What Could It Mean for My Child to Inherit My Anxiety?
And does asking these questions make me a good mother?
The cruelty of my peers made me afraid of school. Math class made me afraid to be stupid. My fears stacked up one by one over the next few years, ever higher and more threatening, towering precariously over me on the soccer field, in the girls’ bathroom, at the back of the bus. Then, my parents separated. My mother moved out—something I hadn’t realized was possible, hadn’t even known to be afraid of until the moment the decision was announced. My older brother went off to college on the other side of the country, and I was left behind in a big drafty house full of ghosts to live alone with my father, so I also became afraid to go home.
It was around this time that I began to chew obsessively on the ends of my shirt sleeves. Sitting through car rides made endless by the cold parental silence of the front seat, or huddled over my binder in a classroom full of numbers and figures that made no sense to me, one of my wrists would drift up to my mouth, seemingly of its own accord.
My parents were mystified, and their frustration with me steadily deepened—why was I slowly, methodically, ruining each and every long-sleeved item of clothing I owned? Though I felt the dampness on the skin of my arms and even now remember the texture of ribbed cotton between my teeth, I truly wasn’t conscious I was doing it. Finally, after months, my father hit his limit. He stood in my doorway dangling a turtleneck between his fingers as if it were a dead animal, holey and frayed and discolored. Destroyed. He raised his voice; he said enough.
But once finally broken of that habit I moved on to chewing pencils, my anxiety having found only this one pathway out of my body. I worried and worried and worried, until I tasted graphite, until my tongue was bloody, until I heard the snap of wood or the crack of plastic between my teeth.
The language given to children to describe their interior emotional lives is often inaccurate and insufficient. We often fail to allow them the complexity and nuance we demand for ourselves and our grown-up feelings. This may be why anxiety so often presents in children as a constellation of negative behaviors and symptoms: chronic stomach aches, tantrums, selective mutism, aggression and violence, and self-harm.
As a little girl, I knew to say I feel sad or I feel angry (though the social consequences for the latter were rarely worth the act of saying it). But fear? I had to have a reason. You were only supposed to say I’m scared if there was a monster more tangible than the ones trailing me home from school, the ones that left no visible bruises and couldn’t be seen by parents or teachers. Not having the right clothes, a whiteboard in a math class, a popular boy telling you your legs were fat, or the man that everyone in the neighborhood knew and loved and thought was funny but who winked at you from the corner as you crossed the street in shorts? These weren’t monsters, as any adult would firmly tell you. There’s nothing to be afraid of, the exasperated and exasperating ancestor of what people love to say to me now: Don’t worry.
So I talked in wide circles around I’m scared, wandering through the woods of my stomach hurts, or I can’t go to school, or I hate you.
I wouldn’t receive a formal diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and thus a clear picture of my own brain—and of the prescriptions and therapies needed to make it a safer place to inhabit—until I was in my twenties.
A decade later, I still spend a portion of some days trying to head my anxiety off at the pass before it finds a way out of my body, slipping past the guards of my nervous system and rattling through the gates locked by tact and social graces, as I move through the world. But I spend a portion of every day soothing and calming my child, my fingertips wiping away his tears and my cheek against his as I sway in place. A not-insignificant amount of my time is spent just rocking us both back and forth, whispering to both of us, shhh, shhh, shhh.
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
I try to imagine the shape of his life, the worries that may grow and flower into outsize obsessions if left untended in his mind, the genetic odds that he may be forced to share my subjectivity as a person whose fears then become monstrous, tyrannical, all-consuming. How will he choose to arm himself against them, and how will it feel to see him make those choices?
My first few weeks at home with my son were fragile, joy buckling under the weight of terror. My hormones crashed to the ground, and my long-standing fears of harm befalling my husband transferred immediately and seamlessly to the baby.
The night we arrived home from the hospital, I placed him in his bassinet to sleep, on his back. We had taken in countless horrifying stories of babies sleeping in unsafe positions, of crib bumpers and bed-sharing and SIDS. “Back is Best,” the motto printed in bold across each one of our safe-sleeping guides and warning labels, was a mandate we believed to be of life-or-death importance.
How will he choose to arm himself against them, and how will it feel to see him make those choices?
The baby sighed placidly, his eyelashes already fluttering closed, and promptly rolled onto his left side. My heart stopped. With a gnawing sensation behind my eyes and a sleep-deprived thrumming in my temples, the still-fresh incision across my abdomen weeping into its bandage, I frantically called for my husband.
The next few hours were spent in a flurry of panic, consulting with an on-call pediatric nurse, our baby books, and myriad parenting forums, tears streaming down my face and my breathing shallow in my chest. Eventually, we determined that the baby would need to be moved from the bedside bassinet to the crib, one of us spending each night on the floor beside him. I didn’t know how I would ever leave him alone in a room again.
You’re not afraid he’ll stop breathing? You don’t think we should check the temperature in the nursery? Can we turn up the volume on the baby monitor so we’ll hear him as soon as he cries? Questions my exhausted husband didn’t know how to answer, but the internet did. As my multiplying search results expounded on my many failures as a parent and the irreversible damage I would inevitably cause my child, I began to panic over my inability to untangle “a mother’s intuition” from my disorder.
Don’t borrow feelings from the future, a friend tells me when I worry about my son’s life unfolding, about climate change and school shootings and the thousand heartbreaks that await us all. We have enough to deal with in the present. But what is choosing to have a child if not reaching your hands deep into the future’s pockets? It is an intentional act of creation, but it’s also a gamble, an endeavor of absolute randomness and luck. Even if you can and manage to conceive, and then to keep a baby afloat and thriving inside a body you can’t control, and then to survive the delivery of that baby into the chaos of this world, who will they be? Will you be able to protect them, to give them everything they need?
And does asking these questions make me a good mother?
Or does it just make me someone who’s afraid?
At first, the thought of this particular feeling—the hot liquid center of it, the tightness in my chest—being passed from my body to my son’s was intolerable. At first I closed my eyes against it, my fear of his fear, but now I know that—no matter if it resembles mine or is of a softer and calmer frequency, the nerves and worries and stress that come with being human—I must see it, in order to see him. All of him. And seeing all of him, working to understand him in what will become his full messy spectrum of feelings and behaviors, is the most important job I’ve ever been given.
I know that regardless of his brain chemistry and his temperament, I will inevitably fall short as a mother, making frequent mistakes in ways that will cause him stress. I know that the world will fail to protect him, and that there will be many monsters for him to fear. Only some of them will I be able to see. Some of the monsters will be self-created, but I know that they’ll be real to him, and I will try to always remember this in order to keep earning the privilege of being someone he might tell about them.
These days, my anxiety is tamed by Zoloft and daily forest-bathing, by proximity to the ocean and by my long aimless walks toward it, and by burying my face in my baby’s growing cheeks, his substantial little belly, and the soft downy hair that looks more like my husband’s every day. When I feel particularly afraid, when my mind kick-starts its furious cycling through all the rock bottoms and worst cases, I step outside and touch wet grass with the soles of my feet. And when I reflect on my past obsession with my monsters, I’m able to refract that obsession through a lens of love for every iteration of my anxious, broken self. I felt afraid, and I refused to be destroyed by it. Love, like anxiety, can always change its shape.
Love, like anxiety, can always change its shape.
Our children are not us. They are wholly themselves—their richly, brightly, shockingly, mysteriously, infuriatingly not-us selves. My son is not me, and my awareness of that sits at the heart of my ability to love him well. Remembering that he is made not only of pieces of us—of me and his father and our parents and their parents and on and on it stretches backward—but also of new pieces, a self he is gathering and collecting and creating all the time, alleviates much of my fear for him.
Every night, I rock my son to sleep in our nursery’s rocking chair, my fingertips tracing circles on his skin and my lips grazing his fontanel, the frighteningly vulnerable soft spot of his skull. I know that whatever small part of my child is made of me will be made of my fear, yes, but also of my eyes, and my legs, and of the clumsy steps I continue to take with them, no matter how uncertain the path. I feel his steady breathing, the in-and-out I will likely creep back into this room to search for hours from now, and tomorrow night, and the next.
Back and forth. We rock together, he and I, my feet lifting gently off the ground and our bodies falling backward together through space. Trusting that the chair will catch and return us forward again, every time.
Hannah Matthews is a librarian, abortion doula, and writer based in Portland, Maine. Her work has appeared in ELLE, Esquire, McSweeney's, SELF, The Lily, BUST, Entropy, and other publications. She tweets at @hannahmsays and cries in public places.