By Glynis Ratcliffe
Becoming a mother seems to have caused many of my friends to become more anxious, in general. I guess it’s inevitable; you’re suddenly in charge of another human being. Everything becomes your responsibility; what they eat, what they learn, how they act, and absolutely everything in between. You are that person’s whole world (for a while, at least) and that’s a lot of pressure and obligation. However, for those of us who suffered with anxiety prior to become parents, well, the new mom experience is even more intense. There are struggles only moms with anxiety can understand; struggles that are pretty universal for all parents, but seem far more difficult when you’re also battling anxiety; struggles that make our self-doubt and fear all the more intrusive. Sadly, when those struggles present themselves (sometimes, on a daily basis) anxiety can go from being a small part of your parenting experience, to being one of the things that define it.
I guess I was always prone to worrying, but never categorized or identified myself as anxious until my daughter was born. After she came into the world, I began to have all sorts of fears pop into my head and to the point that they were impacting my ability to get through day-to-day life. Simple tasks that other mothers appeared to have no problem accomplishing, became huge challenges for me. Eventually, I needed outside help in order to manage my anxiety. Seeing a counselor on a regular basis helped me to learn to keep my anxiety at manageable levels, although there are still times when I feel it creeping out of my control again (because that’s the “fun” thing about anxiety: it functions on a sliding scale, not an on/off switch, and it takes concerted maintenance to keep it from sliding too far in the wrong direction).
It’s important to note that anxiety looks and acts differently to different people, but when it comes to anxiety and being a mom (and especially a new mom) there seem to be certain experiences and moments that can trigger anxiety for those of us who are predisposed to it. The struggles I list here might not be monumental, for some people, but they can stop me in my tracks:
Leaving Your Child With Someone Else
Okay, I am well aware that other people are perfectly capable of taking care of my kids, but undeniable logic doesn’t keep me from feeling incredibly anxious about leaving them in the care of someone else.
Every time I go somewhere without them, I spend the next hour or so feeling like I’m going to crawl out of my skin, like I need to get back to them, immediately. Like, if I wait any longer, something terrible will definitely happen to one of them. The fact that the “worst” thing to happen to any of them in my absence is to have fun, get fed, and enjoy the mental stimulation that comes with interacting with new people does nothing to dissuade my anxiety over leaving them.
Crossing A Busy Intersection
It doesn’t matter how many times I check that the cars are stopped at a traffic light. If I am crossing by foot, I am virtually positive that my stroller will be hit by a car that didn’t see the light turn red. If I’m standing there waiting for the light to change so I can cross, I can’t let go of that stroller for even a millisecond, or it will roll into oncoming traffic. Oh hell, I can’t even think about letting it go, or it will happen.
When my son was born, over a year ago, my anxiety was at its worst and I started moving toward obsessive-compulsive habits. I became obsessed with the idea that he would die of SIDS, and I found myself checking to see if he was breathing while he slept. All parents do this on occasion, but me? I was waking up several times a night and checking his breathing.
Once, he seemed to go an unusually long time without breathing and I moved him a bit, to try and wake him. He didn’t respond, and I ended up panicking, yelling, “Oh my god!” while picking him up and shaking him. My son was fine. (My partner, on the other hand, just about went into cardiac arrest.)
Feeling Like Your Kid Isn’t Eating Enough
Logically, I know that missing a meal isn’t going to hurt anyone in any discernible, long-lasting way. Logically, I know that kids (and especially toddlers) self-regulate with eating, and that some days they eat enough food to feed four children, and other days they’ll eat a grand total of four crackers.
Logically, I know all of these things, because I’m a well-informed parent and a generally pretty smart person. However, ask any mom struggling with anxiety about how she feels when this happens a few days in a row. It then becomes a question of whether they are eating enough vegetables, getting enough protein, or having too much of the “beige food group.” And don’t even get me started with children at the bottom of the growth charts, like my daughter is. Ugh.
Leaving The House
I know everyone gets stressed about leaving the house (especially for the first time with a brand new baby), but when you suffer from anxiety, simply walking out the world becomes anything but “simple.” I fully admit that there are times when I will just not go out, in order to avoid the anxiety the whole process provokes. Maybe it’s getting together all of the million things I know my kids will need, or the inevitable poop that will definitely happen right as I’m getting shoes on, or realizing that I never got into my work/party/grown-up outfit. Regardless, when I finally leave, something will be missing, including my sanity.
There are infinite ways in which the notion of traveling with your kid can spur anxious thoughts. Some moms worry about their plane falling out of the sky. Other moms worry about their baby crying for an entire train trip or flight. Still others worry about messing up a fragile routine or sleep cycle.
I worry about getting into a car accident while driving my children somewhere and killing them but surviving and having to live with myself. The fears aren’t super complex; they’re just the simplest, starkest, most horrifying outcomes of perfectly benign situations, plaguing the minds of perfectly rational moms who know these outcomes are unlikely, but feeling the fear of them anyway.
Social Situations With Your Kid
Is my daughter acting too shy? Too aggressive? Is she answering when her aunt asks how she’s doing? God forbid my daughter wakes up from a nap on the wrong side of the bed, and then we have to go to a party. I have spent entire dinner parties, family events and casual gatherings feeling like I need to apologize for my child for not living up to society’s expectations. Meanwhile, she’s three. She’s three goddamn years old, you guys. I’m aware the I should be considering it a small miracle every time she doesn’t act like a feral monster around other people, but instead, I’m lousy with anxiety over every perceived failure to conduct herself in a socially acceptable way.
Irrational Fear That You’ll Orphan Your Child
I seriously walk around with the assumption that at some point, likely sooner rather than later, I will develop some form of cancer and die early, leaving my husband and children behind. Then I start imagining what the whole process will be like: going through chemo, being ill, trying to help my family come to terms with it, and then having to die and leave them. Then I cry. It’s ridiculous, and I can’t seem to stop myself from going there.
Being a parent while struggling with anxiety is difficult. However, you take each day at a time, and each moment is another opportunity to breathe and be present, instead of worrying about things beyond your control. It’s an ongoing battle, and one that’s easier fought when we don’t judge ourselves for having to fight it (and keep fighting it).