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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.

Realistic or risky?

Are the risks real?
The maddening irony of worry is that, whatever we're anxious about, chances are we're freaked out about the wrong thing. My mom, who raised six children and therefore considers herself an expert on worry, has always said that. Scientists have proved her right; we do this, researchers say, because when it comes to fears, we're a bit irrational. "We tend to rely on emotions more than facts when we decide what to be afraid of," says David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston. There seem to be common themes to our worries:

* We lose more sleep over man-made risks (radiation from nuclear waste) than natural risks (radiation from the sun)

* We're more terrified when we're not in control (such as when we're flying) than when we are (driving our families in the car)

* Risks that are new are more frightening than those we've lived with for a while (SARS versus food poisoning)

* Whenever a threat gets a whirl through the media machine  -- last winter's flu epidemic, for instance  -- it moves to the top of almost every parent's panic list, even though it was just as dangerous the year before.

Lori Verni, mom of two daughters, ages 6 and 4, in Holly Springs, North Carolina, says she often worried about the risk of abductions by strangers until she learned the actual number of such cases each year. (Of the 1.3 million children abducted annually, all but 2,000 are taken by people they know.) "Of course, I still teach my girls about stranger awareness," says Verni, "but now I'm able to let go a little and let them be more independent."

A troubled mind is a terrible thing to waste, but perversely, because of our emotionally charged overreactions to certain threats, we may not be concerned enough about true dangers. One response to a perceived high risk of child abduction is to keep kids from playing outside. So they stay inside, play video games, and gain weight. But in the end, obesity is more likely to harm a child than an unshaven man proffering gummy bears.

Inheriting worry

Hand-me-down worries
Maturing as a mom means being able to tolerate a certain inevitable amount of risk. The amount you can handle depends to some extent on your genetic makeup; in fact, scientists have recently discovered a "worry" gene that predisposes people to anxiety, pessimism, and negative thinking. The gene in question is the human serotonin transporter, and researchers say that those who have a shortened version of it receive less serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood.

But why lay all the blame for our skittish selves on nature when we can blame nurture  -- in other words, our parents? Our worry thermostat is often set by how they reacted to life's problems. Martha Outlaw, mom of two young daughters in Wilton, Connecticut, says she can trace her disquiet to her early years. "Because of their own childhood experiences, my mom and dad carried around a constant dread that our family's fortunes could suddenly change for the worse," she says. Such a strong influence from childhood can create a deep-seated state of worry that's hard to shake off.

A friend of mine, who's fairly laid-back otherwise, is afraid of the dark, and now that she has a young daughter, it's grown worse  -- to the point where she can't stay in the house when her husband travels. She tracks this anxiety back to her father, who was an alcoholic and used to wake up his kids at night when he came home after a bender. "My demons come out at night," she says. "I can't stop worrying that someone will break into my house and take my daughter. How would I protect her? For me, the late hours have always been a chaotic time when I don't feel safe."

Your maternal worry threshold may also be influenced by other factors, such as your age when your kids were born. Janyce Dudney, mom of four from Kingsport, Tennessee, started having kids at 23. "I was so young I didn't know all the things I should be afraid of," she says. As we get older, we become more savvy about risks and start to lose any feelings of invincibility.

Birth order may also play a role in how high you're strung. Parents tend to hover over first-borns, often implanting unnecessary fear and caution. Later-born kids have buffers between them and their moms and dads.

Given the influence of our own parents and childhood experiences, it's imperative to try to prevent passing on the worry bug to our kids. This means: Try not to let them see you fret (or at least, over-fret). Protecting your child from adult concerns gives him a chance to build up hope, optimism, and resiliency. Obsessive worrying is particularly damaging. "If you over-emphasize dangers, you may be conveying to your child that the world's a dangerous place," when it's actually not, according to statistics, says Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Denver. A baby born today has a one-third better chance of surviving its first year of life than one born in 1960, and a child born now will live almost twice as long as one born 100 years ago.

And children can sense when you're stirred up about something. The other day I was agitated (and tried to hide it) because I couldn't find my way on the Houston highways while visiting my brother who lives there. "Are we lost? Are we lost?" my son Gus, now 7, asked urgently as I searched for the right exit. I tried to reassure him, but his anxious face didn't relax. "I hate Houston," he finally said.

Taming the anxiety

Seeking reassuranceThe good news is that our propensity for superhuman worry often lessens with subsequent children. "You only have so much worry to go around," says my sister-in-law Lisa Ralston, mom of three in Newport News, Virginia. "And with each child, you've got more experience."

There are other ways to tame your anxieties. Dr. Hallowell likens worry to blood pressure: "You need a certain level to live, but too high a level can hurt you. And worry, like blood pressure, can be regulated." How to take the edge off:

Don't worry alone. Fretting by yourself intensifies your fears. Other parents can be the reality check you need to keep your brain from launching into melodrama mode. "I get together with my mom friends weekly, and talking to them helps me realize that I'm not the only one with these feelings, and that helps alleviate them," says Courtenay Wells, mom of a 2-year-old in Lafayette, Indiana. The bonus is that some of the dearest mom friendships are formed over mutual concern about poop color.
The best sounding board may often be your husband  -- as long as he doesn't automatically file your concerns under "N" for neurotic  -- since he shares an equal interest in your child's well-being. I was worried recently about my son's playdate near a river with a friend whose mom doesn't seem very attentive. I didn't say anything because I suspected I was overreacting. Finally, my husband asked me, pointedly, if I felt all right about the plan. It turned out that he was as concerned as I was. We decided I would stay with them during the playdate. If you work as a team, you can decide what's really worth worrying about.

Filter, filter, filter. Research shows that the more TV news or violent programs you watch, the more you believe the world's a dangerous place. And you're more afraid when you see a face in the news that personifies your fear. I'm very careful about what I watch on TV, which movies I see, and what I read, since my imagination doesn't need any assistance from the media. I never watch newsmagazine shows because they tend to find the one child who developed purple pustules after eating a hot dog. (The earnest anchorwoman inevitably asks, "Could this happen to your child?")

Get information. In the absence of facts, your imagination amplifies the danger into a catastrophe. If you're worried about your baby dying in his sleep, read up on the latest SIDS studies. If you're worried about your child choking, take an infant CPR class.

Make a plan. You'll feel less vulnerable and more in control. My friend who's scared of being alone at night has taken action to make her house feel safer so she needn't stay with her mom when her husband travels. She installed an alarm system and more outdoor lights. "I've actually stayed the whole night in the house alone," she says. "I didn't sleep well, but I didn't panic."

Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat well. Try to get enough sleep (though worrying itself can be a sleep inhibitor). If you're stressed out, it's hard to be sensible about things, and if you're run down, you're more liable to feel anxious. This is when even pebbles begin to look like Everests.

Set aside a time for worrying so you can contain its virulent spread. My sister-in-law gives herself permission to mull over her worries for a few minutes each morning. "Then I tell myself I'm not going to think about them for the rest of the day," she says. Write your troubles down if it helps, but don't do it right before bedtime, since that will only churn you up when you need to be slowing down.

Get spiritual, whether it's through organized religion or some other higher power. I joined a church when I had kids, and there have been times when only a bit of faith has sustained me. Faith helps us realize we're part of a bigger whole and emphasizes the general goodness of the world. You can also direct your energies toward prayer rather than worrying. "The difference between the two is that worrying is a fear of the negative," says Michael Miller, Ph.D., professor of practical theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas. "Praying is envisioning a positive result. It has the element of hope that's missing in worrying."

Go for the positive. As absurd as it sounds, worrying can create sensations we like. "Part of why we imagine disasters  -- something terrible happening to our kids  -- is that it's an unconscious tool to get at some good feelings; it helps us appreciate what we have," says Chambliss.

But there are other ways to experience that. You might say to yourself, "I like to feel how important my kids are to me; it fills my life to recognize what they've taught me about love and devotion." Says Chambliss, "What you really want is to savor what they mean to you. Fast forward past the negative  -- the disaster scenarios  -- and get to the positive."

The one positive I took away from the Great Meningitis Scare is a sense of perspective: I can now grasp that a 5-year-old who may have the flu is much lower down on the scale than the all-out, blaring alarm of a 9-week-old with possible meningitis. Luckily, I've had only one visit to the land of heart-stopping panic, and remembering that helps keep my worry in check. I figure it's better to store it up for when I really need it.