Adventures in Anxiety: Why parenthood makes me anxious.

This story starts with a trunk full of books.

Many years ago, shortly after Sergio and I started dating, we talked about our long-term plans and dreams for our lives. It’s normal couple-stuff — where do you see yourself in 10 years? what do you want to do with your life? — which led to talking about whether or not we saw ourselves as parents.

At that time the answer was “Of course!” And as we talked about what was important to us if we had a family together, instilling curiosity and a love of travel and exploration was near the top of our list.

We were stepping in and out of shops during one of our early trips together and somehow the idea dawned on us — we wanted to buy a book from each trip and create a collection for our future family.

I envisioned creating little pockets like those in (old school) library books where we could insert postcards with some memories jotted on them. I never got around to making the pockets (that was a craft project gone very wrong), but I did pick up a postcard or two from each location and filled each with some favorite memories for our kids to treasure, and stuck them in the books. Trip by trip and book by book, our collection grew.

But then things changed. You know the drill — crash and diagnosis and eventually a slow climb to a new normal.

As I detailed in my post last year about my decision to never bear a child (read To Breed or Not to Breed? if you want to learn more about that decision), even though I think it’s great that many folks choose to build their families through birth children, that isn’t right for me (and because I have an awesome husband who believes in body autonomy, for us). And this whole anxiety situation threw our whole decision to start a family into question.

Here’s the thing — we love our life as it is and we are excited by what our life could be if we had a family. We love being fur parents to Astrix, our perpetual loving and annoying toddler. We love our careers and traveling together. Were this to be our lives from this point forward, we would love it.

But we also see a happy future as parents, welcoming some small humans into our family. We both grew up with siblings and would love to have two or three children (and as many adopted children are split from their siblings, we would love to keep a sibling group together). We are excited about what it would mean to welcome kids into our home. Sometimes I have this breathless sense that our kids are already out there, living somewhere else but on a collision course with us.

While we grew up in different family and country cultures that don’t always align, I know Sergio would be an amazing father. He is easygoing and comfortable with little ones, which is pretty obvious when you see him interact with our nephew and niece. He doesn’t get overstimulated by the environment the way that I do and seems to function much better on less sleep. He is patient and kind and is willing to play and laugh and be silly.

So what has me doubting parenthood? You guessed it — me.

When I wrote my post last year about choosing not to get pregnant, I shared the most controversial/least socially-acceptable reason behind the decision — my decided non-maternal instincts towards babies. Which is why, as we have researched and read more about adoption, we have decided to adopt older children (ideally a sibling pair). We’re interested in pre-school- or elementary-school-age children — something I’ll share more in a future post.

But here is where my anxiety-brain does me a great disservice — even though I have data to the contrary that I have abilities and qualities that would make me a good parent and that I’m resilient despite my mental illness, those demons and devils are all whispering in my ears, “Who do you think you are? You’re not good enough to do this. You’re not deserving enough to do this. You’re much better staying as you are.”

When I think about welcoming adopted children into the family I’m even tougher on myself. Though there are many, many wrong assumptions and myths about adopted children, especially older ones (again, future blog post), even the happiest, most well-adjusted adopted child — and their adoptive parents — go through a major adjustment and life disruption. Who am I, someone who has the flaws that I have, to think that I’m ready to be that perfect parent for these hypothetical children?

Perfect — that’s the word that trips me up. Perfection is a mirage in the desert, just beyond my reach.

I’m always ready to do. the. work.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown shares ten guideposts, things we can cultivate so we can let go of our perfectionism. Some of those guideposts come more naturally to me after years (years!) of doing and being. For example, I spent much of 2015 learning how to ease into play and relaxation, and these days I can devote time to open-ended or non- (less?) goal-oriented activities. Anxiety has also helped me to let go of what other people think and be most concerned about how I feel about myself. But when I think about what prevents me from embracing motherhood, some of her guideposts still stand out as areas for exploration and action:

Cultivate self-compassion: Brown writes that self-compassion comes from three things: self-kindness (being warm and understanding, not caught up in self-criticism), common humanity (no one is alone; we all go through difficult times), and mindfulness (staying neutral or accepting to all feelings, even negative feelings). While my work as a coach has helped me embrace common humanity, I would like to develop deeper self-kindness and mindfulness. How can I expect to parent a child/children who will not criticize themselves if they see me model it? How will I be able to keep out of the parent comparison game if I’m not able to look at myself with kindness? And how can I continue to strengthen my practice of sitting in discomfort?

Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: I spent much of my six-plus months of coach certification leaning into my intuition (“Be BOLD!” was my tagline) instead of having to analyze every thought and feeling to determine its validity. It’s not that thinking shouldn’t have a place in coaching — or in life’s big decisions — but it’s that it can crowd out our felt sense of what we know to be true. It’s as if we need all the data points to make sure that we’re on the right track! “I’m a professional pollster,” Brown writes. “[I]t’s hard for me to go it alone sometimes. When I’m making a difficult decision and feel disconnected from my intuition, I have a tendency to survey everyone around me.” While the circle of Who should I survey? has decreased in recent years, I find myself stepping back from my gut, which is telling me You are meant to do this. What will it take for me to stay connected to that instead of my doubts?

Cultivating creativity: Social media and its usage is a hot topic in our household! Last fall I had a come-to-Jesus moment about my social media and decided that I wanted shift from using my Instagram feed as a place to post travel photos to a place where I advocate for mental health, wellness, balance, and general kick-assery. It doesn’t get me as many clicks but it feels like the quality of engagement, both online and off, is much better. Why does this matter? Because social media feeds our desire to compare ourselves with one another — and even though I’m not currently a mom, wow is there a lot of mom-shaming or mom-comparing out there on the Interwebz! There are the familiar Working Mom vs. Stay-At-Home Mom, but beyond that am I Cook All The Meals Mom or Takeout Mom? Am I Creative Crafts Mom or Read In Your Room Mom? When I’m disconnected and focused on the type of parent I’d like to be I get excited by the possibilities (teaching kids fitness! building Lego! all the museums!). But when I focus on comparison, I lose all of the creativity that makes me me.

Cultivating meaningful work: This last guidepost is an odd one for me as I’ve spent the 12+ years of my professional life cultivating meaning professional work, finding my calling as a coach and consultant, connecting with wonderful managers, teammates, and clients, and generally waking up every morning excited to go to work (really). But unfortunately I haven’t had that same sense of calling met in my personal life. I am very happy to be a wife to my best friend in the whole world. I am happy to be a daughter and a sister in my family. I am happy that I have friends who have stood by me throughout everything. The closest I’ve found to a calling in my personal life, though, is being a Big Sister to now 14-year-old Ashly (we celebrate our 3-year Matchiversary in two weeks). I am honored to be a part of her life, to be her friend and mentor, to advocate for her (but now mostly help her advocate for herself!), and to simply spend time together. In some ways, being a Big has been an experience that has helped me understand that you can make a difference in a child’s life, no matter their age. That makes me open and curious to the “call” of parenting, if it is a call I choose to answer.

You know, when you just happen to both dress in all-black…

So… now what?

What resonates so deeply with me about this book — all of Brene Brown’s work really — is that there isn’t an endpoint. There is no destination, no nirvana, no there. She invites all of us into a lifelong journey of discovery, curiosity, and openness to change. And as someone who likes to list out her goals and check them off, trying on some of her principles has been a drastic shift for me.

There is no ready when it comes to expanding our family. Yes, we want to be informed. Yes, we are finishing up a few things in our lives so we’re a bit more prepared for the shift that parenthood might bring for us. And yes, we know that as with all things in life, there are no guarantees. We might not be matched with kids; placements could be disrupted; we might start down the road and reverse our decision.

But that’s where my anxiety is my greatest asset — I am resilient. When I look back on the past almost-five years and reflect on how I’ve grown, changed, and flourished, I have faith that I am able to overcome great challenges. I know that I will face unexpected challenges, I know that requirements will change, and I know that there are unknowns I can’t even fathom.

And I know I can do it because I have stood up and fought for myself in a way I didn’t know how. I know we can do it because even though this isn’t a journey we wanted to embark on, we got on that path together and held hands throughout every step of the way, even when it felt too tough to go on.

So we keep on collecting, filling our trunk book by book. In fact, the current trunk was so full that the lid wouldn’t close, so last weekend I found a second trunk for us to fill. Because even though we don’t know what will happen — whether or not we’ll have kids who will read these books and laugh about their dorky parents — we know that we’ll do it together. And that? There’s no anxiety there — just peace.

Cheers, Sarah

No one I’d rather walk side-by-side with than this guy!

NW native blogging about life’s struggles and triumphs. Balancing career, family, hobbies, and health. Fierce advocate for mental health. And chocolate lover.

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