The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

About that parental anxiety….

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Like any other mass loss of life I hear about in the news, I felt a sense of heaviness, sadness and dread when I learned about the Germanwings plane crash. There are so many tragedies all over the world, every day, and there is nothing about this plane crash that is much different than any other mass tragedy. But psychologically these things scare me to the core.

These fears of catastrophic events have grown exponentially since I became a mother, but so has the strong desire to quell them.

When I think about the Germanwings crash and what it is about it that draws many of us to watch and read incessant coverage of it, is that it feels like it could happen to any of us provided the wrong circumstances and luck. Flying is something that is supposed to be safe and relatively risk free. We trust the pilots. Senseless tragedy reminds us of the uncertainty in the world, and that seemingly benign events such as sending a child on a plane for a trip could end in a worst nightmare.

For those with older children, this is not only hard to process on an individual level but the question then becomes, how do I explain this to my children and still help them feel safe and secure?

Before I had children I took some time to think about whether it was the right decision for me. I had always known and felt deeply that I wanted children but when the prospect actually became a reality, it triggered many fears that mostly lie dormant in me. Choosing to have children would mean that I would bring them in to a world I could not control. I knew that once I had my own children, most of those fears would amplify and I knew I didn’t want to project my fears on to my children. The decision to have children was an inner battle between knowing the reality of my anxieties and knowing the complete loss of control I would feel as soon as I brought a life into the world. Many mothers describe this as having their heart live outside of their body.

During both my pregnancies I had to actively tune out most of the news. I remember sitting at my computer during my very hormonal third trimester of my second pregnancy, crying over the horrific news of daily war and destruction. Since becoming a mother, I just can’t stomach watching pain and suffering the way I used to, in fact it’s pretty much intolerable at this point- even when it’s fiction. It’s not just about the fear one may have for their own children, but becoming a mother also increases your empathy. From the moment my first child was born, my mind made a shift to seeing everyone as someone’s baby.

The second a woman becomes a mother, each moment of letting go is emotionally difficult and scary. The first hint of fear may come when you arrive home from the hospital and want to do everything right, or it may come the first time you drop your child off at daycare or school. Whenever that fear creeps up, it can feel terrifying. But despite those fears, whatever they may be, we all eventually let our kids go and trust them with others. We must let our children go in order for them to truly thrive.

My children are still very young and I can still keep tabs on their every move, yet I still realize I can’t fully control what happens to them. As they get older and explore the world, I realize the control I have will slip further and further away from me. There will be nights where they will forget to call me and tell me where they are. They will certainly suffer from emotional pain that I won’t be able to protect them from. I will not always have the words to comfort them or make everything okay.

There are a few minutes when I read of these tragedies, especially ones in which innocent children die, that completely paralyze me with fear. However, I don’t let those fears consume me, and that is conscious work every single day.

Ironically, having children has also made me stronger and tougher. I don’t want to be scared, I want to be strong for them. As dark as the world can look sometimes, my children have also made my world brighter with their innocent, wide eyed curiosity and unabashed optimism.

I will not allow fear to prevent my children from experiencing life, taking risks, making mistakes and learning on their own. It’s not productive for me or my children. I won’t be there to hold their hand every day, make sure their seat belts are always on or ensure that they surround themselves with good, caring people who have their best interest at heart. I have to let them go because it’s what’s best for them but it will also be the hardest and scariest thing I will ever have to do.

Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington D.C. She has a toddler and a newborn.

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