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Am I good mom? My anxiety made me question how I was raising my son — and passing it on

“Mom, you love me too much,” my 6-year-old son said several years ago over blueberry pancakes when I told him he couldn’t go outside to play by himself in our backyard. His words were kind, and I understood the sentiment: Let go. Let me be out in the world. I’ll be fine.

But I couldn’t let go.

My mother’s logic was, “Make her afraid of everything so she won’t be tempted to do anything stupid, and she can work out the rest in therapy.”

Anxiety defined my parenting, and my child and I had already developed unhealthy patterns by the time he was in first grade. When I was feeling anxious about a freelance writing gig, the bills, my marriage or even the current state of the world, he would pick up on my energy and act out, amplifying my anxiety. We would do a dance, almost literally, where he’d run circles around me — he’d become more unruly and I’d become more stressed — until I lost control. In those moments, I became so many things I never wanted to be. I’d yell, sometimes loudly, and I’d hate myself afterward. Then I’d spend the next several hours apologizing.

The first time I realized my anxiety was interfering with my parenting was an early spring day when I had invited a group of friends for lunch. My son, less than a year old at that time, was crawling around our raised deck, and I grabbed him, pulling him onto my lap. I wanted to keep him close. A guest commented that my parenting style was so much different than his laid-back sister’s. In other words, I was a helicopter mom, a snow-plow parent, overprotective. I responded, “I bet your sister didn’t spend five months on bed rest trying to keep her baby from dying.” He apologized and I offered him a canape.

After being diagnosed with an incompetent cervix 18 weeks into my pregnancy, my one and only goal was to keep my child alive. It was a precarious situation and I was told I’d be lucky if my baby survived. Once we got past that first hurdle and my son was outside my body, everything else became another obstacle to overcome: driving to the store, going for a walk with the stroller, even a sunny day sitting out on the deck with friends.

I’d like to say I could only imagine the damage I was doing, but I didn’t have to imagine; I knew. I knew because my anxiety had been passed down through generations like my great-grandmother’s secret pot roast recipe. Only this was a toxic tradition. My grandmother suffered from debilitating “nerves,” and because of this my mother spent much of her childhood with relatives. As my mother parented me, she referred to it as “agita” and often lamented that I was the one giving it to her.

She showered her fears and her love upon me in equal measure so that it was difficult to discern which was which. “Don’t walk too close to buildings, wear a long coat, tuck your hair in so nobody can grab it.” She yelled, Grandma yelled, and now I, too, yelled. Did they hate themselves in those moments as much as I hated myself?

As my son became a tween, he rebelled more than ever against my nervousness. We would argue when he wanted to do something I felt was unsafe, like biking to the schoolyard by himself, and I began to question whether I was being a good parent or a bad one. I wondered if I was creating a worry pancake, stacking up the fear higher and higher.

One evening, after another argument about going to the schoolyard alone, I found myself huddled in my closet under my winter coat and long dresses with my head in my hands, trying to understand if there was a way to love without worry. I was in danger of holding my son back from experiencing the world with confidence. It was time to do as he had hinted to me long ago — to let go — especially since I was likely passing this cumbersome anxiety beast onto him.

But I still wasn’t sure I wanted to. After all, my mother’s logic was, “Make her afraid of everything so she won’t be tempted to do anything stupid, and she can work out the rest in therapy.” She bucked the idea that we had to master our anxiety or try to fix it. In her mind, it was indeed the very thing that kept us alive.

I’d been judged early on for parenting with this affliction, but I can no longer blame bed rest for being the catalyst, as I did that day on the deck. The very real trauma of being laid up for so long and told that my baby might not survive was merely the cherry on top of my anxiety sundae.

Yet I knew it was long past time to break the pattern. Since my maternal line is hardwired to worry, there is no simple fix. I hate knowing this is something that is so difficult for me to control. But that hasn’t kept me from trying to stop nurturing unfounded fear.

Medication helps, but for me it hasn’t been the right path because it shuts down my ability to write. So I talk to a therapist. I do acupuncture, yoga and grounding exercises when I feel the panic rising inside me. I take a step back, identifying the feelings my body is physically experiencing: the tightness in my chest, the tenseness in my shoulders, the shallowness in my breathing. I try to remove myself from triggering situations before they spiral out of control, sometimes tabling decisions until I can think things through. I go to the gym twice a week, wrap my wrists and hit a heavy bag. When faced with difficult decisions, I remind myself not to live in the land of “what ifs” but in the land of what is.

Slowly, I’m getting better at allowing freedoms I haven’t been open to before. When my son asks if he can bike on backcountry roads to the schoolyard by himself, I grit my teeth and say yes, even though I am deathly afraid he will get hit by a car. When he wants to ride the four-wheeler his father got him through unkempt wooded paths, I make sure he has the correct gear but then agree, careful not to reflect my self-doubt on him.

I don’t want to raise a child who is afraid to take risks. I don’t want him to be another adult with the weight of anxiety on his shoulders. I don’t want that part of me to be part of him.

It has taken me years to reconcile myself to the fact that I will never overcome my anxiety; I will never be a calm parent; I will never not worry. I don’t even know how a “normal” parent is supposed to act. I just know that I’m not that, I never will be, and so I have to trust that in the end, the work I’m doing to temper my anxiety and my love for my son outweighs the rest.

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