In the world of postpartum mood disorders, postpartum anxiety is becoming a hot topic of discussion. This is awesome because as high levels of anxiety have become a normalized and unchallenged part of Western parenting, postpartum anxiety has been easy to overlook. Often when the medical community attempts to define postpartum anxiety they say something generalized like this: Postpartum anxiety is persistent anxiety during the postpartum period that negatively impacts daily life. And while there is nothing wrong with this definition, it’s a little basic and limited in scope. What is missing is an acknowledgment that we are parenting in times of fear.
Despite the fact that most kids turn out okay in the end, we parents spend a lot of time worrying that they will not. We imagine all kinds of disastrous futures for them. If I let them play outside alone will they get hurt or kidnapped? What if they are bullied at school and don’t tell me? Or worse, what if they are the bully? Should I put them in more extracurricular activities to increase their chances of getting into university? What if that makes them overscheduled? Maybe they should go to college and learn a trade because the global political economy is changing so fast. Will there even be a job market when they are adults or will climate change destroy us all?
So. Many. Worries.
Perhaps now is a good time to admit that I’m an anxious parent. All of the above questions have raced around in my busy little brain. In the depths of my own experiences with postpartum depression and anxiety, I remember my mind refusing to let my body fall asleep because I was convinced that my baby would die of SIDS. I needed to ensure that he was still breathing about every ten minutes, only to quickly become convinced that he had stopped since the last time I checked. I was so consumed by listening for signs of life from the bassinet that sleep stopping coming easily. When at last it did come, it was light and restless. Eventually I would be awakened to the sounds of infant crying and know that I needed to go to him, but instead I would find myself unable to respond to his cries and would lie in bed exhausted and frozen with inertia. I spent this time worrying I was failing as a mother.
I know from working with you with and hearing your stories that my experiences are not unique. It’s not surprising that we parents are worried all the time because there seems to be a lot to worry about! In All Joy and No Fun Jennifer Senior identifies that part of what makes the current climate of parenting so stressful is that we are attempting to raise children for an unknown future. Historically parents had a pretty clear sense of what their children’s future would look like because most children grew up and had lives that were almost identical to their parents. Blacksmiths would raise children that would grow up and become blacksmiths. Farmers would raise children that would grow up and become farmers. Mothers would raise daughters who knew how to care for others and manage a home. Back then, parents had it so easy (except for the poverty and famine and accepted discrimination and all that stuff of course) because they knew exactly what knowledge and skills they needed to pass on to their children so that they could succeed.
One of the most universal parenting goals is to raise kids that can function in society without us as adults around telling them what to do. But in light of things like rapidly changing technology and the quickly evaporating middle class, we aren’t sure totally sure what knowledge and skills our children will need to get by because we aren’t totally sure what the future may hold for our kids. And with our current Western cultural narrative telling us that our children can be anything-they-want-to-be, their futures seem incredibly fuzzy and out of focus. Our collective parenting response has largely been to:
- prepare them for everything we can think of
- worry that we aren’t doing enough.
Add to this that we have a danger-and-tragedy driven 24 hour news cycle and are surrounded by a million different parenting books filled with conflicting information about the best way to parent our kids, and we have all the ingredients necessary to a create a culture of parenting fear.
I have spent years experimenting with multiple treatment approaches to manage this anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness practice. ‘Gremlin’ training. And now I can happily say that the anxiety is managed. Well, most of the time anyways. Some days are better than others and it remains a persistent hum in the back of my mind. It tends to hum louder when I lie in bed at night, trying to fall asleep, because anxiety is a jerk like that.
How do we fight this? I shared some of my strategies and would definitely love to hear how y’all are combating this in your lives. I have been greatly impacted by Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability, as well as the insights from an unusual little book I found called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. From this I have created a personalized perspective on what it means to be anxiety resilient.
It looks something like this:
Failure totally sucks, but is inevitable and necessary and even sometimes even something to be celebrated because that is where the richest learning often lives.
Bad things do happen, but I can survive them, even if they are unfair and devastating. The process of worrying about bad things happening is often more torturous than coping when they do.
I can’t always stop the anxiety, so when it feels like I’m losing, the quickest remedy for getting through it is to give in and throw a good old fashioned panic/pity party.
There is no doubt that sometimes it’s scary out there, friends. But I hope we can work together to make it less scary in our heads.
Olivia Scobie, M.A., ACC, CPCC, MSP