Learning to be a worrier mom from afar

By Candy Schulman

When my daughter texted me from college that her glands were swollen and her throat was extremely sore, I bit my overprotective tongue. I refrained from blurting out what I immediately fretted: I hope it’s not mono.    

“It’s probably just a bug going around,” I assured her instead, pretending to be calm. “Nothing you can do but drink tea and honey. Part of the cure is complaining to me.”      

She’d already survived the freshman plague, when new dorm mates are exposed to lots of germs in close quarters, and everyone gets a cold that turns into a hacking cough for three weeks. Anxious about it turning into pneumonia, I didn’t relax until my daughter stopped ordering tissues in bulk from Drugstore.com.     

Ever since giving birth, I’ve been a worrier. In the hospital my five-pound-fifteen-ounce baby girl looked so frail, I was cautious about picking her up, lest she break. I was appalled to see a nurse hoist my delicate newborn by one ankle, dangling my masterpiece like a chicken in a butcher shop. Next apprehension: accidentally pressing on my baby’s fontanel, causing permanent brain damage. Then there was the ubiquitous choking terror. Who knew the harm one measly Cheerio could cause? 

Every time Amy had a fever, I re-read the signs of dehydration in the book I renamed What To Fear in the First Year. When she had a virulent flu, the pediatrician ordered me to use my finger to test whether the roof of her mouth was tacky. I’d always been terrified that I wouldn’t be able to tell.

In spite of my trepidations, Amy evolved from the toddler hanging perilously upside down on jungle gyms to a tenacious midfielder. She bravely headed soccer balls, while I privately dreaded the concussion she’d surely suffer. “Great game. Terrific goal,” I’d say afterwards, offering her watermelon instead of my secret confession: “I had the ambulance on speed dial.”    

Years later, attending a professional conference, I sat next to another mother who’d left her sick ten-year-old home and couldn’t stop checking her cell phone. I confessed I’d cut grapes in half long after the choking hazard ended at age three. She said she’d continue slicing grapes in quarters until her sons were married. We bonded instantly.       

Childless friends never understood. “Why can’t you just relax and go to sleep?” they’d ask when the mercury soared above 101 degrees or my teenager still wasn’t home at 2 AM. They’d never stood over a sick child’s bed, watching her chest rise to make sure she was still breathing.

A mother with older children once told me: “By the time your kids sleep through the night, you won’t be able to anymore.”     

So naturally I had insomnia when Amy’s glands became so swollen she couldn’t even eat. I recalled how she’d looked when she’d had four impacted wisdom teeth removed, and how I’d nurtured her with chocolate pudding, cheese soufflé, and mashed potatoes. She was over 150 miles away this time, and I couldn’t assuage my worry by stirring a soothing potion for her on the stove.

Her roommate made her chicken soup, and instead of feeling relieved I felt replaced. Then Amy texted, “Maybe it’s mono.” She was perusing WebMD, the bane of worried mothers. By day five, I insisted she go to the health center.

My long distance command worked.  “Sooooooo,” she texted. “I have mono.”  

Flashback of fear: two years ago her roommate was hospitalized because the dreaded “kissing disease” had been so severe. Naturally I was afraid Amy would catch it, and my fears were only slightly mitigated when her roommate’s mother arrived at our daughters’ shared dorm suite armed with Lysol.

Now I could view Amy’s tears and protruding glands on FaceTime. “The health center said I could take a medical leave. I want to graduate on time,” she moaned, unable to hold back tears.     

A phone call to her doctor at home reassured her that nobody leaves school because of mono anymore. I volunteered to take care of her. (I’d already checked the train schedule.) She quickly rejected my offer to be her nurse. How about coming home for the weekend to rest? A resounding no.     

The next night she texted, “Should I be concerned about a yellowish-whitish tongue?”  

She sent me a photo. It made me think back to when I had a nasty case of bronchitis in college, how I didn’t even inform my parents. Vaguely I recalled locating a private doctor in town, hitching a ride with a friend to his office, going on antibiotics. By the time I was home for winter break, my coughing fits were a distant memory.

Even if Amy agreed to come home for a long recovery weekend, what could I have really done? I would have had the illusion of feeling in control: feeding her, letting her put her head on my lap like a baby. No matter how many tantrums she might have had as a toddler, when her temperature spiked, she became all cuddly and docile, reminding me of the warm bond of infancy.   

She was twenty now; I had to come to terms with the fact that she was going to become ill, and she was going to get better. I had to let her fight off nasty germs and learn to take care of herself. With or without my presence. For decades I’d abandoned responsibilities and work projects to rush Amy to the pediatrician for stitches under her chin, finger infections, sprained ankles, even weird and obscure maladies ranging from coxsackie to hand-foot-and-mouth disease. And now suddenly I had to step back and let her stand on her own two feet—even when she’s collapsing into bed and shivering feverishly under the covers.

So now I have a new worry: my daughter will no longer need me. Even though I have come to realize that she always will—just in different ways. I still yearn to feel needed, and sometimes I must make myself feel needed from afar. Which is why I’m standing in line at the post office, boxing up organic brown rice farina and Amy’s favorite tea, mailing her a get well package. It is the least, and the most, I can do.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and many other publications. She lives in New York City, where her leisure activities are worrying and biting her nails. Follow her on Twitter: @candyschulman.