Extreme Anxiety and New Motherhood: The Perfect Storm
As I was researching last week's post on parenting trends of the past ten years, I realized why my daughter's babyhood was so difficult for me.
Left to my own devices, I'm a pleaser and a perfectionist -- very, very Type A. As a kid, I used to wake up in the middle of the night to clean my room. Whenever someone presented a task, I wanted to do it immediately and perfectly. I am the evil anti-procrastinator. I do procrastinators' stuff for them. I don't do it to be annoying -- this is a problem for me. I have anxiety issues.
What does it feel like to have extreme anxiety? During my adult life before parenthood, I worried about my body image, what my co-workers thought of me, my relationship, my performance in grad school. After my daughter was born, my anxiety amped from worrying the cat would escape from the house while the carpet cleaner came to worrying that my baby girl would stop breathing while I was sleeping. I was sure she would get a horrible infection due to my negligence and lose a limb, that she would develop a terminal illness, that I would forget she was in the car and let her suffocate and die on a hot day while I shopped for groceries. On our first night home from the hospital, I sat in my bed and panicked about what I'd done, creating this person whose pain could destroy me as a human being. I could almost feel the cortizone and adrenaline downloading into my veins and vibrating through my body. That is what extreme anxiety feels like: It feels like you will be imminently devoured by your own thoughts.
After that night, I read magazines and parenting books and listened to comments and advice from friends, family and old ladies on the street who pointed out to their companions that my daughter needed shoes. It was 2004, the heyday of Baby Einstein and competitive parenting, of organic, homemade baby food and tummy time and choices about vaccination schedules and thimeserol that sent my tightly-wound soul reeling with my belief that one wrong decision on my part would impair or perhaps even kill my baby.
And then, at 18 months, my beautiful daughter stopped sleeping for more than two hours at a time. Adding to my already steady anxiety? Sleep deprivation! And not the hormonally enhanced, excited, aided-by-Grandma newborn sleep deprivation, but the why-the-hell-haven't-you-Ferberized-your-kid-why-my-Johnny-slept-through-the-night-from-the-time-he-was-six-weeks-old, no-sympathy-and-maybe-a-little-blame sleep deprivation. What before had finally become a manageable amount of anxiety snowballed into daily three-hour crying jags and escape fantasies coupled with crippling guilt over leaving my daughter at daycare so I could attempt to focus my half-closed eyes on work. When I dropped my girl off in the morning, she'd wail and throw herself toward the door, screaming, "No, Mommy! Don't leave me!" I'd squat under the window in the door so she couldn't see me and cry until I heard her teachers picking her up and whispering softly in her ear, leading her over to the little table to have a drink of water and maybe some pancake and help Miss Wendy do a puzzle, can you please? By the time I got to work and called daycare, my daughter was fine and enjoying her day, and I was an addled wreck dragging herself to the ladies room every ten minutes to cry off her make-up in silence.
The worst part? In the height of my anxiety, I didn't trust my own instincts at all. I felt crazy most of the time, so how could I possibly know how to solve my parenting problems? I constantly sought the advice of others, read more parenting books -- especially sleep books -- watched the great new show Supernanny, read parenting magazines and parenting Web sites. I read advice that said if I just let my daughter cry for ten minutes, she'd sleep well for the rest of her life. I read articles that said too much baby fat would lead to a lifetime of obesity. (My girl was an off-the-charts large baby and is a 50th percentile five-year-old.) I read about the mercury in the tuna fish and the lead in the toys and worried about gas leaks and refined sugar and screen time all while letting my daughter eat packaged toddler snacks and watch more Baby Einstein while I sat on the couch trying to calm myself down and not go through once more in my head how quickly I could install the fire rescue ladder in my daughter's window when our house inevitably burned down.
Finally, I got help. Since that time, I've been able to grow to a place where I do trust my own instincts and am angered by one-size-fits-all parenting advice for me or for anyone else. If the Rita of 2010 had been mothering my daughter in 2004, I highly doubt I would've fallen to the depths I fell. Now when the anxiety starts to crest, I'm able to have faith that things will be all right. I have doctors who will take me seriously and give me visualizations to help me. I have medication that takes the edge off the buzzing in my head. I no longer believe I have to do what other people tell me to do. I have learned to raise my child by spending time with her on activities that fit with my value system -- exercise and outdoor activities and reading -- and not on "should do" activities that I don't care that much about -- meal planning and competitive team sports and educational video games. I wish -- God, I wish -- that 2010 Rita could have taken 2004 Rita by the shoulders and kissed her on the forehead and told her it would be okay. My parents said it to me. My husband said it to me. Everyone who loved me was very confused by my anxiety. Our daughter was fine! What was I so worried about? Stop watching Supernanny! That illusion of control is not acceptable! But for someone who doesn't trust herself, the greatest comfort comes from within. I couldn't get over my anxiety until I convinced myself that everything would be okay. I wish it weren't true, but nobody else can talk to my thoughts but me.
One other thing I learned about my anxiety: It's fed by environmental triggers. Every Supernanny show I watched, every your-kid-will-die-from-hydrogenated-oil article I read and every doctor who frowned at my baby daughter's weight chart just reinforced to me that my overblown fears must be real when I truly didn't want them to be. The mid-2000s were all about parenting as a competitive sport, and I was convinced by the media that I should be able to control not only my behavior and my daughter's but even the environment in which I raised her. Controlling for all those variables became more important to me than my daughter having a relaxed, fun-loving mother.
It was a perfect storm.
Her continued well-adjusted behavior has reinforced my commitment to backing away from my anxiety. Her language skills exploded around the same time that I got medical treatment, and since she's been able to talk, she compliments me when I stop with my endless lists and sit down on the floor to play with her, focus on her, not worry about her progress or her health or her future, but just focus on her. With me.
I want her to remember her mother as a happy person, and I don't want it to be an act. I want what Meagan Francis talks about at The Happiest Mom:
If there’s one thing I know, it’s this: regardless of what you feed your kid, or how you clothe him, or whether or not you read out loud to her every day or do craft projects or find just the right educational toys, your happiness–or lack thereof–will shine through, loud and clear.
And it will make all the difference. For them, and for you.
BlogHer contributing editor Amy Gates wrote about her battle with generalized anxiety disorder last year.
I initially worried that by taking medication I would be setting a bad example for my children, but I now know that by taking care of myself (including taking medication), I am setting a good example for them. I am showing them that I believe I am important, that I value myself and my health. Nowadays I can have fun with them and laugh again and I think they find that matters far more than anything else.
I wish I could say I don't completely identify with Elizabeth Collins' post on The Nervous Breakdown. I wish I could say I didn't used to go through very similar scenarios in my head about every stranger who came anywhere near my house when I was home on maternity leave.
I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.
Some mothers can take all the hype in stride without a concerted effort, but there are those of us for whom staying on an even keel is a conscious decision and a daily recommitment to "good enough." The worst thing you can do for someone with extreme anxiety is tell them their fears are imagined. Validate that fear, then help them help themselves by confronting the problem head-on. The world of parenting is frought with paper tigers, but extreme anxiety is not one of them. Extreme anxiety can be more harmful to both mother and child than a cadmium and lead pacifier coated in BPA. If any of these stories sound like you or someone you know, get help.