My inevitable death and other parental anxieties

“What are you doing?”, my husband asked as he walked into our bathroom.

We needed to leave for the airport about 20 minutes ago, but there I was, wiping the bathroom sink down with Clorox and a paper towel.

“If we die, I don’t want someone coming in here and there’s toothpaste all over the sink,” I said (as if this was a completely rational reason to run late).

I heard a small grunt as he turned and walked away.  Just a small grunt because this wasn’t the first time I said this. For days now I was preparing for my inevitable death. Oh yeah, and my first trip away from my children EVER.

I needed to have my affairs in order. I know what happens out in the real world. I report the news every morning … car crashes, plane crashes, terrorism, Ebola, freak disappearances.

My sister, Bridget, tried calling the week before and my text response to her was “Beeezz! I’m at a hair appointment. Mark and I are going out of town this weekend. Be prepared to get the girls if we die.”

That one was followed up days later with “If we die, Millie really loves nail polish.”

I would love to tell you that this is just a one time occurrence, but just like most parents, my mind is trained to assume that the worst-case-scenario is the most likely scenario.

Pool = drowning

Street = run over by a car

Grapes/hot dog = choking

Button batteries = eroded esophagus

New babysitter = kidnapper (or worse)

Conventional non-organic produce = cancer

The list gets more ridiculous as I go on…

Am I crazy? No way, Jose. When my friends and I are sitting around at a play date or wine night, once in a while I hear a comment or mention of the same irrational fears surrounding their children and “inevitable” tragedies. I like to think it’s the scary part of maternal or paternal instinct that is ingrained in us the second we see that flicker of heartbeat on a sonogram.

On one hand this is a good thing, right? This is how we protect our little ones from harm or danger. But on the other hand, stressing out about the things that most likely won’t happen only adds to anxiety.

There’s a lot of research and advice about how to stop unnecessary worrying. Some of it I found helpful, others seem a little too ethereal. Let’s start with advice from the online organization Helpguide.org which works with Harvard Health.

What evidence is there that this worry is true?

I love this question. Because as I boarded the plane to leave town, I had to ask myself: What are the chances this plane will crash? Odds are about 1 in 11 million. I am more likely to get struck by lightning or die from the flu. So, even though I’m that person who gasps and screams with every bump of turbulence, I should chill out.

At the same time, I break out into a sweat thinking about my toddlers drowning in a pool (Seriously, one night I couldn’t sleep). The CDC says drowning is 5th among the leading causes of death in children.

See, now we are getting somewhere, this is a rational concern. And because I know the likelihood, we now have a pool alarm and every flotation device approved by the coast guard I could find.

What are the more likely outcomes?

I drive to work at 2am. Every morning, the thought crosses my mind that there are intoxicated drivers aiming for my car. Or if it’s winter, I wait for my car to slide off the road and fall into a ditch.

In my entire career of working early mornings, neither one of those things has ever happened. So, even though I worry and take precautions at intersections and on snowy highways, I have to remind myself – I will most likely get to work in one piece.

When I get an irrational fear, asking myself this question brings a sense of inner calm.

Know that you are not a clairvoyant

This is me lumping a lot of advice together into one category, but research from many mental health organizations encourages you to realize you can’t predict the future even though you have a “bad feeling.”

Worrying about a terrible outcome doesn’t mean you are predicting something bad will happen. That’s just fear. How many times have we worried and everything turned out fine? Maybe you did worry and once or twice the worst outcome came true. That’s just luck (or bad luck). That does not mean you should open a 1-800 line and join the psychic friends network. (Is that still on? Did I just date myself?)

Practice mindfulness and meditation

This is the advice from a lot of researchers … but in a moment panic and worry, I’m not sure this one is for me. Maybe you’ll find it helpful.

Practicing mindfulness takes time, according to helpguide.org, mindful.org and refinethemind.com

Pretty much every guide to mindfulness meditation recommends breathing exercises, focusing on the present and letting go of your worries.

Here’s the advice from HelpGuide: “Pay attention to the way your body feels, the rhythm of your breathing, your ever-changing emotions, and the thoughts that drift across your mind. If you find yourself getting stuck on a particular thought, bring your attention back to the present moment.”

Again, maybe this advice will benefit you in the long run. For me, I need the quick questions to calm my fears as my 3 year old rides her bike next to busy traffic.

Me and my hubs with the NYC skyline and Brooklyn Bridge in the background

So, in case you’re wondering, my first trip away from the girls went off without a hitch. Planes were on time, no one sustained injuries and my husband and I had a few conversations without anyone asking for milk. Convincing myself of the worst-case-scenario wasted a lot of time, because for at least 3 days, life couldn’t have been better.

7 thoughts on “My inevitable death and other parental anxieties

  1. It must be a woman thing. My wife was the same exact way. If she forgot something it was my fault for rushing her. I lost her 3 years ago to cancer and it’s amazing when I go on a trip I’m the same way now. She taught me well. She was a wonderful lady !!

  2. A well thought out essay with much insight and wonderful writing. Maureen, you are a magnificent journalist and Mother. God bless you.

  3. Spot on, Sister! 😄 I’m convinced my child will develop diabetes and cancer, every time he visits grandma, while I’m vacationing. After all, Grandma is unfamiliar with the word ‘No!’ when cake is requested for breakfast.

  4. I get accused of not worrying enough. I wonder if its a male vs. female thing. From my perspective life is all about risk management. Worrying about things seems so non productive to me. We can only control a certain amount of our life. After that things are what they are. While no one wants unhappiness or worse to befall them ,life happens. We need to manage the risks we face the best that we can and enjoy life..I’m finding out it races past you faster than you could ever imagine, and it would be a shame to spend that time worrying about something you couldn’t control.

  5. Funny. My husband and I are typical role reversal on this one. I don’t worry enough, and he worries too much about things we can’t control with our girls. I live more in the present, where as he lives more in the future. We have a good balance that way. Don’t get me wrong, I think about all of the things you mentioned, but where as I think about them and then move on, my husband dwells on them more like you mentioned. 🙂
    I love reading your articles and posts. You are such a talented and funny writer!

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