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07 Feb, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

Motherhood has made me neurotic

I’m driving my car, having just left the house — where my two pre-teens are staying alone while I run a short errand. I’m enjoying a brief moment of solitude when my neurotic self hijacks my peace. Did I unplug the toaster? Did I lock the back door? Did I remember to turn off the burner under the soup?

I never have these worries when the house is empty. But with my precious, not-so-little ones at home, my mind races to unusual places. I think of devastating house fires caused by malfunctioning toasters or spontaneous electrical flare ups. I visualize the newspaper headlines and stories highlighting my negligent ways. It’s all too much, so I turn the car around and head back. I duck into the house quietly so my daughters won’t hear me.

Of course, the toaster is unplugged. I check the burners on the stove; they are cold. Just before leaving, I hear giggles coming from the basement and can just picture the girls rolling their eyes. I’ve been caught red-handed, my neurotic self on full display — again.

Like many mothers, parenthood has forced me to accept aspects of my personality I didn’t realize existed, including these strange worries. Before I had children, I was an easy-going person who enjoyed spontaneity and adventure, travelling and enjoying life without a second thought for the safety of my home.

After I had my children, everything changed. I began to worry about the risks my children faced in this dangerous world — bizarre things
like uncut hot dogs, whole grapes and lead-based paint. Trampolines induced fits of anxiety. Just looking at a friend’s enormous Doberman pinscher required deep, yogic, calming breaths.

My friends teased me, but I began to realize that they all had their own set of worries: a toddler who learns to speak later than his peers, an overweight child, an underweight child, bullies, a child who is excessively shy, a child who is excessively gregarious, or 15-year-olds at house parties.

My only explanation for all this maternal worry is that perhaps when a baby pushes her way out of your body, she takes a piece of your soul with her wherever she goes: to camp, on her first date, to house parties and backpacking through Timbuktu.

Fathers worry too, of course. But they tend to worry about practical things. My dad always asked if I’d checked the air pressure in my tires when I learned to drive or how was it that I managed to lose another watch? And why was I having so much trouble with fractions. You know, stuff he could help fix (except, as it turned out, the issue of fractions. But that’s another story).

Keep worries at bay

And yet, my rational mind knows my children should not suffer or be held back by these sometimes irrational concerns. So I hold my tongue 99 per cent of the time, not shouting “be careful!” when they run at breakneck speed down a hill. They need to scrape their knees, get some bruises, and learn their own lessons from some scary and unpleasant life experiences. Lessons learned through trial and error tend to stick with us more than those gleaned from yet another boring lecture from mom or dad.

So, as they’ve gotten older, I let them go to the park on their own, bike around our quiet, suburban neighbourhood without me and I try to suppress the memory of every movie, newscast and Rescue 9-1-1 episode I’ve ever seen. I encourage them to take public transportation, ski down expert runs on large mountains, and push them to ever more challenging physical tasks. They climbed Mount Washington in the October rain and sleet with their father, while I pretended not to stare at my cell phone awaiting word of their return 45 minutes after dark.

The tension between my worried heart and my rational mind is ongoing, a conflict that will be familiar to many parents today. Ironic really, since many of us grew up running around our childhood neighbourhoods without a cellphone to tether us to mom or dad. We rode bicycles without helmets, chewed on the bars of our lead-painted cribs, drank directly from the garden hose and managed to survive to adulthood more or less intact. Despite all the media messages about the rare, awful things that can happen, I know that life in our city is statistically no more dangerous than it was when we were kids.

It’s occurred to me that if I stop fussing with the sunscreen, booster seats and wholegrain flaxseed muffins for a few moments, I might learn a lot from my kids’ natural optimism and boundless enthusiasm for life. It would be awful if the predominant message they get from me is that the world is a dangerous place. Which, if I let it (and I swear I won’t), would just be something new to worry about.

So I might occasionally still double-check that toaster, but I’m working on the calm, rational side of myself. I expect I’ll need it in a few years when one of them books a flight to Timbuktu.

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