The Best Advice I’ve Received As an Anxious Parent

Before I became an anxious parent, I was an anxious pregnant person. Before I was an anxious pregnant person, I was an anxious woman trying to conceive once more after losing my first daughter, late-term. But to be fair, I’ve struggled with not being able to know and control the future for much of my adult life. My very rocky journey to becoming a mother catapulted my anxiety into a hyper-vigilant mode, regularly verging on an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I have learned that there is no cure for anxiety, but there are plenty of “tools” you can put in your toolbox for how to manage it. Many thanks to my therapist for this metaphor.

Now that it’s my job to keep a human alive 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, I am regularly discovering never before experienced sources of anxiety. The color of poop, strawberry birthmarks, learning to swallow mashed sweet potato, rolling over, the circumference of a human head. These are just a few of the many, many subjects of my anxiety as a parent. Many feel legitimate and like the worries of any loving, concerned mama. Others feel driven by an instinct to panic and a history of trauma surrounding my child’s health. In either case, I am finding that one of my most often reached for tools to manage my anxiety was given to me by a nurse during our three-week stay in the neonatal intensive care unit after my daughter Lou was born. Let me set the scene.

The Rollercoaster of Baby Monitors

After my daughter was born six weeks premature, we spent nearly a month huddled together in her tiny NICU room watching her sleep, doing hours of skin-to-skin, learning to breastfeed, and being triggered to panic at the sound of monitors continually going off. Every baby that spends time in the NICU is hooked up to a monitor around the clock that tracks things like heart rate, breathing rate, and blood oxygen levels. So, at any given time, NICU babies have many wires, electrodes, and cuffs attached to their little bodies. If you want to pick up your baby or change their diaper, you’re going to be battling all of their electronic accessories.

These leads do critical things like notifying nurses of heart rates that are too low, if the baby stops breathing, or if not enough oxygen is getting to the brain—vital stuff. But a lot of the time, if you’re lucky enough to have a preemie that is doing well, when a sticky electrode comes loose or when the baby simply becomes excited or upset, these leads trigger a cacophony of sounds that amount to a false alarm. Nurses seem quite used to the monitors that cry wolf, but newly postpartum mothers and their partners do not. During our stay, I quickly became obsessed with studying the numbers and waveforms on the screen. Whenever an alarm was triggered, my eyes would snap to the monitor, quickly assessing the readings. I would simultaneously page the nurses, and would only exhale once they came into the room and made sure Lou was fine. It was a constant rollercoaster. 

The Tipping Point

On one of these many occasions, I just lost it. I hadn’t slept much in days, had just given birth, was living on a vinyl hobbit-sized couch, and sequestered with my very tiny baby in a room with no windows or lock on the door. Megan, a nurse I had never met before, came in and silenced the alarms, assertively assessing Lou to ensure all was well. I started blubbering to the nurse about how overwhelmed and scared I was every time the monitors signaled a potential threat to my baby’s wellbeing. “I’ve already lost one daughter,” I told her, “and I’m terrified every second of losing another.”

Then Megan did the verbal equivalent of grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me as she said, “Emily — Don’t look at the monitors. Look at your baby.” Her tone seemed almost scolding. “You are her mother, you know her better than anyone. And when you go home, you won’t have the monitors.” 

As I pulled myself back together, I started to take in her words. Although it wasn’t easy, I began to shift my approach when those awful sounds began blaring. Rather than immediately looking to the monitors to tell me if there was an actual problem or another false alarm, I would first look at Lou. I would look at her coloring, observe her chest rising and falling, check her leads to see if any were loose. Within days I no longer needed the nurses’ reassurance that Lou was perfectly well when the beeping started. I became confident in my intuition as Lou’s mother, and we left the hospital after three weeks very much ready to embrace a future without a screen to give me her status report. 

Remembering to Look at My Baby

To say my anxiety didn’t follow me home would be a lie. I can’t count the times we attempted to take Lou out for a drive only to forego the whole idea because we were terrified her car seat was going to suffocate her (to our credit she was just over five pounds at the time and compared to her, the car seat was monstrous)! But as we worked through these fearful moments, we returned again and again to Megan’s reminder to look at our baby. Instead of never taking her anywhere, we began opting to give her a pacifier once in her car seat, so we could ensure she was breathing by observing her sucking the paci in the rearview mirror.

There were many times early on that she threw up everywhere. Sure, it scared the crap out of me, but before I would go into damage control mode and panic, I would flash a big smile at Lou, and she would always smile right back, utterly unphased by the mass exodus of milk from her mouth and nose. Many times, I’ve also found myself reaching for my phone to Google something I’m anxious about regarding Lou’s health and development. I always come up short for answers and only begin to find peace when I start letting go of the “what ifs” and return to the practice of looking at her and listening to her, realizing all over again that she is a happy, healthy baby.

Managing Future Anxieties

Learning to balance my “mother’s intuition” and a panic button with an easy trigger is hard. It’s my job to protect her, and it is also my job to help her discover the world, which means both of us being brave. I can’t keep her from bonking her head on something hard forever. Still, I can look at her ouchie, assess the necessary level of care, and build confidence in both myself and my daughter that by paying attention to one another, by looking and listening instead of staring at the screen, we can more easily work through our fears and anxieties. 

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