Lena A. Derhally – You’re Not Nervous: Anxiety, Worry and Control in Motherhood

A few weeks ago my nanny told me she enjoyed working for me because (in her own words), I’m “not nervous.” Of course, my first instinct was to give myself an inner high-five: “Oh yeahhh, I am that cool, laid-back mom that everyone wants to work for. I’m so cool, calm and relaxed. I am awesome.” My second instinct was to laugh at the irony of that statement.

Later that night I boastfully relayed the compliment to my husband knowing full well that he thinks I am the most nervous person on earth. He often jokes with me that he doesn’t know how I actually live in this world given all my worries. And he’s right. I’m a Nervous Nellie and I’m afraid of a lot of things some of the people closest to me may not even realize.

Marsha Staiger
Marsha Staiger

Here is one thing people don’t really know about me (most of them would be horrified to know this, as my friends are all pretty well-cultured, well-traveled people): I hate to travel. I hate to travel because it takes me out of my controlled comfort zone. Even when I am enjoying myself on my travels I always have a knot in the pit of my stomach. Now that I have a child, the thought of traveling is even more unappealing (but that’s a whole other thing). The ironic thing is that I have been traveling since I was a baby and have been to a lot of places. I’m also on an airplane at least once a year. It doesn’t matter how often I have traveled or how conditioned I have become— anxiety is about the loss of control and when I’m not in my own environment, I feel totally powerless.

As human beings, we LOVE control and we love to think that we are in control. The problem is, in the grand scheme of life, we aren’t at all. There are certain things we can control and there are certain things we can do to somewhat manage things, but we are really only fooling ourselves when we think we are in control.

Given all of this, how does such an anxious worrier like me manage to fool my nanny into thinking that I’m not a nervous person? How is it that the vast majority of the people in my life have no idea how much I hate the idea of traveling? How is it that I don’t need a Xanax or even a Benadryl when I fly if I’m really that anxious? And how do I survive in the world and just live life when I carry all of these worries inside of me?

As for the travel part, I am always glad when I get to the place I am going to, even if I am somewhat eager to go home and crawl into my own bed. I refuse to let my fears and control issues get in my way of living life. There are tons of places I want to go and I have thoroughly enjoyed most of my travels so forcing myself to do this has benefited me and given me a sense of accomplishment when I have overcome a fear. That’s how I view all of my worry and anxiety in life: I may be scared to do something but I force myself to do it for the greater good. I can choose to never do anything because I am scared or I can choose to swallow my fear and just live life. I choose to live life and I want my son to do the same.

By now you may be asking yourself, how does this all relate to motherhood? I can speak for myself when I say I’m totally terrified to “release” my son into the world. As we all know, the world can be a scary place and what will happen when I have less and less control over him and what he does?

Why is it so scary for many moms to have to let go of our children? When we are born (and then as babies and toddlers) we don’t have a care in the world until people and things in our environment start to “wound” us. When we feel wounded we develop armor (defenses and character adaptations) that we think will prevent us from being hurt and then we lose some of that childlike innocence that’s so endearing about young people. Having defenses and character adaptations keep us further and more distant from who we are at the core (our authentic selves). This process is inevitable for all of us and this is why J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye speaks to so many people. We want to protect our children from wounding and keep them in a glass bubble. Unfortunately, it is completely counterintuitive to the process of growing up.

The people I admire the most in my life are the strongest and most resilient. They had to struggle in life and fight hard. They had to learn from their wounding and hurt and pick themselves up time and time again. They are independent and positive. Of course, I don’t want my son to struggle and I want him to have good opportunities and a happy childhood, but I also don’t want him to be sheltered because (to me) that would be the worst thing. I don’t want him to be coddled or to have to rely on his parents for everything. And when he gets hurt (which he will) I want him to lean on others for support but also be able to pick himself up, dust himself off and move forward. I can’t teach him any of that stuff if I try to shelter him and keep him in a bubble.

I’ve started to think a lot about mom guilt and how anxiety stems from feeling a loss of control and the fears beneath it. That’s why a lot of moms get so upset when they haven’t followed all the “guidelines” that are recommended as to what is “best”: What if I’ve ruined my child’s healthy and normal development because I did a, b and c and didn’t follow the “guidelines” strictly?

We can try to follow all the guidelines in the world, but it still won’t protect our children from everything we try to shield them from. And it won’t make them the children we think they should be. As parents with older children will tell you, you can’t tell your children who to be. They are individuals with different gifts, skills and attributes and sometimes there is nothing that can be done to change that.  People who have been amazing, caring, wonderful parents have had children who have done bad things or haven’t excelled in certain areas. Neglectful and uncaring parents have produced brilliant, ambitious and compassionate children. Some of the smartest, most successful individuals in the world never went to college. There is no rhyme or reason to much of it. We’re all products of tons of different factors and experiences that make us who we are. And the part about genetics? That’s something we definitely can’t change.

We can only hope that by leading through positive example and by being warm, nurturing and loving with our children, we will encourage them to be kind, intelligent and generous individuals. We can’t guarantee that we can achieve all of that through parenting and that’s what is so scary. The day will come when we can’t hold our child’s hand as they cross the street anymore. I’m not looking forward to that day, but I will say a prayer and let go as best I can.

Lena A. Derhally

First published in Lena’s blog Jan. 2, 2014. Lena Aburdene Derhally is a psychotherapist who works with individuals and couples in their 20s and 30s in downtown Washington DC. She specializes in anxiety and relationship issues and is a certified Imago relationship therapist.

Lena also runs a group for professional women in their 20s and 30s called “Quarter Life Crisis plus Ten” and is the founder of the blog, Type Z Moms, which addresses issues related to “mom guilt” and anxiety. She lives in Washington DC with her husband, a rambunctious toddler and a 14 year-old cat.

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