Parenting is overwhelming enough. Like any other mom, I spend my days coordinating kids' activity schedules, preparing meals, helping with homework, keeping a clean, safe home, stocking the house with diapers and other kid essentials, refereeing fights among siblings, reading the stories, supervising bath time, and guiding and shaping these lives I've created. It's a lot! But parenting with anxiety can feel like you're drowning when even the simplest problem arises.
Just last night, I burned dinner, which isn't the end of the world, I know. Except with my baby crying, my 5-year-old singing "Baby Shark," and my other two children peppering me with a stream of questions about when dinner would be ready, what we were having, how late they could stay up, and if they could have a sleepover with their friends this weekend, it all became too much. I started to panic, cry, and pace around the kitchen. My thoughts became cloudy, and I couldn't figure out what to do first to rectify the situation. My throat felt tight, and it was hard to breathe.
At this point, I imagine it's a familiar scene for my four kids. I started experiencing anxiety after losing a baby late in pregnancy about two years ago. It all happened very quickly and completely unexpectedly. Regular therapy sessions have helped me to understand that I might have a hard time dealing with small setbacks because of what I've been through. My fear is that out of nowhere, everything will unravel again. A burned dinner can snowball into the entire night going off the rails, or worse, and I won't be able to gain control.
It's a scary way to go through each day, especially as a parent, since life with kids is inherently unpredictable. One moment a kiddo is fine, the next they spike a fever. And I can't even count how many times my kids have been playing outside happily, only to fall and get hurt the instant I'm not looking.
I used to beat myself up about allowing my kids to see me fall apart. Like every parent, I wanted to set the best possible example for them. But how could I expect my children to handle pressures in their own lives, if their mom cries over a burned casserole? Worrying that I wouldn't be able to handle everyday situations, and that my kids would be witnesses to their mom's unraveling, only compounded my anxiety. I was terrified something bad would happen, anxious about how I'd deal with it, worried that my kids would see me flip out, and obsessed with how that would affect them. That's when my therapist said something that flipped my perspective.
It's OK for me to fall apart. I am human. And maybe that's what my kids should be seeing, anyway.
She asked if my kids were taken care of. Were they fed? Dressed? Bathed? Were my children's needs being met, or did they have to go to a neighbor's house for help? I laughed at the idea of my kids running amok, in search of food or homework assistance, since that thankfully is not our reality. And suddenly, I saw that if I put my anxiety in perspective, I wasn't doing such a bad job at parenting. Sure, I might feel overwhelmed a lot. I definitely don't handle every situation as calmly as I wish I could. I cry and need to take a beat or two before I can deal with what's happening. But I am there, every single day, trying my best to be a good mom and take care of my family.
I realized that I have to forgive myself for not being a perfect mom (something we all could stand to do more, whether or not anxiety is an issue). Forgiveness involves accepting that I've been through something traumatic, so it's OK for me to fall apart at times. I am human. And maybe that's what my kids should be seeing, anyway. That it's OK to feel like you're drowning. It's about dusting yourself off. You gotta keep going. You gotta keep trying. When I look at things that way, I feel less ashamed of my anxiety and even proud to gift my kids with a powerful life lesson.
Of course, anxiety has a way of stripping logic away the moment it strikes. But now, when I'm feeling anxious in any given situation — like if one of my kids gets sick — I'll try to tell myself that even if they see how overwhelmed I am, the important thing is I eventually calm down enough to help them. I get the thermometer, I give them Tylenol, I call the doctor. As my therapist assured me, my actions are what my child will remember and that their needs are met, not that mommy cried and paced around for a few minutes trying to process her fear that things could get worse.
Giving myself permission to fall apart with my kids looking on, instead of beating myself up when this happens, has made parenting with anxiety much more manageable. Instead of focusing on how my anxiety adversely affects me at times, I try to see that overall, I am doing a lot of things right. I get up every morning and help my kids get ready for school, I make them breakfast, I take them to their activities, I tell them I love them, I cuddle with my baby, I show him affection, I laugh with my kids, I read to them, I burn their dinner. I cry over it, say I'm feeling overwhelmed, and need some time to regain my composure. So what? I have anxiety. That doesn't mean I'm failing at parenting.
If you are feeling anxious or depressed and need help finding help or resources, call the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (1-240-485-1001) or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (1-800-950-6264). You can also text "NAMI" to 741741 or email firstname.lastname@example.org