To say I am an anxious parent is analogous to saying the Pacific is big. It's an accurate statement, but it's also a laughable understatement.
It's hard to hide anxiety. I'm the parent on the playground spotting my four-year-old going up the open ladder that others' two-year-olds are clambering up unassisted. I'm the in-law watching my sons and their cousins in the backyard, yelling at them not to fall out of the tree house or get slivers on the old wooden sandbox lid. I'm the person yawning at work because every time my kid coughed overnight he went back to sleep, and I couldn't. I'm the first to admit I'm ridiculous.
Anxious people are often seen as worriers, as grumps, as angry, as real glass-half-empty types. Worrying won't change anything, they say. Can't you focus on being grateful for everything that goes right, rather than thinking about what might go wrong?
Here's what they miss: I have so much gratitude for my life. Often when I lay down to sleep at night I actually feel limp, thinking of ways we lucked out during the day. Here we are in our house, together. Most days we don't go to the ER, or the doctor. Every time I get somewhere safely after a car drive I feel great relief. Lack of gratitude is not really what I suffer from.
So what is?
The other night as I was falling asleep I thought of the farmhouse where I grew up. I lived there with my parents and my five siblings, and although the house was old, it felt big and strong and full. We had loving (if strict) parents, we had each other, we had good health, we had plenty to eat. As I lay near sleep I pictured my younger self bursting out through the farmhouse's front door, and the slam behind me was a sound of solidity. My childhood was largely anxiety-free, even though I am sure that my self-employed parents were familiar with all the worries I now harbor about my life, my work, my marriage, my children.
My bachelor brother who now owns our family farm still lives in that farmhouse. When I visit it now it is still homey, but it feels smaller to me, a bit bowed by age, somewhat saddened and empty. It feels, in short, the way my physical family now feels: beaten down a bit by life; diminished, even. Since I burst forth from that front door in my youth we have lost one of my older brothers, and my father. We have suffered health setbacks, and weathered political and religious disagreements, and many of us have had children who have enriched the family and who we love, but who also take time and care and resources and worry.
And that's when it hits me, what gratitude actually is. It is not just feeling relief at avoiding bad luck. It is not just giving thanks for our many blessings, some of which we had nothing to do with achieving and others for which we worked very hard. The answer is in the word itself: grateful. To be grateful is to live a full life. It is to know worry and accept worry. It is to shore up the foundations even in the face of the weathering forces of tragedies and time. I will always feel anxiety, even (or particularly) when I am busy counting all my blessings. But I so hope that when my two boys grow up, they look back on a childhood where the house we live in seems full with life, bursting at the seams with strength and laughter and joy in each other. I hope they picture our house as big, and strong, and solid, and I hope they burst forth from it bearing confidence and generosity.
It is up to me to create that as their reality. I already feel a lot of gratitude, particularly when looking back on many wonderful memories, but gratitude is nothing without hope for the future, and love for life, whatever it may bring. I look forward to the challenge.
I am grateful for it.