Parental Anxiety and Accepting Help

Holding on tight, and letting go.

Me and my boo, before a holiday party, when she was 1. Photo Credit: Author.

I had a dream last night that’s been hard to shake:

My best friend in Seattle called me up and asked for help on some project. I drove and ferried the 2 hours to her house and only then realized I had left my 4-year-old home alone. I panicked. I had forgotten, in this dream, that my husband was off somewhere, not home with our kid. I had let myself forget about her, and now she was abandoned.
I called and left a rambling message on a (non-existent) answering machine, believing my voice would ring out loudly in the house. I told her I loved her and I was on my way home, but it was going to take a while. I gave detailed instructions for pushing her bathroom stool up to the kitchen counter, to reach the pretzels, how to get carrots and soy milk out of the fridge.
I was afraid that the answering machine would cut me off at any second, and also that she would be in another part of the house and not hear it. I was afraid she’d starve, freeze, feel abandoned, wander into the street. I imagined her reverting to a raised-by-wolves madness.
I started the long drive back, facing car trouble and all manor of ridiculous dream barriers to getting home. Finally, at 4 am, I came home to find her safe, alive, asleep on the living room floor.
I felt relief that she was home and alive. But still I wondered what emotional turmoil she’d suffered in the many hours she’d been alone with no idea where her mom was and why.
I wondered if I should wake her, hug her, tell her I loved her and I was sorry. If I should carry her to her bed. Or if I should lie down next to her on the floor, tuck us both in under a big blanket, and finally rest.

Then I woke up, at 1 pm (!!!), next to my husband, who was still asleep. It was practically our daughter’s nap time, and we were both luxuriously sleeping.

We’re visiting my parents, who are more than happy to spend time with their grandchild while we sleep in, but still, the anxiety is creeping into my dreams, telling me,

You can’t sleep that late. You’re a mother. If you sleep in, you have abandoned her. She could be starving, freezing, or who knows what?!

I started therapy when she was 2, and immediately identified a feeling that the old me had died, that I had a great need to mourn the me I was before I became a parent. I had so far put off the mourning process, because it felt ungrateful to admit I had those feelings. I had always wanted to be a mother, so now that I was one, I thought I wasn’t allowed to feel any negative emotions about it.

My daughter now sleeps on a different floor of our house, so we still use a baby monitor. At her first wordless stirrings, I wake up, while my husband is able to keep sleeping through it. No matter how tired I am, I know I won’t go back to sleep — My baby needs me! — so I usually just leave the room with the baby monitor and let my husband sleep. Even when he does get up with her, and even if there’s nothing I need to do at a certain time, I almost always get up too. With anxiety. Lately, I use that time to write, always with one ear listening for my kid. If they leave the house together, when I’m home alone, it’s better; I know she’s not my responsibility just then.

She has regular sleepovers at my inlaws’ house, sometimes for two nights in a row. And in these times, I really am able to let go, to shake off motherhood (not 100%, but more than I ever imagined I’d be able). My husband and I take this time to really connect; I can access different parts of myself when I know that my kid is taken care of completely, and I am not needed at all.

It can be hard to let go, to acknowledge others can care for your kid too. My dream reminds me this is still a constant internal struggle.

But letting go is worth it. For much-needed sleep. And to reunite with the selves we were before we became parents. And the new selves we are still to create.

Here’s something else I wrote about the emotions of parenting: