My 2-year-old is having a tantrum, or is it a meltdown? It's been over 20 minutes and at this point I cannot actually remember what started it. Changing her diaper when she wanted to be playing? Failing at finding the perfect nursery rhyme to blast through an iPhone? Asking her to be gentle with her baby sister? All I know is that she's screaming, clawing at her face, pulling her hair, and refusing to be picked up or cuddled. Instinctually, I find myself worrying. I wonder if I am somehow passing my anxiety onto my children; my eldest daughter specifically. I wonder if, despite every wish and plea I have hurled into the universe, my determination to will anxiety to skip a generation, or four, is more or less mute.
I know there's a reason people have dubbed this era of a child's life the "terrible two's." This inconsolable behavior is not entirely uncharacteristic of many frustrated toddlers who are so fully aware of their surroundings, but still so unable to communicate their desires and feelings clearly.
Nonetheless, it's difficult not to compare some of my daughter's tantrum-fueled actions to those of an anxious adult. When she picks or claws at her skin, I remember my own dermatillomania, which started as a child. When she becomes reclusive or quiet after there's been an upset, I think of myself, too. When she suddenly starts to scream after clearly bottling up frustration, I am reminded of both my husband and myself — in moments when screaming into the void has seemed like the only thing left to do.
Both my partner and I suffer with anxiety. Our mothers suffer with anxiety. My father suffered from anxiety, and nearly all of my siblings do, too. It is as much a part of our families, and arguably of mine especially, as our surnames or inherited traumas or seemingly universal love of cheese.
Still, it is not a part that my partner and I want our daughters to learn. Even before our eldest, Luna, was born, we began talking about ways to prevent chronic nervousness from interfering with her emotional development.
We learned that some research shows that anxiety disorders can, in fact, be inherited. As kids, we can be predisposed to anxiety, as well as influenced by the behaviors we see around us (behaviors we often learn to replicate, be it consciously or otherwise). If there was even a small chance that Luna might naturally be anxious because of our genes, all we could really do was control the patterns of behavior she witnessed around her.
Some of my earliest memories are of feeling anxious. I remember being afraid to ride the bus on the first day of kindergarten. I remember being convinced that my classmates were all talking sh*t about me at recess. I remember being nervous around my anger-prone relatives. I remember hiding in my bedroom when new people were in the house, and am told I showed signs of social anxiety long before I have actual memories of it. I remember growing attached to the local library, because it was so quiet. I didn't have to talk to anyone. It was OK to simply be.
Anxiety has been the pesky raincloud of my life — the one that lingers even in moments of sunlight and joy. It has been an obstacle. It has stopped me from pursuing countless opportunities, be they personal or professional. It can be both big and small, triggered by dirty carpets or a public speaking engagement I'm supposed to participate in. Anxiety stops me from trusting people easily, which has made forming relationships with friends or partners a lifelong struggle — and I know my husband could say the same.
It's the last thing we want for our girls. When I think of my most immediate hopes for their childhoods and adolescence, I am overwhelmed by the desire for them to be happy. To make friends. To enjoy their interactions. To play with other children, and certainly not be afraid of them. To have fun at school, if such a thing is possible. To preserve only the fundamental amount of nervousness that is biologically present to keep us safe and aware of our surroundings, but not to ever become so overwhelmed by anxiety that they find themselves locked in their bedrooms, hiding under the blankets because everything else is too scary.
Although I've yet to find the perfect solution or "cure" for my own anxiety, what both my partner and I have been able to do — with a hell of a lot of practice and patience and mindfulness — is analyze our verbal and physical signs of anxiety. I know that when I am anxious, I pick at my skin. I either become torturously quiet, or short and frustrated in my speech. I know that I tap my foot rapidly. I bite my nails. I know my husband has a tick — he scrunches his nose on one side repeatedly until he has a headache. He picks at his cuticles. In moments of social anxiety, he tries to over-compensate for his perceived awkwardness by becoming boisterous — something that, for a natural introvert, only makes things more awkward. We clench our jaws, grind our teeth, and forget to breathe at a steady pace.
In becoming hyper-conscious of our physical signs of anxiety, and actively working towards easing our breathing and our myriad ticks, the internal anxiety often dwindles as well.
We have spent a lot of time outlining all of these manifestations of anxiety, and actively stopping ourselves from practicing them. If I catch my partner doing his tick, I point it out so that he stops. If he catches me picking at my skin, tapping my foot, or biting my nails, he points it out so that I stop. We have tried to understand what helps us feel calmer as well, and what helps us maintain that calm throughout the day: things like baths, books, walks outside, spending more time outdoors in general, seeing friends, making sure we make time for ourselves as individuals, and as a couple.
We work together as a team to ease our symptoms, while remaining conscious of the ways we speak to one another and to our children. The wonderful thing is that in becoming hyper-conscious of our physical signs of anxiety, and actively working towards easing our breathing and our myriad ticks, the internal anxiety often dwindles as well. It almost never disappears entirely — but it becomes manageable.
When I think of my children's future, and the future of their mental health, I also believe that one of the best things I can do is to stop myself from becoming anxious about their anxiety.
They are only 2 years old and 5 months old. Luna might demonstrate some anxious tendencies, but they could also just be the tendencies of a toddler discovering the world around them and how to operate within it. My anxiety over their anxiety is not serving any useful purpose. It is not helping me keep them safe. It is not helping me relax when I am around them, or stay calm in moments of social interaction. If anything, it is hindering them. My eldest definitely picks up on my mood, and hers is affected as a result.
The great hope for now is our own self-awareness. Many of our relatives never addressed their anxiety. Many never recognized anxiety as an issue. Many, like my father, didn't even know the term until their old age. We, on the other hand, know the term. We know of its deep emotional impact. We know that anxiety has made us suffer. Our prerogative now is to try our best to stop it from making our kids suffer, too.
Or at least, to stop them from suffering as a result of their nervous parents.
After a very frustrating first birth experience, this Deaf mother wanted a change. Will the help of two Deaf doulas give the quality communication and birth experience this mom wants and deserves? Watch Episode Four of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below, and visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes.