How My Anxiety Is Helping Me Reframe My Parenting Mistakes

by Erin Burba
Originally Published: 
An anxious girl holding her head with her hands with a red and gray collage bade of different triang...
triocean/Getty and Scary Mommy

The worst moment was when I ran off the airplane in the middle of a panic attack.

260 pairs of eyes followed me, including those of my young son, who asked me with fear in his voice to stop crying.

We were headed to a wedding, and a group work project due that afternoon had fallen apart earlier in the morning. Since I work remotely and initially thought I’d be finished with any major responsibilities, I hadn’t mentioned to my bosses that I’d be in the air for part of the workday, assuming I could use the WiFi to take care of any last-minute loose ends.

But as I snaked through the security line, my email alert’s ominous ding may as well have been Morse code for “bad choices.” Anxiety curled in my stomach as I shepherded my toddler onto the escalator, and a major case of the “shoulds” took hold.

I should have caught a later flight when our project deadline was postponed. I should have been more honest with my bosses about my travel plans. I should have at least arrived at the airport earlier so I could send all the last-minute files they were requesting without worrying about missing the flight.

It felt fated by the time the flight attendant announced the in-flight wifi was down. The project was due at two o’clock, the same time we landed. My vision narrowed. My choices blurred and then formed a dichotomy: I could either get off the plane before the door closed and finish the project, or stay on the plane and risk losing my job. Each choice felt impossible.

I’ve been an anxious person since I was born. I screamed so hard when my mom brought me home from the hospital that my belly button came undone, something the OBGYN said she’d never seen before.

In grade school, I struggled with the “thought police,” an overwhelming need to tell my parents whenever intrusive thoughts pervaded my mind. “I’m having bad thoughts” was my common refrain.

In high school, I was a straight-A student with many extra-curriculars who taped flashcards to the ceiling above my bed so I could study literally until I fell asleep.

In college, I went in the other direction, drinking most nights until I passed into oblivion. It took years of therapy to realize the obvious: Both the flashcards and the alcohol were coping mechanisms for underlying and pervasive anxiety.

The real work to address my anxiety began when I quit drinking nine years ago. In that time, I’ve had two amazing therapists, read countless books, cultivated meditation and exercise practices, and (for the most part) navigated life with both the stability I need and the adventure I crave.

And then I had a baby.

I didn’t realize how often I “managed” my anxiety through perfectionism and control of my circumstances until my tiny, gorgeous, 7 lb 8 oz control-snatcher was born.

I knew sleep, a major factor of my self-care, would be affected. I was optimistic he would sleep through the night at 12 weeks, and thankfully had not yet heard the evil phrase “sleep regression.” I underestimated the psychological impact of 18 months with minimal uninterrupted sleep. I used to drop my son off at his Thursday morning 2-hour mother’s day out program, sit in my car, and just cry from sheer exhaustion.

I realized I needed additional psychological help when my son was two years old. Tantrums had entered the scene with dizzying fury, and I struggled not to have my own panic attacks as he lay on the floor, screaming into the void. The coping mechanisms that worked before I had kids were no longer working.

Yes, my son deserved a mom who could keep it together. Also, and this is something that is often ignored in these conversations, I deserved to feel better for myself — not just for the people around me. Everyone does.

I’d moved across the country since my last therapist and the search to find another felt insurmountable. Shopping around and rehashing your general story to multiple strangers while you’re already psychologically fraying is a special kind of exhaustion. It took a couple of tries, but I found my perfect fit in an empathetic woman close to my own age. We meet weekly (at least). I can’t eliminate my anxiety or desire for control, but she helps me vary and strengthen my array of coping mechanisms.

All coping mechanisms fled the scene as I made my way off the plane with a flight attendant escort. I somehow made it back home, finished the project, and immediately called my therapist.

“I abandoned my son. I LEFT HIM on an AIRPLANE,” I sobbed, shaking. “There is no coming back from this.”

“Let’s walk that statement back a little,” she said. “You left your son in the hands of your incredibly loving and capable husband.”

At that moment, my phone ding’ed with a picture of my husband and son grinning at the children’s museum in our destination city. The picture made me feel both infinitely better and measurably worse. I should have been there.

Up until the plane day, I had always said that my anxiety and my enthusiasm for life are opposite sides of the same coin; that it was okay to be anxious sometimes, because it meant I was fully experiencing the spectrum of the human experience.

But that belief had never been tested before in the way it was now. Today, there was no upside to this biological self-preservation reaction in overdrive. Today, it just felt horrible. Until my therapist said something that penetrated through my pure panic.

“This isn’t the end of the narrative,” she said. “This is one experience of countless moments that you will have with your son. Oftentimes, what we say or do in the hard moments ends up being less important than how we repair afterward.”

Emilie Barbier / EyeEm/Getty

There it was: Exactly what I needed to hear. Because it’s true. I now had another opportunity to talk to my son about feelings and unconditional love and not being perfect.

And that’s why my anxiety makes me a better mom than I would be in different circumstances. It pushes me so far out of my comfort zone that I have to learn new ways to cope and manage. I can then share these lessons with my son, whose feelings tend to be large, much like my own. It provokes conversations about feelings vs. actions.

We have more discussions than we otherwise would about unconditional love, and how each of us belongs to our family no matter the outburst or the wretched day. We encourage “do-overs” after a rough start, and we practice radical empathy. We blow out candles to take deep breaths, and we snuggle after bad days.

Lots of families do these things, even when the parents don’t suffer anxiety. But I know that my personal mental health experiences have forced a depth to this practice that I wouldn’t have reached if it wasn’t a necessity.

My son is learning that messy moments have value, that there is a path forward no matter what, and that, as shame-researcher Brene Brown says, “Yes I’m imperfect, but I am enough … Worthiness does not have prerequisites. Worthiness is an as-is proposition”.

To be completely honest, I didn’t want to learn or teach these things to my son in order to further the journey of understanding my mental health. I wanted these lessons to be benign reminders with only a rare practical application within my son’s youngest years — akin to teaching him that taking toys from his cousin is not okay and that sometimes, the weather in Colorado means outdoor plans must be flexible.

I wanted to be a calm, consistent, perfect mom: the kind you see in the first few moments of a Disney movie before they kill her off, birds braiding my hair as I gently cradle my swaddled infant.

Sometimes I am. And sometimes, I am Ursula when I’d least wish it. But afterward, we discuss the value of self-care and we move forward, one step at a time.

I couldn’t get a flight to meet my family until the following day. At that point, I was rested and relatively recovered. My son was less curious about my departure than I’d anticipated and more excited to tell me about the gigantic slide he mastered at the park near our hotel.

He’d thrived with the one-on-one time with my husband, and now we were together again as a family: A messy, imperfect, but ever-so-slightly stronger family.

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