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Why Moms Worry

When my first child, Gus, was 9 weeks old, I found I'd entered the big leagues. Of worrying. Of course, I naively thought I already knew something about worry. As if the arc of my career, the sag of my buttocks muscles, or even my husband's safety while traveling could compare to the nausea-inducing, heart-thumping fear I felt when I received that phone call from my friend who'd so generously babysat my son the day before. Desperately apologetic, she shattered an afternoon get-together with two neighbors by giving me the news she was in the hospital with meningitis and that I needed to watch Gus for symptoms. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that I fell to my knees. I have witnesses.

Meningitis! Babies die of meningitis, I cried to myself as I clutched my tiny son and envisioned his writhing body in a plastic hospital bassinet, poked full of needles and tubes, while I sat vigil beside him, all bug-eyed, pale, and with splotches of gray hair where the color had been scared out of my strands. For the next week, during the incubation period, I slept (when I slept) with Gus on my chest so that I could feel every stirring. At the end of the week, he was fine, but I was as wrung-out as a cloth diaper and fully aware that I had only just begun to worry.

Worry is part of the dark underbelly of parenthood, the flip side of joy, pride, and fulfillment. The part they never really warn you about  -- that you'll discover a fate worse than your own death. From the day you find out you're pregnant and remember the vodka martini you had two nights earlier, worry will be a piece of you, like the way you part your hair and your irrational fondness for Little Debbie oatmeal cakes. In the job description for a parent, worrying is right up there with providing food and buying cute dinosaur pajamas.

More isn't better
The challenge lies in finding the optimal degree of worry, a level that will let you protect your child without relieving you of your sanity. Constructive worrying acts like an alarm system, helping you identify dangers before they arise so you can lessen risks, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition. But excessive worrying is akin to a car alarm that won't shut off  -- you get stuck on dangers long past any chance you have to take preventive action. If your child's about to go on a school field trip and you're wary of her riding the bus, the time to fret is beforehand. Then you may decide to drive yourself. But once she's gotten on the bus, worrying won't do any good at all.

Other signs of inappropriate worrying include avoiding any situation that may put your child at risk (like not letting your 5-year-old play T-ball because you're afraid he'll get hurt) and catastrophic thinking  -- always jumping to the worst conclusion. I plead guilty to this. Pains in my son's legs are the first sign of leukemia (instead of the growing pains I never knew were an actual condition). A friend is 20 minutes late dropping my two boys off and I've already got them on the way to the hospital in a life-flight helicopter.

Toxic worriers also tend to be overly global in their thinking. "They assign a little glitch more significance than it deserves or think the whole experience is a total failure," says Catherine Chambliss, Ph.D., chairman of the psychology department at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. For instance, a problem worrier might decide to give up on preschool because of her child's separation anxiety on the first day.

What makes a parent's job so difficult is that in addition to anticipating risks, we're supposed to nurture our child and help him cope with life in the outside world. In the very beginning, our roles as protector and nurturer are the same, but as kids gets older, there's a greater gap between the two. Even if you were to pad every room in your house, someday your child's going to have to walk outside on his own.

So, if you're hoping that your anxieties will fade as your child gets older, you're out of luck. The only thing that changes is what we lose sleep over. "When my now six-year-old son began to talk, a lot of my worry was relieved because then he could tell me what was wrong," says Judith Falci Massengale of Austin, Texas. But when they're talking, they're walking, which also means they're falling, pulling the cat's ear, and developing an oral relationship with the button that fell off your sweater. At each stage of your child's development, a whole new world of worry opens up  -- just in case you were getting bored with the same-old same-old.

Jeannie Ralston, a mom of two, is a contributing editor to Parenting.

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