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Parenting with anxiety - Part II

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Turns out that love is directly proportional to worry. Becoming a mother was a literal explosion of love and worry all entangled together like some complicated ball of multi-coloured wool.

They told me it was baby blues but… what if… what if kept dancing around my head like some sort of tortuous litany. What if I mess him up? What if something bad happens to him? How do people take this responsibility on for the rest of their lives? One brief thought about how some people do this all by themselves was enough to make me weep and weep in awe and fear and wonder.

It was overwhelming. He was a healthy baby but one hospital admission with gastroenteritis that year was enough to scar me for another ten years to come. Holding his little hand whilst they poked and prodded him. My Obstetrics and Paediatric jobs had given me nightmares but they were still nothing compared to this. The responsibility of this small human. The mortality of all of us. All those stories and movies about people chasing the elixir of life, the key to immortality. I would move heaven and earth to give that to my son. Something that would keep him alive forever and always protect him from harm.

In pregnancy I had put it down to hormones. The fact that I couldn’t sit in a chid safeguarding course anymore because I would get palpitations and cry in the toilets about what people on this earth would do to children. I’d switch off the news and leave movies with those dark themes, willing myself not to think about it.

Watching my beautiful boy grow up I tried very hard to be a 'relaxed parent. Let him run around out of sight? Sure. Go to the very top of the climbing frame? Why not! How about later, shall we give him a phone? Let him walk home by himself?

Suddenly though I had found a new motivation to live in the present: do not be anxious in front of K or you will give him the anxiety bug like it was given to you. I did not want him to feel like this. The feeling of impending doom. The worry of everything all the time.

Back to trying to close the lid on the worry then, don’t show it, hide it away. It’s impossible, like telling yourself not to sneeze when you have a cold. Processing it was impossible too, I had no safe space to do that in. Tell the wrong person and the anxiety ballooned, tell the right person and they catch the worry from you, like some sort of contagious disease.

Being married to a non-worrier was painful at times. Trying to tell a non-worrier what anxiety feels like is like trying to explain about what life is like on another planet. ‘Don’t worry, be happy; I’m here’. They were nice things to say to me, the alien living on this other planet all by myself.

I tried to explain to my 5-year-old recently what the difference was between ‘worry’ and ‘nervous’ and ‘excited’. It seemed to be a spectrum of positive to negative connotations. The realisation that they are all actually the same thing hit me; you decide which one to use depending on the outcome.

Surely it's good to be a little anxious? The butterflies in an exam, meeting someone you fancy, speaking in front of people. Absolutely normal for your heart to race a bit right? Palms sweaty, pupils dilate and chest feels a little tight. Our primitive warning system set off by modern day triggers.

There's a book called: ‘The Huge Bag of Worries' by Virginia Ironside, which I bought when my son’s teachers said the dreaded words to me : ‘He always looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders..’ Queue self-blame and panic (you didn’t hide your worries enough and now he’s caught the worry bug!) I read the book to my son, willing him to not put anything in his worry bag; ‘Give it all to me and I will blow it all away’, I said.

How do I tell him not do what I do all the time? My husband would regularly listen to me just to air the highlights of what was in my bag. And still there was more that I would keep in there. You can't take everything out surely?

Though talking to my son about what was in his bag, I realised I could do this with him. Take the stuff out together, give it back to people who gave it to us, blow kisses at the minor ones and share the big ones so that they don’t seem so heavy. My goodness, had I just figured out what love is?

So was it nature or nurture? A rhetorical question I liked to ask myself. I needed to learn to love myself so that means I had to love my worries. Stop seeing it as some sort of blight and embrace it somehow. Apparently, it is selected for in Natural Selection; people who worry spot the dangers and give us an early warning system to hide. That notion gave me comfort.

Then along came middle child and she broke the lid off my worries and exploded it out onto my life like a big blanket smothering me. She was beautiful but there was something wrong. Medically speaking. What was it? How could we treat it? No answers. Just more questions.

Live in the present, that’s the key, they said. But not everyone experiences the present in the same way. Her early years passed in a cloud of worry and stress and lack of sleep and a pandemic. Fast forward to school and Sports day was coming up. I tried not to think about it. She didn’t like getting up in front of audiences. Even in nursery they had criticised this about her, like public speaking should be something a 3-year-old should instinctively love. She also didn’t like to miss out and I didn’t want to highlight it and let her miss out.

So she did the first few races fine because they had no audience and the kids could just do the egg and spoon or sack race or whatever at their leisure. Here she was smiling her head off and enjoying the silliness of it all.

But then the running races loomed and I watched her quivering at the sideline, my heart breaking. Her little eyes darted back and forth as the line of parents assembled and grew longer; the cheering and the staring and the waving started. There were so many people, so much pressure, the hunger for their child to win evident in all their adult faces. My girl averted her eyes and stared at the floor, worrying. I wanted to scoop her up and take her home, tell her she didn’t have to do this. The other children cheered and had fun, oblivious to the turmoil in the little girl sitting amongst them.

My girl waited until the very end, the last one to race. I was worried she would run the race and fall. I worried that would scar her for life, both internally and externally. There was also worry that she wouldn’t run and then feel bad that she didn’t do it. The worry then was like a needle in my throat repeatedly stabbing me. I was glad the photographer was not looking at the parents.

She ran. The photographer captured the fear on her little face and I bought the photo despite hating to see it. She did it, she didn’t fall. She was scared to death, she hated it, but she did it. Her teacher told me I should feel proud. Was this a lesson for life? You will sometimes have to do things that make you feel sick to your stomach. But you will do them because of how much society expects you to and somehow that expectation alone will be enough for you to feel an enormous sense of pride. Which means the converse is also true, and you are a failure if you stood up and said, actually this sucks, I’m not running.

Before that, there was the Christmas show. She hated that too but she stood on the stage in her cute little outfit and she sang, with me and her dad smiling and cheering her on.

There was another performance later that week which I couldn’t make it to. In that one she did what was true to her heart; she sat down and refused to sing. Her desire to see us cheer and clap for her had won against her fear of singing in front of people but now she was free to do what felt right.

I brought her a present that day that she chose not to sing and I told her I was proud of her for choosing what made her feel more comfortable, something her old mother still found impossible to do most days.

So should we face our fears and try to live without worry? Or should we embrace our worries, wrap them around ourselves and try to prepare in some way for what there is to come? I have no answers.

I do the latter and it does not make me feel safe anymore. My nephew died in 2020. He was three months old. I feel I lost my sister that day too and with it, a part of me. His twin brother brings me joy, yet he lives with the same genetic difference that took his brother away and that thought haunts me as my love for him grows.

For now, I seek connection and fun ways to keep myself focused on the present. Live now like you might not be here tomorrow. Every time my mind wants to ask; what about the future? I know what darkness it might bring and I break out into a cold sweat again; my mouth goes dry, I push down the lava. Book something, make the kids smile, take photos, make memories.

They tell me I’m spoiling my kids. spending too much money. Setting the bar too high. Because they have to learn right? That not only will you have to do things you absolutely hate in life, but you mustn’t also have too much fun. There is a quota of fun it seems.

But I want to fill our cups with fun until we are so full of the love of it and the memories and the laughter that it bursts out and covers us all; helping us tackle the darkness when it arrives.


GP Maman is a mother to three children aged 9, 4 and 5-months. She was born in Iran but grew up in the UK and her children are half South-African. She works as a General Practitioner in the UK and enjoys writing and advocating for her patients in her spare time.

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