“Prend the little road, mummy, pas the other one,” said back-seat-boy Super PG this morning, urging me to take the road that curls around the playground and descends into the chaos of the school gates. I habitually used to take a different route into the mouth of the morning madness, but now, mainly because it makes me smile to hear him say, “I like this little road,” we go a different way – his way.
Sometimes there are buses at the bottom of this road that disrupt the already-manic park-up and drop-off process, a possibility today in view of the sports morning – or “rencontre sportive” – he was attending. Yet we took the road nonetheless and I knew that I felt a little relieved that bus wasn’t there – and not just because there wasn’t a traffic jam.
This will be the third time that Super PG has been on the school bus. I know I’m not the only mother in the world to feel anxious about their three-year-old going on a trip away from the school by bus – even if it is only a few kilometres away to the next village. But I’m also aware some wouldn’t be concerned in the slightest, purely thinking of how much fun their little one was going to have.
Thoughts of the latter, how much he loves buses and how good it is for building his confidence – along with having complete trust in his teacher, the “maîtresse”, and the classroom assistant – enable me to mostly rationalise the situation. I say “mostly” because the one person I’ve never met before on this trip is the one who will actually be driving my son to the sports event.
Thinking about how the worst could happen slips into my mind with such ease.
I tried to get a good look at the bus driver as I left the school for the crèche. Is he trustworthy, I wondered, trying to size him up through the bus’s raindrop-splattered windscreen and groaning wipers while navigating the lumpy pavement with the stroller. Did he drink last night? Did he get a good night’s sleep? Will he react quickly enough to any problems on the road? All these thoughts are rushing through my head.
As I leave the crèche to go to work I can see that the bus is outside the school, but this time it is full of children. One of them is mine. I strain to see if he’s got a seat by any of the windows, so I could wave to him, check he’s okay, but it’s hopeless. The bus is a little too far and my car is parked up the road in the other direction.
Of course he’s okay, I tell myself. He’s on a bus with his friends. His favourite song is “The Wheels on the Bus”. I know he’s bubbling with excitement right now. I turn right and walk away from the bus, eyes welling up with tears, and wonder what has happened to me since becoming a mum. I never used to have such spiralling stress and get so spontaneously emotional. I focus on folding down the empty pushchair and getting into the car.
On the way home I reason that since I can’t control events there is no point in worrying about them. Worrying won’t change the outcome, I tell myself. Worrying becomes a problem if I start to adjust my course of action to appease the worrying, such as keeping him home from school instead of letting him take the bus. I push thoughts of the bus crashing out of my mind and remember how much he likes his teacher. I trust that she will notice if he needs some TLC, emergency or not.
As Chérie Carter-Scott explains in The Gift of Motherhood, “The opposite of worry is trust. When you trust life, worry vanishes like smoke. When you accept that life will happen whether you worry about it or not, and that everything that happens does so to teach us something, you can perhaps let go a little and give yourself room to breathe.”
I’m still working on accepting “everything that happens does so to teach us something” because I do not want to be taught a lesson that involves something tragic happening to my kids – or my husband and I, so that they are left alone. But I can see that it’s also a control issue. The worry is heightened to the extreme when he is in a situation that is out of my control.
Jane Fonda said that “when a child enters the world through you, it alters everything on a psychic, psychological, and purely practical level”. So I know I’m in good company with all mothers around the world learning to deal with the changes that come with motherhood. I really do find that it helps to read about other mothers’ experiences.
For example, writer and journalist Fran Benson wrote an extremely honest article about how her anxiety made her imagine worst-case scenarios and how she deals with it. Here, an American mum shares her school-trip story and notes down some other mums’ reactions and field trip experiences.
Having dealt with spiralling “mum anxiety” more than a few times now, I have a few go-to practical solutions that help me to put my worries aside and get on with my day.
Here are five ways I (almost) wipe out my worst-case worries:
1) Exchange negative scenarios for positive ones. This sounds simple, but can take a bit of focus. When I have a trailer for today’s possible worst-case scenarios running through my head, I try to take back control of the images my brain is processing. Instead of seeing the bus crashing, I picture him laughing with his friends on the bus and playing peek-a-boo through the gap between the two seats. This really helps.
2) Read articles that help me understand myself. In Adrienne LaFrance’s article for The Atlantic, What Happens to Woman’s Brain When She Becomes a Mother, she wrote that the artist Sarah Walker told her that “becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live”. She’d never heard it described like this before and neither had I, but it completely resonated with me.
The article explains how the changes are “largely neurological” and how “activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety and social interaction”. The entire piece helped me to come to terms with the new levels of worry I have felt since becoming a mother, and understanding why this change has happened helps me to rationalise my feelings and bring them back under control.
3) Write. This may not appeal to those who aren’t keen on writing, but for me writing helps me to make connections and to pursue thought processes that would not be possible otherwise. Something happens when I write, and when I’ve finished I feel lighter, more grounded and often more optimistic than I may have done at the start.
A while back I read an article by Srinivas Rao about why he writes 1,000 words a day. He likens his daily creative habit to “deep work” (as opposed to shallow work, which is often controlled by others), which is defined by Cal Newport as “the act of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. “Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state,” explains Newport, which he says “generates happiness” and is “like a superpower in our current economy”. Focusing on one task – in my case writing – without distraction (answering emails and phone calls, and so on), is, I think, my superpower for my soul and a solution for reducing my stress.
4) Be mindful of social media use. I think Facebook news feeds are the worst. While page status updates can contain hilarious videos and invaluable nuggets of information, I have come to realise that the human tragedies, random accidents, near-death experiences and worst-case-scenario-come-true stories are paraded to the extreme through Facebook’s news feed.
“I really think you should stop reading news stories like this,” Super H told me a few months ago, as I recounted a tale of how a toddler was killed when he hugged a dolphin statue and it fatally fell on him during a family holiday in San Francisco. Reading about these sorts of tragedies just feeds my anxiety activity levels and my feelings of sorrow for the family take a long time to lift. Therefore, I am now careful of the amount of social media I consume and the type of stories I choose to spend time reading.
5) Make a cup of tea. No doubt this will be best understood by Brit readers who are tea lovers. But a cup of tea, carefully brewed and made with the right amount of milk, can truly work wonders.
The so-called healing powers of an English cup of tea is something my French husband finds highly amusing, but, joking aside, he has actually been converted and now only drinks tea the British way.
Thanks for reading.