Spiders? Heights? Tight spaces? Flutes? (It’s called aulophobia. Really.)
Turns out my kid is afraid of the vacuum. And slides. And kids at the mall. And any toy that comes to life.
And chewing gum.
She begs me not to vacuum. Literally, “please no vacuum, Mommy. Pu-leeze.” Zhu Zhu Pet? Forget it. Won’t go anywhere near it. A fun trip to the mall playground is immediately halted if there are “too many people, Mommy.” And this week, the afternoon babysitter took her gum out to show DB*. I had a sobbing toddler in my lap for the entirety of my piano lessons that day.
Now rationally, I know that young children often have a spike in their fears around DB’s age. Somewhere between 2 and 3, toddlers start to have a better handle of the world around them. They start to put two and two together. And when they can’t make sense of something, it often scares them. This is the age when kids might be fearful of being washed down the drain. They could become afraid of the dark, despite having no trouble at night for the past year. And parents often describe them as having increased separation anxiety. Some experts believe that as children become more independent (more mobile, more emotionally unique, more verbal, more aware of their own free will), these fears serve as a tether to keep them closely bonded with their parents. I know to a degree, that this is a normal phase of toddler hood. My pediatrician has reassured me that she is normal. And yet…I worry.
This week, DB and our amazing babysitter were playing quietly while I taught piano lessons. DB noticed that June* chewing on something and asked what she was eating. Now, my 2-year-old had never seen gum before. And I’m guessing to her, chewed gum probably looks a lot like the inside of someone’s mouth. It doesn’t look like food.
I bet her internal monologue went something like this: ”Hmm…..I wonder what June is eating. I might want some. What are you eating, June? Wait. What are you doing? What is that? Oh. My. God. June, your mouth just came apart. Part of your mouth is in your hand. Why, oh why did you take out part of your mouth? What is that? I. Don’t. Understand. Mommmmmyyyyyyyy!”
By the time I got to her, she was hysterical. Her fear had spiraled into a toddler meltdown. You know the kind. Where they are so upset they don’t even know why they are upset anymore. After sending home the babysitter, we talked and talked about what happened. She asked a million questions, and I explained that gum is a kind of candy you chew for a long time. I think hope that next week, when June comes without any gum, that DB will be over it. I know she will bring it up, and ask for more reassurance. But I’m pretty sure that she will be alright with it. But I worry.
What am I scared of? I’m scared I’m seeing my anxiety mirrored back to me. I battle my anxiety on a daily basis. Most days, it manifests itself as little nagging thoughts I can swat away. “That soup isn’t good enough,” or “What if the appointment was yesterday and I missed it?” But every now and then, it takes over, and I fight with everything I have to stop it. Letting my mom (who is a perfectly safe driver) drive DB to her house for a sleep over last week left me sobbing and hyperventilating in fear that I might have said goodbye to my child for the last time. The therapy? Has taught me how to take deep breaths and ask for help. The medication? Makes severe anxiety attacks happen less frequently. But even on a good day, I still hum with a bit of nervous energy.
Kids pick up on things. And I’m scared that my anxiety will affect DB, or has already affected her. I wonder if she’s frightened of all these new things because I’m modeling anxiety for her. Or if I am too careful with her. Or maybe nuture has nothing to do with it and it’s all in the genes. Maybe I’ve given my child anxious DNA. What if my anxiety is my legacy to her?
Everyone wants their child to have the best of them. But with such precious little bodies to care for, I think it’s also natural to worry they might get the worst. We hope our children will have Daddy’s ambition, Mommy’s compassion, Grandpa’s love of books, and Granny’s zest for learning new things. But realistically, we know that as parents, we will scar our children in some way; we worry that our choices could hurt them. We’re not perfect. So we do the best we can and hope that no matter how they turn out or who they are, that they will be happy, confident, and secure in our love for them. We have to realize that even though we help shape who they are, we are only part of the equation….a very complicated equation.
I think that maybe DB’s just a sensitive kid. She’s quiet, slow to warm up to strangers, fearful of new things, and leery of large groups of people. She’s also extremely kind, polite, affectionate, and verbal. She is a joyful child who rarely grabs toys, is quick to say she’s sorry, and plays by the rules. I love all of who she is, and even though I will always be on guard and mindful of how my anxiety affects her, I have to give her space to be who she truly is without projecting my own fears onto her. That’s the scariest thing about parenting, I think – learning to let go. To know that you are not perfect, and neither are they. And to let your kids make mistakes, and to know you can’t (and shouldn’t) protect them from everything, even themselves.
* DB is my nickname for my daughter. And I’ve changed the name of our babysitter…cause internet privacy is a tricky thing, yo.