Parenting with Anxiety: It's Just as Fun as it Sounds
As you’ve probably guessed, I am a parent, and I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s nestled in there with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so I’m a real hit at parties.
For the uninitiated who think that anxiety is just feeling a little nervous once in awhile, you’re not totally wrong. Sometimes, that’s all it is. Most days, though, it’s constantly warring with your brain about whether or not you’re a failure and going to kill yourself and your loved ones with your incompetence. It’s believing that the sky is bound to fall any minute whether you’ve heard thunder or not, and it’s constantly having to remind yourself that your stomachache is one you probably started by worrying way, way too much. Then you worry about making that worry go away, and then you go to bed to worry until you fall asleep. If you sleep. It can be a very rough existence.
After you have children, things heat up. You start fearing for your children, and failure becomes a super high stakes game. Now, you’re not just in danger, but your kids are in danger.
I still remember having a very hike-heavy summer last year and not enjoying a moment of it. Part of it was because I hate hiking in general, but the largest part was because I was mentally exhausted from worrying about my kids getting hurt. Oregon loves to have trails in areas with steep dropoffs that are usually interrupted by lots of trees and rocks to hit on your way down. Walking behind my kids on even the simplest trails was torture. It was as if I had a dude walking with me, pointing out every way that my children could get hurt, only this dude was in my brain so I couldn’t run away from him.
“They could smash their heads on those rocks. All they have to do is trip.” My brain would say.
“They’ll be fine.” I’d say back. Inside, of course. I know better.
“OK well, what if one of them lists a little too far to the right? They’re going to tumble down and not stop until a tree stops them.”
“They’re in the middle of the trail. They’ll be fine.”
“Do you hear bees? Are they allergic to bees? What if they’re stung by bees?”
“BASEBALL. BEACHES. DOLPHINS. ANYTHING. JUST PLEASE SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET ME RELAX.”
Imagine that. But constant, every day, for everything. That is what parenting with anxiety is like.
I tell you this, because if you don’t have anxiety, you’re probably friends with someone who does. It’s estimated that about 100-150 per 1,000 women suffer from some sort of mild depressive or anxious state, and it’s one of the most popular issues experienced during pregnancy and after birth. For some of us, it’s always been there. For some of us, it arrives and never leaves.
You know what isn’t helpful to a parent with anxiety? Talking about things that might go wrong, or how hard things must be. Nothing makes us want to enclose our children in giant plastic bubbles more than being all “Oh my God! He’s going away for camp for the first time? That must be so scary, with all the animals out in those woods. Doesn’t that family of bears live out there? The ones that have developed a taste for human 10-year-old-flesh? Well, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I could totally get freaking out though.”
I get you’re trying to be empathetic, but I promise you that isn’t the way.
You know what is helpful to a parent with anxiety? I’m about to tell you. And if you’re one of my fellow sufferers looking for some ideas, some of these might help you, too:
Don’t try to fix everything. - Sometimes, shit sucks. Venting may be the only option. Allowing those feelings of fear and concern to play out for a few minutes, or a few days, can really make a difference. Trying to play the “at least” game (as in “at least those bears haven’t learned to open doors yet!”) won’t always make us feel any better. If anything, they might make us more nervous, because now we’re thinking of other things that could go sideways that we didn’t before. If you’re a friend, listen. If you want to say something, saying a simple “I hear you” can do wonders.
Address Reasonable Concerns. Not saying here that you have to entertain every single little fear that comes around, because some of them are weird and straight up silly. Like, in situations like the poor kid headed off to Bear Camp, don’t necessarily go out and buy a bear-proof suit for $90,000 (are those things? I don’t know), but maybe suggest a call to the camp to make sure they’re not going to slather the kids in honey and take them out for a jaunt through the forest. It’s not unreasonable to ask questions to allay some fears, and in some situations — especially those involving kids — it’s not unreasonable to ask for status updates, photos, videos, or some other sort of periodic assurance that your kid is OK. The fear of looking “uptight” or “overprotective” when you’re actually an anxious parent is a real one, and while there are definitely unhealthy levels to take it to, every nervous thought coming out of your or a friend’s mouth isn’t ridiculous. You might be made to feel that way sometimes, but that isn’t the truth by a long shot.
Remember that worrying is thinking about the future, something we can’t control and don’t even know yet. I’ve been told this, and it helps me. I’m sure it helps others. It won’t stop us from worrying at all, but it can help us learn to at least reign it in until we see what happens.
I also want to be clear that medication and therapy can help a lot. If you’re like me, it might be worth it to look into it. If you aren’t, please don’t feel as if you’re wrong or out of line to suggest it to friends you’re worried about. Let them know you love them, and that you’d rather they care for themselves than let supposed opinions stop them from being at the best level of health they can. Parents — mothers especially — aren’t always reminded that their health is just as important as the rest of their family’s, and mental health is treated even less so. So I’m telling them — and if you’re one of us, then I’m telling you — that if you need either of those things, you deserve to at least look into whether it’s right for you. Period, point blank.
Short and short of it: being an anxious parent is like being a regular parent, but on steroids. We love our kids, we don’t want to let them down, and we fear failing them and ourselves multiple times a day, every day. We aren’t defined by our anxiety, but sometimes, we need people to understand where we’re coming from. Everyone knows the world is a big, scary, dangerous place; we just also wish we could control more, to make those we love that much safer. To those who feel what I’m saying: it’s OK to feel overwhelmed sometimes. You’re not weak for needing support. And to those of you who love us: Please be patient. We’re working on it. We just also have kids, so you know…winning this is a little harder some days.
I’ll be heading upstairs now to check to make sure my sleeping daughter is still breathing. You know how it is. And if you didn’t before, now you do.
Arianna Bradford is a mother of two living in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. She’s a sufferer of OCD and anxiety, but she’s totally cool about it. She is also the founder of The NYAM Project, and she really hopes you like it.