By Lauren Apfel
I have very few memories of checking on my babies as they slept, of creaking open the nursery door, at the risk of waking them, in order to soothe myself with the soft rise and fall of their chests. In an age where parents watch their children obsessively on video monitors—a constant proof of life—I have never owned one. Put simply, I am not an anxious mother and, as my kids have grown from infants to toddlers to tweens, this lack of anxiety has stayed the course.
It occurs to me that if actively and regularly fearing for your children’s safety is a natural instinct, my maternal hardwiring must be faulty. At any rate, I feel disconcertingly out of step with my peers, many of whom seem to exist in a near-continual state of worry about their kids—at every stage of development.
One of my friends is pregnant and wakes in a cold sweat when the fetus goes quiet for a spell; she wants to buy an at-home doppler. Another has a young baby and is constantly reassuring herself through the night, via various means, that he is still breathing. Several are shaken to the core by the possibility that the seven-year-old will be abducted from his karate lesson, the ten-year-old hit by a car as she walks to school. The list goes on. The fears roll on.
I see this fear everywhere. As an editor of a parenting magazine, I read countless essays about it. As a mother of four children, I’ve had endless conversations about it. Worried and/or scared appears to be the defining emotional condition of our generation of parents. In her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner says as much. While it’s true that motherhood has always ushered in a heightened sense of vulnerability, as the fragility of human life dawns on us in a whole new way, there is, Warner argues, “something unique about the nature of [the] maternal anxiety that we live with today.”
The difference, it seems, is that our anxiety is informed and fuelled by the embers of prevention, the notion that a mother in particular should have a superhuman amount of control over everything that happens in her children’s lives. If I notice the baby isn’t moving, isn’t breathing, I can save him. If I don’t let my kids cut their own food, cross the street, sleep at a friend’s house, they won’t get hurt.
I often think about how it is that I am largely immune to this otherwise ubiquitous maternal anxiety. What steely defense mechanisms I might have erected over the years—what personality trait, what genetic twist—I have either been blessed or cursed with that allows me to compartmentalize so effectively. It isn’t that I am not hit, on occasion, by the odd jolt of panic. Or that I don’t understand well something unspeakable could happen to any of my children, at any moment. I am nothing if not a realist. It’s more that the fear of it happening doesn’t hector me with its presence like the worst kind of unwelcome guest—and it doesn’t tend to influence the decisions I make about my kids.
I try to remember whether I was always like this. When my firstborn was small, I would, from time to time, conjure up images of something dreadful happening to him. It was almost to test myself, I realize now, to force myself to stumble down that dark alley of emotion towards a parent’s most unanswerable question—what would become of me if I lost him? The conjuring made my stomach turn, but the discomfort it evoked was short-lived. And had no practical effect. I didn’t check on him more frequently, I didn’t take extra precautions. When the second baby came, I found myself playing these mind games even less. When the third and fourth babies came, I just about stopped imagining danger altogether.
I wonder if having four children has made it impossible for me to be anxious about them in the same way I might have, had there been but one or two. If the sheer fortitude it takes to get to the end of the day, the physical and mental energy required, has rendered the intrusive thoughts, the rehearsing of horrific scenarios a luxury. I know that for some parents the worry only intensifies with the arrival of each new bundle. But for me, it’s been the opposite. It’s as if my capacity for fear has been quartered and I can’t go back. It’s as hard to manufacture anxiety where it doesn’t exist as it is to quell it where it does.
I also wonder about love. Is to actively fear for your children a mark of how much you love them? Are the lengths you go to protect them, day in and day out, a measure of how much they matter to you, how special or precious they are? By modern standards, the answer to both of these questions is yes. But where does that leave me? I consider myself a devoted mother—involved, attuned—but surely if I loved my children to the depths that other parents loved theirs, I would worry about them more, I would respond differently, with more cosseting, with more caution, to all of the potentially “risky” situations life thwacks at our feet.
Perhaps, though, I’m just parenting in the wrong era. In the 1980s, when I was growing up, I would have fit right in. It’s only now in 2017 that I look like an outlier for not worrying. In this internet age when we can’t help but watch tragedy after tragedy unfold in real time, when we are saddled with so much knowledge about the things that can go wrong—and so much responsibility for preventing them—it’s not terribly surprising that most of us are suspended in a sticky web of fear and that parenting has become an exercise in mastering the art of precaution. At any cost to our collective sanity. Consider, for example, the new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that are meant to protect against SIDS and that suggest, for as long as the first year of life, parents should literally never sleep out of their baby’s presence.
“It is though,” Warner writes of the current zeitgeist, “we feel we can erect a protective forcefield around our children.” And if it doesn’t work, “the fault lies with us. So we must try harder. Do better. Be there more—and more perfectly.” This might explain why my own mother, who loved me immensely and yet still let me roam the neighborhood on my bike at eight years old, doesn’t want me to let her eleven-year-old grandson walk to the end of the block by himself. In the face of more information about where the danger lurks—though not necessarily more risk of that danger transpiring—the needle for “good” parenting has certainly moved.
Of course it’s the case that we have made vast strides in keeping children safe, in keeping them alive. I strap my kids into car seats, I put helmets on their heads. I even sliced grapes in half well into their toddler years, because I know what it is to sling a choking twenty-month-old over my knee. I take, in other words, what seem to be reasonable measures, generated by a reasonable amount of concern. But beyond that? It very much feels like hit and hope. For better or worse, I do not see myself as the thread-spinner of my children’s fates.
Sometimes I’m convinced that the reason I fear virtually nothing with regard to my kids is because it is the only way I know how to not fear everything. Or maybe I’m less anxious than the average twenty-first-century mom because I simply don’t believe I have the power to draw that kind of talismanic circle around my children—however many safety products rain down on me, however many studies are published telling me how I might best maintain its protective halo. Without that expectation, that burden (or illusion) of superhuman parental control, there’s a lot less to worry about. And it’s that much easier to get on with the business of living fully—and letting my children do the same.
UPDATE: It’s three years later. I’ve got two kids now in secondary school and two bustling nine-year-olds and I still can’t say I overly worry about anything to do with them. Even as the coronavirus swirls around us, even as new dangers lurk in ever darker corners—drugs! alcohol! sex!—here I am, carrying on with (what I consider) reasonable expectations and reasonable measures (wash your hands!), keeping fingers crossed for the best through a fruity cocktail of luck, trust, and pragmatism. The more I reflect on it, the more convinced I am that this tendency of mine is simply a matter of wiring. I do get anxious, I’ve realized that quite acutely in the past months as other parts of my life have collapsed and been re-built. But just not about my kids. I like to think they feel this calmness. I like to think they thrive because of it. I hope they know my lack of (over-)protectiveness is not a reflection of how much I love them.
Blue Nude, 1902, by Pablo Picasso