Monday, June 14, 2010

Treating The Low Grade Fever of Anxiety (3.17.09)

While there are endless tender mercies for which we can be glad, I try to teach my daughters this way of counting the most important: Number one, we are grateful for being together. Number two, we are grateful for being safe. Three, for being comfortable. And finally, we are grateful for having fun.

It’s easy to recite this list. It’s the kind of platitude a mother says. So I repeat it to my four year old in the airport lounge when she whines, “What’s taking so long?” I don’t dare tell her about the just announced flight delay.

But since three empty hours to kill in a florescent-dim airport terminal wakes up my inner Eeyore, I start picturing some unforeseen disaster and ticking off the gratitude list backwards. Tired and bored, I stare listlessly at the carpet and don't resist as my imagination conjures up the sound of sirens and the terrible possibilities when first, we stop having fun. And then I picture the comforts going away. And then safety. And finally, when I have a scene in my head something like WWII Europe, a scene where being together is the only thing we can be thankful for, I shake my head, rub my unwashed face and rally. "Who's got a good knock-knock joke?"

Ugly fantasies are an indulgence, like a taste for horror movies. When I'm at my best, I shoo them away with the broom of busyness. If motherhood wakes us up to the danger of the world, our children’s watching eyes force us to swallow our fear.

My first baby was conceived a few months after 9/11. She was born into a time when a government entity with the creepy name "Homeland Security" recommended, in a tone that tried for both calm and urgency, we all stock up on bottled water, duct tape and plastic sheeting and learn the difference between the rainbow shades of imminent threat levels.

My pregnant sister-in-law’s plans for a huge christening party felt like hubris when I was a new mother. Mention the movie Titanic, and I couldn't help but think of the steerage deck mother who takes her children away from the desperate crowds fighting at the locked gates and lulls them to sleep while the cold waters pour in.

On one of my bad days (think too early a wakeup and overcast skies) that sinking boat is our human condition and we are all telling our kids sweet goodnight stories, gently distracting them from the inevitable reality of coming doom. On a good day, like today, I laugh at my own Debbie Downer gloom. On a good day I recognize catastrophising is unhealthy and activated by lowered resistance. A few hours less sleep, a delayed lunch, my beloved children in a recalcitrant mood? Suddenly, the breakdown of society is imminent and I start to add up how far north my mother’s jewelry could take us.

I don’t think I’m alone in this potent strain of anxiety. Most moms wake up to the dangers of the world when their all-vulnerable babies arrive. Perhaps you’re a little like me, familiar with the alarm bell of family crisis. Perhaps you alone know the keen pessimism that lies just below your sunny surface.

How do we tolerate the knife-edges that suddenly surround us when we become responsible for tiny lives? How do we drive? How do we raise children in a time of economic-become-personal crisis and unrest?

Here's what we do. We take comfort in the small things we can do to create a measure of control – keep the peanuts and the trans fats away, test the windowsills for lead, search through the toybox for the recalled toys. Buckle up each and every time.

In a recent issue of Oprah's O magazine, cancer-survivor and mother Hilene Flanzbaum writes, “Worrying should prepare you for disaster, but it doesn’t. I learned that nothing prepares you. We spend so much time in our lives suffering, we don’t need any dress rehearsals. The worst will find us, and you know what? We will have to deal with it when it does.”

I know with some luck, some earnest effort, gut-busting laughter in the presence of friends, plenty of me-time and time outdoors, I can dodge the disasters in my head. In the same way I know my work as a mother is to smile, grab the controls and pull up out of that frowning descent, drag my face muscles into a semblance of happiness, and be assured that the better feeling will follow. Childhood is a book of laughter and forgetting. Wails are quickly followed by dancing. I have a lot to learn from following my daughters’ happy leads. So we parents plan for the future. Keep putting a little college money away. Buy the shoes a little too large. Hopefulness is our job.

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