Calmer Parenting Through Mathematical Literacy

As new parents, you’re often in a state of worry or panic. But statistically, the chances of tragedy are actually quite low.

Picture this common nightly scene in households with young children: an exhausted parent shuffles kid through dinner, bathtime, storytime. After an hour or so of trying to get the child to sleep, the exhausted parent collapses on the couch in relief. But five minutes later, the exhausted parent scans a poor-quality video feed from the kid’s room to see if her belly is moving up and down.

New parents often spend a lot of time worrying that their kids are going to spontaneously die. And it’s easy to understand why. Parenting resources share terrifying details about the rare conditions that might lurk within a seemingly healthy baby. The 2014 CDC report on infant mortality, for example, opens with the disturbing figure of 23,000 infant deaths. Just reading it is enough to make you want to risk waking up your sleeping munchkins in order to check for breathing.

But what does that number really mean?

To figure that out, we have to travel through some scary, sad data. In 2013, there were 23,446 deaths per 3,932,181 births. Put another way, six out of every 1,000 babies will die within their first year. This figure is considerably higher than other wealthy countries.

But part of the reason the U.S. infant mortality rate is so much higher than other countries is that not all countries count pre-term births. In their investigation of infant mortality, Alice Chen, Emily Oster, and Heidi Williams eliminated infants born before 22 weeks gestation, a figure more in keeping with how other countries measure live births. That calculation brought the US deaths per 1,000 live births to 4.2.

Chen, Oster, and Williams also studied how the infant mortality rate varies across different populations within the US. Some areas of the country have rates much higher than the national average, and infant mortality appears linked with socioeconomic status. In other nations, infant mortality is more evenly spread across demographic groups. In the US, where you live and your level of education can dramatically affect the infant mortality rate.

The work of economists like Chen, Oster, and Williams to more accurately determine the infant mortality rate, and medical and public health professionals to lower that rate, is critical. But it’s possible for individual parents to place too much emphasis on these numbers. In focusing on our country’s relatively high infant mortality rate when compared to other wealthy nations, we forget the importance of the world “relative.” Whether the number is 4.2 or 6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, the United States’ infant mortality rate is extremely high compared with other, similar nations. But the incidence of infant mortality itself is actually extremely low.

If you haven’t read much about probability and statistics since picking M&Ms out of a bag in elementary school, now’s the time. We tend to think of numbers as concrete expressions of reality, but as Edward MacNeal has argued in the wonderful primer Mathsemantics, the same number can often sound different when expressed in different ways.

For example, hearing a percentage expressed negatively versus positively impacts how people interpret risk, and therefore the choices that they make. In “Rhetorical Numbers,” Joanna Wolfe describes a friend concerned about a pregnancy book that gave her a one in fifty chance of having a particular pregnancy complication. That friend was reassured by her doctor, who told her that she had a 97% chance of a healthy child.

The second scenario is actually worse than the first – 97% versus 1-in-50 – but she perceived it to be better because it was expressed in abstract terms. When a number is expressed as “1-in-x,” we tend to view ourselves as the 1 because we can visualize it.

As Wolfe’s friend put it, “I know fifty people.” She could imagine herself being that one of fifty, even though the probability was quite low. It’s the same kind of logic, Wolfe notes, that encourages people to buy lottery tickets: a 1-in-20 chance of winning sounds much more likely to happen than a 5% chance of winning, even though those statements are identical.

The 6-in-1000 ratio used to describe infant mortality is a helpful way of comparing infant mortality in the US to infant mortality in other countries (and also from state to state, as Chen, Oster, and Williams have done). But that 6-in-1000 chance is also what makes young parents so preoccupied about infant deaths: we can picture ourselves as the parents of those 6-in-1000 kids.

A stronger grasp of statistics can help us separate risks into significant, small, and near-imaginary categories. It might help us stop needlessly checking to see if our kids are breathing at night, or racing through showers because we’re convinced they’re gravely wounded on the other side of the door.

Let’s look at that infant mortality rate a bit differently. Six in every 1,000 infants will die in their first year. When represented in this way, we we have a tendency to imagine our babies as part of the 6 instead of part of the 1,000. But what if we represented this number graphically? In the image below, the black dots in this chart represent babies who survive their first year. The red dots represent US infants who die before their first birthday.

Infant mortality graphic

Another way to think about this 6-in-1000 statistic is to consider that out or every 1000 infants, 994 of them will survive their first year – that’s 99.4%. When you can’t sleep in the middle of the night because you’re worrying about whether or not your child is breathing, think of this percentage – 99.4% – and perhaps you’ll rest a little bit easier. Or, if you’re past the first 28 days, think 99.8%, which is the post-neonatal survival rate.

My point here is not to be cavalier about infant mortality. Not at all. My point is to recognize that, despite our near-constant worry, the overwhelming majority of babies in this country survive their first year.

Of course it’s important for various health organizations to research ways to further reduce this number. Of course it’s important for parents to be vigilant about various dangers. But our collective panic about things that might kill the baby are almost certainly overblown, in part because so many of us not familiar with statistics and probability, so many of us have poor mathematical literacy. 

Numbers tell a story. And the way the numbers are presented, set the tone of the story. So this week, each time you feel the urge to check to see if the baby is still breathing, reach for a book about math instead.

Or – perhaps more realistically – every time you do check on the baby, read a few paragraphs of MacNeal’s Mathsemantics or John Allen Paulos’ Innumeracy to help put that fear in check with a mathematical perspective.

Your Inner Badass Is the Fearless Mom We Need Right Now

It’s terrifying to think the next tragedy to hit the news cycle could easily involve our own family. But leading with fear, blame, & anxiety serves no one.

The past month has unleashed a newsfeed of horrifying, deadly mayhem. Not your garden variety tragedy. This has been cruel, what-kind-of-world-do-we-live-in insanity. 

The universe is emphatically issuing a big “screw you,” wagging its finger in our collective faces and yelling, “I can do more heinous things than your most paranoid thoughts can conjure, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

What kind of fresh hell is this? Who among us isn’t looking up waiting for the locusts and frogs to descend in plague-like fashion? As parents who’ve brought human beings into this world, these senseless, violent acts shake us to the core. 

Our most hardwired instinct is to protect our children, but these events leave us breathless in the face of their randomness and our utter lack of control. Just like that, Badass Moms morph into Frightened Moms. 

Before we can regain our footing, we need to understand how these three reactions are turning us into agents of fear.

Deflection: Blame and shame

As Melissa Fenton so deftly pointed out in her now-viral Facebook post, unsettling events have unleashed a vocal contingent of blamers and shamers whose first instinct is to create a villain.  Driven by panic and a misguided superiority complex, this group deflects by ruthlessly assigning responsibility. In the situations involving young children, this manifests as a separate, secondary cruelty – finger-pointing and gratuitously piling on already-suffering parents. 

The blamers and shamers will sanctimoniously decry a mom who admirably took multiple children to the zoo for a day of fun and momentarily turned her gaze from one to tend to another. The blamers and shamers question the “audacity” of letting a little boy walk along a hotel beach within physical reach and “failing” to consider the possibility that a vicious reptile would burst out of the man-made lagoon and snatch him away forever.

Displacement: Trading fear for blame

While Melissa rightly calls out the pitchforkers for their lack of compassion, in fairness, I suspect some blamers have a less nefarious motivation. Specifically, a subconscious reckoning with our own powerlessness in the face of the universe’s cruelty is enough to send us scrambling to erect a neat, linear connection between someone’s incompetence and a subsequent tragedy. We grasp at this connection, utilizing it as a barrier between “us” and “them.”

In other words, if I never do X, then Y will never happen to me. If we can believe someone is to blame or guilty of some lapse – i.e., not watching her child closely enough, or not envisioning all the variations of horror that could occur – we can distance ourselves from the notion that it could happen to us.

It’s much easier to judge and assign blame than it is to acknowledge our own universal vulnerability as human beings. It’s much easier to judge and assign blame than admit that it could be any one of us in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could be any one of us experiencing the devastating misfortune of a momentary lapse in parenting at the precise moment the universe cruelly doles out a random act.

Defense mechanism: Anxiety 

Other Frightened Moms respond to these horrific events with an anxiety-fueled hypervigilance in deference to these events and their power over us. Parenting becomes a fine line of balancing the unrealistic desire to take the family and hole up in a fallout shelter and the realistic need to allow family members to walk out the door and go about their normal business. 

Consumed with thoughts about the fragility of life, we worry, we fret, and we warn – earning us the title of “family killjoy” and inducing eye rolls.

Fear’s antidote: The Badass Mom

So, how do we move from Frightened Mom back to Badass Mom?

By being mindful of the toll these reactions – deflection, displacement, and defense – can take. Left unchecked, this mix of blame, superiority, anger, and anxiety operates as a toxic petri dish cultivating the worst in all of us. 

The fixation on villains heaps unwarranted blame on families already suffering unconscionable pain. An unwillingness to walk in the shoes of another out of fear it will expose our vulnerability strips us of our compassion, thereby denying comfort to people in pain. And unbridled anxiety robs us of joy and optimism in our daily lives. 

A drawing of a hand gesturing the middle finger

We need to bring the badass back for every one us – blamers, deflectors, and worry warts.

Raise your right middle finger high to the sky, and repeat after me:

I embrace the notion of, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” And I promise to count blessings rather than point fingers.

I pledge to support, rather than pile on. Understand this, universe: if you come for her, you come for me.

Back off, universe. I will resist the pull of anxiety and refuse to be intimidated by your tactics.

Look out. The Badass Mom is back. And she’s pissed.

How My Brother’s Childhood Cancer Made Me a Fearful Parent

In the 10 years my younger brother spent undergoing treatment after treatment, I saw things I cannot unsee. His cancer colors my every day.

Right now, my daughter should be in PE class, maybe counting down the last 45 minutes before the final bell rings, releasing her of all academic responsibility until Monday morning.

Instead, she’s on the couch. “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” reruns are cycling on the TV but her eyes are unfocused. Her cheeks are fever-flushed and her head hangs over a basin that’s been prepared for the next inevitable round of vomit.

Logically, I know she’s fine. This is the stomach flu that we’ve managed to avoid for the past five years, the one that’s had six kids in her kindergarten class absent over the past week. But I can’t shake the feeling that it could be the result of something more sinister hiding inside the lanky body that seems to stretch taller with each passing day.

My parents told themselves the same things I do to quiet my own fears. A series of low-grade fevers were an unfortunate series of colds; aches in wrist and ankle joints were just growing pains; and unexplained bruises were the result of a seven-year-old boy’s exuberance.

Except they weren’t. They were cancer – leukemia multiplying in my little brother’s blood cells and bone marrow. A mutation nobody could have seen coming or prevented. Even doing everything right wasn’t enough.

I’ve walked the loop of our tiny house more times than I can count, feet wearing familiar grooves into hardwood floors. Stopping with each lap, I check her forehead, ask her how she feels and inquire if there is anything I can do, only to repeat the cycle again in five minutes.

In the kitchen I try to busy myself with a load of dishes but instead find myself peeking around the corner for the assurance that she is okay. The chicken for dinner sits still frozen on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

Last night was no better. The monotony of my panic rose in unforgiving crests that had me laying my hand across her breastbone to feel the rise and fall of healthy lungs through the fleece of her new Star Wars pajamas. My husband begged me to let her sleep.

“Babe, let her rest. It’s what her body really needs to heal.”

While I knew he was right the compulsion remained. I bit all my nails down to the quick and spent the early morning hours calculating the passage of time by the timbre of her breathing. The throb of my own rapid pulse quickened with each catch and hitch. I did not sleep.

In the 10 years my brother spent undergoing treatment after treatment, clinical trials, chemotherapies with names I still can’t pronounce, and radiation so fierce it left him limp in a hospital bed for months, I saw things I cannot unsee. By the time he finally received the bone marrow transplant that saved his life I’d learned things I can’t unlearn. His cancer colors my every day.

In those panicked moments when my daughter is sick, it’s not really the present me, the rational me, the me who has done this routine many times in the past nearly six years. It’s the 14-year-old me, sitting alone in a hospital hallway, not knowing if the brother on the other side of this closed door has a still-beating heart.

It’s the 21-year-old me squatting down on the side of the road outside of Yuma, sobbing as my mother calls to tell me his cancer is back. It’s the 23-year-old me looking down at my newborn daughter wondering what I won’t be strong enough or smart enough or diligent enough to protect her from.

I don’t much remember losing my own baby teeth but I do remember my mother begging my brother not to wiggle his, the fear being that prematurely forcing his teeth to loosen would cause his gums to bleed. Without enough platelets to clot his blood, he could end up in the hospital for a transfusion.

Three months ago my daughter’s two bottom-middle teeth started a tell-tale jiggle. She would push against them with her tongue and delight at the smallest shift. “Look, Mama!” she’d shout while showing me their movement between a set of smile stretched lips.

I cringed each time, and stopped myself from asking her to leave them be until they fell out on their own. My husband teased her with all the traditional dad jokes. He offered to tie her tooth to the back of our Jeep and drive away or affix it to a doorknob and slam the door closed to hurry the process.

She declined each offer, instead taking to walking around with her fingers perpetually twisting her teeth until one day, during dance class, one finally fell out. She brought it to me to put in my pocket for safekeeping. There was no uncontrollable bleeding, just a gap where the baby tooth had been and so much excitement waking to a fairy-dusted $5 bill under her pillow.

I can’t live outside the shadow my past casts, but I can enjoy the shade by recognizing the gift of a fever that passes in 48 hours without the need to rush to an emergency room and the limited amount of puke I’ve had to clean in my five years of motherhood.

Someday, I will long for the season of loose teeth, for a proximity that allows me to reach over to and cup her forehead to check for an elevated temperature at my every whim. Perhaps, I will even chide myself for decades of overreaction.

But for now, I’m cutting myself some slack when I find I’m hovering over her, appreciating the perfect bow of her lips and the fan of her eyelashes as she dreams and I check to make sure she is still breathing .

How to Win the Heart Battle: Allowing Love to Conquer Fear

We can choose to parent from a place of love or fear. Setting our fears aside in order for our children to thrive is no easy task.

Two emotions drive every aspect of human life. One binds, the other separates. Love draws together. Fear pushes apart.

Both emotions exist in our heart, battling for control over our actions and reactions on a daily basis.

For me, years went by before I became cognizant of the emotional power play in my heart as it relates to parenting. When situations became sticky, my psyche too easily fell under siege while disciplining my kids, advising them on decisions, or teaching them about life. 

I love my kids deeply and never considered my actions brewing from any source other than love. The problem is, fear often initiates a preemptive strike, tossing a grenade in the bunker of our adoring.

The attack happens for many reasons. Including a lack of understanding and knowledge, inability to relate, or – a biggie for me – the disease of past experiences bleeding into our present circumstances.

Mindful discernment regarding our emotional state gives us pause to reflect on the attitude of our heart as we go through our days loving on our kids and making parental decisions. Self-discovery holds up a temporary white flag, enabling us to change the course of the battle plan if we see fear barking out marching orders.

My personal skirmish between love and fear in my mom heart began as a little stick fight when my kids were young, evolving into a full-fledged war as my kids have grown.

Of course I worried about their safety, health, and emotional well-being through various ages and stages in the developmental years. Panic trips to the doctor after only one day of the sniffles, head-to-toe armored gear before bike rides, and reading the “What to Expect…” series, volumes one through a hundred, over and over.

I could have just waited a few days for the boogs to dry up, decided a concussion was the only thing worry-worthy instead of every scrape and bruise, and simply enjoyed each phase as it came instead of fretting over whether my kid fell on the “normal” end of the spectrum.

Ugh.

Middle school ushered in drama, bullying, and the ugliness of peer pressure. The minor hand-to-hand anxieties evolved into perpetual worry. My mind fretted over whether my kids would endure emotional scarring, succumb to the plague of insecurity, and have the willpower for self-control. These normal, universal childhood struggles were crushing my mom heart.

Observing my kids navigate their adolescence was agonizing because my past is littered with tripped emotional land mines, most of which exploded in my tween years. My innocence was stolen early on, leading to chronic brokenness and vulnerable self-worth. The desire to inoculate my kids from contracting similar diseases, regardless of the source, consumed my spirit, allowing fear to launch a menacing invasion on my home front.

The high school years only heightened the intensity of the battle.

Driver’s licenses, dating, social media, ramped up peer influence, temptation around drugs and alcohol, prom nights, and all things wearing independence fatigues pose as potential threats to the well-being of our kids as they emerge into adults.

For this battle weary momma, the silent warfare caused a beat down. Then my kid’s high school, in which all three were enrolled, was the target of a merciless school shooting. An atomic bomb dropped into the inner chamber of my heart.

Fear became a superpower.

Although my kid’s precious lives were spared, the trauma of the event contaminated every layer of my mom heart. It wasn’t until I ushered my last kid out the door, marking the beginning of empty nest, that I realized how debilitating the panic and worry had become.

This past year, my kids, bless their beautiful hearts, risked exposing me to the ugly truth of my wayward parenting fears. One at a time, in different scenarios, they each gently brought to light that, although my intentions were good and from a place of love, many times my intercession in their life was morbidly bereft of strength.

Rather, my fearfulness was poisoning their ability to grow, accept failure, endure necessary suffering, find their own way.

I cry as I type this. Not because I’m beating myself up for the millionth time, but because my kids love me that much. They choose love over fear; modeling a healthier road map for me to follow going forward. 

Only God knows why I deserve these valiant angels of mercy who have met me at the front lines and placed a surrender flag in my hands.

“Give it up, mom. Stop the fight. Learn to trust.”

That’s what I hear them say even when their lips aren’t moving; their sentiment a tourniquet slowing the bleeding.

Love binds.

Fear separates.

Every feeling, opinion, judgment, and attitude we have stems from love or fear. When we make decisions, the launching point will depend on how we feel in the moment. Our actions, in turn, project one of those attributes to our kids.

How do we want our kids to approach life?

How do we really want to approach life?

My kids have cleared the way for love to conquer fear in my heart battle. All I need to do is surrender; be mindful of my heart’s condition. I’m doing my best.

That’s all any of us can do.

Why I Will Keep Fighting Fear as a Parent, Every Day

Allowing fear to take hold of our parenting can prevent us from being the parents we want to be by slowly sabotaging our best-laid goals and intentions.

Some parents are not intimately acquainted with their biggest fear. I am not one of those people.

I can tell you exactly what my greatest fear is: I am terrified to look back at my life, only to realize that I had wasted moments, especially the glorious and miraculous my heart is going to explode moments I am so blessed to experience as a parent. Especially seeing as I almost didn’t get to experience them.

If you had asked me my biggest fear seven years ago, my response would have been very different. I would have told you my biggest fear was the possibility of having to witness the death of my child. This fear grew out of our 20-week ultrasound when my husband and I found out that our daughter would be born with a life-threatening heart defect. She would need several heart surgeries, and there was a chance she may not survive.

Staring fear dead in the eyes and not letting it overtake you is no easy feat.

Fear had been a significant factor in my parenting even before my first child came into this world.

Many prayers, surgeries, and sleepless nights later, we had a bright, feisty little girl who needed guidance in this world, in the same way any other child does. Being a family therapist, I had always had a good idea about what kind of parent I was going to be, but it wasn’t until I was in charge of an actual human life that I was able to fully understand the capacity of fear to infiltrate the parenting of your child.

Parenting is terrifying enough to begin with.

Today, parents have to navigate their way through the idea of terrorists, fear-mongering politicians, and media that is all too eager to provide us with a 24-hour running scroll of the world’s evils. It is becoming evidently clear that every parent is going to be in an intimate and ongoing relationship with fear.

Allowing fear to take hold of our parenting can prevent us from being the parents we want to be by slowly sabotaging our best-laid goals and intentions. If we intend on having healthy families and raising confident and emotionally healthy children, we must make a conscious choice not to let fear win.

Fear wins when it consumes a parent’s thoughts, making it impossible to be fully present in our surroundings.

If some part of our mind is occupied with speculation and what if’s, how will we really focus on the here and now? How can I soak up the full beauty and amazement my daughter’s childhood offers each day when I am distracted by what may be coming down the pipeline to cause her harm? I want to be fully present and engaged in every milestone and seemingly mundane cuddle. I want to feel the weight of her on my hip while holding her for what could be the last time, as she grows older. I want to fully experience the joy and pride of, prayerfully, seeing her walk across the stage for graduation. There are a million other distractions in the world to contend with, and I will fight to not let fearful thinking become another one.

Fear wins when it convinces us that we hold the safety of our children in our own hands.

Fearful thinking propels us into behaviors of controlling and rescuing our children. In a quick 18 years, our children will be responsible for navigating their way through this mighty world. Allowing my daughter to fail doesn’t come easy. Every fiber of my maternal makeup wants to prevent failure or heartbreak, given all she has already been through in her short life. Despite this, I will try my best to be aware of when my fears may be handicapping her from developing important problem solving and coping skills. No matter how excruciating it may be seeing her fall, I know she will be learning valuable life lessons, which will not only help her to survive but to thrive in this challenging world.

Fear wins when it blinds us from distinguishing our child’s path from our own.

When we spend time speculating about the pain and misfortune our children may endure, a natural reaction is to assist them in avoiding any route that may lead to such hurt or disappointment. Parents fall prey to the mistaken assumption that if they work hard enough or start their child off on the “right track,” they can steer their ship to avoid any stormy seas.

While this is true to some extent, what we don’t often realize is that in actuality it may not always be the “right track” we’re encouraging but the safe track, or our track.
I know, at times, that standing back and allowing my daughter to make her own possibly bad choices will be tough, really tough. However, it will not be more difficult than looking back to see that instead of allowing my daughter to follow her own path, I inadvertently led her down mine.

Fear wins when we inadvertently close off our children to the world around them.

Our fear can steal the beauty and excitement out of the world, not only for us but also for our children. If we’re sending signals to our children that the world is a dangerous place, certainly they are intuitive enough to pick up on them. My desire is to raise my daughter to be brave and bold when she needs to be; unafraid to discover new places and new ways of doing things. I firmly believe one of the greatest gifts I can give her is a set of wings, allowing her to soar throughout the world, instead of unintentionally closing her off from it.

If I believe that as a parent, I can choose the extent to which I allow fear to impact how I raise my children, I am already two steps ahead. No matter where I am in my battle against fear, there is one thing I know to be true: I am not willing to just stand by and let it win.

My greatest fear as a parent is no longer that my daughter will leave this world, but instead, that I may miss out on significant moments while she’s living in it. Because I know the nature of fear is life-taking and not life-giving, I will try my best to prevent it from robbing me of these moments. After all, I want to do more than just watch my daughter live.

I want to help give her a life.

6 Practical Ways to Better Handle Worry

I wish I could say that I worry less because I’ve learned to accept everything in my life – but I haven’t. I’ve simply learned to better handle worry.

I used to be a worrier. But as the uncertainties in my life have increased, the amount of worry has decreased.

I wish I could tell you that’s because I’ve learned to accept everything in my life – but I haven’t. What I have done is learned to better handle worry.

Here’s how to worry better (and consequently less):

1 | See worry for what it is.

I once heard a pastor say that anger is frozen fear. I think worry is frozen fear too. Once I distilled my own fear, I realized that I fear things I can’t control.

This is, of course, irrational. We can’t stop time or change. But even though I can intellectually understand this, it doesn’t stop my desire for control.

Instead I control what I can. When you get into a power struggle with a two-year-old over whether or not they can have a cookie, the crux of the issue is often not the cookie but control. The recommended advice is to offer the child simple empowering choices: Do you want an apple or a banana?

The next time you’re in a situation where you feel like you have no control, find some – even if it means treating yourself like a tantruming toddler. Recently, I showed up for an appointment that unbeknownst to me had been canceled. I stewed on it a bit and then I decided I had two choices: I could be grateful I’d spent that extra time with one of my kids or I could be thankful that I didn’t have to sit at the doctors with one of my kids.

2 | See worry for what it does.

Worry is a consumer of emotional energy, not a supplier. It raids our storehouses, eating through our happiness. Problem-solving, however, is energy-producing.

Instead of dwelling on the “what ifs” and “maybes,” work to find a solution. Organize your thoughts, write them down, brainstorm or do research – fix problems that are fixable.

3 | Ask yourself, “Would more or less information be helpful?”

Often when we feel anxious or uneasy about something it’s because there’s an unknown component. When you start to worry, ask yourself: Would more or less information be helpful here? Then do accordingly.

If you’re headed to the doctor’s office and are concerned about the diagnosis, Googling your symptoms may only increase your anxiety. You need less information, not the possibility that you’ve contracted a jungle disease. Operate on a need-to-know basis.

If, however, you’re feeling anxious about the doctor’s appointment and you’re concerned not only about the diagnosis but also the logistics of getting there – then you need more information. Figure out your route and the parking situation beforehand to reduce the unknowns.

4 | Heave it up to lay it down.

For many people, their biggest worry is the thing that is too awful to contemplate. It’s the part of our mind that we cordon off with yellow caution tape and flashing, danger signs, because just getting near the outskirts makes us jittery.

But sometimes it is helpful to go to that horrible place because it will give you tangible steps you can take that will ease your mind. Is your worst of the worst losing your spouse? It’s a horrible imagining. However, if it prompts you to make changes regarding life insurance or your will or your job marketability, then you will have achieved some lightness by going to that dark place.

See this post, which talks about dealing with anxiety in children but is very applicable for all ages, for how to handle mental worst case scenarios.

5 | Name your worry.

Your worry might already have a name (spouse, boss, parent, child),so you don’t have to give it an actual name, unless that helps. What you do need to do is note each time your thoughts drift into worry. Force yourself to say, “This is worry.” It’s surprising how frequently our thoughts weigh us down without our even realizing it.

There’s a mindfulness exercise that tells you to pay attention each time you sit down.It’s hard,because for most able-bodied people, sitting down is one of the things we do on autopilot. Worry often works the same way. When you notice that you’re worrying, try replacing it with something else: prayer,singing or listing something that you’re grateful for.

6 | Remember that not all hard things are bad and that good outcomes can come from bad circumstances.

When something difficult happens, instinct tells us to throw up our hands and yell, “No good came come from this.” And at first, that may be true. Hard things are hard. Grief is grief and pain is pain. We don’t have to be stoic or brave.

But just because something starts out poorly does not mean that it will remain that way. Also just because we perceive a situation as hopeless does not mean that is a permanent condition. Hope can be learned. Yes, you read that right – hope can be learned. Brené Brown, researcher and author of Daring Greatly, says that hope is not an emotion but that “Hope is a function of struggle.” Resilience is also learned skilled. This New Yorker article discusses the science behind learned resilience.

That’s the good news: Hope and resilience are traits we can all form. The researchers have the data to prove it. Here’s the bad news: difficult experiences will be our teachers.

We may not be able to prevent difficulties in life but we can learn from those challenges. That should give us all one less thing to worry about!

Further reading: 6 Practical Ways to Better Handle Worry

Lessons in Zen From My Six Year Old

From California to Bali to Vermont, gradually learning to worry less and focus instead on the promise of what’s to come.

As an overly educated, slightly neurotic, woman who gave birth to my daughter while in my forties, I assumed that I’d be the one to teach my child the secrets of the universe; as opposed to the other way around.

When I was eight months pregnant, a group of Tibetan monks performed at the charter school where my husband, Victor, taught. After the Yak Dance, I was invited to eat lunch with the monks, who appeared genuinely delighted by my large belly. Even though I am not at all religious by nature, I found myself transfixed by their calm, spiritual presence and constant smiles. Before they departed, I asked if they would mind saying a prayer for my child-to-be.

Immediately the lot of them stood in a circle around me, chanting indecipherable prayers, the deep bass of their voices reverberating over and through me. When at last they quieted, I thanked them with a bow and silently hoped that their seemingly magical benedictions had touched my baby; not that I believed in such things.

Our daughter, Loy, was born a few weeks later, and when I first held her, I called her my “Buddha Baby,” causing the delivery room nurses to wonder if the long labor I’d just endured had left me in a fugue state.

When Loy was three, she desperately wanted to be a giraffe for Halloween, so putting aside any Martha Stewart-like craftiness that might have lurked in my genetic code, I bought her an off-the-rack giraffe costume at a K-Mart. Just as we were leaving the house to go trick-or- treating Loy slipped on the front porch steps and skidded across the concrete, the right side of her face taking most of the impact.

We took her inside and cleaned up her tears and blood and slapped on a few bandages. She looked as if she’d been in a bar fight and lost.

Of course, I wanted to cancel the outing so that I could fret and worry as I cuddled her to my chest, but when Victor asked her if she wanted to skip the outing, she looked at him as if he’d just asked her to recite the first line from the Iliad. “No, Daddy,” she replied as she stood up and made for the front door. “I want the candy.”

As we wandered in and out of the downtown shops watching our toddler politely beg treats from the proprietors, more than a few adults gasped when they saw Loy’s face. “Oh my god, you are so scary-looking,” a woman holding the hand of a small princess said. “What a great costume.”

That this idiot believed we’d purposely dressed our child as a wounded giraffe so incensed me that I was about to call her a name I knew I’d regret, but before I could utter a sound, Loy looked at her daughter and quietly said, “You are so pretty.”

When she was six years old, we moved her to Bali so that Victor could help start Green School, an environmentally innovative K-8 school constructed almost entirely out of bamboo. During our first week there Loy broke out in a sand-papery rash that started on her cheeks then spread over her entire body.

It was ghastly red and patchy dry. I compared her rash to no fewer than 122 online images of rashes, confirming that she probably didn’t have dengue fever, but discovering that the only rash to be afraid of is the one that doesn’t blanch; meaning that when you press the rash it’s supposed to turn white; and when you take pressure off the skin, the redness returns.

If the redness stays when the rash is compressed, it means you are bleeding under the skin, and you are most likely dying. And you should immediately fly to a real hospital in Singapore because a non-blanching rash is a terrible thing.

Every morning when Loy woke up I’d scan her whole body, pressing, pushing, poking her ever-spreading rash with my thumb, knowing how messed up and emotionally-maiming it was to scare your six-year-old like that. I emailed her doctor in California and asked if she thought maybe Loy could be reacting to one of the fifty-seven immunizations she got. I even made Victor take a photo of Loy’s rash-streaked belly and attach a jpeg.

The doctor wrote back saying the rash looked harmless. She suggested that we just relax and enjoy our time in Bali.

When I informed Loy that her rash was nothing to worry about, she simply gave her arm a quick scratch and casually replied, “I knew I was fine, Mommy. You should really stop freaking out about dumb things,” before going back to watching cartoons on my laptop.

By the time we moved into our bamboo hut on campus, some five weeks later, I’d all but forgotten the rash.

But that was only because I now had the biting ants to contend with. Every night as soon as the sun set, an entire civilization’s worth of red ants would climb down the tree that grew up through the middle of our bamboo hut, and take over Loy’s room. The nightly ritual for Victor and me consisted of swatting and squishing ants until there was nothing but carcasses dotting the bamboo floor.

It was enough to drive me insane and want to run back to California, but for Loy it was simply an interesting nuisance, akin to having to brush her teeth before bed. The only time she appeared put out by the arthropod invasion was the night she found a couple of stragglers stuck to her Cinderella dress. When I grabbed the gown from her and began plucking biting ants from the tangle of lovely white mesh that lined the midriff and wrists, she kindly asked me to please be careful not to pull off any of the silver sequins by mistake.

More outrageous and potentially deadly events ensued, so just a few weeks after a small Javanese man with a machete shimmied up the tree and hacked the ant megatropolis into oblivion, we decided to escape Bali and move to Vermont.

During our first summer here we took Loy on her first backpacking trip to Silver Lake above Lake Dunmore. Not twenty yards from the car Loy tripped and hit her head on a jagged rock, sending blood spurting, as head wounds are wont to do. As the three of us sat on the ground taking turns applying direct pressure to stem the flow, I panicked. I wanted to take her to the hospital. She might need stitches or worse; she could have a concussion.

When Victor offered Loy the choice to opt out, she shoved the bloody bandana into his hand and pushed herself to stand. “You guys promised me smores tonight,” she said brushing the dirt off her knees. “Let’s go already.”

A bit further up the trail I stopped to tie my shoelace, and when I stood up, I watched the two of them trudging up the hill ahead of me, their backpacks bouncing on their hips.

That was when I suddenly remembered the monks.

I thought about the kind of person my daughter had become—a person filled with light and optimism; an empathetic soul who pulled friends to her with ease. A determined spirit who persevered beyond imagined boundaries. Someone who goes with the flow way more easily than I ever had.

It was then that I realized that it was time for me to stop worrying so much about what could possibly go wrong and focus instead on the promise of what’s to come. It was time for me to listen to my Buddha Baby, take some notes, and catch up.

Procrastination Parenting

Looking back at the long list of worries that kept us up at night (and then resolved themselves) when our first son was born.

It all started the night I switched off the baby monitor. Oliver had been born early, and we spent eight months dealing with colic, reflux, and an underweight baby. Exhaustion did not describe it. I was the walking dead…when I could walk.

The little screamer had yet to sleep for more than 45 minutes at a time. Because of his low birth weight I wanted to get every drop of milk into him that I could, ignoring the fact that he would spew it out in his version of the Exorcist. I never missed a mew or a wail that might signal his hunger. Night and day I was sitting vigil to feed him. To my new mother brain hunger equaled death.

After months and months of this I realized that MY death might be approaching faster than his.

In one moment of clarity in the mushy mess of my brain, I realized that my proactive stance towards feeding might not be serving either of us. We both needed to sleep. So I unplugged the mechanical tether of the monitor and slept for 6 hours. I told myself that if he really needed me I would hear him down our short hallway. I’m not sure how many of those six hours Oliver slept, but he was less fussy the next day and then less and less with each day that followed.

This was when I learned the power of procrastination in parenting. My vigilance was fueling excessive worry, contributing to a negative cycle of sleeplessness, and taking away my kid’s chance to self-soothe. Luckily my husband agreed to try to work together to work less.

Ten years later we have a lengthy list of concerns that cleared themselves up with our concerted lack of intervention.

Reversing b’s and d’s – Of course there are many learning differences that can benefit from early identification. In our case our son’s teacher never mentioned it, so we didn’t either. One bay he knew how to write day, and that was the end of that.

Suffering from a clogged tear duct – The pediatrician suggested we press our pointer finger against my older son’s eye multiple times a day. We did it multiple times period. I’m not sure when the clog ended, but it did. I’d say it was a relief, and maybe it was to our toddler, but it was out of sight out of eye for my husband and me.

Holding up an oversized head – It wasn’t news to me that my younger son had a huge head. Off the charts, the doc told me with a smile. My mother was there for the checkup and managed to ask about our friendly bobble head for the next few years. Those repetitive conversations were the only time his head entered mine. Now he is proportional.

Wetting the bed – This one brought on a little more angst than the others. Our boy worried about it himself, so we did think and talk about this problem more than most of the bumps of boyhood. However, we didn’t restrict his water or buy the alarming sheets. We were confident he would outgrow it. He did. And we never had to treat it like a problem viewing it instead as a natural difference in speed of maturity.

Eating selectively – The reverberations of the reflux continued into Oliver’s early years. What I learned is that a child can grow and thrive on Pirate Booty, a glass of milk and a daily vitamin. Now he eats cabbage and pulled pork, broccoli and tacos. He welcomes protein and vegetables in all textures and colors. We never made food a battle. Despite his smaller size he was following his growth curve and had energy and a healthy attitude. We let that be our guide rather than the diversity of his plate.

Having almost no friends – This was tough to ignore. Yet we did. We never forced playdates or signed him up for teams. We allowed Leo to skip birthday parties as long as he offered a polite and timely decline to the host. As it turns out he now has loads of friends and invitations, he pops by neighbor’s houses and welcomes them in when they stop by ours. Without the awkward scaffolding that inserts a parent directly into his/her child’s social life Leo found his way to friends and can support those relationships solo.

Stuttering – There are many cases of speech differences that require a proactive approach. Our older son had a recurring and remitting stutter. We did consult with some speech-language pathologists informally and followed their advice about noticing and remarking on the times that he had “smooth speech.”  We also made sure to stop other conversations and give him our attention when he was struggling though sentences. It was minor and mellow and after three years of bumpy speech his stutter has been gone for the following four.

Waking at night nightly – Instead of drawing a hard line with the boys we allowed them to make “little beds” on our floor with their pillows and blankets.  After just a few nights of this they realized their own beds were cozier than our hardwood floor. They began to put themselves back to bed after a quick kiss. Now we don’t see them between 9pm-7am. Unless there is a stomach bug. But that is another issue.

Never wanting to leave the house – We did worry a bit about this. Our younger son would sabotage our family outings with resistance in the form of tantrums. He was a flopping fish, a stubborn mule, a screaming hyena. Finally, we just left him behind. At first we were hesitant, we worried that we were “rewarding” his bad behavior. It didn’t take long, though. A few missed adventures while he stayed home with a sitter, and he was opting in.

Not knowing how to hug or kiss – For a few years we contemplated the possibility that our son might be on the autism spectrum. He needed to be prompted to hug and kiss. He was a limp noodle in our arms, and his kiss was a dim press of his lips soundlessly against our cheeks. After setting aside our disproportionate worry, we simply modeled the hugs and kisses that we wanted to give him. And eventually we received them in kind.

Having a floor made of dirty clothes – After a renovation I wondered why we refinished our sons’ floors. They weren’t visible anyways. I spent my childhood being nagged to pick up my room and clearly remembered pretending I couldn’t hear my mother as she called up the stairs to get my attention. It was likely I was being taken to task for skipping my tasks. Steve and I vowed not to do this with our kids. Following the Parenting On Track philosophy, we simply acted out the natural consequence of no place to step and stopped entering their rooms. No tucking in. No good night kisses. We did less, and they did more. Now it is only yesterday’s outfit on the floor.

Of course, we have had some fails….Leo limped around on a broken femur for three days while we assumed it was a self-healing sprain. Perhaps a bit of proactivity would have helped here, but in the end we suffered only from a bit of guilt not a gimpy kid.

What about you?

What don’t you do?

Everything’s Fine, Sweetheart

“I love you so much,” I called to my son presently, over and over, and pulled back onto the road before me, visible now under a shallow sea.

The beginning of summer in Michigan usually looks like a messy combination of rain, subsequent humidity, flooding, and more rain. My son and I spend most of our days strolling on the hot pavement one moment, only to find ourselves racing to the car through heavy torrents moments later. It’s this back-and-forth game that makes Michigan beautifully temperamental. My state is not for the faint of heart.

Last week we were on our way home from visiting my mother when a few raindrops landed gently on the windshield.

Then a few more.

And more still.

Within minutes the individual soft specks were lost in what appeared to be one large sheet of gray, on a gray land, under a graying sky. My son, who had been squealing happily in his car seat behind me, started to fuss as the sky grew dark. Aside from the off-beats of highway tunnels, he does not do well with darkness.

“It’s okay, honey,” I called back to him. “We will be home soon.”

We would be home soon.

And as daytime quickly came to a close, there would be a lot to do when we got there. I found myself going through that list in my head – you know, the running list that all new moms keep of the things they need to do to prepare for bedtime. In our case, our list included feeding him, bathing him (if time and energy levels allowed), changing him, getting him dressed, entertaining him a bit (but not too much), snuggling him, holding him as he fell asleep, rocking him when he stirred – lather, rinse, and repeat. I ran over this list a few times, tweaking it and adding to it, as the stoplights grew blurry before me.

Suddenly the combination of darkness and a pure mass of water obstructed my vision in a way that demanded my full attention. I squinted to find the white lines on either side of me, but they seemed to float away. I slowed down enormously while the red Dodge Stratus in front of me maintained its confident speed. It inched away from me like a lifeboat that hadn’t heard my call. “A Dodge Stratus was her only hope,” I read the headline for the next day’s news aloud to myself as I putted along.

My son started to cry in the back seat as if he sensed my tension immediately. He reminded me that I wasn’t lost at sea alone after all and that my fellow swimmer saw me as his lifeboat.

“Holy cow,” I snapped myself out of it. “Everything’s fine, sweetheart,” I called back to him, nearly yelling over his cries. “Just a little farther!”

I felt myself officially losing control of the situation and began to panic.

So as soon as I saw an opportunity, I turned off of the main road and onto a quieter neighborhood street, where I would hopefully at least be able to navigate without anyone else putting pressure on me. But the once soothing rain became more raucous still, and my son’s cry mimicked its strength.

I knew I had to pull over to calm us both down. I parked on the street side and reached back into my son’s car seat. My shaking hand grabbed his and I sang to him softly. I couldn’t help but feel down on myself for not being able to get us home safely without tears.

My mind brought me back suddenly to my childhood when I used to sit in the backseat while my mother drove through those same Michigan showers of the past. I remembered the initial scare of those downpours, and how I would alternate between staring wide-eyed through my window and peeking over her shoulder and out the windshield onto the streets ahead. More than the rain on the glass, I remembered seeing my mother’s face in the rearview mirror above it. She stared forward with intensity and focus, but without even the slightest sign of fear in her entire being. I could almost see her firm, composed figure in my mind at that moment.

Dangerous blurry driving car in the rainy weather

As soon as I saw that strength in my mother, my childhood self stopped being afraid as well.

I realized that there was, in fact, nothing to fear, and quickly forgot all about it. I would smile to myself, relax into the leather seat (this was back before car seats were required), and welcome the rain as it fell hard on the roof. Nine times out of ten I would even lean my head up against the plastic siding on the door, stare at the darkness ahead of me, listen to that now soothing sound of rain, and fall asleep.

My adult self-realized then that, while my mom appeared so collected back then, she almost certainly felt at least a hint of fear on those stormy drives. More than likely, she couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of her, the streetlights were blurring all around her, and she was checking her brakes like a mad woman. She was lost at sea without a lifeboat. I knew then that in that car on that day many years ago, there was a good chance that my mother was terrified out of her mind.

But somehow, her calm in the midst of the storm transformed the storm itself from something terrifying to something manageable, and then, magically, to something altogether soothing.

“I love you so much,” I called to my son presently, over and over, and pulled back onto the road before me, visible now under a shallow sea. His cry died down.

See, so many parts of parenting are downright terrifying.

Weather conditions aside, the job begins and ends with things we’ve never done before, from actually giving birth, to letting go of our son or daughter as they take on life for themselves, and every blurry and shaky-handed step along the way. The whole thing is crazy and beautiful, yes, but it’s also the scariest thing any of us will ever do in our entire lives.

But afraid as we may be, we are the ones in charge. That is, after all, why they hand the baby to us when they come out. So we suck it up, we focus hard, and we put on a calm face. We take care of these fragile little creatures, and we love them so ceaselessly and entirely that even everyday occurrences make us feel lost at sea to maintain strength. And being the ones they trust most in the entire world, we have the unique opportunity to transform their fear into safety. Much of the time, we then lose our fear along the way.

Eventually, we even let them drive their own cars because we are all nuts. And that’s just the way it is.

I turned onto our street through thinning puddles along white lines. The streetlights lit up the road before me and my eyes relaxed in their clarity.

“I love you so much,” I continued in a whisper.

His soft sounds were few and far between.

I leaped out of the car and onto dry land. I ran around to grab an umbrella from the trunk. I opened it up, opened the back door, and reached quickly into the back seat. I lifted my son up and out of his car seat base – out of the shadow and into my arms. I grabbed the blanket from the seat next to him and unfolded it delicately.

As I started to lay the blanket over his little toes, I saw that they weren’t kicking frantically as they had been just moments before. I pulled the blanket up over his tiny body and then noticed his beautiful face under the streetlight. He was nestled there with his dry head up against the side of the car seat. And he was fast asleep.