Since my son’s birth a little over a year ago, I’ve had moments — lots of them— where my breath quickens. I can’t fill my lungs with air. My heart races and I feel woozy. To prevent a panic attack, I repeat a mantra like, “He’s okay,” or, “Relax, relax,” and my breath returns to normal and my heart rate slows.
Sometimes the trigger is obvious: he almost falls, a car switches lanes without seeing us, he’s has the flu. Other times, he is perfectly safe. I can see him on the monitor, sleeping with his small brown bear. I can hear his slow, even breathing. All is right with the world.
But not really. All might be right in my world at that moment, but elsewhere there was just a kidnapping. A boy slipped out of his mother’s grasp at the zoo. A friend of a friend fell down the stairs while carrying her child. A kid got sick from a recalled food pouch, a moldy sippy cup, sunblock, or not enough sunblock. From cancer cells. A child choked. A child drowned. A child dry-drowned. A child got bit by a snake. Had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, peanuts, eggs. Was exposed to lead paint. Third-hand smoke.
My anxiety increases when I think about asking for advice or having someone know that I messed up this mom thing. Why? Mom-shaming. We’ve all seen (and maybe experienced) the virulent attacks on moms who make mistakes. For moms like me who have always cared what other people think and who are sensitive to criticism, the fear of being mom-shamed can raise anxiety to another level.
Elizabeth Johnson, a Durham mom, health educator, and owner of Outside the Mom Box spoke to me about anxiety and how to overcome it for the sake of your family’s well-being and your own. Here’s her advice:
Temper social media. Sometimes I am so thankful to have the internet in this age of parenting. Need tips for any of baby’s quirks? Just ask on your local moms’ group! Other times, advice can feel condescending. Johnson recommends “dialing it back.” Only use the outlets that “feel authentic” to you and unfollow people who inspire jealousy or angst. Walk away from online conversations that take a turn you don’t like. She also recommends improving quality of sleep. Less social media can do that.
When you read or hear something that does upset you, “verbally process what’s happening. We don’t process well when there’s a computer or phone in front of us.” Ask yourself what’s really causing the anxiety; is it because you feel like you don’t keep a good eye on your child, or is it because when your daughter was three-years-old she fell?
Sometimes I say my irrational thoughts out loud. Sometimes I say them to my husband. Sometimes I call my sister. More and more, I’m turning to my mom friends who I can text early in the morning and late at night. The ones who will listen to my neurosis spill out of me while we pry mulch out of our children’s hands at the park. Johnson thinks this is a good idea.
Build a better support system. Extend beyond your family and partner. Johnson said that “moms isolate themselves especially if there is a fear about what can happen to our kids. Having friends we can trust helps us notice when our judgment is off.” She added, “We need to get an outside perspective from people who can be a reality check for us and build us up, who can be an inspiration… As moms we can feel more confident about the job that we are doing if we can ask for help and accept the help that’s given… [We need to] recognize inherently that we can’t do it alone.”
So how do you find genuine mom friends?
It’s all about honesty and “trading vulnerabilities.” First, can you have conversations about something other than the kids? If so, “test the waters.” Then open up a vulnerability: ‘I’m feeling really insecure about my ability to choose a school because there’s so many choices’ or ‘I gained a lot of weight and I don’t want to get in bathing suit.’ Do they respond encouragingly or like you have three heads? With small vulnerabilities, it’s not a huge loss. Good friendships go back and forth with offering vulnerabilities.
Family and friends aside, sometimes it is necessary to seek professional help for your anxiety. Your quality of life directly impacts the little people you are worrying about. Johnson (not a medical professional) suggests asking yourself these questions: “Is this interfering with my ability to live my life? Am I not going to go outside because I think my son is going to get kidnapped? Am I limiting my life for this? Is it impacting my day to day?”
If you have a bad day, but the next day is fine, you are probably okay. If, however, the end of the week comes and you realized you haven’t left the house? Seek help. There’s no shame in that.
Jennifer Brick is a freelance writer and former teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.