On Motherhood: Tips for Calming the Storm of Anxiety
Twelve years ago, I became a mother. The anxiety began well before the birth of my first child, long before the first contraction or even the first ultrasound. In fact, the anxiety I’ve come to identify with motherhood began before I even conceived my daughter. Anxiety has been my roadside companion through our entire journey so far. This anxiety, this feeling of restlessness and underlying worry, began when I couldn’t get pregnant. When, month after month I saw no plus sign on the white stick, I got a little restless. Then, when I miscarried a baby, I began to worry. When I finally became pregnant, I was anxious to carry the baby to term. I gave up sugar in my coffee and switched to decaf. Then, slowly, the worry extended beyond my own body. I worried about traffic, environmental toxins and preparing our home for a baby. After my children’s births, the anxiety didn’t magically abate but got, unsurprisingly, worse.
A Google search for anxiety reads: a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
Welcome to motherhood.
I know many mothers. All of us, in one way or another, are worried. Sometimes this worry tips over into the realm of anxiety, which manifests in many ways both physically and mentally. We worry about schools, healthy meals, chore charts, allowances, vacations, healthcare, working too much, working too little, our children’s friends, our children’s lack of friends…the list goes on. We’re anxious because we care. We worry because our experience in the world hasn’t always been pleasant. We know what is lurking around the corner, and our desires as mothers, our genetic role, is to prevent our children from the wolf at the door. As vital as it is to be on the lookout for our children and steer them in the right direction, when we’re overcome by this worry, anxiety robs us of the very thing we’re protecting: time enjoying our children and families.
Over the years, with the help of therapists, friends, books and life experience (the ultimate guiding hand), I’ve learned some tips on managing anxiety in motherhood and keeping the storms of worry at bay long enough to appreciate the moment I’m in, this time with my kids and this period of my life.
Perfectionism is a Fool’s Game
We all know the perils of perfectionism. We’ve read the articles and heard our therapists expound on the dangers of trying too hard in an unattainable pursuit of the perfect anything: job, house, mothering, five-course Wednesday-night-dinner. Yet, here we are, many of us still striving, still chasing that wisp of smoke. My perspective on perfection changed one day when I thought of my own mother and how imperfect she is, of all the mistakes she made (as a mother and beyond) and of how much I love her for those mistakes and not despite them. I appreciate that she missed so many boats and still kept swimming. I respect that she didn’t cook perfect meals or decorate the perfect home or have a socially-impressive career while managing the school bake sale and running the PTO. I love my mother for so many of her wonky, real, human traits and for the ways those endearing qualities gave me a unique, special and sometimes wonky childhood of my own.
I don’t want my mother to be perfect. I don’t want my daughter to be perfect. Why, then, do I want myself to be perfect?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery reminds us: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Now, I slow down. I step back. I rest and meditate and serve up a less-than-perfectly balanced meal for dinner, sometimes without a vegetable in sight. I have stopped adding quite so much to my plate, realizing that I can’t do it all, be it all or have it all. Nothing is perfect, which isn’t a disappointment but a promise, really, of more to come. Giving up the pursuit of perfection lets us enjoy the imperfect moments, the less-than moments, the moments when wonkiness abounds. There is beauty in all of it, the good times and the mornings when everyone gets to school a little bedraggled, hair askew and wearing different colored socks. Attempting to perfect it only tightens it so much that we lack the space to move through it.
Grace Upon Grace Upon Grace
When my daughter makes a mistake or my son leaves the towel on the bathroom floor, my anxious-mother mind goes into overdrive. Will she ever learn? Will he be sixty years old and leaving towels on the ground? Will they truly ever grow up or be living in the basement through middle age, waiting for a grilled cheese to be cheerfully delivered to them at exactly noon?
What my kids need in these moments, more than anything else, is sometimes grace. What I sometimes need in these moments, more than anything else, is grace. We all need a little grace. Well, that’s not true. We all need a lot of grace. Just as our kids are learning, we as parents are learning, and as we learn, we can only absorb lessons, move forward and do better in the face of a great heaping amount of grace.
In Maya Angelou’s words, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
We as mothers are learning as much as our children are learning. We’re all learning. We’re all doing what we know to do, and as we move through our mothering experience, we learn to do better. This learning is hard work, and it happens not when we beat ourselves up and focus on our faults but when we offer the same responses our children need when they’re learning: forgiveness, patience, and grace.
Keep Your Friends Close
Even with grace and slowing down and realizing perfection is a pipe dream, mothering is hard work. I have found the best antidote to anxiety in motherhood is sometimes a glass of wine and an hour with a friend.
If there is a recipe for simmering down, this is it.
Pour yourself something soothing (wine, coffee, tea, whiskey neat), settle against the back of a chair or the cushion of a pillow and relax in the company of someone you trust, someone who cares, someone who gets it. Really, there is no better medicine than to be heard and known by someone who still hangs out with you when they know you lose it on the daily or can’t whip up another batch of organic baby food.
I used to try to be an island, never asking for help from friends, never admitting my struggles, never wanting to seem weak or fallible.
The only person I was fooling was myself. Anyone could see my struggle. My attempts to remain a bastion of self-reliance only made it all worse. When I realized I wasn’t the only one struggling and that all of my other friends had their own struggles, I relaxed and let people in, even if the inside was messy and the trash hadn’t yet been taken out.
Albert Camus said it best: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
It’s so easy, in motherhood, to compare ourselves to our friends. We feel as if we’re struggling alone, but the soothing comes when we realize we’re all walking beside each other.
Finally, I’d be remiss in not including medication in my repertoire for easing anxiety, particularly since I’ve become a mother. The stigma attached to medication is a testament to a culture of perfectionism, unrealistic self-reliance and a lack of grace we often feel for our own selves. I’ve taken medication during particularly anxious periods. I use medication now to help me sleep, as lack of sleep throws my anxiety into serious overdrive.
I’m happy to see more women reaching out and seeking help, not from a place of perceived weakness but from a position of strength, understanding our needs and realizing our power to meet them. I’m not sure when helping ourselves became shameful, but I’m hopeful, as we continue to talk about motherhood and mental health, the stigma will lessen.
There are many more ways to address anxiety, from therapy to exercise to simply getting quality sleep; all of them help, and finding our own recipe for quieting the storm is key, as we are all unique. Though I’m still riding with anxiety in the passenger seat most days, when I let go of perfection, give myself heaps of grace and invest in the comfort of true friendships, I’m able to calm my mind and rest here, in the moment, where so much good is constantly waiting to be explored.
A writer, editor and researcher, Amy currently lives in North Carolina where she wrangles her two preteens into meaningful dinner table conversation and forces her husband to ponder the state of modern fiction. Amy blogs about creating a life of intention, simplicity and purpose at A Well-Spent Day.