This weekend I turned thirty-three; I’m also pregnant with my third child. At 33, I feel pretty good about my family, my vocational work, my marriage. My husband (now 35) reminded me that I am now the same age that Jesus was when he was crucified. Oh, my. There are a million things I could be crucified for by now. My fear is that my children will come back to me as adults, not when I’m 33 and they’re small children, and tell me I didn’t do a good enough job as a mother … which means that my crucifixion is yet to come. My anxiety and fear about my future trial and crucifixion sometimes guides my day-to-day decisions, and that’s okay … sometimes.
We moms feel anxiety about everything from work/life balance to disciplining with love, keeping the floors clean and the laundry moving, from arriving on time at school and activities with hair and teeth brushed and wearing seasonally-appropriate clothing (without a tantrum walking out the door), from worrying about school shootings to worrying about being too overprotective to allow our kids to learn from mistakes and still have wonder in their lives. We worry about mentally and emotionally screwing up the kids. We worry about others’ opinions of our parenting. In middle-class suburbia, we worry about their intake of high fructose corn syrup, pesticides, food dyes, and screen time; in low-income food deserts, we worry about our kids having the proper nutrition and simply being hungry. This recent viral Huffington Post writer gave a perfect example of Five Minutes in a Mom’s Head, but I think it could have been 60 seconds. We worry about whether our child is the bullied or the bully. Mothers talk about their difficulty balancing motherhood and friendship with their teen children. We have anxiety about not having enough money because we don’t work and we have anxiety about working so we have enough money and then not spending enough time with our kids.
On either side of the continuum, we worry. Loose or structured, home or working, protecting too much or not enough. It’s called a double-bind, a catch-22, a double-edged sword.
The kicker is, we worry about worrying.
Neuroscientists have told us for years that anxiety and stress are bad for your heart, immune, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems, create distractibility and reactive behavior, decrease memory, increase abdominal fat … the list goes on. What this means is, maternal anxiety increases the likelihood that I will die young and leave my children TRAUMATIZED and without a mother! I think that’s enough to send any anxious mother into a panicked tailspin, thinking about how she needs therapy, massage, and exercise just to stay alive. And you might. Running our bodies ragged by working too hard and putting everyone else’s needs before our own can harm us. Plaguing ourselves with high standards (Pinterest, please die), fearing that we will never get it right or that we made a parental mistake – that will not only kill your body, but your soul. If you produce the stress hormone cortisol into your body in high amounts for a long period of time, you will keep your brain in hyperdrive. The result will be the deadly physiological results – only it’s a much slower death than crucifixion. If this is not histrionic enough for you, consider that humans are equipped with beautiful “mirror neurons” in the prefrontal cortex, which allow our children to sense and match the emotional states of their caregivers. In other words, if mommy’s anxious, baby is, too. You could be sending your children into a lifetime of anxiety! If raising some concerns about your own physical well-being was not enough to get your attention – pay attention now because your children’s anxiety levels are effected by your anxiety as a mom!
Here’s my point: some of us moms really do need help with the fears. If you think you are one of these moms, consider finding a therapist to vent to (type in your zip code here for counselors and therapists in your neighborhood), get a massage (here’s a Google map of every known massage place in the KC metro), or exercise in a gym or in your front yard to burn off some of the stress. Now for the rest of us: anxiety is also a normal function of living creatures. In the morning when we wake up, cortisol is higher and helps wake us up, getting us ready for the day. When a child gets too close to the street, our cortisol spikes – and it should! Anxiety is an innate fight/flight response that allows us to survive as a species by protecting our loved ones. Maternal anxiety keeps our children safe from true harm. Anxiety is the body’s way of rising to the occasion, meeting the challenge, accepting the task. We can interpret our maternal anxiety as a crucifying foe, or it can be a motivating sip of biological Red Bull that keeps us moving through pain or difficult circumstances like a champion. Our perception of anxiety, rather than the anxiety itself is the true determining factor in how it effects our lives (check out Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend”).
Not one of us has made it to adulthood without a little bit of dysfunction. It’s the stuff of great movies and memoirs. All of us are the products of our parents’ fumbling through their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s with offspring, when they themselves probably wondered how they ended up so old. Likewise, our children will have their complaints. Moms make mistakes. Why, just an hour ago, I snapped at my two children because I was anxious about the state of my laundry and floors after this weekend’s birthday funtopia.
I should probably apologize.
I could scar them for life.
That could be the defining memory of their childhoods.
How much we work, how much time we spend here or there, whether our kids are emotionally, physically, mentally healthy: this stress is what makes good moms. This stress moves us to action. When you make a mistake and feel guilt about it, when guilt motivates relationship repair and we right a wrong – that’s a good thing. Moms who make mistakes and apologize teach their children grace. Grace is unmerited favor, unconditional love, even at our ugliest moments. Children are more than willing to give us grace when we ask them for it. Moms who are perfect teach their children and society to expect the impossible. The problem is when mommy guilt becomes mommy shame, when feeling anxiety over a mistake doesn’t lead to repair but instead to a negative redefining of our view of ourselves as mothers. When we define our motherhood this way, mommy shame guides our decisions and keeps us from being able to feel joy and let our children mirror that joy. Do you allow yourself the relief from guilt when you make a mistake? Anxiety itself can keep us from mothering with our whole hearts, with all our internal emotional resources at hand, and anxiety can be the motivator that moves us to protect and comfort our families. Anxiety has a place, and so does grace.