My mother always said, "You won't understand my worry until you're a mother." I always thought it was just the old Jewish-mother guilt — I never imagined that worry would turn my world upside down!
There was a great deal to worry about when my twins, my first two babies, were born prematurely at 26 weeks. 'Baby A' weighed 2 pounds and 'Baby B' weighed 1 pound 14 ounces! I spent a lot of days and nights as a worrisome muddle in the neo-natal intensive care unit — aka the NICU. It seemed if it wasn't one thing — it was another. Baby A had a level four brain hemorrhage and a hole in her lung. Baby B had a whole in his heart. Baby A would probably have Cerebral Palsy due to the brain injury. And the doctors were pretty certain that Baby B would need open-heart surgery at some point. Thank God, time would prove them wrong on all counts — but in the meantime, it caused me lots of worries!
Now, I tend to be a glass-half-full kinda gal — but even this was too much for me to handle at times! One day, in particular, I'll never forget — it was the second day of those tiny babies' lives, and my husband wheeled me into the NICU to see them for just the second time. We were immediately accosted (not greeted) by the nurse caring for Baby A. Her name was Nurse Dyer — quite befitting a name as you'll soon learn. Before I had even caught a glimpse of my babies, Nurse Dyer said, "I just want you to know that as an ordained minister, if it seems like your babies are going to die, I can perform emergency baptisms right here in the nursery." I must admit I was in complete disbelief of what I had just heard from the lips of an RN. Weren't NICU nurses supposed to be fighting for my babies to live and not planning for their death? Once I had composed myself from the shock, I snapped, "First of all, I am Jewish, and there will be no Baptisms performed; second of all, MY BABIES ARE NOT GOING TO DIE; and third, you can get the hell away from them — right now." My husband stood watch over our helpless little beings as I wheeled myself into the head nurse's office and demanded that Nurse Dyer be relieved of her duties as either one of my babies' nurse! Period! And it was not open for discussion! The last thing I needed was a nurse that was even remotely thinking that my precious babies weren't going to live — I had enough to worry about without having to worry about their caregiver too!
Long story short of our life in the NICU with those preemies is that they grew strong and were scheduled to come home a month before what was to be their due date. The day before their release, I was speaking with one of our favorite NICU nurses and made a comment, "I am going to be so glad to take my babies home tomorrow and never have to worry about them ever again!" Needless to say Sharron, who had older children herself at the time, burst out laughing. Once she composed herself, she said, "Honey, ain't never gonna be a day for the rest of your life that you won't worry about these babies — it's called being a mother!" At the time, I couldn't imagine what she meant. Seriously, once I got those babies home — safe and sound — what worries could I possibly have? Or so I naively thought! I certainly know better now. Hahaha!
Admittedly, nothing has ever come close to those NICU fears when my children were infants. While the worries of motherhood certainly aren't always of the 'life threatening' variety, they are nevertheless constant! Meggie (Baby A), Matty (Baby B), and their younger brother Mikee are all grown up and attending college, and I must admit, I still worry about them each and every day.
I recently saw a post on Instagram by a father who looks forward to his infant son turning 18 and moving out, so Dad will have his old carefree life back and plenty of good nights' sleep. Reading that, I quietly laughed to myself, "Oh you just wait! You'll still suffer from sleepless nights when they're 18, and out of the house — just for way different reasons!" I think Webster should revise the definition of parent in their dictionary to read, "One who worries about their offspring for the rest of their lives!" I now realize that I am in 'worry-mode' for the long haul — because, let's face it — once you're a parent, you're a parent to the very end! I predict that even after my children are married, with families of their own, I'll still have occasions to worry about them. Recently, I drove from Vermont to Florida to visit my mom, and she asked that I call her every time I stopped for gas. She was worried about me the entire time I was on the road!
So, if worry truly is the life-long curse of parenthood — and especially motherhood (because some fathers do seem to be blissfully immune to the constant low-level anxiety that besets mothers) — how do we cope with it?
First, before you do anything else, put things into perspective. Worry is most always rooted in fear of the unknown and the 'what-ifs.' So rather than focusing on those worrisome things, realize that even if the what-ifs become 'they ares,' the chances are that the repercussions will be temporary because your child’s life is a long journey and not merely a series of small isolated events. After putting everything into perspective, there are a few other things we can do too!
As scary as this may seem, think the worst — just for a split second. How bad can it be? Probably not that bad at all. I homeschooled my children, and I constantly worried about failure and not providing them with an adequate education. I can remember one day, my twins were just five years old, and I was trying to teach them how to read an analog clock. By the end of an hour, we were all in tears over the task. I left the room, gained control, and thought to myself, "What's the worst thing that can happen here?" The answer was, "My children would go to college with digital alarm clocks." But seriously, beyond that, it brought me back to reality and made me realize that someday my children would be able to read an analog clock and not have to rely on digital clocks in college! And in that split-second of sanity, I was actually correct. Although I can't tell you the date they mastered the skill, I can tell you that they all left for college knowing how to tell time on an analog clock! By asking yourself how realistic the worst case scenario is, you’ll most likely realize that you’re interpreting it in a highly exaggerated way.
The third thing you can do is to evaluate the situation that is causing you the worry. Naturally, if the problem needs your immediate attention, by all means, tackle it! If your child is scaling that 50-foot tree in the backyard that you consistently worry about him falling out of, you're going to need to deal with that concern and make an immediate decision. And that's a good thing because the child's safety might be in jeopardy; however, if you have the time, let the worry simmer. Put it on a back burner. You may need to work out some strategic planning to find a solution while it's on the back burner; however, not only can that in itself help to alleviate worry but nine times out of ten the answer seems to manifest itself with just a little time. I find that putting things on the back burner also helps me to clear my mind of the smaller insignificant details of the worry so that the larger picture comes into clearer focus.
Putting a problem on the back burner, even for just five minutes, will also help you rid yourself of the immediate stress that accompanies anxiety. When I'm stressed, I am much less likely to come up with reasonable solutions to my worry. Plus, I'm positively not able to stop worrying if I'm physically and mentally in a state of stress. But by taking five minutes to breathe deeply, meditate, practice progressive muscle relaxation techniques, or biofeedback, I'm able to relax and get the clarity I need to move forward.
The next one is difficult — particularly for mothers; however, sometimes clearly it's the only way to alleviate your worry and trust me, no one is sorrier than I at having to admit it. Okay, here it is, "Sometimes we just have to let go of it!" We must realize that we can't always rescue our children, and especially the older they get — all we can do is guide them. I am the mother of three competitive cyclists, and each and every time I hear of a cyclist killed while riding his or her bike, worry wells up inside me. Every day my children leave for a training ride, sharing the road with automobiles, I fear for their lives. Every race they attend, I feel anxious that they could be victims of a peloton crash on a steep decline. But this is one of those concerns that I have had to let go of because it's something I can't control. Approaching certain things this way doesn't completely remove the worry; however, it does bring it to a tolerable level.
Another tough pill to swallow as a mother is not to project your fear onto your children — which is so difficult. We have the tendency to interpret everything with our 'mom filter,' which naturally adds a fear factor and that's entirely sensible. After all, we were given our motherly instincts for a reason, and they do come in handy — especially when children are little. As children grow up, though, our mom filter sadly becomes less relevant. If I were to use my filtered opinions, I would put the cycling fear of God into my three — but that's not the fair thing to do. At some point, children must make these decisions for themselves, and parents must have faith that they will make the right ones.
Another thing that helps keep worry at bay is to unplug as much as possible from the news media. Some of their sensationalized stories are enough to put any parent on edge! It's difficult to remember that what you see on television are the anomalies when news coverage portrays childhood abductions, sexual abuse scandals, school shootings, campus crimes, and substance abuse as endemic in our society. If you spend too much time anticipating the next improbable tragedy, you'll find yourself in a constant state of worry. Now that's not to say that we shouldn't be vigilant about our children's safety — merely it's to say we shouldn't fret about it non-stop.
It can also be very therapeutic to commiserate with other parents, especially those who might be experiencing similar worries with their children. Of course, if you are experiencing debilitating anxiety that is interfering with your life, it's best to seek professional help.
Even if Webster won't be officially changing the definition of 'parent' anytime soon, 'worry' is definitely an integral part of the job description for being a parent. And BTW — on the day your child was born, that job contract you signed was 'iron-clad' to last your lifetime! You probably didn't notice — that was in the fine print!
If you have some creative coping mechanisms for worry, please share them below.
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...