You know the scene in Downton Abbey right before Matthew dies? You remember it, right? Mary has just had the baby. The family is waiting at Downton for the good news. Matthew is driving to the house to tell them. They keep cutting back and forth between Matthew driving through the sun-dappled woods, and Mary lying blissfully in bed with her baby, and the family down in the library. And there comes a moment when you realize: Oh my God, everyone is just too happy. Something horrible is about to happen. That’s what it’s like to be a mom with anxiety.
Let me give you an example. My toddler and I are running through the grass. The sun has scattered a million tiny stars across the river. We are both laughing at the feel of the wind on our faces and the grass under our feet. Suddenly, my son pulls up short. He points at something on the ground, his whole body alert. I look. A fuzzy, white caterpillar is inching its way along a blade of grass. “It’s a caterpillar,” I say. “Caterpillar!” my son shrieks gleefully and flings himself into my arms. I hold him tight and I close my eyes and tilt my face up to the sun. And I think: Something horrible is about to happen.
The fact that, usually, nothing horrible does happen is irrelevant. If there was ever even one time that something horrible did happen (and I can always think of at least one time) then it’s enough to fuel this delusion. And yes, I know it’s a delusion. I know, intellectually, that bad things are not direct results of wonderful things, like some sort of cosmic scale that must always be in balance. But anxiety is irrational. And it makes me think irrational things.
These aren’t the normal worry thoughts of motherhood. It’s not, “Should I take that small rock away from my toddler in case he puts it in his mouth and chokes?” It’s, “Oh my God, he’s going to choke on that rock.” And in the time it takes me to reach down and take it out of his hand I’ve already imagined calling the ambulance, the ride to the hospital, the doctor’s pitying eyes above his face mask as he tells me they couldn’t save him. That he’s gone. I’ve imagined screaming in anguish and falling to the floor. The days and weeks and years without him. And then the rock is back in the grass and he is running off toward the sandbox yelling, “Bye-bye rock!” And I am standing with my heart beating out of my chest, my skin tingling.
I’ll pause here for you to tell me I’m crazy. I’ll wait while you say I should just calm down. Maybe you’d like to suggest I see a therapist. Or perhaps you think I need medication. Maybe you worry about my son having to live with a mom who’s so uptight and you’d like to to tell me that. Maybe your sister, or your aunt or your friend’s cousin’s daughter says she has anxiety but you think it’s a bunch of baloney and she just needs to get over herself and you’d like to tell me that too. Whatever it is you’d like to say, let’s assume you’ve said it. And then let’s move on.
Because I’ve heard it all before. I’ve always been this way, always struggled with this. Before I had my son, I worried about my job. And before I had a job, I worried about school. And before I went to school, I worried about being left with the babysitter. I’ve worried for as long as I can remember. Which is why I know what to do. And it’s why I won’t let it ruin my life or infect my son. I have anxiety, but I also have a choice.
My choice is very simple. I can assume that the anxious voice in my head is rational or I can assume that it’s not. And since it’s not (it’s very unlikely, for example, that my son will choke on a rock he hasn’t even put in his mouth yet while I’m standing half a step away) it’s a pretty easy choice to make. It’s not as easy to follow through on, of course, but who ever said life was going to be easy?
So I hear the worry thought (Oh my God, he’s going to choke on that rock and die!) and I take a deep breath, calmly reach over and take the rock away from him saying something like, “Oops, this one’s too small. Let’s find a bigger one,” and watch him run away. And I do this over and over again all day: Oh my God, he’s going to fall off the climber! Deep breath. Hold his hand. “Swoosh! Nice job sliding down the slide!” Oh my God, he bumped his head, he’s going to have brain damage! Deep breath. Pick him up. Sing a song. Rock and soothe. He laughs. He’s fine. “Let’s play!” And in those too perfect moments when I’m sure disaster is just around the corner, and I just can’t shake it, I kiss the top of his head, hold him tight and think, Thank you, God, for this moment.
If I thought my anxiety was rational then I’d turn into the kind of screaming harpy we all steer clear of at the playground. You know the one I mean. The mom who is constantly running after her kid shrieking things like, “Not so high!” and “Give! Me! That!” and “Don’t touch!” We look down on that mom or, if we’re kind, we pity her. And I pity her too. Because I know how she feels. She’s just made one, little, enormous mistake. She thinks the screaming harpy voice in her head is rational. But if I’ve learned anything at all in my life of living with anxiety, it’s to never trust a screaming harpy.
To my son I am calm, measured and patient. I let him touch all sorts of rocks and leaves and bugs. He gets to climb and run and play. And sometimes, for one perfect moment, I see the world through his eyes: simple and safe and full of possibility. And I feel a tiny moment of peace. Until I realize something horrible is about to happen…