When my first child was born, I was just a kid myself. I can remember only bright nuggets of individual details about that time; the day-to-day routine of raising a baby whilst remaining in school must have been punishingly difficult, but I can’t remember the monotony, only isolated moments.
One isolated moment, one particular day stands out for me very clearly now. Eighteen years old and bewildered by the responsibility of the tiny new human in my care, I took her one day in her little green car seat to my best friend’s house. It was an adventure, driving my baby in a car, and I felt like I’d achieved something just by arriving at my friend’s house.
My friend met me at the door, and as we hugged her mother appeared too, peering down at the incongruous little pink-faced infant I’d somehow produced while everyone else was revising for mock A-level exams and copying Buffy the Vampire Slayer hairstyles.
“Oh, wow. Life’s completely different for you now, isn’t it?” my best friend’s mum said musingly, tickling my baby’s tiny little toes through her fluffy sleepsuit. “The way you love has changed. Because now, whenever she’s not with you, you’ll find you’ve got a bit of your heart missing.”
That insightful comment from my friend’s mum is the truest thing anyone has ever said to me about parenting. It has remained true. When I left my baby in creches or with grandparents and went off to school, to university, to work: whenever I was anywhere that my baby was not, a tiny part of me stayed with her. And the bit of me that stayed at home with me — well, that part fretted. Still does. That fretting bit of my brain still somehow works overtime.
Mom-worry is in its own category
I’m a champion worrier as a mother. I don’t think it falls into the bracket, quite, of anxiety; certainly, I don’t see myself as an anxious person in other ways at all, I’m generally fairly sanguine, but when it comes to my offspring I can absolutely catastrophize with the best of them.
If I have a missed call on my phone from one of my children I never leap to the conclusion that they’re asking for a transfer of top-up cash to their bank account (even though this is, inevitably, what they are always calling about). No, I picture tearful faces and missed buses and broken limbs and a child who needs their mother desperately but cannot reach her.
In the seconds before I am able to return the call — in the clicks and hisses as the call connects — I punish myself for my inattention, for whatever meant I didn’t pick up the phone on their first attempt. If they then don’t pick up, I’ll tell myself that I might have missed their only chance to get in touch with me.
It’s all nonsense, of course it is. I live a hundred miles from my eldest daughter now and these are the real reasons she calls me: to dissect a date she has been on; to obtain my opinion on an outfit she has purchased; to hint heavily at a parental contribution to her financial budget; or, more usually, simply to keep her company on her hour-long walk to work because no one else is answering their phone and she wants to chat while she walks. And yet, I’ll see her name on the screen and fear the worst every time.
This sort of benign worry is, to a greater or lesser degree, completely natural. Normal, even. We invest so much in our children from the moment they are born. Or even from the moment they’re conceived. We invest our deepest selves in their growth and development and health and happiness and take on all of their feelings as well as our own. And once they grow away from us and start to live ever more independent lives, we lose whatever illusion of control we ever had, and that’s a scary fact to face.
They were never ours to keep.
A simple coping mechanism
Last weekend, I listened to the first episode of Glennon Doyle’s new podcast, We Can Do Hard Things.
Doyle is a truly anxious person, clinically diagnosed with a disorder in this arena, and her worry about her children tips into the sort of territory I’ve never — thankfully — had to navigate within my own head. She talks in the podcast about a recent episode in which a note from her son about the fact he’d gone for a bike ride tipped her into a panic attack and nearly sent her out driving the streets to find him. “I just knew he had had an accident,” she said, although of course, he hadn’t — he appeared safe and well within a few minutes of her panic attack beginning.
In the podcast, Doyle discusses the technique that she uses to ground herself when her worry for her children becomes overwhelming. She said that she realized all of her worries are for things that might happen, not things that are happening. She reminds herself of this often. But in the midst of panic, this academic knowledge doesn’t help her.
No, what helps her in the moment of panic is to go through the well-known “5–4–3–2–1” mindfulness technique. You’ve probably heard of it. I had, but I’d completely forgotten about it.
It works like this:
1. List five things you can see.
2. List four things you can touch.
3. List three things you can hear.
4. List two things you can smell.
5. Name one thing you can taste.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But done right, it forces you to remain in your own body, and not in your stressed, worrying head.
So right now, I might say: I can see my desk, my computer, the plants outside in the garden, my coffee cup, my pen pot, and my phone. I can touch my keyboard, my notebook, the handle of my cup, and the wood of my desk. I can hear birds singing, folk music playing on my phone, and the rhythmic thump of my neighbor doing some kind of garden maintenance. I can smell coffee and wet grass. I can taste my coffee
In the time it takes to concentrate on those sensations, really to dwell on them (the sun-warmed wood of my desk under my fingers; the smell of the coffee, slightly burned because I put the water in too hot; the sound of the birds, trying to work out how many there are) a curious thing happens. My breathing slows down and I feel more grounded, even if I didn’t consciously feel stressed in the first place. It’s a little routine to hold me in place, and it works.
I recommend trying it the next time you miss a call from a teenaged child and can’t get hold of them again because their phone’s mysteriously been turned off. Five minutes of grounding yourself, and you might be more ready to accept that they’ve probably just run out of battery, not had it thrown into a lake by a bully.
And even if they are being bullied, well — you’ll be far better equipped to deal with that from a place of calm.
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