My wife, Mel, and I were married about three months the first time she suggested that we have a child. It was early 2005. We were living in Provo, Utah, renting a small two-bedroom condo. I suppose we’d talked about it while dating, but it was mostly playful. We talked about what our child would look like — short and stocky like me, or short and slender like her? We talked about their personality — would it be funny and loud like me, or reserved and thoughtful like Mel? We picked out names and discussed who wanted a boy and who wanted girl.
But it didn’t seem all that real until after we were married. I suppose I’d always had mixed feelings about having children. It’s not that I didn’t want them, but more that I was fearful that it would add more stress to my life. When you live with anxiety, stress management is everything. You live your life in a state of perpetual fear, hopeful that everything will be fine, but always having this little pinch in the bottom of your gut, that feeling that you need to run from something, but if you were asked what that something was, you couldn’t explain it.
“I think we should start trying,” Mel said.
It was early evening, around 5:30 p.m., and Mel and I were making dinner.
“Trying what?” I said.
“Having a baby.”
“What? Slow down,” I said. “I think we need to wait.”
Mel went on, asking me why we needed to wait. Why we needed to slow down.
“We love each other…right? We are married. There’s no reason to wait.”
I agreed with her on the facts that we were married and in love. But I told her that we needed to get used to being a married couple. We needed to save money. We needed to be more secure. I brought up a bunch of clichéd arguments as to why I didn’t want to have a baby yet, but really, I thought about how I often had panic attacks in the night. I thought about Mel going into labor at midnight, and how it might bring on a panic attack. I thought about how babies don’t always sleep, and sleep deprivation increases my anxiety. Honestly, all of it was pretty irrational, but that’s what generalized anxiety is all about.
Before Mel and I got married, it took me three years to figure out the right mix of medications, exercise, meditation, and schedule to get a handle on my anxiety. I thought about my medications, my routine, and how much better my life had become, and I wondered if I was strong enough to handle being a father. Would having a child undo all that I’d done over the past several years? I was terrified of having a setback.
It came down to a leap of faith to have children. For me, it came down to me talking to myself, comforting myself, and reasoning with myself that I had a supportive wife to stand beside me, each step of the way.
Ten years and three children later, I’ve realized that the leaps of faith I made at the beginning were the start of many more. Being a parent with an anxiety disorder looks like pulling yourself together when your children need you, even though you feel an irrational, terrified dread inside. It looks like pushing yourself to do all the things you are afraid of and seeking comfort from the one you are with.
It looks like adding a million new fears to your already long list of fears and learning how to manage those on a day-to-day basis. But it also looks like a bunch of new distractions that will keep you so busy that you don’t think about all the stuff you are afraid of as much.
Sometimes it looks like feeling so anxious about your children or your job or your house that you almost can’t function, so you have to tap out with your partner so you can have a moment alone to calm down.
Other times, your small children will crawl up into your lap at just the right moment and snuggle into your chest in the sweetest, softest way, and suddenly all your anxiety will melt away and you will wonder why you were ever afraid to have a child because they are better than any medication.
In fact, shortly after my son was born, I had one of those moments. One night, when Tristan was about 1-month-old, Mel woke me at 2 a.m. It was my turn with the baby. Normally, I would have gotten up, felt a little anxious, taken a couple Xanax, then sat down in front of the TV and held Tristan.
But this time I didn’t.
In fact, I stood in the kitchen for some time. The only light in the house was coming from the TV in the next room. In my right arm was my baby boy, eyes open, but calm. I thought about my anxiety, and I thought about my son. Tristan was swaddled in a blanket with a print of bears dressed as doctors. It was the same blanket we took him home from the hospital in. His face was all I could see. It was soft and sweet and peaceful. I thought about my life and my fears. I thought about how I needed to be there for my son.
I held Tristan in both arms. I thought about how raising him was bigger than myself. It was bigger than my anxiety disorder. This was a life that was dependent on me, and I needed to be there. I had a duty to raise my son. To get up in the night with him. To be there through thick and thin.
I whispered to myself, “I will not let this control my life anymore. I can’t. I’ve come too far. I have to be there for Tristan.”
I said it a few times. Once I stopped saying it out loud, I said it in my head. And for the first time, I was able to gain control over my anxiety by thinking about my children.
Looking forward, it hasn’t always worked this way. Sometimes there’s no stoping those anxious feelings, and I am still under the care of my doctor to help manage my symptoms, but I must admit, there’s something about my children and thinking about how I need to pull myself together for them, that has made me stronger than before.
I went and sat on the sofa, and every time I felt a little anxious, I said it again and again. I felt stronger saying it. I felt empowered.
It’s in moments like this that you realize that although kids are stressful, you wonder how you’d ever manage your anxiety without children in your life. Being a parent with generalized anxiety disorder means being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but knowing that regardless of how anxious you might get, your obligation to your children outweighs it all. There is a lot of strength in understanding that. That strength, and the love I have (and receive) from my kids makes this journey completely worthwhile.