I feel ya, Robert Plant. Anxiety has always been an unwelcome guest in my brain. It shows up unannounced at random ungodly hours, expecting me to make it coffee and listen to it blabber on about a myriad of irrational scenarios. “What if, what if, what if?!?!” it demands. Sometimes I lack the energy to have perspective and buy into its conspiracy theories. “Holy shit, you’re right!! What if?!?!” These “what if” stories are always colored with the right shades to peak my interest. Anxiety is a damn fine businessman. It knows which topics are most relevant to me at any given moment.
As a child, the stars of my “what if” tales were me and my parents. The most terrifying thing I could think of as a child? What if something happens to my parents? The most terrifying thing I can think of as a parent? What if something happens to my child? Having a child is unlike any other experience. I’m not sure it’s possible to love another person so intensely, so unconditionally without effort. As a teenager, I thought it was profound that love songs promised a bond so deep that a person would be willing to give their life for another. Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Garbage, Jann Arden, and other songwriters all promise the same refrain: “I Would Die For You”. Now, it seems to me that this phrase is less profound and simply more matter of fact when it comes to parents and their children. It’s a cliché sentiment that infiltrates our culture for good reason. Most, if not all parents, will have multiple moments in which they compromise some aspect of their own well-being for that of their child.
I’m not thrilled with the person I become while stranded in anxiety’s eccentric web. In fact, I really don’t like this version of myself one bit. I become uncontrollably controlling. My desire to protect my child turns into telling other people how to spend their time with her. Oh, never mind. I’ll just stay home with her. A babysitter might not know how to comfort her at some point, and oh man, the world might come crashing down! It’s not that I think my interactions with Ivy are perfect. It’s that I feel very “mama bear” and have a hard time cutting this metaphorical umbilical cord. When she cries, every cell in my body aches to respond immediately. One of my best friends beautifully summarized one of the most awful conundrums of being a new mother: you crave time for yourself but you can’t stand being away from your baby.
Biology doesn’t want you to be at ease. As far as the life cycle is concerned, your purpose has been fulfilled. You have brought new life into this world. As is par for the course, you will now feel immense pressure to make sure that this tiny human’s every need is tended to. And if you dare lose your patience or put your needs first, guilt will be happy to greet you there. I can’t speak for everyone, but this has been my experience thus far. It feels as if it stems from a place of pure instinct. These overwhelming feelings of needing to keep my daughter safe and content have come naturally to me. Rational thought seems to have little to do with it. Though, it’s also likely that my overactive *amygdala makes these feelings more dramatic. It’s hard to tease out how I might feel if I wasn’t a natural born worrywart.
(*The amygdala is the primary brain structure involved in the processing of fear.)
When Ivy was first born, I had an identity crisis. I needed to grieve the life that I was leaving behind, so I could move forward with the new life I would build. Ideas of how I would fold my baby into my life disappeared into thin air. Suddenly, she was running the show, and I was just along for the ride. So far, my grand parenthood puzzle seems to be how to balance the happiness and needs of my child with my own happiness and sanity.
Elevators scare me. Solution? Avoid them whenever possible. Anxiety is horribly uncomfortable. You do whatever you can to quell it. However, it is neither healthy nor realistic to spend every minute of every day with my daughter “just in case” something happens. And even more compelling is knowing that something terrible can happen even if I’m right there in the room with her.
In The Gardener and the Carpenter, psychology professor Alison Gopnik argues that the act of “parenting” in order to create a certain type of adult is a new phenomenon. She argues that this pressure to do X, Y, and Z in order to produce a certain type of adult is doing more harm than good. She compares “parenting” with “dieting”. The more books that are written that tell us how to raise our children or how to eat healthfully, the more unhappy and unhealthy we become. The science we have on the subject seems to suggest that it’s more important to create a safe and loving atmosphere to allow children to become whoever they are going to be.
Amen to that.
However, it’s hard to ignore these modern parenting philosophies among cultural norms. Even though I agree with her attitude, I still stress myself out over the basics. To sleep train or not to sleep train? Is Ivy gaining weight fast enough? Meeting her developmental milestones on time? When should we move Ivy into her own room? How damaging is screen time and how can I entertain myself while trying to keep a baby entertained? Where do you draw the line between self-sacrifice and self-preservation?!
Staying home with an infant can be boring, lonely, and isolating. And yet, when I imagine handing her over to someone else for the day, I am filled with dread. I am very lucky to have the option to stay home with my baby. If I had a career that I was passionate about, I am sure I would feel somewhat differently. But since my previous jobs were less than soul satisfying, it made more sense for me to take care of my own kiddo during the day instead of paying someone else to do it. Unfortunately, especially for the stay-at-home mom, it is very easy to view the act of “parenting” as a job with certain outcomes in mind. Although, my daily stressors don’t involve much personal growth. They revolve around making sure Ivy has enough milk, stimulation (Disney songs, anyone?), clean clothes, and naps (which she rarely does – the current bane of my existence). Somehow, my worries crowd out reason and allow me to expect too much out of myself as a mother in lieu of the other roles that I occupy, including the simple role of honoring my “self”. Sometimes you place too much emphasis on the details, because those are the only things you actually CAN control. In other words, I wish I could just calm the fuck down. Hopefully, these are just growing pains.
Working from seven to eleven every night,
It really makes life a drag, I don’t think that’s right.
I’ve really been the best, the best of fools, I did what I could. (Yeah)
‘Cause I love you, baby, How I love you, darling, How I love you, baby,
My beloved little girl, little girl.
But baby, Since I’ve Been Loving You (yeah). I’m about to lose my worried mind, oh, yeah.
Gopnik, A. The Gardener and the Carpenter. 2016.