First off, I want to make it very clear that I’m by NO means making the suggestion that people with anxiety disorders, or other types of mental illness, shouldn’t be parents. Nor am I saying that people with anxiety disorders, or other types of mental illness, don’t do a great job of being parents – because that would be blatantly false.
I’m not even saying that I’m a terrible parent. I love my children, and I think that I’m doing a good job raising them to be independent, polite, tolerant, and well-rounded individuals.
Just to brag a bit, I actually often get complimented on my children’s behavior when we are at restaurants. Thumbs up to me.
What I’m saying is my anxiety makes me a terrible candidate for this parenting job that I’ve managed to get myself hired for. It’s not that I don’t have the skills to do the job. It’s just that my anxiety disorder makes my role as a parent more difficult, than if I was the same person just minus my anxious tendencies.
Wait STOP! Stay with me for a second.
I know you’re probably thinking that I’m once again telling you things that are so obvious that nobody even needs to talk about them. It’s just common sense. A term which irritates me to no end, by the way, But that’s a whole other rant, definitely for another day.
So why am I talking about it? You know, beyond the fact that I just like to express my opinion?
My special brand of anxiety makes the challenges of parenting particularly damaging to my psyche and sense of self – again, in my opinion.
But, I’m reasonably sure that by the time I finish explaining what I mean, there’s going to be others out there who recognize bits of themselves in my experience. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if every parent shares some part of this experience, just maybe at a lower and less damaging to their personal well-being level.
Hopefully by sharing my experience, a dialogue can start – a dialogue that might make it a little bit less lonely of a place to be.
Parenting for me is like a vicious feedback loop that I’m trapped in for the foreseeable future, probably for the rest of my life (because one of my children is an adult, and it isn’t getting any easier). My anxiety affects my parenting, which in turn causes me anxiety, which once again affects my parenting.
Again, I’m sure this is not earth-shattering news for anyone.
The anxiety that is sparked from just about every interaction that I have with my children is almost debilitating in the affect it has on my anxiety. It’s not a big deal when things are going super smoothly. But let’s be honest, when you spend all day with young kids, the catastrophes always seem to outweigh the happy, shiny moments. I mean, these guys are prone to crying over something as minor as their water being in the wrong coloured cup.
What kind of anxiety am I talking about? It’s a fear that I’m irreparably damaging my children’s psyche with almost every word that comes out of my mouth, expression on my face, and action that I take.
Again, I’m aware that most parents worry that they’re getting it wrong; this is different.
I have those thoughts too, but this other anxiety is so strong in me that it’s almost paralyzing. When it strikes, which occurs pretty much daily, I feel like I can’t breathe or think. I have the overwhelming sense that whatever I do next is going to be so catastrophically wrong that there will be no repairing it. It will leave my children vulnerable to being serial killers or emotionally crippled recluses.
Yes, while I sit here, typing these words, I can see how erroneous my thinking is . Not to mention there’s never actually been anything to substantiate this catastrophic thinking. But, I feel powerless to stop it. It’s just there, embedded in my chromosomes.
And this fear, that I’m constantly on the brink of making fatal errors, has deep roots in me.
BEFORE WE GET TOO FAR, LET ME GIVE YOU THE BACKGROUND
I was a sensitive child, which basically translates into anxious, but nobody had pointed the finger at an anxiety disorder yet – that came much later…
So, yes, I was an anxious child, at least by the time I hit puberty anyway. My mom claims that at one time, between the colic I was born with, and the unfortunate hormone release of puberty, I had a happy-go-lucky phase. I don’t really remember it. Most of what I remember is a mix of raging emotions that I had no idea how to manage.
Before I go any further, there’s another thing that I want to take a second and make perfectly clear. If it was possible to go back and erase all of the havoc my anxiety disorder wrecked, then I would’ve had a pretty idyllic childhood. I had a supportive family and good friends. I did well in school and was pretty successful in school athletics.
I’m not saying my childhood was perfect; nobody’s is. But, I was pretty lucky. I had everything that I needed, and I had two involved parents. We went on family vacations. We went camping, snow skiing, and water skiing.
You get the picture.
WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH MY PARENTING?
The thing is, I had a great childhood, and I still ended up with crippling anxiety. This is the entire foundation for my fear that I will irreparably damage my children; at least I think it is. I’m not exactly an expert (other than at feeling the anxiety).
How on earth am I going to protect my children from it?
I can’t. But, can I make it worse?
Oh, I’m pretty sure that I can.
The irony is that it’s the anxiety that grips me and overwhelms me, sapping all of my patience that is most likely to do the damage. The other ‘mistakes’ that I make are the exact same ones that countless parents before me have agonized over.
When I get brave and try to talk about my fears with others, I’m usually counselled that I’m doing a great job; that I just shouldn’t be so hard on myself.This advice isn’t wrong – it’s just really hard for me to act on. Click To Tweet
BACK TO THE BACKGROUND PICTURE
I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. One of the things that my anxiety disorder robs me of is my memories. I have a terrible long term memory.What I do remember is almost without fail wrapped in some kind of overwhelming emotion – anxiety, fear, loneliness, happiness. Click To Tweet
To give you an example: I’m talkative. Even today, as an adult, I semi-regularly get told to be quiet in some manner or another by people who are supposed to care about me. The statement probably seemed pretty innocuous to the person who said it, but it affects me deeply. I already go over and over and over everything that I say during a social interaction, agonizing over whether or not I made a complete fool out of myself. There are conversation I remember word for word that occurred decades ago, where I believe that I said something inappropriate. I can guarantee that whomever I had the conversation with doesn’t remember that it even occurred.
When someone ‘reminds’ me that I talk too much, it has a crippling effect on my ability to socially function.
What does this have to do with what I’m talking about here?
If I can remember with devastating clarity being told to be quiet as a child, and it’s still affecting me now that I’m a middle-aged adult, how can I pretend that my actions aren’t affecting my children’s future mental health?
Because here’s the thing, I don’t believe that any of the situations where I was told as a child that I needed to stop talking were meant to be malicious (equally so now that I’m an adult – I think anyway). There are just some times when you need your children to be quiet. But the message that I received in my anxiety-prone brain was that I talked too much and that this was a character flaw that I needed to suppress. I’m still trying to suppress it to this day with little or no success – in my estimation anyway.
BACK TO MY CHILDREN
So, when I tell one of my children (all three of which can be pretty talkative) that I need them to stop talking because I desperately need a moment to think, how can I not be hyper-aware of the effect that could be having?
Many of you will want to reassure me. You’ll want to tell me that I’m making too much of it. The thing is, I can’t shut off the brain I was given, and that’s how my brain works.
In fact, while I sit here and type this blog post, I’m trying to smother the repetitive thought that I’m neglecting my children, and that later in life they are going to have a crippling fear of being alone because of it – yes, I know how irrational that sounds.
And, the actual event that sparked me to write this blog post occurred just an hour ago during dinner. I’ll tell you about it: I was eating some soup because I have to go to work this evening. My son was playing with a Lego R2D2. As I raised my spoon to my mouth, he made the R2D2 fly extremely close to my face. It was in between my spoon and my mouth. Instantly, I was became aggravated and snapped at him to get away from the table. It was not one of my finer moments.
There were several reasons I reacted that way:
- I really don’t like things near my face, which I have told him numerous times. It makes me really uncomfortable.
- I almost ended up with R2D2 in my mouth which was super unsettling.
- I was worried about passing my fitness test at work because I’ve been having an intense pain flare (you can read about my adventures with chronic pain here).
- I was overwhelmed with all the preparations that go with getting myself and everybody else ready for me to go to work.
Instantly, I felt terrible. I’d overreacted. I knew that. Plus, I’d sent him away. Worse, I’d sent him away on a work night, so I was leaving him with a sitter. Panic started rising up in me about all the ways I’d potentially damaged his ability to be in any relationship. YES, I can hear the problem with the statement. However, I’m not always the master of my mind or my emotions. And, I definitely don’t rule my anxiety.
After I managed to conquer my anxiety enough to function, I gathered my son in my arms and apologized for snapping at him. I explained why his actions had bothered me.
He seemed fine with it.
But will he forever struggle with rejection because of it? The jury is still out waiting for more data – he is, after all, only six.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Do I regret becoming a parent?
Not at all.
I LOVE being a parent. I LOVE my children and I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything. When I say I’m trapped in this feedback loop, I’m just trying to convey the unrelenting pressure of my anxiety. And I’m using a job analogy to do it. It’s a bit tongue in cheek, if you’ll allow the cliché.
I do worry that in the face of my anxiety, my decision to become a parent might have been a bit selfish. But, of course, hindsight is 20/20. I didn’t know that my anxiety would rear its ugly head quite so viciously. I also didn’t know I was going to have twins, which probably contributes in some manner. It definitely makes things more chaotic. Plus, I don’t remember having the same crippling anxiety about my parenting when my older son was little. I had mental health issues – but they were different.
What it does mean, is that sometimes when I’m really struggling with those same obstacles that all parents do, the uncertainties, the fears, the lack of training, my anxiety adds its own special twist of chaos and stress to it all.
It means sometimes I need a little extra support – or at least a compassionate ear now and then.
So what can you do to help?
To be honest, I’m not really sure. There isn’t a way to turn it off – well, maybe a frontal lobotomy, but…
I guess, for me, what would help is just having those around me understand that if I seem to be needlessly stressing, I don’t mean to. It’s just the way my mind works. So, if you can be patient and talk it through with me, rather than blowing it off as nothing and telling me not to worry, no matter how not based in reality my fears are, sometimes I can come back from the ledge.
Also, if you see me becoming overwhelmed – you can probably hear it in my voice or maybe in my expression – helping me take a step back by naming it might just help me avoid that moment when I unintentionally lash out because it’s the only way my body knows to release the pressure when the anxiety has taken over.
A quick aside
On a completely different but also related note – I don’t mean to talk too much; it just happens (Yes, I do see the irony of this blog post being kinda on the long side). But, I think my wordiness problem is a great example of how it’s important to be aware of the language we use. For folks dealing with a mental illness a misplaced word can be really devastating. And, we can’t always reason it out.
Thank-you for sticking with me to the end. My hope is that by sharing my experience others might know that it’s okay to reach out. We aren’t in this alone. There’s a conversation to be had about personality quirks that make parenting more difficult. Plus, I hope that those who don’t share in the fun of anxiety might be able to use this glimpse into the challenges it brings to foster empathy for those of us who do.
Like they say, it takes a village to raise a child – let’s talk.
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