Anxiety has many forms. I think of mine as my shadow, dark, yet unassuming. It is easy to forget that it is always trailing, always lurking, always peering, waiting for an opportunity to strike. I remember my shadow with me even as a small child. Over time, it became one with my inner voice, whispering words of exaggerated cautiousness that made me constantly feel uneasy. It was critical, and at times, harsh, leading to insecurity that I masked through most of my adolescence and young adulthood with exhaustive perfectionism.
When I was pregnant, this inner voice changed. At first, it started with questions that sounded like they came from a good place. “Is the nursery painted with the low-fumes paint?” “What foods should I eat while I’m nursing?” But once my first son arrived, the shadow became more observant, aware of my greatest fear—that I would fail at my life’s most important work—, and the voice became more pointed. “Do I really know what I am doing?” “Why is he still crying—am I doing something wrong?” “What if he gets hurt?” and then, “What was I thinking having a baby? Maybe I am not cut out for this mothering thing.”
When my oldest son had significant developmental delays, my inner voice wondered every day if it was my fault. “Was it something I ate while I was pregnant?” “Was I not playing with him enough?” “Did I not do enough to encourage him to reach his milestones?” The voice was relentless, and it left me feeling powerless to help my son. After all, if I was the root of the problem, how could I possibly be part of the solution?!? As the days passed, and I became committed to his treatment and working with specialists, and ensuring that he made progress each week, the voice was quieter. But, still, ever-present, reminding me not to tell others of our struggles because certainly they would agree that there was more I should have done or could be doing.
With the addition of my second son, my inner voice became cruel and unforgiving. And, the thing about my inner voice is that I did not talk about it with other people. I feared that talking about it gave it life; that others would then see my weaknesses as clearly as I saw them … that they would confirm that they, too, had made similar observations … And I wasn’t sure that I could recover from that type of blow.
After he had a febrile seizure, my anxiety intensified. If I even used the bathroom while my son was in the middle of crying, even if I was still trying to soothe him the whole time, I worried. In fact, if I did anything at all to try to care for myself, it reminded me that “I am not important. What if something happened to my children while I was taking care of myself? My children are my priority now.”
This message crept into every single aspect of my life.
Our youngest son also has asthma that often led to numerous nights of breathing treatments around the clock. If my husband offered to get up with our child during the night so that I could get a decent night sleep, I could not accept. For if I did, that inner voice pointed out, “I know my son wants me when he doesn’t feel good. What kind of mother am I letting my husband get up with him? What if this is his most serious asthma attack yet, and I am not there? His needs are more important than mine right now.”
If I thought about going to the gym, it whispered, “I am already gone too much during the day with work. Exercise can wait. I can exercise when they are older. They are my priority now.”
Over time, my inner voice became my reality. I succumbed to my inescapable anxiety. It was crippling and all-consuming. As a retired perfectionist, I felt powerless to stop the daily worry that I was not a good enough mother. And soon I became resentful of my life. I read recently that anger is the hidden emotion of anxiety for some; this was true for me. I was angry at my children for needing so much of me. I was angry at my husband for not doing more (even though he tried, and I would not let him). I was angry at myself for not being able to do more … to do better.
Every day, I hid at work. When I started for home, my worry, dread, and anger returned, and by the time I walked through the door, nothing anybody did was right. I was mad because the laundry was not done. I was mad because it was. I was mad because my kids rushed to me at the door before I could put my things away. I was mad because they didn’t. I was just mad.
And, then, one day, I had had enough. I had become unrecognizable, even to myself. I had been struggling with my own internal demons completely alone, but wearing the effects for all to see. Although I was terrified, I talked to my husband about what I had been going through. I shared with him every intimate thought my anxiety had ever put into my head. I sobbed as I told him that I did not feel good enough; I sobbed as I told him that I wished I could be better for him and our boys; I sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed.
And do you know what? Talking about it made me feel better. My husband reminded me of the many wonderful things that I had done as a mother, but he had also noticed my constant anger, and that he did not like. I realized then that my anxiety, that inner voice, did not have to be my reality. In fact, the underlying fear that my anxiety fed off of was that I was going to fail at being a mother to my two boys who deserve the best, and I quickly realized that I am a much better mother when my anxiety is well-managed than I am when it is not. So, I started taking steps to take care of myself. I began exercising again. I saw a therapist for a bit. I started letting people in.
I will not say that it was easy. It has been a long journey, that my shadow has followed me on, and one that I still struggle with daily. Every day, every internal whisper, I have to recognize my anxiety for what it is and challenge it immediately.
Because I am a mother.
My children are my priority.
And so I must be a priority too.