Like so many newborns, my eldest daughter spent most of the daytime hours fast asleep for the first three months of her life. The night was a different story, of course — one marked by near-constant nursing and frequent crying — so, really, I should've been trying to rest when she did. I just couldn't, though. If 30 minutes or more passed without a noise or movement, I'd find myself monitoring her chest, seeing if I could feel her breath against my fingertips, and simply ensuring that she was still alive. I began to wonder whether I would ever worry less as a mom. Whenever I looked at that little person I had grown inside my body — at that little piece of my heart — I seriously doubted it.
Although I've struggled with anxiety throughout most of my life, and was unsurprisingly among the 10 percent of women who develop postpartum anxiety, I have never attributed my incessant concern about my kids solely to my mental health status. Even when I'm not feeling particularly anxious or overwhelmed at all, passing worries, both big and small, creep into my thoughts.
What if my daughters get bullied at school? Will Luna ever eat more than pancakes and soup? What if I've made a mistake by not sending them to daycare? What if someone hurts them? Have they watched too much TV today? When should I let them play in the park alone? What if I have passed on my hyperhidrosis, ultimately condemning them to childhoods full of social anxiety? What if their body image is sh*t? What if I lose them? What if I'm doing things wrong? What if they hate me?
Whenever I speak to other mothers, I realize very quickly that I am not alone. Although I'm sure many dads worry, too (I know my husband certainly does), there's something about being a mom that causes particularly poignant, and often self-critical, concern.
Culturally, mothers are often still viewed as children's prime caretakers. We are pressured to perfectly balance being moms, partners, friends, and employees. We are offered contradictory advice at every turn. We are, ultimately, encouraged to be so entirely selfless that we eschew any form of self-care in order to be fully present for our babies. It's enough to make anyone worry.
The more a mother worries, the more consumed she becomes by love for her family, and the less she makes time for herself, the more her worrying becomes not only impossible for her to handle, but difficult for others to be around.
On a personal level, though, I often feel it's impossible to put my love for my kids into words. They are as much a part of me as my mind or my heart — if not, somehow, more. Sometimes I genuinely believe they are the best things I've ever done. Every maternal instinct within me is rooted in protecting them, and caring for them, and making them happy, and challenging anyone who makes them unhappy. This is enough to make anyone worry, too.
Although I can understand where the worrying comes from, I realized early on into motherhood that it wasn't necessarily healthy. Just look at contemporary, and often not-so-flattering, depictions of mothers on the screen. Whether we're talking about Skyler on Breaking Bad, Elsa in Atypical, Lori from The Walking Dead, Betty Draper of Mad Men, Lettie Mae on True Blood, or even (albeit to a very extreme degree) Game Of Thrones' Cersei Lannister, it's clear that the more a mother worries (be it about the kids, or the house, or the money), the more consumed she becomes by love for her family, and the less she makes time for herself, the more her worrying becomes not only impossible for her to handle, but difficult for others to be around.
There are ways for mothers to curb their worrying. Dr. Amy Przeworski, an assistant professor of psychology and expert in anxiety disorders, wrote on Psychology Today that she, too, spiraled into the depths of "what ifs" after becoming a mother, growing concerned about "SIDS, growth charts, developmental milestones, whether I was a good enough mother, tummy time, rashes, reflux, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, and survival of parenthood."
In her article, she advised mothers to "remind yourself that your worries rarely come true," to keep up non-motherhood-related pursuits — friendships, hobbies, and so on, to "let your child make mistakes," and to accept your worries for what they are: worries, as opposed to indicators of what is to come. After all, unless you have the witchy gift of prophesy, you simply cannot know that.
For me, making time for myself outside of being a mother was crucial. If I was only spending time with my children, then I wasn't giving myself anything else to think about, or worry about, or be interested in. They were very literally becoming the center of my world, and I knew that if I wanted to worry about them less, I needed to re-expand that world. If I wanted to be a better mother to them, I had to care for myself a little more.
Rather than showing them I love them through worrying, I can do my best to show them I love them through words of affirmation, through support and advice when they ask for it, through being truthful and working as hard as I can to develop a relationship rooted in honesty rather than in fear.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's renowned advice came in handy, too. In what is perhaps his most famous quote, he prays for the serenity "to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Although I don't personally pray, the value of these words became clear to me after having children. When I really sat with my worries, I suddenly understood that most were linked to situations wholly beyond my control.
There is nothing I can do to stop my kids from getting hurt. There is nothing I can do to stop them from being bullied. As of now, I have yet to discover any solutions to my toddler's picky eater syndrome. I won't be able to stop them from getting angry at me, either. At some point, I'll just need to let them go to the park alone, too.
The only thing I actually have control over is how I respond to the situations they face. Rather than showing them I love them through worrying, I can do my best to show them I love them through words of affirmation, through support and advice when they ask for it, through being truthful and working as hard as I can to develop a relationship rooted in honesty rather than in fear. I can listen when they want to talk, and give them space when they don't. I can let them make mistakes, while recognizing that I might not always know best.
So much of surviving parenthood, at least for me, really has come down to mind over matter. I still worry frequently. I don't know that it truly is possible to stop. After all, our kids are so often the most precious things in our lives — and being told to simply accept the fact that you cannot unconditionally protect them or save them is a difficult pill to swallow.
But when the worries become to much — when my anxieties over the myriad "what ifs" of their existence are too all-consuming — I try to take a step back and ask myself what I can do now. Most often, the only answer I have is to just love them — and as it turns out, that's usually enough.