How anxiety taught me to choose myself, even over my mother

By Elizabeth Newdom

In April 2020, one month into lockdown, I invited my recently widowed mother to visit my family in central Maryland for a socially distanced two-week stay. She drove up from Northern Virginia on a Saturday in her white Honda Accord, packed full of tote bags, Sue Monk Kidd novels, cookbooks, ginger tea, vitamins, and chocolate Lindt balls.

As she stepped onto the driveway, I could see new lines on her forehead and thick silver roots in her hair. My nine-year-old son, Asher, ran to greet his grandmother, but I remained frozen at the storm door eyeing Mom’s overpacked car. What had I done?

When lockdown went into effect in mid-March, Mom and I started Facetiming daily: drinking Merlot on our back porches, comparing Covid news stories, inquiring about the health of everyone we knew. She had been a virtual guest for Asher’s bedtime stories and for weekend dinners.

She needed me, and I wanted to be there. But there had hardly been time to process pandemic life: my husband Eric and I working on adjacent living room couches; Asher holed up in his room, finishing fourth grade online. All of the many unknowns about mask-wearing and social distancing.

“Are you sure you want to invite your mom? You have been really anxious lately,” Eric said two days before her arrival.

It was true. I was on a higher dosage of Zoloft. I was meditating twice a day like a Buddhist monk. And still, my anxiety was like wild ivy, growing bigger by the day, wrapping around everything in its way. 

“She needs us,” I told him.

I spent two days trying to stay six feet apart; watching Mom pull plates and bowls from kitchen cabinets; placing her cheese and crackers on side tables without a napkin; gritting my teeth when she put “dirty” groceries next to “clean” ones; attempting to sanitize everything she touched.

Then, I began having phantom Covid symptoms—a sore throat, a fever, a headache—taking my temperature multiple times a day. What if she were sick? I thought as I laid awake at night. Or worse, what if we got her sick

I couldn’t live with either of those scenarios.

So, when Mom looked up from The Washington Post on the third morning, just as my eye twitched, and asked if she should leave, I said “yes.”

The night after she packed up, grabbing her house slippers by the door, and drove back to Virginia, I woke up with a racing heartbeat; my limbs shaking, I was barely able to stand. Eric called the paramedics who arrived in the wee morning hours to take my vitals.

It was my first panic attack. I suppose my body had waited for Mom to leave before releasing the floodwaters.

At that point, I knew something had to change. I needed better boundaries, but I also worried about letting my mom down. So, I turned to experts for advice.

Award-winning clinical psychologist, Dr. Jill Stoddard, author of Be Mighty suggests, “Sometimes choosing to live by our values means having to experience pain. If I say “no” to someone who needs my help when my values say it’s important to practice self-care (which boundaries are part of), I might feel guilt or fear the person will dislike or abandon me.” 

I wasn’t used to saying “no” to Mom—and didn’t know where to begin.

“Steps to start setting boundaries can be very small,” said Dr. Stoddard, “like choosing a low stakes situation to practice…start by waiting a day to reply to non-urgent emails.” 

Putting this into practice with my mother meant responding with text messages if she called while I was working, or cooking, or tending to my son: “Hi, Mom! I am glad to hear from you, but I am busy. Unless something is urgent, can we talk in a day or two?” I would write.

Mom began calling less as a result; however, there was a new strain in her voice as I pulled away. 

I needed to come clean, to have an honest conversation.

Dr. Andrea Dardello, author of Oh Yes She Did! A Guide to Authentic Communication, advocates for clear communication. “Once we value ourselves, we have to ask for what it is we want…there needs to be an invitation for a conversation. Start by explaining what happened and describe how you were affected.” 

And so, I picked up the phone to call Mom. 

“Hi, Mom. I know I haven’t been as available for you, and you need to know why.”

I told her how the onslaught of everyone’s needs combined with my own had hit me like a tidal wave. That I had been drowning and needed to take care of myself. And that ultimately, this meant I couldn’t be there for her as often.

“I understand, honey. I am sorry, too,” Mom said.

She sounded hurt, but she also began spending more time with neighborhood friends, asking to schedule phone calls when I “had the time,” and agreeing to backyard visits until I could do more. And I made sure to send heart emojis and reassurances if I wasn’t available to chat.

We fell into a new rhythm, one based more on mutual respect and understanding.

Things were going well, but then pandemic restrictions began to ease, and a new worry took shape. I began to wonder, How will I maintain the boundaries I had worked hard to create? After all, the pandemic offered an excuse to focus on myself.

Dr. Beth Godbee, founder of Heart-Head-Hands, a website offering creative solutions for living a “just life,” says to “look for a strong YES” when making a decision. This entails sitting still and feeling the quality of your breath. Put a hand on the belly and picture an outcome. What would it look like, for instance, if your mother came to visit, or your child went back to the classroom?

If your breath feels natural and relaxed, that indicates you are ready for the outcome. But if stomach muscles tighten and breathing becomes labored, then your body is telling you “no.”

It took time to trust my body again. I feared that Mom’s first post-quarantine visit might trigger another panic attack. I was committed to protecting myself, but I knew I had to be brave. She was, after all, my mother.

The next time her white Honda pulled in the driveway, it was May 2021. I stood outside the storm door with Eric, admiring her full head of grey hair.

“Are you ready?” Eric asked.

I smiled at him and turned toward Mom, calling, “Let me get your bags.”

Elizabeth Newdom is a personal essayist who teaches eighth-grade humanities at an arts based school in Maryland. She finds that maintaining boundaries takes a daily commitment to herself. Follow Elizabeth’s journey on her personal website and blog titled The Astronaut Wife.

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