For three weeks last January, I drove my 9-year-old daughter Lila to school while she wailed in the back seat. This wasn’t the standard whining about not wanting to go to school. This was a guttural, desperate cry, her fists gripping the armrests of her booster seat, her head shaking slowly back and forth, her eyes alternating between squeezed tightly shut and staring me down through the rearview mirror.
“NOOOOOOO, Mommy, NOOOOOO! Don’t make me, please please please, Mommy.”
Tears and snot made a sticky mask on her face. She was terrified. After a lazy winter break of sleeping in and snuggling in bed together, our mornings had turned into a new grueling routine seemingly overnight: sobs when she woke up, negotiating all through breakfast, a wrestling match to get her in the car, and then a 20-minute car ride of screaming and begging.
I scoured books and the Internet for advice. I settled on repeating a phrase like a mantra: “I can’t help you if I can’t understand you, Lila. Please take a breath and talk to me. I can’t help you if I can’t understand you. Please take a breath.”
Some days my mantra would make her slow down her screaming, but the only thing she could explain to me was that she didn’t want to go to school. Other days my mantra seemed to enrage her. But it gave me something other than her screams to focus on, so I just kept repeating it, as much for myself as for her. “Please take a breath. Please take a breath.”
Other parents saw her crying at school drop-off and offered their advice.
“Have you heard of PANDAS?” a mom asked me through my car window one day. “It’s where kids get strep throat, and then after they’re better, their brains go haywire. If you don’t catch it early with antibiotics it’s permanent. Didn’t Lila have strep last summer?”
Yes, I mumbled as a car honked behind me.
“There’s a PANDAS expert downtown. It’s $600 to see her but worth it. I’ll send you the contact info.”
“Okay,” I said while rolling up my car window and trying not to cry.
“Did something horrible happen at school?” a dad asked me another morning. “Oh, or does she ever take the bus? Some of those older kids on that bus are — you know,” he said, turning his head sideways and furrowing his brow. No, I thought, I don’t know.
“She’s just pushing your buttons,” a school nurse told me while shaking her finger at me. “You’re being too nice to her. My daughter acted like this once. Trust me, it was only the once.”
My mother agreed with the nurse. She was quick to offer her two cents.
“You used to get dramatic like this,” she told me, rolling her eyes. “It’s just naughty behavior. You can’t reason with her. I used to give you a swat on the butt when you acted this way.”
I remembered. But the thought of being tough with her while she seemed so desperate and scared was more than I could bear.
Her teacher and school counselor ruled out bullying or traumatic events at school. Her pediatrician, who had known her since birth, was concerned. “This is so unlike Lila,” she said to me. After every lab test came back negative, she said to me solemnly, “I think this is severe anxiety.” She said it as though it had come out of the blue, like a blustery thunderstorm on a clear day.
But what she didn’t know was that Lila comes from a long line of worried women, women who are expert at enjoying a beautiful moment for just a second or two, and then quickly scanning the environment for the next horrific event that they alone are responsible for preventing. It was as much a family trait as our brown eyes and brown hair.
Lila’s middle name is Louise, after my mother’s mother. Louise was not a grandma who would sneak candy to her grandchildren. She was a grandma who would tell her grandchildren they would get fat and their teeth would rot if they ate candy. She lived on a dairy farm in Indiana, where I was not allowed to play in the grassy rolling acres of her backyard because she was convinced that hobos would kidnap me.
My mother rolled her eyes at Grandma Louise, but she wasn’t so different herself. I had never seen her watch an entire movie because there were always errands to run or laundry to fold. On our one beach vacation as a family, she sat bolt upright on her beach towel, scanning the horizon for dorsal fins. When she taught me to drive, she warned me that I should always be on the lookout for cars careening out of control, and hold tight to the wheel to brace for impact. Over time, I had built my life this way, just as she had.
I began to understand what my mother, and my mother’s mother, had taught me: that worrying is a way to show love. Maybe a cold, sometimes confusing way, but still a way. Perhaps Lila in her screaming confusion was trying to show me a different way. I could swat her on the butt, pay a specialist for a one-of-a-kind diagnosis, and push on. Or I could try to learn something from her.
Lila finally found the words one night while we sat together on the couch after dinner. She told me that a girl at school had a death in her family, and it made her understand that I could die, too. And she thought if she stayed home from school and was with me, she might be able to stop it from happening. I recognized the torture in this thought, the jumping to worst-case scenario and flailing hopelessly to try to prevent it.
Somehow, over time, we have both found the words to talk about this shared habit, this reflex to worry and to feel as though we have to stop imaginary bad things from happening. And we’ve given each other permission to stop.
Weeks later, as our mornings had become quieter and buds were starting to form on the trees in our woods, Lila and I sat in the kitchen listening to NPR. She was coloring with waxy crayon nubs while I scrubbed the dishes. We listened to an interview with a Navy SEAL, a deep-voiced dude explaining the gory details of his training and secret missions. Right as I was wondering if the story was too scary for my anxious daughter, the host asked the SEAL, “What do you think basic training taught you, beyond just how to hold your breath underwater?” Lila hovered her crayon over her paper and looked at the radio.
The SEAL paused. “Well,” he said, “I think the real lesson is that no situation has ever been improved by worrying or panicking. You’ve just got to find a way to take a breath and figure it out.”
“Yep,” Lila said, and she went back to her coloring.
Sarah Wang is a writer and lawyer living in Potomac, Md. Find her at sarahwangwriter.com.