My three year-old has anxiety.
I know this because I gave it to her.
I think my body felt that the exponential grip that anxiousness had on me was important. Maybe it thought this detail was as significant as my blue pigmented eyes, or dimpled chin that I share with her. Maybe it felt it imperative to hand over my chemical imbalance, too.
I wonder all the time how it passed from my body to hers. Did it multiply when it knew I was suddenly plural? Did it steep into her skin when she marinated in my womb for nine months? Did she feel me fretting over her arrival, and absorb the incessant worrying? Did my own rapid heartbeat teach hers to run as fast as it could? Did my uterus wire her brain to match mine? Did it pass through my milk? Or maybe she remembers her first moments earthside, with no oxygen in her lungs, and no pulse inside her heart. Did that first day make her afraid for the rest of the days following?
Welcome to Earth, baby. I know it is hard to breathe here.
Or maybe... it isn’t about nature at all. Maybe nurture is responsible for the worry that creeps over her three foot frame. Despite my best efforts, maybe she can feel the panic beneath my calm. Maybe she sees my contradicting, excruciating, and forced optimism for what it really is. Maybe she can feel it in my grip on her wrist walking near moving cars, or in the times I was less able to stay stoic; the times I let the panic get the better of me, and loud words cracked like a whip out of my mouth. I wonder if she can feel my chest puffed, breathing unsteadily, like a tire leaking air, in the hours I lay awake at night all the way across the hallway from her. I taught her how to move her legs, to propel her body forward, I taught her to chew her food with her teeth, and to form sentences with her tongue.
Did I teach her that the world was on fire, too?
My three year-old, who is learning how to read, cannot even form a sentence when a stranger says, “hello.” She coldly turns her head away in denial at kind people, and tells us that smiles aimed at her make her nervous. My girl, who will talk my ear off about the solar system, is terrified to say her own name out loud when someone asks what it is. The girl with all of the words and all of the questions is suddenly tongue-tied and silent.
I see myself in her when her body is attacked with panic regularly. They would call me a “worrier” when I was too little to explain that my insides were eating themselves. I wonder if she is sore from flinching every day at all of the things that pose no threat to her. I wonder if everything is turning into monsters behind her shifting ocean eyes.
It wrecks me to see her paralyzed by fear. It hurts because I know I am responsible for it. But because I see it, I am conscious of it in the both of us. I (more than anyone else) know what she needs. She doesn’t need me to tell her that it will be okay. She doesn’t need me to tell her there is nothing to be afraid of. She doesn’t need me to shush her and sweep the darkness under the rug. What she needs is her fears voiced and validated. She needs to be heard. She needs to know that it isn’t her fault that she feels nervous even if she doesn’t have a reason to be. She needs me to tell her that I am afraid, too. I cannot make it pretty for her. I need to let her see the chains around my ankles, and let her see me walking anyway, no matter how slowly each dragging step takes. I need to be honest because she is smart, and she deserves to know that she isn’t alone.
She needs to be told she is brave for facing the seemingly small things. Like, when she waves back at the person she doesn’t know, or makes eye contact with our neighbor in the elevator. Just like it is healing to hear her say, “I’m so proud of you, mama,” while I drive us to the library with white knuckles wrapped around the wheel. I know that sometimes I will need to be an umbrella for her, and other times she will need exposure to the water that is falling from the sky. Surely, I will try to teach her to fight these demons, or help her silence the voices that don’t belong to her with Vitamin D and endorphins and breathing exercises and exposure therapy. But I will also make sure that she knows that sometimes relief can only come in tiny chemical balancing pills, and that she should never be ashamed of that.
Maybe she will hate me for it someday. Maybe she will curse me for the prison that I embroidered around her bones, or for the fear I implanted into her body.
But maybe, just maybe, one day, she will say that anxiety made me a better mother.
Maybe she will see how much harder I had to try. Maybe she will understand that getting out of bed was always more than just that. Maybe she will see all the times her fingers went unscathed when alarms were blazing in my mind near hot ovens. Maybe she will see the extra layers of sunscreen, the extra words of affirmation, the olives that were cut into eighths. All of the times I saw the edge of the cliff before her feet even began to move. I pray that she will see the all of the ways the crippling pain in my mind protected her. I pray that she will come to appreciate instead of despise how urgently I was aware of her needs. Maybe she will become a mother, and maybe then she will know how agonizing it was for me to let her go, to let her fall, and to let her grow.
Maybe then, she will get it.
Maybe then, she will fall at my feet, and thank me for fighting.
And I will thank her for showing me how.
Written by N'tima Preusser.