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I’m an Anxious Parent—Here’s How I Keep My Fears in Check

anxious parent anxious parent

If there is one thing I remember from my son’s earliest days, weeks, and months, it is an abundant sense of terror. I feared he would fall asleep and never wake up again. I feared a car would crash into the side of our vehicle, killing only him. And as far-fetched as it may be, I legitimately feared some monstrous stalker would sneak through the window in the dead of night, swipe my child, then bury him alive in a field (for what it’s worth, I grew up watching lots of 20/20 with my mother).

I’d been given too much joy, too much dumb and undeserved luck, and I felt certain the only fair shake would be heinous and inevitable tragedy. Anxiety has always been an unruly master of my mind, but motherhood amplified its presence in my life in a way that paralyzed me. Once I became a mother I was afraid to feel happy, afraid to bond deeply, afraid to let down my guard to enjoy what was right in front of me: a beautiful baby, the proverbial “bundle of joy” that beckons to be loved with wild abandon.

My son is nine now, and in the deepest and darkest parts of my soul, that terror is still alive and well. But now, most days, it stays buried in that deep place of subconscious — even as I let him ride his bike to school and fly on planes with his grandmother and climb rock walls twelve times his height.

Experiencing true joy in parenthood has been an uphill journey for me, one that’s required me to harness all my bravery in a way that once seemed unfathomable. My anxiety isn’t gone completely, but over time I’ve learned how to navigate the world without letting my worries take control over me. Through trial and error I’ve found that following these three tips make the biggest difference.

1) Know your triggers & steer clear of them.

Sure, there are zillions of things that I can’t control on this earth — including, sometimes, my own thoughts — but I can control what I consciously choose to take in. So those episodes of 20/20 I used to watch with my mom? Bad news in more ways than one. Scrolling through horrifying clickbait about kids who died suddenly from rare diseases that could have been avoided if their parents had only known to look for this one obscure symptom (which always looks a lot like a simple rash)? Just one of those articles can steal my peace for months. I know bad things happen, and my mind does not need to be reminded of that. Being careful about where I place my focus (especially online) is key in managing my anxiety.

2) Stick with the script that’s actually unfolding, not the one that could. 

It’s my mind’s default to project worst case scenarios. The fever that isn’t responding to Tylenol becomes a sure sign that seizures will come next. Diarrhea escalates into surefire dehydration that is going to land us in the emergency room. In these moments I have to work to ground myself in the present and stick with what’s true. Whatever is actually happening I can handle, and that is all I need to handle right now.

3) Remember: Being happy doesn’t make you vulnerable to bad things happening.

Deep down I think I actually believe that my vigilance can somehow help me avoid the terrible unknown. But the truth is, happiness doesn’t invite disaster any more than misery prevents it. I am not powerful enough to control fate one way or another, and my energy could be better spent enjoying the moment, rather than bracing for disaster.

I regularly have to remind myself that letting my guard down and experiencing happiness is not a cue for the universe to spite me and my children. Why not choose to enjoy watching my kids play in the park? I can soothe the scraped knees — and whatever else —  when and if they come rather than worry over them before they happen.

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Gemma Hartley is a freelance journalist and author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward. She lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband and three young children.