“What if… I drop him?” “What if… she rolls off the bed and I’m not there to catch her?” “What if… I turn my back, and he hits his head?” “What if… I make a… mistake?”
The ‘What Ifs’ of motherhood can boil down to instinctual anxiety about our children’s safety, the drive to protect, and awareness that we can’t stave off every hazard. Anxiety is often considered the enemy, something to be avoided. However, in many ways, maternal predisposition to anxiety can be seen as a positive, adaptive process.
Moms are supposed to worry.
Walking into a room, before putting a toddler down to play, what happens? We consider the worst case scenarios: We scan for small choke-able objects, sharp edges, uncovered outlets—any preventable danger. By considering every ‘What If’ and taking action, we proactively prevent a bad outcome.
However, sometimes that same naturally arising concern can go into overdrive and become overwhelming. This is the point where anxiety goes from helpful to harmful.
How much is too much? What takes the garden-variety, day-to-day form of anxiety and pushes it into the more negative and debilitating type? When is anxiety a liability instead of an asset?
Transient, momentary concerned thoughts are normal and adaptive, and often can be used to your advantage (more on this below), but more pervasive, constant fears are problematic because they often become functionally limiting.
A good litmus test is the following: If you can’t relax and enjoy your child, play on the floor, and just laugh and have fun because of overwhelming worries, then your anxiety is taking over.
If any aspect of your life, from the ability to sleep, function at work, engage with your partner, family and friends is impaired as a result of anxiety, then something has to give.
It makes sense based on how strongly we love our kids that we are terrified at the thought of any harm coming to them. Our feelings travel along a spectrum, from blinding love at one end, to white-knuckled, catch-your-breath terror (the outcome of the ‘What If?’) on the other.
In many ways, there is functional benefit to considering the ‘What If’ scenario because it allows us as mothers to be highly protective of our babies. However, when ratcheted up, this same anxiety can lead to irrational and excessive fears that can easily threaten to remove the joy of motherhood. There is nothing fun about imaging awful things happening all the time to the people we cherish most in the world.
Addressing maternal anxiety on overdrive can be tricky, as it needs to be dampened down but is impossible to completely banish. If the goal was to rid a mom of all anxiety then the plan would be doomed to fail from the start.
From working with many women in my practice, I have developed a method that allows women to tackle their overwhelming anxiety without considering it the ultimate enemy. My approach involves taming and redirecting this energy in a way that makes it a beneficial tool for motherhood.
My 5 step strategy for empowerment over excess anxiety is called FINCE. (Remember: You will be FINE with a little dose of CALM).Focus, identify, normalize, compartmentalize and engage
As an example, your 4-year-old wants to scooter at the playground. Your child can swoop around without a second thought on that three-wheeled contraption, but it scares you. Your first thought is of your child being hit by a car on the way to the park while crossing the street (like in those NYC taxi commercials with the boy on a bicycle), and the second thought is of a head injury or a broken bone… saying no will crush your child, but how can you say yes when you are so afraid that something bad will happen?
Stop a moment, close your eyes and take three cleansing breaths. Try to slow your heartbeat—don’t let your thoughts spin out. Stay in the present. You are here, with your child, who is safe and healthy.
Notice the thoughts that cause anxiety: Where is your fear coming from? Your love for your child and potential for danger.
Remember you are hard-wired to worry: It’s okay to have fear. Our job as moms in part is to anticipate risk and proactively prevent unnecessary dangers.
Isolate the anxiety so that it does not overpower your ability to function and act rationally as a mom. Rather than letting the anxiety rule your thinking and overpower your judgment, put the fear in a box and realize that it does not have to determine the outcome.
Weigh the identified risks: Are they serious and real? Yes, scooters are slightly dangerous, but your child is low to the ground, can’t go too fast on a three-wheeler, and is good at stopping. Keeping your child from scootering also poses a risk because it would mean depriving him or her of worthwhile experience, social interaction, exercise and fun. You cannot control your child’s world or safety all the time—all you can do is put in as many safeguards as possible.
Harness the energy derived from the anxiety into something positive, allowing you to be a happier, more empowered mother. Establish the rule that your child always holds hands when crossing the street, never scooters alone until getting to the playground and always wears a helmet to maximize safety. Rather than allowing anxiety to hinder the fun, use the energy to maximize safety.
Reach out for help if it gets to be too much.
Strategies such as the five step FINCE model can be very helpful for excessive ‘what-if’ thoughts. However, if you start to feel that your anxiety is out of control, I encourage you to seek support. Don’t keep your feelings inside—there is no shame in anxiety and treatment with therapy and/or medication works. Every woman deserves to enjoy motherhood, including and especially you.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing signs of postpartum depression or anxiety, please reach out to your healthcare provider or postpartum.net to connect with a local volunteer coordinator through Postpartum Support International.