On Anxiety as a Parent (or, how I might need to start doing yoga or something)

I’m not proud of it. I fight it. I try really hard not to let it consume me.

I’ve been known to have some issues with anxiety and when it comes to my son, I am admittedly, regretfully, an anxious nutcase.

I’ve written extensively here (and blathered on and on to every single person I ever speak to) about my anxiety regarding his developmental milestones.

That’s calmed down a bit and now my anxiety is mostly related to safety. I hate it! I keep thinking of “25 Rules for Moms with Sons” – a blog post I read when my son was a newborn and was shocked to find inspiring and touching (it’s uncharacteristically mushy for me). I don’t want to be over-protective, so I try to give my son space and let him explore and then I wake up almost every single morning at 3:30 or so, from some sort of appalling vision of my son falling down stairs or stumbling off of jungle gyms. And I have to remind myself that it didn’t happen and he’s OK and he’s sturdy and much more careful and resilient than I give him credit for.

I’ve realized this week or so that it’s been over TWO YEARS of these panicked 3 a.m wake ups.

When I was around 12 or 13 weeks pregnant (more than two years ago!), I started waking up, anxious that something was wrong with the fetus. I was sure that there must be something wrong. I got pregnant very easily and nothing is ever easy for me. I thought it couldn’t be that simple. Something had to go wrong. (Never mind the sciatica and heartburn and pelvic pain and gestational diabetes and every other disgusting and uncomfortable thing I ended up having). I told my midwife about the wake ups (too embarrassed to reveal the anxiety stuff) and she said “Oh, that’s just nature’s way of preparing you for wake ups when the baby comes.”

At the time I found that wise and reassuring advice, even though the wake ups continued and soon became more aligned with the constant, inexorable need to urinate.

But then my stair fixation began. I wrote about the stair nightmares in my baby proofing post but I didn’t say where they came from. I realize that having recurring nightmares about dropping one’s baby down the stairs is pretty clearly based on general anxiety about parenthood, but when we moved to our new house OUR DOG ACTUALLY FELL DOWN THE STAIRS. It was 5:00a.m. and I was up to get ready for my commute into work. The dog ran upstairs to see my husband, and when I shushed him out of the room he slipped and tumbled, horrifically, all the way down the stairs in the dark while I screamed like a horror movie star.

I regularly had graphic, violent, nightmares about the stairs until just a few months ago, when it became apparent that my son was actually very careful about crawling both up and down.

20130916-143917.jpgNot scary at all, right?

When I ecstatically wrote about how my son finally started walking I included the picture below. But the night after that was taken (at a picnic in a state park with a few friends) I woke up in a cold sweat, suddenly realizing all of the dangers we had magically avoided: he could’ve fallen into a pit, he could’ve fallen onto broken glass, he could’ve picked up a rusty nail, he could’ve fallen and hit his head on a rock, he could’ve been snatched by someone on a bike and whisked away. I was able to calm down by forgiving myself for this one incident of excessive toddler freedom. It was our first outing in a park as a new walker and I let him go too far.

20130806-152628.jpg

Gleefully wandering into multitudinous imagined dangers.

Lately my nightmares are usually related to jungle gyms from the many playgrounds we visit. I specifically freak out over any footbridge with a very widely-spaced railing, or the spot on every jungle gym where the bigger kids can climb down a fireman’s pole or climbing wall from 6 feet up.

My normally cautious son likes to run haphazardly across the footbridges while squealing with glee. He has a terrifying habit of carefully getting onto his belly like he’s going to crawl down stairs… at the exact spot on the jungle gym where there are no stairs and only a 6 foot drop and fireman’s pole.

20130916-143907.jpg

Careful! CAREFUL!

And I’m getting nervous again because I see him watch slightly older kids WALK up and down the stairs instead of crawling and I see the wheels turning in his careful little nerdy brain. He knows you’re really supposed to WALK up and down stairs instead of crawl. And he’s thinking about how that works.

So I wake up in the middle of the night with a vision of my son tumbling forward down the stairs as he tries to walk down.

And falling feet first from the top of the jungle gym the one second I’m looking away because he thinks there will be stairs under his feet. (This almost happened the other day. This has almost happened several times and my heart literally hurts each time.)

And running across a footbridge, stumbling and falling sideways through the widely-spaced rails.

20130916-143936.jpg

This is an excellent footbridge with well-spaced rails.

It’s becoming clear that (obviously) the nightmares go away when things happen in real life to make the situations seem less scary.

It’s just really hard to allow those things to happen. Am I really supposed to just let him jump from jungle gyms? I don’t see how his actually getting a head injury would help this situation.

But something has to change because I know it never ends. If I’m not waking up at 3:30a.m. with a vision of him falling off a jungle gym it will be something else:

Getting kicked in the head at soccer practice (I sincerely hope he becomes a theater geek so I can worry about him falling off a ladder when changing the gels on the lights). Sudden onset of deadly peanut allergy. Guns at school. Drunk driving. Trying meth.

It never ends, right? I know everyone must deal with this to some degree. So far the only thing that helps is the mantra “It didn’t happen. He’s OK.” But it’s hard to stay focused on that in the middle of the night when it REALLY ALMOST HAPPENED. I can learn not to let him wander too far in state parks, but I can’t forbid him from climbing jungle gyms and I don’t want to hover too closely.

Will I ever get used to it? What else can I do to try to stop worrying so much?

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