I’ve spoken with a lot of new parents lately, and there is so much fear, so much worry about whether or not we’re doing things right. The love we feel as mothers is overwhelming, but so is the fear. And sometimes the fear overshadows the love.
I’m not sure where this fear comes from. I’m sure it’s always existed, but it wasn’t until I had children that I ever heard anyone talk about it. It wasn’t until I had faced the fear myself that I realized that so many of us feel this way. And it wasn’t until my fears were overwhelming me that I started to realize where some of them were coming from.
In some ways, I think parental anxiety is self-preservation. A way for nature to ensure that we are keeping our children out of harm’s way. If we weren’t worried, why would we be so careful? But lately, the parental anxiety I’ve been hearing about (and experiencing) goes above and beyond the animal kingdom variety. This isn’t just your run-of-the-mill safety business. This isn’t just keeping the baby away from the fire and knives. This is terror. Very real terror.
I first started to experience The Fear when I was pregnant with my first son. I began reading pregnancy books in an effort to fulfill my voracious appetite for understanding this weird science experiment taking place inside my own body. Everything about pregnancy is bizarre, and I wanted to understand it. To bond with it. But as I read the popular pregnancy books, I began to read about all the ways things can go wrong, all the feelings I should look out for, all the things I shouldn’t ignore, and I got scared. I got anxious and worried and obsessive and frightened. Had I felt the baby move 10 times this hour? I wasn’t sure. I should count again. Was that the baby, or just my stomach? Not sure. Count again.
Once the baby was born, I was overtaken with my love for him for the first couple days. I forgot to worry and just focused on this new little person. This body that I had grown inside my own body. This wonder of a human in front of me. I stared at him, and spoke to him in a whisper. Sang to him and kissed him and held him to my chest. He was mine; I could not believe he was mine.
But then we attended our first doctor’s appointment outside of the hospital. We were unable to see the doctor I had painstakingly chosen for our two-day- old visit, and instead saw one of the other pediatricians in the office. As he examined this new person that I’d made, he began to describe all the things that could go wrong if we weren’t careful. He told us, in detail, about the dangers of exposing a newborn to illness. He told us we needed to be vigilant in keeping hands clean and keeping our new baby away from anyone who might be sick. He told us that if our son got sick in the first eight weeks of his life, he would be admitted to the hospital where they would administer IV antibiotics, because a fever in a child that young is extremely dangerous.
All of this is true information. But communicating this information to brand new, sleep-deprived parents in such a fear-mongering manner was wildly unnecessary. The information he truly needed to communicate? Wash hands. If someone is sick, they shouldn’t hold your kiddo. The end. But by the time this pediatrician finished with us, we were shaking and terrified, completely convinced that any contact with the outside world would land our infant son in the hospital.
We were sent to the Children’s hospital in order to get a pretty standard bilirubin test for our mildly jaundiced baby. But as we watched all the sick kids around us, listened to people cough and sneeze, watched everyone touching everything, we slowly unraveled. We became so terrified it was debilitating. We were scared of everything.
When we arrived home, I shut myself in. I closed the blinds and closed myself around my baby, terrified of exposing him to some unknown sickness. We cleaned the house obsessively and turned away visitors who wanted to greet the baby. Dear friends with colds were held at arm’s length. I did not leave the house–not once–for nearly two weeks. A dear friend finally convinced me to leave the house with her in order to buy nursing bras. She saw what was happening; she knew I needed to escape the pull of that dark house and all those fears. We came up with a plan. I would keep the baby in his stroller– covered and hidden away–the entire time we were out. No one would be able to touch him or breathe on him. And still, I shook as I packed the baby up and left. My mom, who had been coming over daily and helping me, nearly had to push me out the door. I did not want to go. But I knew it was important. I knew if I didn’t set foot out of that door right then, I might not come back from this. I might sit in that dark house, alone, for a very, very long time. So I went. And it was okay. In fact, it was good.
I should have realized that the abundance of information I was trying to absorb was overwhelming me. It was too much. I had started reading in an attempt to educate myself through the process–to maintain some control. But I wasn’t feeling educated and powerful; I was feeling worried. Every new piece of information, every milestone, every potential problem, became terror inducing. I wasn’t able to hold things in perspective. I wasn’t able to stop my mind from spiraling out of control. I wasn’t capable of logic. So I stopped reading. I stopped researching. I stopped looking into things, because every attempt to learn more drove me deeper into some new kind of fear. The wealth of information available to me was too much. It was overwhelming. I wasn’t able to sort the helpful and the relevant from the frightening and the unrelated. The Fear took over me.
And I think this might be the problem with modern day parenting. We are so informed and educated about everything–so able to find information, accurate or not, that it’s creating fear rather than assuaging it. The anxiety about all the ways things could go wrong, all the problems we’ve read about, all the NPR stories about terrible things...It’s hard to turn all this information off. It’s hard to back away from the wealth of information, the glut of stories and experiences we can now access, and simply experience our experiences. That was certainly the problem for me.
One of the most important things I heard–something I had to keep returning to in order to maintain my sanity in those early days of motherhood–was this: “Your experience is your own. It is not going to be like anyone else’s.” I had to absorb this idea. Take it into myself and roll it around in my mouth from time to time as a reminder. My experience is my own. It is not like anyone else’s.
I’ve had to remember–over and over–that kids get sick, that kids miss milestones, that kids get hurt, that kids are totally unpredictable, that kids are kids. And over and over, The Fear rises up, glaring at me over my head, whispering terrors in my ears. And over and over I have to outsmart it. I have to stop reading, stop researching, stop looking into things and just pause. Listen. Trust that I can do this. That I will know when something is truly wrong. That I will look out for what is best for my kids.
And that, although things will happen in spite of this, I will also know how to fix it. To help and comfort my children. And to help and comfort myself. To find the information I need when I need it, rather than preparing for the worst at all times. I have to work hard sometimes to keep fear from getting the best of me. I have to relearn how to tamp it down and listen to the logical side of my brain–the side that knows I know what I’m doing. But I’m doing it. I’ve learned how to turn The Fear away. To acknowledge it, and then ask it to leave, like a ghost that’s haunted my house for too long.
It is possible. I will not allow fear to rule my life as a mother. I can’t.