ever be better.

There is a suffering worse than one’s own, and that is to see one’s child suffer and be unable to help. When Carter was overwhelmed by rage or anxiety; when he was moaning over the pain of a migraine; when he was begging me to kill him or trying to throw himself from the car on the freeway; when he was screaming all the way to school from terror; when he clung to my neck and begged me to make him feel better; when he lashed out at me and demanded I let him kill himself; in every traumatic and terrifying moment I prayed God, put this in me. Take it out of him and put it in me and give my little boy life. The human heart can break, and break again, and again, and again, and eventually there descends a kind of numbness, which is a horror in itself because it seems to indicate the death of one’s empathy.

Eventually, we landed in the office of a developmental pediatrician who heard my concerns and understood the gravity of our situation. He prescribed medication to help Carter sleep and I am not speaking hyperbolically when I say that he saved our lives with those little pink pills. By the summer he turned six, it was apparent that Carter needed a higher level of care than a developmental pediatrician could provide and we were transferred into the capable hands of Dr. S.

The worst (please, I beg, let it have been the worst) was still ahead of us, but we have never since then been alone. Now that Carter has been relatively stable for several years, I have had some time to recover, and although I have a hard time remembering those impossibly difficult years, I know they changed me. I don’t recognize pre-2002 Adrienne. I am stronger in some places than I was then, and irredeemably broken in others. I’ve been refined by fire.

My family lives now with a tenuousness I couldn’t have borne before. When people ask me what I think the future holds, I can only shrug. Carter may live with us at home, or he might be killed by police who don’t understand his behavior and interpret it as aggressive. He might hold a job and live in a group home or he might take his own life, as so many people with his diagnosis do. He could stay fairly stable for the rest of his life, or he could go off his medicine and become acutely psychotic, maybe going to prison for some crime committed when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can’t predict and I don’t try. I do my best, in each day, to help Carter experience success and find some joy. That has to be enough.

Photo: Matt Benson/Unsplash

Catching My Breath

Catching My Breath

By Carla Naumburg


She needed me to acknowledge her reality, her feelings and her fear. I couldn’t do it, because it would have meant acknowledging my own. I couldn’t do that either.



One degree. That’s what the weather app on my phone reported one morning this past winter as I was rushing around, trying to get myself and my girls dressed and fed and out the door on time.

In my mind, one degree is much more than just uncomfortable. One degree is scary. My six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with asthma when she was about four years old. I also have asthma, and our impaired lungs don’t respond well to air that cold. Inhaled steroids generally keep our chronic coughs at bay, but memories of her asthma attacks, including an especially bad one at school last fall, are rarely far from my thoughts. So I came up with a different plan for drop-off on that especially cold day. Rather than making her walk with me from the parking lot into school, I would drop her off right in front so she could get inside quickly. Then I’d circle back around, park the car, and walk in to meet her.

When I told my daughter the plan over breakfast, she promptly burst into tears. She was scared. Even though I knew she would be fine, she told me she didn’t feel safe walking in by herself. She couldn’t identify why she felt that way, but I wasn’t terribly surprised by her response. Along with my problematic lungs, she also inherited my anxiety. As a result, she has a hard time with the anticipation of changes to our routine, especially when she can sense that I’m anxious too. Looking back, I’m sure she was picking up on my worries that morning, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

“I know you’re scared,” I said in a voice that was both harsh and weary. “But it’s freezing out there, and I’m worried about your breathing. I’m trying to keep you safe.”

“But I’m scared, Mommy. I don’t want to walk in alone. I want to walk in with you. Please, please don’t make me. I’ll wear my scarf over my mouth. I’ll walk fast. I promise.” Huge tears rolled down her face as she sat in front of a bowl of soggy Cheerios.

“I don’t care,” I snapped at her. The words came flying out of my mouth before I even realized what I was saying. “You’re not walking across that parking lot.”

The truth is that in that moment, I didn’t care about my daughter’s fear. I knew she’d be fine, if unhappy, in the few minutes it took me to park the car and walk back to her.

What I cared about in that moment was my own fear.

I know it’s unlikely that my daughter would have stopped breathing on the walk from the parking lot. The worst that might happen was shortness of breath, and she had a rescue inhaler at school. But just as my little girl wasn’t able to think logically about her fear of walking a few feet on her own, I was unable to think logically about what I was feeling.

I was scared she’d stop breathing, and I would do anything to make that fear go away, even if it meant triggering a similar anxiety in my own child.

For years I’ve dismissed the impact that multiple trips to urgent care and the emergency room with a croupy infant who grew into a wheezing toddler and asthmatic preschooler had on me. I told myself that my own history of coughing until I vomited and struggling to breathe had prepared me well to manage a child who had inherited my faulty respiratory system.

Then she had an asthma attack at school this past fall and all of that changed for me. In the past, we always had a plan, and I knew what was going on and what to expect. A barking cough meant twenty minutes on the front porch at 3:00 in the morning; the same cold winter air that could trigger an asthmatic cough often opened up her croupy airways just enough to avoid a trip to the emergency room. When she started wheezing, we went to urgent care if it was open, and the emergency room if it wasn’t. My illusion of control remained unchallenged until that morning when the phone rang and I heard a voice on the other end telling me, “We’ve called 911 for your daughter. Please hold.”

And then, nothing.

Instantly, I was on my feet, pacing the living room, my hand clenched around the phone, my eyes tracing the soft curves of the wood in our floor as my imagination went wild in those few minutes while I waited to be transferred to the school nurse, who was busy tending to my daughter.

Breathe. Breathe. Is she on the floor? Is her face blue? Breathe. Breathe. Are they pumping her chest? Can she breathe? What if she cant breathe? What if? What will I do? What will happen to our family? How will I survive? Breathe. What do I do now? What if my baby isnt breathing? How would I ever breathe again?


As it turned out, she was O.K., and the school did an excellent job taking care of her. She had had an asthma attack in gym class and after taking her rescue inhaler, her blood oxygen levels didn’t come up as well as the nurse would have liked so she called 911. At no point was she unconscious or in serious danger. By the time I got to school, short of breath myself from running across the parking lot past the ambulance and fire truck idling out front with their lights flashing, my baby was weary and a bit frightened, but she was safe and breathing well.

Yet something changed in me after that 911 call. For years, my go-to response in times of crisis had been gratitude. Each time I caught my mind drifting into the world of “what-if’s,” I intentionally reminded myself how fortunate we were to have access to effective asthma medications, knowledgeable and kind medical professionals, health insurance and highly skilled first responders. Thank God, I told myself. We are so lucky.

This is all true, of course, but it’s not the whole truth. What I didn’t realize—what I never let myself realize—is that all of those late night trips to the emergency room were actually micro-traumas that cut into my already constitutionally thin skin and left scars that were small enough to go unnoticed, but sensitive enough to leave me feeling just a bit more vulnerable with each passing event. I knew on an intellectual level that parenthood could be traumatic, but I was too busy counting my blessings to see that my experiences were also scary and confusing and exhausting, even if they weren’t the worst things that could happen to a parent. Gratitude had become my false messiah, a practice I clung to at the expense of acknowledging the full range of emotions that welled up inside me each time my daughter got sick.

All of those feelings—the intense fear, the overwhelming sense that my daughter’s life and well-being are, to a larger extent than I ever thought possible, beyond my control, and the flood of gratitude—hit me on the day of the 911 call. But I never let myself take the time to notice and acknowledge them. Once again, I buried my pain and anxiety beneath a thick blanket of “thank god it wasn’t worse,” and tried to move on.

But some part of me couldn’t move on. And so I was left with this hard, tense kernel of anxiety and fear, ready to pop at the slightest hint of danger.

It popped on that one-degree morning, but I didn’t realize it until long after I had snapped at my daughter.

She needed me to acknowledge her reality, her feelings and her fear. I couldn’t do it, because it would have meant acknowledging my own. I couldn’t do that either.

And so I tried to yell it away.

It didn’t work, of course. It just hid the fear and anxiety under a layer of anger and silence. Nothing was released, nothing was transformed. Nothing was healed.

We’re both still scared.

And I’m still trying to catch my breath.

Carla Naumburg, PhD is the author of Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters (Parallax, 2014), and Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family (New Harbinger, Forthcoming). You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: gettyimages.com

The Girl Who Sings In Tune

The Girl Who Sings In Tune

By Nancy Schatz Alton


Last night my family skipped the spring music concert at school. For years, we have secretly dreamed of skipping this event. My ten-year-old has always had stage fright. It’s hard watching Annie look like she’s about to fall off the risers and throw up her dinner as she stands there—wide eyed and unblinking—staring down something we all can’t see.

People tell me these concerts are important. Showing up for what scares Annie may be powerful and life changing—an affirmation of our bravery. These events can also suck, like the time when all the lights from the clicking and filming iPhone and iPads and i-what-the-hell-is-anyone-actually-living-in-the-moment-here made my Annie turn her entire body sideways and remain silent. That concert was during the year she repeated kindergarten due to her dyslexia. It kills me that my girl not only faces learning difficulties all day at school, but she is also filled with angst at an evening program that could show off one of her gifts. Because even though my girl has anxiety, singing is actually one of her favorite activities. She’s always sung in tune and memorized songs within one or two listens. She sings for fun, by herself, in her room, where she thinks no one is listening.

So, yes, I gave a big sigh when my mom asked me, “Is Annie going to be graded on the concert tonight?”

Since I didn’t have the energy to face a potential hard evening, I’ll take an F for the family team. But no, she’s not graded on this. I’m not graded on being human either. I’m not graded on my wish to relax instead of helping Annie pick out something appropriate to wear when she’s most comfortable in sweats. I’m not graded on my waffling between going and not going and asking Annie for her opinion before deciding we’ll stay home and enjoy homemade pizza instead of facing our fears. Annie didn’t give me an F because she popped out of a day dream after dinner to ask me if the concert had happened yet.

“The concert is over, Annie,” I said.

“It is?” she asked. Then she started to cry.

She climbed onto my lap and we talked about how I had just heard her sing at her biggest performance success yet. She takes voice lessons from our neighbor, who hosted an intimate spring event in her living room. Just two rows of chairs made a small arch around the baby grand piano.

Annie went first. She walked up front and turned to the audience. She moved her eyes from left to right, sweeping the room as her head came along for the ride. And then she burst into tears.

Her teacher didn’t treat it like a big deal. “Oh, OK, Annie, take a moment. There’s Kleenex in the back of the room,” she said. “And while you do that, we are all going to start singing your warm-up exercises. You can join in when you are ready. And when you sing, you can face me at the piano.”

I asked Annie how I could help while holding her close. “To make it not happen. To not sing,” she said through tears.

“Let’s just calm down,” I said.

But I sounded anything but calm. My insides clenched as I worried about whether or not she was going to sing.

I turned my head away from Annie to the owner of the deep voice next to me. This grandfather held the room’s lowest notes with joy, his whole face beaming with helpfulness and song. His voice during the warm-up exercises began to buoy me. As my body began to relax, Annie quietly joined in. I couldn’t sing a note, but Annie could and did. And when the warm-ups ended, Annie walked to the piano. She placed herself with her side to the audience and faced her voice teacher’s back.

“Annie, I’m going to play a short warm-up, and then you’ll begin,” said her voice teacher.

The teacher played the first notes of “Belle’s Reprise” on the piano and Annie began to sing. “I want to venture in the great white somewhere. I want it more than I can tell. For once, it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they’ve got planned.”

And there I was, my heart aching at all it took to get right here, with Annie sharing her gift with everyone in the room. Just past the ache was the soaring joy. I never imagined this moment when I watched Annie suffering on those school risers. Back there I couldn’t fathom Annie would actually show off her talent in a tiny living room three doors down from our house.

When I used to see her scared up onstage, all I felt was my fear. I saw how different she was from the kids singing with joy and posing for cameras. Why couldn’t I have that kid? As she sang “Belle’s Reprise,” I could see her walking in the wilderness, voice lifted in song as she took in nature, her life on her terms, not mine.

After such a performance, I couldn’t fathom going back to a spring concert to watch a possibly quaking Annie standing on the risers. She gave up her spot in a group solo last week. When I sounded disappointed about her not wanting to sing the group solo, Annie’s teacher told me, “We are proud of Annie for knowing exactly what she wants. She has years ahead of her to use her singing voice the way she wants to use it.”

“Mom, I don’t want to do the group solo.” “Mom, I don’t want to do the jumpathon.” “Mom, all that noise gave me a headache.” “Mom, I don’t want to go to the birthday party with all the girls from my class. It will be too loud.”

Mom, see me, love me, accept me. Last night we finished reading a book together about a sixth grade girl that has dyslexia when we should have been at the concert. We read it because my girl has dyslexia and many of the strange side effects that kids with learning differences have. It’s not strange in this world to have parents reply, “My kid can’t jump rope either. Does yours ride a bike? Mine doesn’t.”

So I work every day to accept my girl the way the girl in the book we read is finally accepted by her classmates as they all realize she isn’t stupid, she simply has dyslexia. I smiled so big as my girl jumped off the couch and did an impromptu dance for me when the girl in the book realized she was smart despite her dyslexia.

My girl, I see her so much clearer in our living room than when she’s up on those risers so far away from me. Front and center, singing for only me, she’s all herself.

Seattleite Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of The Healthy Back Book and is a regular contributor to ParentMap.com. Read her blog at withinthewords.com.

Terrified: When Anxious Kids Face Surgery

Terrified: When Anxious Kids Face Surgery


He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was in a state of life-or-death terror.


How terrified is a child who needs to control all things that happen to his body, when he finds out that he is going to a hospital and given medicine to make him go to sleep so deeply that he won’t wake up no matter what happens, and that while he sleeps a doctor will prop his mouth open and do surgery on half of his teeth? How much more afraid is that child when he finds out that neither his mom nor his dad will be in the room with him and that he will be there, unconscious and helpless, in a room full of strangers?

I’ll tell you how terrified: that child will be approximately as afraid as is possible. That child will turn pale and clammy, vomit repeatedly, succumb to a migraine, and stay awake most of the night screaming and begging his parents not to make him go. His fear will spiral so far out of control he’ll require two nebulizer treatments to ease the asthma attack caused by his fear, but he’ll have to pause those breathing treatments to run to the bathroom because his guts will be in revolt.

When I called ahead to the outpatient surgery center a few days before my son Carter, seven-years-old at the time, was scheduled to have his teeth fixed, I asked to speak to one of the prep room nurses. After I made sure she would be there the morning we were coming, I told her, “Carter has extreme anxiety disorder. He’s probably going to need a dose of Versed as soon as we get there. You’ll know him when you see him; he’s a little guy for his age with red hair. He’ll probably be screaming his face off.”

The nurse replied, “All kids are afraid of surgery, you know.”

I gritted my teeth. I did not say, no shit, you wizard. I said, “Yes, I know. I have three older children who have none of these issues, but Carter really will be more afraid than most kids.”

“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Jones. We can handle him. We’re used to dealing with scared kids.”

Unwilling to argue, I thanked her and hung up. When I recounted the exchange to my husband he said, “Hey, you never know. Maybe the nurse will turn out to be the first person he’s ever met who can talk him out of being afraid.” We laughed, bitterly. How many people have assumed they could force our son to pull himself together?

We arrived at the hospital and by the time we walked through the doors of the surgery center I was soaked with sweat. Moving Carter from the car, across the parking lot, though the hospital’s main lobby (with its throng of staring people), down several corridors, and into the surgical waiting area had been a workout no gym could provide. He kicked, bit, spat, flailed, and most of all, he screamed. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum. He was in a state of life-or-death terror. I’m sure that if we could have measured his stress hormones, the levels would have been comparable to a person who’s been run up a tree by a grizzly bear, only to find that grizzly bears can climb.

We entered the prep area and the nurse I’d spoken to the week before came right over to us. “He needs a dose of Versed right away,” I panted.

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Let’s see,” and she took Carter from me, who, in his flailing, caught her ear with a fist and knocked off her glasses.

She put his feet on the ground, knelt, grabbed his shoulders, and gave them a little shake. She put on a super serious, I-don’t-take-this-kind-of-shit-from-kids-like-you voice and said, “You stop that right now, young man. We won’t have any of that here.”

I was half hysterical by this time, frantic for someone to give my son some medicine to ease his panic, but also disgusted by this know-it-all-nurse (did she think that I don’t also possess a fierce, I-don’t-take-this-kind-of-shit voice?) and eager to watch her roll out everything in her bag of tricks before she finally had to admit I was right. I knew she’d get bruised, maybe even bloodied, in the process, and that every other patient in the prep area would be disturbed, but what were my options, really? She had the key to the med cart, not me, so I asked which bay was ours and I went to sit down in the chair by the gurney.

The nurse wrestled a still screaming Carter onto the gurney and told him to take off his clothes. When she let go of him to get a gown, he scrambled off the bed and bolted for the door. I let her bring him back, but his red face, covered in snot and tears, foiled my resolve to let her handle this her own way and when he grabbed for me I hissed at her, “Give him some Versed. Now.”

She wouldn’t. I assume she had her identity wound up in this process, something like I am a nurse who is very, very good with kids and I can always make them calm down before surgery because she was tenacious. He had torn the sheets off the gurney, bolted for the door three times, pulled the nurse’s hair, and bruised us both, but it wasn’t until he bit her that she sighed and went for the Versed.

She came back with the syringe of pink liquid and said, “This is a big dose. He’ll be asleep in ten minutes and then you can relax until it’s time for him to go back.”

I cracked up, and loudly. I couldn’t help it, since I was on the ragged edge myself after a nearly sleepless night and the horrors of watching my child in so much pain for hours. “That won’t put him to sleep,” I said.

“Oh, it’ll definitely put him to sleep. I’ve never had a child who didn’t doze off with this dose of Versed.”

“Then you’ve never given it to a child who was quite this afraid.”

“Well,” said the nurse, “We’ll just see. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

She returned in ten minutes to find my son wide awake, though much calmer. He let me help him out of his clothes and into the gown. He was willing to wear the cap to cover his hair as long as his teddy bear and I each wore one, so I tucked my hair into one and he even smiled a little. When the anesthesiologist came to insert his IV, he had to give Carter a little more Versed because he panicked at the sight of the catheter. “Wow,” said the anesthesiologist, “with this dose, he’s had the max safe dose for his weight. He was the one screaming out here earlier? I can’t believe he’s still awake.”

“He has severe anxiety disorder,” I said. “That Versed has to compete with a huge quantity of stress hormones and nature is always more powerful than medicine.”

“No kidding,” said the anesthesiologist. “If he has to come in again, you should call ahead and let us know about his anxiety disorder. We could meet you at the door with some medicine to calm him down.”

New Day, Neurosis

New Day, Neurosis

By Amie Klempnauer Miller

200352457-001I am obsessed with excrement. I call the nurse, even though it is Sunday, to ask how concerned I should be if we have not had a soiled diaper in thirty-six hours. Wets, yes. Stools, no. Our daughter, Hannah, now just two-and-a-half weeks old, has been a slow starter in this arena. The nurse is reassuring, suggesting that Hannah might just be a “reluctant pooper.” She advises me to give the baby a sitz bath, to kind of warm things up down there. If that doesn’t work, she says, try a little anal sphincter stimulation with a rectal thermometer. If that doesn’t work, try half of a glycerin suppository. If that doesn’t work, good Lord.

And so we begin. Jane, my partner and Hannah’s birth mom, pours a bowl of warm water and we dip our baby’s little bottom in it. She screeches and urinates. Nothing else.

We put a little KY jelly on the rectal thermometer and give the anal stimulation a go. I cannot believe we are doing this. We are lesbians, for god’s sake. The only lesbians I have ever known who thought about anal stimulation were the women who always scared me when we lived in New York.

Still no stool, so we decide to give up for a while. Jane carries Hannah into the living room where she slumps down into the oversized blue armchair, the baby lying in her arms. Hannah is feeling mellow, now that we are not dipping her in bowls of water and coming at her with gooey probes. She begins to root around Jane’s chest where she knows hidden food awaits. Her mouth hangs open, like a baby robin groping for a worm. Jane pulls her shirt up with a look of resignation. The fatigue of new parenthood is setting in like a slow, looming storm front. The adrenaline of the first two weeks has dripped away. Hannah sucks for ten minutes or so and then falls blissfully into sleep.

Jane sets Hannah—gently, gently—into her carrier and tucks a pink-checked flannel blanket around her legs. We go into the kitchen to make lunch.

“Why did we do this?” Jane asks. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I mutter. It’s surprising how quickly you wear down. Some things are not as bad as I expected: We get more sleep than many people, since our baby sleeps for one four-hour stretch each night. Before Hannah was born, I stocked the freezer with lasagna and soup and meatballs, so our diets haven’t been limited to take-out and toast. But the worry of new parenthood is far worse than I anticipated. The anxiety is intense. Hannah rasps and gurgles in the night and I leap out of bed to make sure she is still breathing. Her umbilical cord is seeping a little: Does that mean something is wrong? She spits up and I have no way of knowing what is normal and what is too much. If she soaks half of her bib, is that too much? Are three spit-ups okay, but six too many? Is this gastroesophageal reflux? Or is it just infancy?

I dread the evening because I know that the anxiety always gets worse after dark. With dusk comes fear. I tell myself that I needn’t be so worried. We have a support network, Hannah has checked out well at all of her doctor’s visits, and we have access to a twenty-four-hour nurse line. But at night, worries become obsessions and remote possibilities become impending certainties. I wait each night for the dawn.

Jane and I feast on each other’s anxieties. One of us worries about something, anything, reasonable or not (but best if it contains a kernel of possibility, a morsel of fact), and plants the seed in the other’s head. It takes root. It grows. We offer half-hearted reassurances: “I was just reading about encopresis, which is really terrible, but it usually doesn’t occur until later. She probably won’t develop it.” Meanwhile, each of us knows that the fear is growing, that the assurances are not heartfelt. And just as we know this, we know that we are feeding our own neuroses. And just as we know that, we become less and less able to do anything about it. We each withdraw, pulling back behind our own veil of worry.

“I think she’s fine,” I say. “But of course, we can call the doctor. Do you want to?” (You’re It.)

“No. I don’t think we need to call. What’s she doing? Is she all right?” (Now you.)

“She’s okay. I just wish she would have a stool. I can’t believe it’s been thirty-six hours.” (Your turn.)

“Why’s she crying again? Should we call the doctor?” (Back to you.)

“I don’t know. Maybe. What do you think?”

And on it goes.

My cousin, mother of two miraculously grown children, calls to check in. I tell her the Saga of the Stool. Stephanie suggests that we bicycle Hannah’s legs (already doing that), hold her vertically (gravity), and try not to worry (hopeless). As we are talking, Hannah begins to screech. Jane waves at me and says that she thinks it’s time for the suppository. I get off the phone. Jane carries Hannah into the nursery and puts her on the changing table. The glycerin suppositories, made for children, look impossibly enormous. I take one from the bottle and cut it down by two-thirds. We are ready.

Jane removes the diaper and almost whoops. There is a poo. Not a huge one, but not a smudge. We are thrilled. I put the suppository back into the bottle, we clean Hannah up, and we go back into the living room, grinning giddily. I am so pleased that I call Stephanie to report.

“The eagle has landed,” I say.

She’s as excited as I am. This must be the bond that holds parents together: shared excitement over basic bodily functions that are otherwise not discussed in polite company.

“That’s wonderful,” she says, and I know she means it. “Things are moving.”

We sink into the sofa, Jane cradling Hannah. I am exhausted. I feel like I’m in boot camp, but at least we have had a victory. We have made it another day.

A week later, we are convinced that Hannah has cystic fibrosis. The beauty of this anxiety is that it has some degree of rational basis. After Jane became pregnant, we learned that she carries the most common genetic mutation that causes the disease. We immediately confirmed that our sperm bank screens all of its donors for the thirty most common mutations and does not accept anyone who tests positive. But still, we worry.

I scrutinize the entry on cystic fibrosis in the Boston Children’s Hospital Guide to Your Child’s Health and Development—which we own—and learn that symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and digestive problems. Every time Hannah wheezes, snorts, grunts, gasps, or spits up, all of which she does with regularity, I am convinced that it is confirmation of chronic illness.

We learn that the initial test for cystic fibrosis is a sweat test. The doctor collects a little sweat from the child and measures the saline content. An elevated salt level can signal a positive result. I stay up at night and feel my heart clench when Hannah snorts. Jane admits that she has secretly been licking the back of Hannah’s neck to taste for salt.

By the time Hannah is ten weeks old, we’ve let go of our cystic fibrosis worries. Now we think she might be deaf. She doesn’t turn her head at our voices and she doesn’t startle at loud sounds. I try to test her hearing by ringing the doorbell. No response. I snap my fingers. No response. Jane and I begin sneaking up on the poor child and clapping behind her head. No response. We remind each other that she does seem to listen to music and calm down when the bathroom fan is running. But these could be anomalies. Clap. Nothing. I begin searching the Internet for resources on hearing impairments. I should know better by now. I quickly find the suggestion that parents try to test their child’s hearing by clapping behind the baby’s head.

We remind ourselves that she had a hearing test in the hospital and passed it just fine. But the tech was busy that day, I think. What if they just did a social promotion? Jane calls the pediatric clinic. A doctor calls back and says that the hospital test is ninety-nine percent accurate, but there is some concern that she isn’t startling.

I scurry back onto the Internet. Jane and I make a pact to stop trying to startle Hannah, at least until after her next doctor’s appointment, which is in a week. I think about doing it anyway when Jane goes to the grocery store, but I resist.

At eleven weeks, Jane takes Hannah to the doctor for a check-up. Everything looks good. The doctor isn’t concerned about her hearing or the startling lack of startling. She reassures Jane. Hannah gets weighed and measured, her growth noted and compared to other babies her age. At two weeks, she was below the fiftieth percentile in overall weight and now, at eleven pounds, three ounces, she is in the seventy-fifth percentile. Excellent. Her torso is exceedingly long; she has grown to twenty-four inches in total body length, putting her in the ninety-fifth percentile. But her head, which was in the ninetieth percentile for circumference, is now in the fiftieth percentile. It grew, but at a slower pace than the rest of her body.

“Do you think her head isn’t growing fast enough?” Jane asks me that evening. She knows better than this. She understands statistics and the fallacy of percentiles, especially when it comes to diagnosing normality. “Do we have a pinhead baby?”

I imagine Hannah all grown up: a giant torso with a head the size of a Vidalia onion. Our little Onion Head.

“I think,” Jane says one day when the baby is peacefully asleep in her bouncy seat, “that I have been assuming that something is wrong with Hannah rather than expecting her to be all right.” I have also been constantly worried that there is something grave, something dreadful that has eluded the doctors, that is lurking behind the diaper pail, hiding under the crib, waiting to snatch our baby away. Some of this is a product of reading too many articles and watching too much television. We have heard the stories about sudden deaths, freak viruses, and bizarre conditions that go undetected. It feels threatening to trust her to be healthy, as though we might be blindsided if we do not remain diligently on guard.

I suppose our neurosis is normal, although I sometimes wonder if it would help to have a husband in the house who would say, “Oh, she’s fine” and turn on the Packers game. I have made a lifelong art of worrying and I’m not about to stop now. Still, I do realize that I need to let go of at least a little of it before our pediatrician refuses to see us anymore.

It’s a thin line between fear and love, a line that has become perforated since Hannah’s birth. The two passions intermingle, and anxiety courses through my heart. Is it possible to love a child wholeheartedly but without fear? Or does the magnitude of our vulnerability as parents demand that we stand on guard against all dangers, real and imagined?

I lie in bed at night and watch the clock, counting the hours until dawn.

Author’s Note: Jane and I are still worriers, but our fears lessened somewhat after Hannah really did get sick with a couple of nasty viruses, one of which landed her in the hospital. While we were there, one of the nurses noticed how willful Hannah is, even when hooked up to an I.V. “You’re strong,” she said several times to Hannah. “That’s going to serve you well.” Hannah is strong, as it turns out, and Jane and I are beginning to let ourselves trust her to recover when she gets sick and trust ourselves to give her what she needs to grow and thrive. And, we’re happy to report, her head is a perfectly normal size.

Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You (a Memoir of Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood (Beacon Press, 2010). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her wife Jane and daughter Hannah.

Faking Bravery

Faking Bravery

By Kristin Shaw


Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large.


My mother made parenting look easy.

I grew up in the 1970s, when kids were shooed out the front door in the morning in the summer and expected back at dinnertime. My bike was my trusty steed, and my sister and I met our friends down the street for Barbie play time and races around the block. I didn’t have a cell phone, pager, or any other kind of GPS tracking device, and I don’t remember my mother ever worrying about it.

That is a testament to how well she managed her own anxiety; the anxiety I didn’t know existed until I was well into adulthood and learned that she had been actively managing hers with medication and exercise for several years already.

“Mom, how did you deal with not being able to reach us during the day?”

“I knew where you were.”

“How did you learn to let us go and be independent?” I asked her. I am the mother of a five-year-old little boy, and I get panicky leaving him at another family’s house for a playdate for a few hours. I have had to adjust, as I went back to work and traveling when he was three months old, but it was never easy for me.

I had to, she said. You had to learn how to grow up.

“I guess so. But didn’t you worry?”

I held my breath until you came home, she said, not entirely kidding.

Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large. I, too, fight the demons of anxiety, the pilot light ignited when I experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of my son.

When he was born in the fall of 2009, it was smack in the middle of the outbreak of swine flu. My doctor told me to keep him out of the public and away from germs for a few months, and I did exactly that. I checked his breathing constantly. As he grew and I corralled my postpartum anxiety into something more diluted but still potent, I had to learn how to let him fall and learn on his own without my constant intervention.

My friend Cheryl is a family counselor in Texas, and she sees parental anxiety often. She is my anxiety sensei.

“Vigilance is inherent when becoming a parent,” she told me. “We develop keener vision, hearing, and reflexes, which enable us to better protect our tiny new ones. This level of vigilance can become too intense, crossing the line into anxiety. For those of us with a little extra imagination, the fears can take on a big screen-vivid quality which distracts us from the present moment.”

My “extra imagination” is certainly vivid. In The Lego Movie, which I have now seen dozens of times, the “Master Builders” see a 3D model of the object they are building on a virtual blueprint in their heads. When I see my son carrying a stick, I see that kind of 3D model, but my model ends not with a fully-built spaceship, but a vision of my son with a stick through his eye. My brain has turned into a set of Instagram filters all called various versions of “DANGER.”

One of my best friends has a son who is a week older than mine; we met when our boys were six months old. Her son is more adventurous than my son is, and he often chafes at the boundaries that have been set to keep him safe. He wants to scale, jump, and do things his mother might not be ready for him to do, and she has had to learn to let go of some of her own anxiety. It’s one of the things that has bonded us as friends; “I understand your crazy,” we tell each other, and we laugh.

While I work hard to bite back the words “Be careful!” to allow and encourage my son to stretch his boundaries, she has learned to let go. She told me that by holding him back and trying to keep him from doing things she perceived as too risky, they were both miserable. So she gave him more freedom and it’s harder, for her, but it’s easier in some ways, too, because he is proving he is capable.

“Dealing with your anxiety as early as possible can help you be a calmer, more focused parent,” Cheryl says as she coaches me to take a deep breath and loosen the reins. “Kids rely heavily on us to help them decipher what in the world is safe or dangerous. The goal is to be a concerned, safety-conscious person, while reminding yourself that no matter what happens, you are strong and resourceful. Your kids will see this, and have a better shot at a confident journey through life.”

Maybe being aware of anxiety and doing my best to manage it is a big step forward. Being cognizant of hovering tendencies and actively giving my son more opportunities to stretch within reasonable boundaries helps keep me on track. I WANT to give him as much free rein as makes sense. But it is extremely difficult for me as a mother with anxiety tendencies. It feels like trying to hold back a hurricane inside my head; I want to circle and hold him close to me and instead, I push the storm back down, deep inside, and put a smile on my face.

“Go ahead, honey. You can do it,” I say, while inside I am thinking, “Please don’t die.”

At this point, the challenge is not overcoming my anxiety completely, because that would require a brain transplant. It’s the not letting my son see my anxiety that I work so hard to conceal. He already has his own measures of anxiety, and whether I passed them to him through the umbilical cord or via his observations of what life looks like from my perspective, I feel guilty enough. All I can do is to fake as much bravery as I can.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin. She was named a BlogHer Voice of the Year for 2014 and 2015, and has been featured at several national sites, including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.

Photo: Breno Machado

The Anxiety Express

The Anxiety Express

WO Anxiety Express ARTBy Jennifer Magnuson

I am an anxious mother. Whether it was born from choosing to have five children or brews organically in my slightly imbalanced brain, I am at times unable to turn off the switch that prevents rational concern from erupting into full-blown panic. I firmly hold truck with the theory that once parents are entrenched in the teen years, a prescription for Xanax should automatically be doled out at the next check-up, much like the AARP cards that arrive in the mail when you are still in your forties, thank-you-very-much.

This holiday season my husband and I decided to travel with our three youngest kids to a small town in Oregon to ride The Polar Express. The prospect of riding an actual train to the North Pole has propelled our five and eight year-old boys into paroxysms of glee.

On the drive to the station, our twelve-year-old, whom we had hoped held one more season of Santa-driven spirit, sulks in the back row of the car, escaping as best he can through earbuds delivering steady zaps and whirs of skrillex music to drown out the uncool chattering of his little brothers. With two older teenagers under our belts, we should have known better. The first year of middle school brings a special brand of pained self-awareness; his only words uttered during the two hour drive are, “Do not tag me on Instagram.”

Still, we are fools this time of year, going through the motions with the optimistic amnesia of parents who forget that each December 26 heralds vows of escaping to Hawaii next year, we really mean it this time.

Our drive through the Columbia River Gorge is punctuated with rabidly excited squeaks and inquiries of are we there yet along with an occasional sigh, exaggerated in its loudness so that we might know the angst carried with each exhalation. It isn’t until the torrential rains pick up, the kind that whip a large SUV around bendy turns, that I regret not packing any anti-anxiety meds. We white-knuckle our way through sheets of rain into the town of Hood River, where our family time is to begin. My breath is shallow at this point.

With an hour to kill before boarding, my husband Bob wisely suggests we cool our heels at a nearby pizza joint so the kids can get something to eat, and I, a glass of wine. The man is keenly attuned to my anxiety levels — if only out of self-preservation. At the mention of wine, my breathing slows.

The pizza parlor is packed with locals and visiting families; children in pajamas and Santa caps spill from booths while beleaguered-looking parents stare into their phones. The air crackles with frenetic energy, and my younger boys happily join their brethren. They race to the back of the restaurant, loud with the trills and clangs of coins being plunked into video games and glass-encased claws for a chance to win a piece of plastic that will be promptly thrown away even though it cost eleven dollars in quarters to win. It smells like pepperoni and stale socks. I tell Bob to hustle with my wine.

Despite the warm zinfandel, my tension levels are rising. It is now evident to me that everyone in this restaurant is conspiring to tap into my biggest phobias to see if I will fall off the edge before we even get to the station. To my right, a toddler is licking pizza sauce from a tabletop. I shudder, down the rest of my wine, and avert my gaze. A young girl is army-crawling underneath a booth; I force a smile and imagine the floors are extra clean. A small boy runs past our table, bouncing a trachea-sized rubber ball. I mentally brush up on my Heimlich techniques and tell the kids to finish eating their pizza (but take small bites and chew slowly, please).

Finally, the moment arrives and we are seated in the train car. My shoulders relax slightly as I listen to my boys exclaim, “It looks exactly like the real Polar Express!” They are quite literally bouncing in their seats, clutching their golden ticket as they wait for the conductor to punch their initials, just like the movie!

The train jolts to a start, and my heart rate climbs. A tinny announcement comes on, welcoming us to the Polaaaaaar Express! My youngest claps his hands. The oldest has reinserted his earbuds. As the train car rocks gently from side to side I ask my husband if this is normal. I am used to the smooth rides of city metros or the speed trains from our experiences living overseas. He shrugs, “Sure.”

I wipe the thick condensation off my window and look out to see that the Hood River, which feeds into the Columbia, is white-capped and swollen. The water is so high it is swirling past trees and from my perch looks to be nearly level with the train tracks. I regret not having a second glass of wine.

Teenagers in old-timey waiter costumes walk down the aisles unsteady while dispensing watery cocoa and little brown cookies. I notice with satisfaction that they are at least wearing gloves. We are definitely rocking back and forth, and I try to subtly find the emergency exits. My husband, of course, notices and places his hand on my leg. Christmas music plays, and the train car erupts in a discordant version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

I hear what is obviously an axel breaking. Everyone is oblivious to our imminent doom and continues singing. Then, the train stops, and my heart with it. “Uh oh!” says the announcer. “Looks like we will have to stop the train…” So this is how I will die. Somewhere in the Hood River Valley, trapped in a train car. Our teenagers will be orphaned and brotherless, and probably forget to erect a memorial in my honor. “Our conductor needs to scare some caribou off the tracks.” At this, my boys gasp again and sputter, “This happened in the movie!”

Of course. I knew that. I have seen The Polar Express seventy-four times. I may have to remind my doctor to adjust my milligram dosage when we get home, because even though I may know this, my nerves are now drawn tighter than Snookie’s cornrows on a Mexican vacation.

Another costumed waiter comes by to pick up the trash, and she taps my youngest on the nose with her finger, making a little boop! sound as she does it twice more. My oldest son can also read me like a set of Minecraft cheat codes and picks up on my annoyance. “It’s okay, mom,” he says. “She’s doing that to all the kids, not just Henry.”

All the kids? I mentally tally the possible number of head colds on the train and try and lower my shoulders while practicing a yoga breath.

The car fills with noise; Santa is finally here. When he gets to our seats, he sits down next to my youngest, who is so awestruck he simply looks up at Santa and mumbles, “Ninjago” when asked what he wants for Christmas. My son’s wide-eyed expression, coupled with his fresh crew-cut is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Santa makes his way through the train car and I look at my oldest, who is busy on his phone. I lean a little closer and see that he has snapped a picture of Henry gazing up at Santa with adoration. It is the perfect picture. I try and act cool when I see that he is posting it to his Instagram. My heart swells; I’m okay now. I’ve got this.

Next year, Hawaii for sure.

Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson is the author of Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East.

I Am Enough

I Am Enough

By Kristin Shaw

IAMENOUGHIt hit me like a two-by-four to the side of my head: stunningly shocking and painfully acute. My hands shook so much I couldn’t read a page of magazine text; I would lie in bed for hours staring at the ceiling, my brain unwilling to shut off. By the time I got to the doctor, I was sleeping two hours a night and I was Googling things like “postpartum anxiety inpatient programs” and “sleep aids safe for nursing”. I was frantic because I worried that Tylenol PM would dry up my milk supply and Ambien would give me horrific side effects; that made me even more anxious and nervous than I was.

My son was one month old.

Lying in bed awake for hours, I considered what it would mean to check into a hospital just to get some sleep. The desperation was overtaking my mind and I was locked in limbo, frozen.

My husband, Will, took over the 4 a.m. feeding so I could stay asleep once I fell asleep. My husband didn’t understand what I was going through, and recommended I walk it off, or take a run. All he knew was that I was always crying when our son was asleep and not sleeping when I was supposed to. I knew I needed help, and he slept on the couch for a few weeks with our son in the swing nearby as I fought the demons, which were licking my heels as I tried to run. The only thing that kept me from actually following through with checking myself into the hospital was the irrational, one-track thought that no one else could feed my baby. I needed to be with him to nurse, and I needed to hang on.

When the Zoloft finally got my sleep back on track, weeks later, and the tears finally dried up, I stopped treading water.  I stopped shaking. And I started fully enjoying more of the moments with my son. I had been trying so hard to put on a good show, and I truly loved being with my baby and took video after video and photo after photo of him, spending my days staring at his beautiful face. I tried not to let him see that I was struggling to maintain control, and I let down my guard only when he closed his eyes.

Those long weeks were hard on me, my husband, and our marriage. In the aftermath, we made a decision: we weren’t going go through this again.

We stuck to this major life decision for the last four years, with me asking the occasional “Are you sure?” every once in a blue moon.

I was 100% sure, until a few months ago.

I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing. I started letting baby fever get to me. I started believing those who told me that I was doing my son a disservice by not giving him a sister or brother. Many of my friends with children my son’s age had asked for a sibling; perhaps my son wanted one too and hadn’t said so yet.

One day, I asked him, “Would you like to have a sister or brother?”

He quickly and definitively said, “NO. I want a dog. He will be my brother.”

So that settled that question.

I have always loved babies. I’m the person who welcomes the mother and baby next to her on the plane, because I want to help. Now that I am a mother I feel like crying and my arms itch to reach out when I hear a baby cry.

I am plagued by the what-ifs and the worries of regret. Someone said to me, “You will never regret having another child.” But she isn’t 43. She had an easy pregnancy. She didn’t have postpartum anxiety.

My whole life, I wanted two children. My sister and I are close, and I thought that two kids was the magic number. Then I had my son and we decided to stop there. Perhaps part of this journey is facing down that part of myself that always dreamed about two children, and letting it fade away.

When I have a pregnancy scare, it’s exactly that—a scare—and it is terrifying. I have flashbacks of severe morning sickness and anxiety, and I hope, deep in my heart, that I am not pregnant. That should be sign enough.

Shhh, you might say. You’d be just fine. You are mom enough to handle two or more children.

Maybe so.

And maybe that’s what I’m worried about. I wonder if I am mom enough because I have not wanted to have more than one child.

Maybe I’m meant for the occasion to help friends when their spouses are on extended business trips and they need help with their children.

Maybe I’m meant to bring meals to new moms to make their day a little easier.

Maybe I’m meant to volunteer somewhere, helping children.

Maybe I’m meant to give all of myself to one little boy and raise him, with his father, to be the kind of person I will admire when he’s an adult.

I am mom enough.

I am mom enough for this one sweet, special, awesome boy. And that’s all that matters. Postpartum anxiety robbed me of time I cannot recover; but it can’t take away my passion for motherhood, in this form, with this one child. I am fulfilled and I am happy, and so is my son.

That is enough.

Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer and blogger; in 2013, her blog Two Cannoli was named a Babble Top 100 site, and she was recognized as Type-A We Still Blog awards finalist. She is a co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin, was recently named a BlogHer Voice of the Year reader for 2014, and writes for the Huffington Post.

She Loves Me/She Loves Me Not

She Loves Me/She Loves Me Not

By Karen Dempsey

0Seven-year-old Liddy is playing with a balloon in the living room when I tell her we need to leave to pick up her brother Brennan. After a long delay as she seeks out the perfect “safe place” to leave the balloon, I tell her I’m not waiting any longer.

“If that balloon pops it’s your fault,” she says, stomping past me. “And that’s the truth. I’m not even just saying it because I hate you.”

*   *   *

Every day in preschool, Liddy drew pictures of me. Sometimes she drew me as a flower with a smiling face, holding hands with a tiny, petal-haired mini me. Mommy Liddy Mommy Liddy, she wrote around the border. Sometimes she covered the page with tiny ringlets to reflect my brown curls. Once, she put me in an elaborate, floor length purple gown. (“Today’s a fancy one,” her teacher said. “Wow,” I said. “She even gave me cleavage.”)

Liddy would cup my cheeks and pull my face to hers as if she were breathing me in. “Oh, my mommy,” she’d whisper. “I love that you be my mommy.”

I even found, in her bedroom, a square of paper that read, I thik abawt Mommy.

But there was a flip side to being so ferociously loved.

“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Liddy screamed at me, with her face twisted in a red spasm of fury.

And, “Go be somebody else’s mommy!”

And, “Poopy mommy! Flush you down the potty!”

Like the love pictures and love notes, these proclamations were most often directed at me. My husband John and our son Brennan felt her ire at times, but I was the one who really drew venom.

It was hard not to either laugh or take it personally. I didn’t want to reinforce her wrathful behavior. And I didn’t want to shame her, either. But, I worried, was I raising some kind of monster?

I flipped through parenting books, but she didn’t seem to fit any of the molds. She wasn’t The Explosive Child. She wasn’t Difficult to Discipline. She was just — mean. Mean, in particular, to me.

I talked to her pediatrician, who asked if she was gentle with other children. She was. Always. Without exception.

Was she aggressive? Anti-social? Disruptive at preschool? Nope. Uh-uh. Never.

“Well, we know she has the tools to get by with other people — that’s important,” he said. “She just needs time to develop them at home too. Try not to let it get to you.”

When she was calm, we would talk through her outbursts to try to sense what was happening. The question, “Why did you say you hate me?” might be met with, “I missed you” or “I needed you.” Or, more simply, “Because I hate you.”

“Because I needed a hug,” she once answered. But then the next time she was angry with me, she screamed, “No hugs!” and folded her arms decisively across her chest.

Still, she was unfailingly kind and well-behaved at school. Her teachers said that, if anything, she tried too hard to follow the rules. They explained that maybe she would only explode with me because I made her feel safe. She knew I’d love her no matter what.

The idea that she worked extra hard to be perfect at school would turn out to be an important one later on, when we realized Liddy struggled with anxiety.

“It’s really hard for kids like Liddy to hold it together all day,” a child psychologist told me. When they come apart … they really come apart.

As she turned from three to four, her threats and evil wishes became more … specific. And creative. “I hope you never get dismissed from work!” she screamed. And once she said, “I hope you be burned by fire.”

But, then, an early morning whisper: “You’re in my heart and no one can ever grav you out.”

And, after another mean outburst, a tiny crumpled note of apology appeared under my door.

I’m sore mommy. So so sore.

One day a mom on my parent’s listserv recommended a series of books that was first written when I was a baby myself. The language was pretty dated, she said. But some of the advice was spot on. Sure enough, the title for the one geared toward Liddy’s age could not have been more perfect: Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy?

And right there in the index was a section labeled “difficulties with mother:”

Accept the fact that at this age the child’s big emotional struggle is with his mother. She is the one who matters supremely to him. She is the one he needs to conquer. Almost any young child is at his best but also his worst with his own mother. Never more so than now.

Like my other sources, the book reassured me that the behavior was to be expected, something Liddy would outgrow the behavior with time and patience. “The child is not intentionally being naughty, but behaving this way because of his physical self,” it said. And, along with the recommendations of patience, understanding and gentle consequences espoused by the other experts I’d consulted, Friend or Enemy had some other timeless, stand-out advice:

“Enlist the services of a good babysitter as much of the time as possible,” the authors said.

And, “We strongly recommend nursery school.”

 *   *   *

Liddy is tender and kind with me now — most of the time, anyway. But, as with the balloon incident, we still see flashes of feisty Liddy. Especially when she’s feeling anxious.

Still, it’s a relief to look back on that stage and know we are (mostly) through it. Liddy and I even talked about it recently, sitting on the porch swing and looking out on our quiet street.

“Liddy,” I said. “Do you remember how mad you used to get at me sometimes?”

She nodded and smiled a little, but her eyes were serious.

“If I were writing something for parents, to help them understand why kids say mean things sometimes, what would you say I should tell them?”

She looked over at me quickly. “Are you writing about that?”

I said yes, and she stared ahead for a few minutes, thoughtful. Then:

“Tell them that it’s because it’s so hard when you’re little,” she said, threading her fingers through mine. “And because you just want everything to be perfect.”

Sometimes, you just need to go straight to the source.

Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at kdempseycreative.com.

Parachute Packing

Parachute Packing

By Francie Arenson Dickman

IMG_5013“I’m really nervous about going to camp,” my daughter says as we take out her duffles, preparing to load them with gear for her third season away from home. Unlike my other daughter, who will toss a few t-shirts in her bag as she heads out the door to the bus, Lilly likes to start weeks ahead of departure, allowing herself time to inspect battery supply on flashlights, the expiration date on the sunscreen. It’s a lengthy process, but she is the girl you want to bunk with should life in the Northwoods go south. She has bug spray in case of mosquitos, Benadryl in case the bug spray doesn’t work, bandages in case she scratches the bites, lice deterrent in case of a summer scourge, aloe in case of a burn, Tums in case concern about lice, bites and burns gives her a stomach ache and duct tape because you just never know.

Fair enough, I think to myself, standing next to her in my office where the organizing is taking place. Two months is a long time for even the most well-adjusted eleven-year-old to ship out, so an expression of fear at this point is expected from someone like Lilly. She has anxiety, the kind triggered by fear and a deep-seeded faith in worst case scenarios. This strain, according to my father, is genetic, striking predominantly Jews of Eastern European dissent like Woody Allen and him. Even in the 80s, my father avoided credit cards and the stock market in case of another Depression. As a child, he also avoided school for a time. No one knows why.

He passed the condition down to me. In fact, a few days before Lilly announced she was nervous about camp, I told my husband I was concerned that Lilly hadn’t yet started to worry about leaving for camp. (My husband is only half of Jewish Eastern European dissent, so he worries half as much as I do.) He told me I was crazy; Lilly was probably over it. I scoffed and said, “Just you wait.”

Now, in triumph, I push aside the camping paraphernalia, sit down next to her and prepare a response that exudes supportive nonindulgence, as Gail, my daughter’s therapist has advised. For the anxiety-prone parent, nonindulgence can be a challenge. Lilly says headache, I hear brain tumor. She shows me her reorganized closet, I see OCD. “What specifically or nonspecifically is getting to you?” I ask.

“Well,” she says, as she methodically moves fans and flashlights from one pile on the floor to another after fitting them with fresh juice. “I’m worried about going away, I’m worried a little about the kids in my cabin, but mostly I’m worried because I’m not that worried.”

I laugh, and thinking I am laughing at her rather than with her, she explains further, though I know where she is headed. I, too, as a child used anxiety in appropriate contexts as a tactical offensive measure, preparing my mind like Lilly prepares her duffles, aware of and ready for all the shoes that could possibly drop. I was born a parachute packer. Unfortunately, so was my daughter.

“Worry is the interest you pay on things that never materialize,” my grandmother used to tell me.

But in my mind, worry seemed a cheap price to pay to prevent disaster. Hell, if all I had to do was stew for a few weeks before our annual trek to Florida in order to keep my grandparents from dying while we were staying with them, then bring on the fretting. If my daughter’s upfront anxieties that the summer will be plagued with tornados and mosquitoes will keep such calamities at bay, than worry she will. And if, as she now explains, she’s forgotten to worry about camp because she’s been, god forbid, living in the moment, or worrying about something more imminent like the end of elementary school, then the fault of a lousy summer lies firmly on her small, Eastern European shoulders. I get it. But I don’t tell her so.

I don’t want her to know I buy in because parachute packing is not an easy business. The burden of holding fate in your hands is, aside from entirely egotistical, lonely and exhausting. Which is why I quit. I am too old, I no longer have the energy. If I keep it up, as my husband warns, I may no longer have my health. So, as much as I want to indulge Lilly and validate her coping methods, I’d rather try to save her from herself, and so I hold my tongue.

When I was a child, my mother barely registered my day-to-day comings and goings, let alone my anxious feelings. “Mrs. Miller has breast cancer and Alison says she’s going to die. Are you going to get breast cancer too?”

“Why would I get breast cancer?” my mother would say as she sat and smoked at the kitchen table. “Go play with your brother.” As if he would help my situation. If he was even home, chances were that he was tucked in a ball on his bed tapping his mezuzah against his chest, his own psychotic ritual for calamity prevention, which my mother never noticed because her reach was restricted by the telephone cord to the kitchen.

Nowadays, I’ve noticed parents respond to every twinge of their children’s anxieties with the panic once reserved for typhoid fever. Three-fourths of my kids’ friends not only have been diagnosed with some type of anxiety but have a shrink on staff, a doctor dedicated solely to calming them down. Naturally, my daughter is included in this anxious majority.

The first anxiety doctor that I took my daughter to see when she like my father before her, refused to go to school for reasons never fully understood, was Betsy Blumstein, billed by many as the Dali Lama of the North Shore. Just getting an appointment with her is enough to give even the most laid-back parent palpitations and her method of treatment is no better. She sits the anxious child down in a windowless room next to a poodle the size of the Incredible Hulk and in a tone that could be called anything but supportive, chides the child for allowing the anxiety monster to sit on her shoulder. When we left her office, my daughter said that listening to her was worse than listening to me, which she gets to do for free, and so, we never returned.

We instead found Gail, an old school psychologist who reminds me of my grandmother and who found a way to get Lilly to go back to school, a way for me to talk to Lilly without projecting my own anxieties onto her situation, and for better a worse, a way for her to leave home, first for a month. And now, Lilly says, she’s ready for two.

I, of course, am not. I have been worried since January about how she would fare away from home for so long. I’ve spent many a wee hour making mental lists of the items she might need in case of emergency. Allergy medicine in case the hay fever season runs long. Earplugs in case someone snores. Airborne in case she feels a cold coming on. A string around her wrist to remind her to wear her retainer. Fresh Calamine in case the string gives her a rash. The truth is, I realize as I write her name on her back-up pair of flip-flops, she might not have worried enough to prevent a bad summer, but I have. I’ve packed the parachute for her.

Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.

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