Anxiety and Grace

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by Claire Bischoff

In the middle of the coldest January most Minnesotans can remember, our family spent the late afternoon and evening at a large indoor amusement park (things that are usually outdoors, like playgrounds and amusement parks, get built indoors in Minnesota so that we can use them for more than two months a year). Since I am pregnant, I did not pay for the wrist band that would let me accompany my family on the rides. I contented myself watching them and reading a good book when the lines were long.

At one point, my husband and older son ventured off to go on the scary rides, while I chaperoned my younger son. As it turns out, a grown up can ride for free with a child when that child is not yet tall enough to experience the ride alone. So I went on the carousel with my younger son before he pulled me into the queue for Swiper’s Sweeper. I had been on the ride the year before and remembered it as being fairly harmless. As we waited our turn, my son pointed at the sign advertising the risks for the ride, saying, “Look, mom, no babies.” Indeed, the sign had an image of pregnant woman with a big line through her growing belly. I considered telling my son he would have to wait to go on the ride until we found dad and his big brother, but then I thought of all the times he has to wait or has not gotten to do what he really wants to do because he is the second child. So we went on the ride. He loved it; I spent the whole time trying to brace my body with arms and legs so that my midsection would remain motionless.

amusement park ride

Fast forward to midnight. I had been in bed for two hours and could not sleep. I was in the middle of an anxiety spiral, sparked by the thought that I had done irreparable harm to the baby growing inside me by going on that one amusement park ride. I could not shake an image of the fetus’s neck being broken by the centrifugal force of the ride. Then I started cataloging everything else I had done in the first fourteen weeks of my pregnancy that could have negative repercussions. I had fallen hard on my backside at least a dozen times when we had gone cross country skiing the week before. I had eaten cold roast beef on a handful of occasions simply because I love a good roast beef sandwich. I had not taken my prenatal vitamins and DHA supplement for a number of weeks in the first trimester because my nausea was so bad I could not bear to swallow them. Underneath all of this cataloging was a heap of guilt and shame that I had not always done the absolute best thing for this baby. How could I be so selfish as to eat roast beef? How could I be so careless as to go cross country skiing?

In the more rational light of morning, I started to interrogate my anxiety using a question I ask my students to use when doing cultural analysis: What human hands are work here, how, and why? Certainly, the consumer economy benefits from the anxiety of mothers. We are encouraged to buy a slew of products to safety-proof our homes and to enroll our children in activities starting just after birth to insure their well-rounded development (the newest trend: baby DJ classes). Toys increasingly are marketed to more and more defined age groups, so that every six months we find ourselves wondering, “Are these blocks made for a one-year-old challenging my eighteen-month-old enough? Might was well recycle the Harvard application.”

Mothers’ anxiety also can trap us in an individualism that allows us to focus on the well-being of our own children while ignoring broader issues that affect the well-being of all children. (This dynamic is similar to what Elizabeth Gandolfo wrote about in her post “D-E-A-D Is A Four Letter Word.) We are so sapped of energy from worrying about our children that we do not have energy left to organize and campaign to insure that all mothers have access to proper nutrition, clean air and water, and adequate prenatal health care. In the end, our anxiety is a force for separation, since it is born from a sense of scarcity and impending danger that drives us to get what we can for ourselves and our families, often at the expense of what others need.

So how can mothers break out of the anxiety spiral and its inward focus? There are two things that have tended to help me. First, I try to talk about my anxieties with others. Knowing that I am not the only one who feels guilty for feeling relieved that I have not signed my son up for a spring sport or that I am not the only one who spent an entire pregnancy feeling that I was one bad burrito away from disaster can help loosen anxiety’s hold. When we come together, rather than keeping ourselves apart, we may find out that what was not imaginable alone suddenly becomes possible in cooperation.

Second, I try to pray. By invoking a greater power in the universe, prayer reminds me that I am only human and in control of very little that affects my family and me. Far from increasing my anxiety, this frees me to attend to that which I can control and to let go of worry about that which is beyond my influence.  This feels like grace.

We would love to hear your comments about factors you see contributing to an increase in mothers’ anxiety and what you have done to help loosen anxiety’s hold in your own life. Please don’t hesitate to comment (either here, on Facebook or via Twitter @MotheringMatter).

D-E-A-D Is a Four Letter Word: True Confessions on Coming to Terms with Mortality

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By Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo

My children have been obsessed with death lately.  The older two are five and almost four, and their imaginary play has been focused an awful lot on scenarios that involve dramatic exclamations of  “I’m dead,” “I’m dying,” and “I killed you!”  The questions they ask about the world have come to include things like: When do you die? Can you die when you are zero, eleven, fifty-five, etc.?  Can you live to be 100?  After you die are you “with God to infinity and beyond?” When will you die?  I know that their curiosity is completely normal and, like Claire (whose August 2013 post, Backyard Life Lessons, inspired some of my own thinking on this subject), I do my best to respond to it with a level head and honest answers.  But I have to admit that all of this talk of death coming from the mouths of babes—my sweet, innocent babes—is just killing me!

It wasn’t always like this and I can’t help but long for the fleeting days when bugs and birds didn’t die, they were just sleeping; Scar didn’t kill Mufasa, he just made him go away; their grandfather (my father) was not dead, he was just living with Jesus; and their mommy and daddy and all of us were just going to live forever.  During my eldest daughter’s early years, I avoided saying anything at all about death or dying.  D-E-A-D really was a four letter word in our home.  And I was very good at censoring my vocabulary—I may have even spelled the word out in conversation with my husband rather than expose my daughter to its fearsome ring.  I’m not sure when or why it happened, but things have changed since those days of blissful ignorance, of course, and the younger children inevitably are being exposed to talk of death and dying at a much earlier age than their big sister—which is probably a good thing.  But my own feelings towards death and dying have only heightened in their level of discomfort and anxiety.


You see, becoming a mother to these heart-breakingly precious beings has made me more than a little uncomfortable with mortality.  I suppose that in my youth my own mortality and that of those I loved seemed very abstract, far off in the future, and not something to give a second thought.  But once I began having children, the truth of our mortal condition hit me like sucker punch to the gut (the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you breathless).  I suppose that falling in love as deeply and irrevocably as I have with my children has heightened and deepened my awareness of the fragility and fleetingness of existence in general, and that of the lives of myself and my husband, our children, and other family members in particular.  My own mortality now scares me half to death, with my sentiments echoing those expressed very simply by ecologist Sandra Steingraber in Having Faith, a memoir of her pregnancy and early motherhood: “Now I cannot die.”  And neither can my husband.  These thoughts often cross my mind.  But when it comes to contemplating the possibility that something could happen to one of our kids—I don’t even go there.

I cope rather well with my newfound fears and anxieties—I am very skilled at blocking them out.  Not only am I am so busy and exhausted that it is not too hard to keep the thought of mortality at bay, I also have found myself strategically avoiding anything that might call to mind the contingency and fragility of my family’s existence.   I have begun to evade news stories, films, or books that involve violence or childhood death of any kind (just a bit strange for someone who is writing a theology of human vulnerability through the lens of maternal suffering).  In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, I simply could not bear to read or listen to any accounts of the violence that took place, the analyses of the shooter’s motivations and psychological well-being, or—worst of all—the stories of the children who were killed.  Similarly, while I was once a passionate crusader for social and economic justice, I no longer even allow myself to be confronted with the human face of what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the “early and unjust death” that erases tens of thousands of children (and adults) from existence on a daily basis.  I put all of this out of my mind and heart with great skill, but the prevalence of death and dying in my kids’ imaginative play and curious questions keeps bringing my discomfort with our own mortality more and more to the foreground of my mind and heart.  I think the time has come for some spiritual reckoning with the big “D.”

bleeding heart

It seems to me that my real problem is NOT that I can’t bear to contemplate the fact that I or my children could suffer and die prematurely.  This is completely normal and healthy – who wants to think about the possibility of leaving or losing our loved ones?  And how could one possibly “come to terms with” such loss preemptively?  The real problem, rather, is my avoidance of others’ suffering because I psychologically project myself and my family into the horrific situation, which just causes me too much pain.  This evasion of suffering has locked me into a selfish mode of being, in which my discomfort with death due to my passionate love for my husband and children is all that matters.  I have been operating under what I know intellectually to be an illusion—that the blissful comfort of my intact relationship with my nearest and dearest is more important than compassion for the suffering of other human beings (and creation, for that matter).  I have anesthetized myself to suffering and have thus blocked the divine power of compassion that might emerge from a genuine encounter with others as others on their own terms and not as placeholders for what, God forbid, could have happened or might one day happen to my family and me.

Perhaps this is where I ought to begin, then, with a renewed sensitivity to the suffering and mortality of those beyond my own kith and kin.  The life of every human being is as valuable and precious as the lives of my own beloved children.  Contemplating and acting with compassion for the vulnerability and mortality of others is a first step towards coming to terms with my own vulnerability and mortality, along with that of my family.  Compassion for others is not, of course, a means to this personal end.  Rather, it is the end, in itself, of a truly human life lived in communion with the divine pathos for a suffering world.