This month, I walked through some really heavy emotions with my seven-year-old daughter. Actually, I wouldn’t call them emotions so much as I would call them a collective cloud of anxiety.
I have no desire to paint my kid into a box and say that she has a mental health disorder (nor do I have that qualification), but if experience in my own life is any indicator, I’d say that she probably does.
I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a panic disorder, and PTSD from a bad car wreck I was in as a kid. The fear of riding in cars hasn’t always been with me, but the panic and anxiety has been around for as long as I remember. My earliest memory of it was when I was five years old and felt like I couldn’t reach perfection in my school work. I was gifted with an IQ of over 130, but, for some reason, I still felt like I was worthless when I couldn’t get every single piece of my work right.
The things I remember about my own anxiety are the exact same things I see in my daughter.
She cried more than any baby I’ve ever known, and she didn’t have colic. She NEVER slept. She had serious separation anxiety. She slept through the night for the very first time on her second birthday. She hyperventilated when she couldn’t get to me right away when she was scared.
As her mother, I remember being so sleepy when she was about six months old that I had hallucinations in the middle of the night. I could barely stand up during the day because I was getting so little sleep. It really was awful.
As she grew up, the anxiety continued, but it manifested in different ways. Fear of integrating socially. Fear of the dark. Fear of doors being closed. Bursting into tears when she missed the extra credit spelling word on her spelling test. Crying in the middle of the night because she was afraid of dying.
This month, it showed up in the form of her feeling “so ugly that she couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror.”
She’s never heard negative remarks about physical appearance from me (I’m so intentional about that), she doesn’t hear it at school because she’s homeschooled, and she doesn’t watch “mean girl” movies. I think it’s truly anxiety, digging around in her subconscious to find things to make her worry about.
How does that happen at seven years old?
Her entire life, I’ve assumed that her anxiety was a combination of genes she received from me that predisposed her to mental health concerns, plus being raised in her early years by a mom who was so stressed. That combination HAD to be the reason she is so anxious as a person.
Well, I’m learning that there’s a third component to a child’s mental health that I’d never thought about until this month.
According to a number of scientific studies (I’m not citing all of them here, but you can Google them!), a mother’s emotional health during pregnancy can actually affect the long-term emotional/mental health of the child.
If I apply that to my own pregnancy with her, it makes sense. I was going through all of my disorders without counseling, medication, or any sort of support system. I was depressed a lot. I was overworked. I was exhausted. And I didn’t talk to ANYBODY about how I was feeling.
Yet, I was eating all my fruits and vegetables, taking all of my vitamins, and exercising as much as I was supposed to. I thought I was giving my daughter everything she needed while she was growing inside of my.
But there was so much more to taking care of her in those days than what I realized.
To prevent you from thinking that her anxiety is still due to environment, let me assure you that it’s not. Since that first year, I’ve calmed down significantly. I got on anxiety medication, I found Jesus, I found a community, my husband and I found a parental footing, and life is really steady.
But even amidst our peaceful parenting (seriously, we’re so calm as people), my daughter is still anxious ALL THE TIME.
Those prenatal months affected her more than anyone really realized. Something that I read recently (I wish I could remember where it was because I know those fact-based readers will jump all over me – haha) said that when the stress response is activated in a mother’s brain during pregnancy, the stress response is also activated in the unborn child.
Their adrenaline spikes. Their fight-or-flight-or-freeze response is activated. And, inevitably, anxiety sneaks in to their little brains. It’s a chemical response.
Another report I read said that a mother’s hormones actually pass through their placenta, essentially “feeding” the hormones to the baby. This is why baby girls are often born with “breast buds” that leak milk. They go away within a couple of weeks, but in the beginning, they still have the mother’s hormones coursing through them.
No pregnant mother can help having mood swings–that’s normal–but chronic mental health disorders are something deeper than just a bout of sadness.
Biologically, the brain chemicals that come with anxiety/depression are passed back and forth between mother and child.
This also makes sense when I think about the kiddos in my life who’ve been adopted.
I hear their parents say all the time, “She’s been raised with us her entire life. She’s not even old enough yet to know that she’s adopted. Why is she so much angrier than my other kids? Why is she in survival mode all the time?”
Well, if you think about it, those kids were taken through the emotional ups and downs of their biological mothers while they were in utero. If their biological mom lived in a high-stress environment, that child could be in fight/flight/freeze mode all the time. It settles into their brain, telling them, “This is how you survive.”
That mindset can stick around even after the child has been moved to a safe situation because their regulator got sort of busted while they were in the womb.
They might have also heard a lot of yelling while they were in their mom’s tummy. They probably felt their mom’s chemical reactions to increased panic, anger, or fear. They definitely heard their mother’s heartbeat for nine months, which might have been rapid from fear a lot of the time.
If you add to that the fact that many children who are adopted come from biological parents who were addicted to substances, plus the fact that many of these kids experienced trauma at the hands of their bio families, you’ve got a recipe for lifelong battles against mental health.
That biological connection between mother and baby really does make sense.
It even affirms something I said to a friend recently, which was, “I swear, your first child is sort of emotionally tethered to you. It’s like this emotional landline is created inside of you when you’re pregnant for the first time, and for the rest of your life, you and your child just KNOW what each other is feeling.”
It’s not just true with the firstborn, though. It’s true with all of your babies. I feel it the most heavily with my firstborn because she has BIGGER emotions, but it still exists with the second kiddo, too. My second one is just so much more even-tempered that I don’t really have many “vibes” to pick up from her.
This isn’t to say that we’re all doomed as children, simply because our mothers were stressed while they were pregnant with us. Healing can, and does, take place. And some people are much more susceptible to feeling the effects of stress than others.
All I’m saying is that there’s more to the story of childhood mental health concerns than what we originally thought.
This also isn’t an attempt to shame mothers into feeling like they’re the cause of their children’s anxiety/depressive disorders. Speaking for myself, I know that I’ve done the best I can with what life gave me, and I won’t let myself feel crippling guilt over my daughter’s anxiety.
I will, however, acknowledge that she and I are biologically connected, which means that she feels much of the same things I once felt. Acknowledging that gives me the opportunity to help her get better.
Why would I waste my time feeling guilt or shame over that when I could instead use it to help her improve?
I’ve changed my daughter’s stressful environment, I’ve changed the way I parent her, I’ve given her a community, I’ve strengthened my marriage, and I’m taking my medication every day. The only thing I can’t go back and change is that time she spent inside of me, and that’s okay.
I don’t have to change it. All I have to do is be better from here on out and help her learn how to be better.