It’s 4 p.m., and I’m spent. I was up half the night with my fevered, coughing 3-year-old. I have a couple of different foods cooking on the stove, and I have to make sure I don’t overcook the broccoli again or my older son won’t touch it. My little guy is on the potty pooping for what seems like an eternity, and I know that soon I will need to spend an inordinate amount of time wiping his butt — all while making sure I don’t burn dinner.
As I cook, my phone lights up with work emails, and my mom is texting me about plans for the weekend. Then my older son comes up to me yammering on about the latest video game he is obsessed with. At this point, my younger son starts coughing up a storm from inside the bathroom, and I start to wonder if perhaps it’s more than a simple cold he has. Is it something serious? Should I call the doctor?
My breath catches in my throat. My heart starts to race, as do my thoughts. Anxiety, my old friend, has come for a visit.
For those of us who are prone to anxiety, moments like the one I experienced this afternoon are what tip us over to the dark side. Everyone is prone to stress to some extent, but anxious people aren’t wired like other people. Our skin is porous. There is always a hidden layer of stress inside us to begin with, so when our plate is as full as mine was — when the pressure starts to build and build — we crack.
And yet as parents, we usually have no choice but to muddle through. Let’s face it — parenting is just going to be stressful, no matter how you look at it. The job of feeding, caring for, and nurturing our kids is relentless, full of surprises and stresses, and is sometimes downright frightening.
Often, our anxiety starts to take over when we’re right smack dab in the middle of parenting, and we have no choice but to go on. There aren’t exactly ample opportunities to get all Zen, do our breathing exercises, or reach out for reinforcements.
Thankfully, I don’t have full-fledged anxiety attacks around my kids all too often. But as someone with an anxiety disorder, I have experienced my fair share of them while parenting. I try my best to protect my kids from what is going on with me — though if I’m really suffering, I have been known to sit on the couch and tell them, “Mommy needs a moment,” as I try to gather myself.
But even when I haven’t reached that point, there are often moments in my day when my thoughts will be somewhere else, spinning through my head. I’ll be consumed by an idea, a worry, or a plan I feel I need to think through right now, or all hell will break loose.
I wonder if my kids notice this about me, and how it affects them.
When I’m standing there in the kitchen at 4 p.m. — the world around me at top volume, everything seeming to fall apart at once — does my older son notice I’m hardly listening to him as he drones on about video games? Does it just feel to him like “Mommy is too busy to listen”? Or is it more like “Mommy is somewhere else, her fight-or-flight system in full gear, and she is freaking the hell out”?
Has my anxiety rubbed off on my kids? Sometimes I think I see glimmers of it here and there, but I’m not sure yet if these are just examples of my kids being normal kids who sometimes worry, or if they have inherited anxious tendencies from me. I find myself obsessing (that’s what we anxiety sufferers do best) about how I can protect my kids from becoming anxious themselves, and whether there is actually anything at all I can do about it.
In my mind, I am constantly apologizing to my kids for my anxious tendencies and the way I imagine it must impact their lives. Sometimes I will even say it out loud.
“Sorry, I can’t really listen to you talk about video games right now,” I say to my older son. “I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s like my brain is a computer and I have 17 tabs open at once. You know?”
But when he nods, seeming to get a kick out of my computer reference, I wonder if he actually accepts my apology. Will he look back and think of me as a less-than-present parent, someone too wrapped up in her own thoughts to pay attention to him?
We anxious parents can be too hard on ourselves sometimes. That’s part of the disease of anxiety. And yet, all parents want so badly for our kids to feel safe, calm, and at ease.
I have no answers, really. I am doing my best to practice self-care, go to therapy, and exercise — the things that, for me, help keep anxiety at a more manageable level.
But for the times when my anxiety has taken a toll on my kids, I can’t help but feel sorry. Guilty. I can’t help but grieve and wish things were different.
I am trying to accept that this is who I am, for better or worse, and that, somehow, being as concerned a parent as I am means that I’m a good parent. I just hope that my kids see it that way — and if they don’t, that they will at least forgive me for my shortcomings.