I’m splayed on the floor in a contorted child’s pose, my breaths coming in ragged sobs, my fingers digging deep into the carpet in an effort to stop the room from spinning around me as my head filled with images of car crashes and miniature coffins. There’s was a tiny, far-off part of my brain that knows my kids are perfectly safe. They’re on their way to buy milk with their grandparents before coming back to have dinner while my husband and I go out to eat. But these rational thoughts don’t stop me from plunging into a full-blown panic attack every time I’m separated from my children. I’m terrified of getting a babysitter. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. I just am.
I’ve suffered from panic attacks and panic disorder since college, and thanks to a great therapist, cognitive behavioral therapy, and biofeedback therapy, I’ve been able to manage the condition most of the time. But when I had my twins two and a half years ago, the frequency of my attacks increased. My spiraling thoughts about death and the unknown now extend to my children, and the prospect of leaving them often feels impossible.
It’s not that I think no one else can take care of my kids like I can, it’s that I have an irrational fear of something life-threatening happening to one of them when I’m not there. I know deep down that something awful could happen just as easily on my watch. I’m with them all day long and they fall down, attempt to slurp hand sanitizer, and try to reach for the stove constantly. They’re covered in typical toddler bumps and bruises, and I don’t beat myself up for that. I’m not trying to keep them in a protective bubble, I want them to experience running and jumping and exploring the world around them without fear. But the prospect of leaving them for any length of time — my throat gets tight just thinking about it.
My panic attacks impact more than just date nights and lunches with the girls. While on a family vacation last year, I took one child to the bathroom for a fresh diaper and left his brother in the pool with dad. We were having a wonderful day, full of sunshine and fun. The bathroom was empty and quiet, and in the two minutes it took me to change my son I became convinced that the outsides noises were too quiet, and was absolutely positive that I would open the door to find lifeguards bent over the lifeless body of my child. I burst out of the door and ran to the pool anticipating a scene straight out of CSI. Instead I found him splashing in his father’s arms while I tried to hide my tears behind my sunglasses.
When my children were infants, my girlfriends were tolerant of having a baby or two on board for our rare get-togethers, even when they left their own kids at home. They kindly pretended I wasn’t losing it the time I had my husband circle the restaurant with the kids in the car because I wanted to be just a text message away if something went wrong. My mom tried to understand that it was my anxiety that was preventing her from babysitting her grandkids like she wanted to, but slowly she started to believe that I didn’t trust her to act in the kids’ best interest. My partner was too sleep-deprived for a date night for the first few months of the boys’ lives, and his intimate familiarity with my panic attacks made him hesitate to push me but as we approached the twins’ second birthday, even his patience was wearing thin.
When friends and family tell me that I “deserve a break” or that I “really need to take some time for myself,” I agree with them completely. I’m not a martyr. I think parents should take time away from their children in order to remember who they are as individuals outside of their roles as mom and dad. I need a break from my kids because I’m not the most patient of people, and one can only sit through Sesame Street so many times before you start coming up with elaborate back stories for Oscar on why he’s so grouchy. But anxiety isn't rational, and I can't just turn it off because there’s a yoga class in a hour that I’d love to attend.
It’s possible I’m doing more harm than good to my children by hardly being away from them. I’m less patient without a break, and it’s not good for my their development either. It’s important they learn how to listen to and respect other adults and that they grow comfortable trusting people other than me. I know I’m doing a disservice to all of us and making the eventual transition to school that much harder. I know I need to learn how to be away from them, and how to be OK with that. I don’t want them to grow up with the idea that their mom was scared all the time. I want them to know about my anxiety as a part of who I am, but not as what defines me as their mother.
So in the interest of my family, I push myself. I try to attend a weekly cardio dance class and I challenge myself to go out for a run without the jogging stroller once in awhile. Sure, there are days when I’m sprinting home or leaving class early because I’m certain an ambulance is waiting at my front door, but I try. And some days it works.
Date nights are still a challenge. It’s hard to concentrate on a movie screen when I’m checking my phone every three minutes for missed calls and worrying that the boys have somehow managed to unlock the front door. I’m very lucky that my partner is so understanding, willing to wait for movies come out on Redbox so that we can both enjoy a night together “without” the kids (even if it’s because they’re upstairs in bed. I’ve learned that I can usually handle up to two hours max away from the kids — long enough to remind me what it’s like to have an adult conversation, but short enough period that I get back before I start to envision bad things happening.
Not everyone understands when I try to explain how pervasive my anxiety is over leaving my sons. I’ve lost friends because some people see my struggle to leave my kids as a “poor” reflection on their own parenting. I don’t begrudge anyone who leaves the kids in the care of someone else. It’s just not something I can personally do, and I wish, like hell, that it was. My reluctance to accept an offer to go out for drinks or my unwillingness to plan a girls’ weekend doesn’t mean that I think women who do those things are bad parents. Doing so myself is just not something I can handle. The amount of time and energy that I’d spend trying to convince myself that the kids are OK would render a trip like that unenjoyable for me. I could do it, but I wouldn’t like it.
Last Saturday night, I sat perched on the carpet as I have so many times before, trying to banish the dark thoughts to the far corner of my mind. My partner stood over me calmly, rubbing slow circles into my back and reassuring me the kids were going to be OK for a couple hours. I took deep breaths, exercising control over my breathing and my thoughts. I eventually sat up. I walked downstairs and said goodbye to the boys and babysitter, hoping I could make it through dessert.
Images Courtesy of Megan Zander (3)