Maternal anxiety is a special kind of hell. Fear hijacks our nervous system and takes our thoughts hostage. When a child is sick, when he is careening off course, when we know something is wrong, even though we don’t know what it is, maternal worry can fill our days and nights with dread.
Sadly, it is also often isolating. Depending on the cause of our apprehension, we may feel ashamed of sharing it with others. Friends and relatives may meet our concerns dismissively with the intention of offering comfort, but the effect is often the opposite. Worrying about our children can have very specific effects on a marriage and the way a couple interacts about the concern. When we are fearful for our children, we often need something very specific from our spouse, who may or may not be capable of meeting that need.
Fear and Anger
Anne is a woman in my practice* with a teenage daughter who is very bright, but also anxious. In the past, Anne’s daughter Kayla had handled challenges maladaptively through avoidance. In the seventh grade, the girl stopped doing most of her assignments at school, hiding this fact from Anne and her husband as long as she could. Her subsequent stress and shame about her declining grades left her depressed and anxious, and she began cutting. Anne and her husband worked hard to help get Kayla back on track. They sought out a good therapist for her, and worked with her on time management skills during summer school so that she had better strategies for managing stress.
For several years, Kayla was doing better, but recently, Anne has begun to worry that Kayla is slipping back into maladaptive patterns with the increased stress of junior year.
“I worry all the time,” Anne tells me. “I am on constant high alert.”
In our work together, it became apparent that, along with the worry, Anne feels a great deal of anger at her husband. Whenever she tries to talk about her concerns about Kayla, her husband Jake responds by ratcheting up his own anxiety.
“I feel as though I am looking to him to help me problem solve, or at least get a perspective on my fears. As soon as I say something, he becomes even more anxious than I am. Then I feel worse than I did before, and I have to try to talk him off the ledge! It seems totally unfair.”
Waiting for the Axe to Fall
A fairy tale called “The Men of Gotham” illustrates the difficulties that can ensue when we feed into each other’s anxieties rather than helping each other contain them.
A farmer and his wife lived near Gotham, and they had one daughter. The time came when a gentleman arrived at the farmhouse, and, since the daughter was pretty and the farmer wealthy, asked for the girl’s hand in marriage.
The farmer and his wife were very well pleased. They sent the girl down into the cellar to fill a great jug of ale for their future son-in-law to drink the health of the bride-to-be.
She set the jug on the floor, turned on the tap, and sat to wait while it filled. As she waited, she looked up and saw an old rusty axe sticking into a beam.
“Oh my!” she thought. “Suppose when the gentlemen and I are married, and we have a son, and he should come down here, and the axe should fall on his head. How dreadful that would be!”
So thinking, she began to cry, and forgot the ale.
When she didn’t come back, her mother looked for her.
“Oh my!” said her mother. “Why are you crying?”
“Look at the axe in the beam,” sobbed the girl. “Suppose when the gentleman and I are married we have a son, and he should come down here, and the axe should fall on his head. How dreadful that would be!”
“Dreadful indeed,” agreed the mother. And she sat down and cried as well.
Presently, the farmer came down too.
“Whatever are you crying for?” he asked. And when they told him, he sat down and cried as well.
Something like this happened to Anne when she recently spoke to her husband about Kayla. “I told him that I had received an email from her biology teacher that an important assignment was never handed in. Instead of just listening, helping me think things through, or reassuring me, he flipped. He started catastrophizing, saying that Kayla’s chances for getting into a decent college were down the drain, and now she’d probably wind up living in our basement for years, and all kinds of other ridiculous things. It was exhausting.”
When one of us in a partnership is afraid, the other one really ought to try and do his or her best to help us contain our anxiety. It isn’t that the other partner never gets to be anxious. Rather, when we are directly seeking support for our anxiety, our spouse ought to be able to set his own feelings aside for a few minutes to help us. Of course, we ought to also be able to take on that role for our spouse when he or she needs soothing as well. I remember once reading a definition of a psychologically healthy couple as one in which the partners are able to switch roles. I think that’s rather brilliant.
In the fairy tale quoted above, the gentleman bridegroom eventually makes his way to the cellar and finds his bride-to-be and her parents sobbing. When they tell him the source of their troubles, he laughs heartily and pulls the axe out of the beam. While we certainly don’t want our partners to laugh at our troubles – unless they are helping us to laugh at them at well – it is useful when a spouse is able to pull the metaphorical axe out of the beam for us.
I asked Anne what she wished that Jake has said. She grew thoughtful before she answered.
“I wish he had told me that he was worried too, but that this is only one assignment. That we don’t know the whole story yet, and even if Kayla is slipping into old negative patterns, we know how to handle that better than we did the first time.”
Wouldn’t that have been nice?
*As usual, clinical vignettes are fictionalized composites. Where real material has been used, permission has been granted.
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“The Men of Gotham” is from Green, R. L. (1965). Myths from Many Lands. London: Purnell and Sons. Pp. 62-63.