Worrying: The Nation's Hobby of Choice
Is this really the right school? Should I make my kids wear life jackets at the neighborhood pool party? Jimmy's had a cough for a week. Does Amy's mom have enough booster seats for the movie trip? Is my child gifted? We watched more than an hour of TV. Is Bruce's trampoline safe? How could we forget the sight words we practiced this summer? Will my kids get kidnapped at the mall? What about playing with toy guns? Do kids need to wear helmets while riding their bikes in the driveway? Will he have too many activities if we add tae kwon do? Do we need toddler Mandarin classes for Harvard?
What did you worry about today--or in the last fifteen minutes?
If you're like most parents, these seemingly life-or-death worries and critical future-determining decisions probably flash through your mind on a regular basis.
There is a lot to be on top of when you're a parent. Every day some new unexpected problems are thrown our way. Although I am exaggerating how crucial each decision is, sometimes all the decisions seem important, as if there were no going back for your child's well-being and future prosperity if you make even one wrong turn.
An endless podcast of worries plays like audio wallpaper in the back of a parent's mind. Some of us tune into 'Worries FM' more than others.
What's Playing on Worries FM?
I worry; therefore I am (a good parent). Whoever worries more loves more. The more sleepless nights I have, the more caring a parent I am.
I used to think that I worried more than any other parent I knew. But everywhere I went, there was always a parent saying, 'As a parent you just can't help worrying.' At Scouts, by the pool, in the classroom, on vacation, at church, in the grocery store checkout line, at the soccer game, there was always somebody worrying about their kids.
And almost every parent I met insisted that he or she worried more than I did.
The Five-Minute Worry Test
Sit down, take a piece of paper and for five minutes write down the things that you worry about for your child. The list can include dangers, fears, and worries. Then underline what you perceive as the most dangerous or crucial one of all.
In the Paranoid Parents focus groups that I conduct, some parents have easily come up with a list of 125 worries in five minutes. Even worse, some parents can find a potential danger in everything they see: a glass to break, a possibly poison leaf to eat, a sofa to fall off of, a DVD player to stick something in, a pillow to suffocate someone, a bed to jump on, a grape to choke on, a slick floor to slip on, a Wii nun chuck cord to getting strangled with.
In our focus groups, most parents described themselves as 'worried parents.' About 75 percent of parents who were polled either started or ended their five-minute worry test with the word everything. 'I worry about everything,' they freely admitted. Ironically, the 25 percent of parents who said they felt in control were no better off than the paranoid set because they were completely wrong about what the serious dangers were for their kids. In other words, they're not worrying about the things they should worry about.
Most parents worry. Even worse, in most cases their top-ten dangers are sensational tragedies they are powerless to control. The odds of any one of these catastrophes happening to a child are 1 in 10 million, but they are the dangers that parents worry about most.
How long was your list? What was on it?
How a Paranoid Parent's
Life Became a Campaign
I first realized that I worried a lot when I was pregnant with triplets. The scene was a Sunday outing to a park with friends, my husband, and our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Leela. I was sitting on the very same bench where Julia Roberts sat, pregnant, with Hugh Grant at the end of the movie Notting Hill. But unlike in the movie, the air wasn't filled with a harmonious serenade of a love song playing as the credits rolled. Amid the birds twittering, nearly everyone within earshot could hear me screaming, 'No!' at the top of my lungs.
'Peter!' I shrieked to my husband, who was on the other side of the park. 'Follow Leela, now. She will fall off the slide! There are no wood chips, just rock-solid dirt. Now!' Jumping up from the bench with difficulty, triplet whalesized at twenty-five weeks, I tried to waddle my way over to make sure that he looked after her properly. Somehow, a calm, contented, and pregnant Julia Roberts character holding Hugh Grant's hand didn't mirror my experience of real parenthood.
In the film, on that bench, Julia Roberts observed, 'Some people do spend their whole lives together.' That is what I assumed. I thought that my husband and I would be together forever. But my husband, a fairly well-known movie and TV writer, died when the triplets were one and a half and my older daughter was four. He took the children to the park to play one day; that night he had a stroke, and a day later he was dead.
My world had changed in an instant. I didn't have time to deal with the shock. (I will grieve when I have some spare time--when the kids are all in college.) I was suddenly alone in charge of four very young children. Fortunately, I wasn't the kind of widow who feels very small, drowning in a sea of decisions and worries. I rose to the challenge to become supermom. I would fix every problem and avert every threat to my children. I would protect them. On a nightly basis, I took stock of the upcoming day and assembled 'dangers and solutions' to be ready for everything. However, in becoming Supermom, I inadvertently became paranoid mom, the walking encyclopedia of dangers.
Paranoid parents are not wimps; they are warriors without a priority list. I was no cowering wimp. I was smart and committed and a fighter. I was determined to tackle every danger--small and large--with ultimate force.
I moved the children from London to Breckenridge, Colorado. I loved London before I had children, living with its history in the theater and film world. But once I had children, it was a different London with its enormous costs, air pollution, city dangers, terrorism (which killed two people just blocks from our house), high security, high unemployment, low salaries, and an overall lower standard of living. Breckenridge, in contrast, was a beautiful resort town with internationally acclaimed schools, big backyards, bike lanes, sidewalks, and neighborhoods filled with kids--a child-friendly paradise.
I expected a return to peace and quiet but found just the opposite. Most American parents, it seemed, wanted to send their kids to school in bubble wrap. I loved my new friends, but I found many 'meerkat moms,' constantly on edge from invisible dangers, twitchily watching their children play in the front yard. I saw mothers who panicked if, after doing ballet, soccer, music enrichment, baby French, and yoga, they didn't have time for Your Baby Can Read lessons that day.
You'd think I would have fit right in. But these parents came up with dangers that had never occurred to me. Did I need to buy a walking helmet? Should I have an inch-thick floor pad to prevent skinned knees? Should I remove all the toxic carpet? Is it a good idea to get my kindergartner a cell phone for emergency calls? Are dolls without eyes, noses, and mouths important to allow true imaginative development? It was as though these parents had loaded their brain iPods with every danger that had ever been on the nightly news, Oprah, Twitter, or TV dramas.