The secret to living an absolutely courageous life
One day last July I stood in line to order lunch before picking up my daughter from camp and my heart made a hard thumpthump like I’d never felt before. The room folded into a tunnel and wind rushed through my head. Forty minutes later, I was in an ambulance, on the way to the hospital. I had no idea what was happening to me. I remember laying in the back of the ambulance, an IV dripping saline into my arm, my heart still thumping away. The EMT asked me how I was feeling now. “I feel afraid,” I said.
I didn’t have a heart attack, but rather a panic attack. It was life-altering, if not life-threatening. They released me to go home after a battery of tests all came back normal. I crawled into my bed and slept for 12 hours, but I still felt afraid.
Since then I’ve learned that many mothers live with anxiety and experience panic attacks. We are not alone when we are scared. Maybe your fears rise up at home, not in public like mine do. Maybe they wake you from sound sleep. Maybe they come on in social situations. Maybe you are afraid to fly, or afraid of your two-year-old’s tantrums. When you have small children, it seems there are so many things to be afraid of, both small and staggeringly big.
I had a lot to be afraid about in that moment of my life. I had been in treatment for breast cancer for almost a year. While my scans were all clear and my last treatment was only a few days away, the thing you don’t often hear about cancer treatment is how scary it is to be a survivor - it always feels temporary. In addition, my relationship with my daughter’s father had been floundering and he and I had been separated for 6 months while I parented solo. I had been having insomnia for weeks and I had used up all of my emotional reserves.
Anxiety, and its cousin depression, are everywhere. Parents are reported to experience depression and anxiety at rates double the general population and women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder than men.
I think I can understand why. Moms are supposed to be the rock of the family. We keep the family fed and clothed and delivered to where they are supposed to be. We make sure the forms are filled out, the doctors are scheduled, and the sports and camps are registered and paid for. Even in homes where the other parent takes on a large share of the childcare, whether Mom works only at home or also out of it, it still seems to be us that carries the burden of worry.
Clinical anxiety is described as an irrational worry that causes significant distress, but how do we sort out all of the things we worry about into “rational” and “irrational,” especially when we are running on never enough sleep? How long until what we fear is the anxiety itself?
I’m not going to tell you there’s some secret trick that will get your partner to share the worrying and that it will magically get make you feel lighter, get more sleep, worry less.
If there’s a secret to that I don’t know it. I still worry and I still am the one who fills out all the forms, schedules the camps, and makes the dinners and the lunches. We’re still separated and I’m still scared I’ll get cancer again.
But I no longer have panic attacks.
Because I looked all my fears in the eye. I got to know them in all their ugly, spiney, warty splendor. I faced them down, drug them out into daylight instead of letting them lurk in the shadows. And in the full light of day, they aren’t nearly as scary. I got really serious about my self care (something I’ve been writing and teaching about for a long time, which doesn’t always mean I’m good at doing it). Also, I quit caffeine, which may be heresy in a mom community, but it helped me tremendously.
I’ve learned that the best way to disarm fear in the moment is to say “Yes, but...” to it. What if that thing happens? What will I do then?
Yes, I might get cancer again. But I have an excellent care team and there are many treatment options available to me.
Yes, my relationship might not make it. But I know we can learn how to co-parent together, and I know he is a good father and I am a good mother. I know we will all heal.
Yes, your toddler may start screaming in the grocery store, but you have choices. You might carry him out, abandoning your cart. You might bribe him with a snack. You might remember not to push nap time next week, and shop at a time when a meltdown is less likely to happen.
You always have a choice. Choice puts you back in control. Choice gives you courage.
What will you choose when your fears are looming? Will you choose to look straight at them and say “Yes, but…”?
Will you learn to practice radical self care, so you aren’t living always at the edges of your reserves?
Will you hold on to a gratitude practice to ground you in all that is good and strong and wonderful in your life?
Will you learn how to breathe through your fear when it begins to overwhelm you?
Will you find a practice that you can always turn to when you need calm?
Mama, you are strong. You are raising humans. This is the hardest job in the world. You may always have fear, but you can choose how you let it live in your life.
Join the conversation in the comments - how do you take care of yourself when you feel afraid?