Anxiety and Children’s Books: Or Fear Itself

miss clavell

Waking one morning with a feeling of alarm. I suddenly remembered the image of Miss Clavell who ran the orphanage in which the insouciant Madeline was tucked.

Hair straying from her bun. Miss Clavell sits upright in a white nightdress—the emblem of maternal terror. In that old house in Paris, one stately with rhyming lines, children have returned for decades to enjoy Madeline who is not “afraid of mice, winter snow and ice and to the tiger in the zoo…says pooh-pooh.
Both children and parents seek and order there. The children are numbered and cared for. Madeline makes every fear comes out right.
I identify with Miss Clavell. She who wakes in the night and knows “something is not right.” She doesn’t think this, she knows it. That is the feeling of true anxiety. It is not a feeling—it feels like a truth on the border of consciousness. Something terrible about to be remembered.
Similarly my daughter re-read a book about three gophers trying to find their home approximately several hundred times. There was nothing spectacular about the book (“May We Sleep Here Tonight“).  It was a prolonged tale of suspense as rabbits, raccoon, gophers all open the door to a snug cavt of person will this be and systematically pile into bed, seeking shelter from a storm. But the question looms whose house is this? 
Each time the door opens, the bell rings, the whiskers twitch or noses quiver.
And, indeed, it turns out to be the home of a huge bear. Fears are confirmed. Animals that had snuggled now scuttle to the bottom of the bear’s huge bed in hiding. But the bear, because this is a children’s book, turns out to be jolly and comforting. After preparing hot soup all around the final page of the book shows the bear in bed with all the animals, enormous paws wrapped round them. Even the bear needs comfort too.
Who wants to be Miss Clavell in the middle of the night, who wants as John Berryman said, to wake up wondering who is missing? Recently my daughter told me she didn’t want to grow up. At first I feared as mother—therapist too—this was she start of some pathology. But then I realized, who does?
If children are afraid the outside world may be frightening and practice at mastering it—adults continue this. The fear of losing a precious person, the fear of feeling that fear holds many people in its paws. That is, as Delmore Schwartz wrote, “the heavy bear who goes with me.” The mother’s fear that something essential is missing; the daughter’s fear that she is not good enough—the fear of feeling a fear we cannot withstand links so many patients that I see. And I, as Miss Clavell, fear that ‘something is not right’ and count the days or times or tasks. To miss that fear would be a consequential relief. MY hope for my child and others is that they are not accompanied by that early morning call to arms. That fall into the preverbal state of aloneness where we need our mother but have only a cry to bring her forth.
A lifetime of anxiety has left me quite aware of waking to a world, which seems suddenly not level. Perhaps this experience drew me to become a psychologist, feeling that the need to reassure or undo the ravages anxiety causes is a great gift.

You Can’t Fake Love

pt 3






Part 3 of 3 in a series on parenting.

If only we could compliment each other—if indeed compliments are due. The whole time I have raised my child I have gotten about 3 compliments about my daughter’s behavior. Each has brought me to tears. Perhaps I need more than others but the lack of enjoying each other’s children speaks to me about the joylessness of our communities. I give it constantly, hoping to change the environment.

There is nothing wrong in giving more to your child than you had. More advantage, parenting with greater insight, feedings healthier foods. But if you come to resent these pressures, feeling like they are ingrates, or that no one really understands you; you may have lost the plot of your life. Someone else, much less someone who is searching for his or her inner adult, cannot run the plot of your life. Being in charge of your decisions, treating yourself and a whole flawed highly competent person is probably the best you can do. Finding passion in life, trying to be kind to others, and apologizing when you are not—if this is what comes naturally. That is what your child will learn. In the end, you can’t fake love.

Recently my daughter said something I found puzzling.

She said: Mommy. How do you get so many people to love you?”

MeI thoughtI feel lonely. I am shy. And then I realized the truth. The mother she sees pushes through her own shyness to show her daughter how to connect. The first day of kindergarten Penelope and I marched in. I was quaking, she was uncertain. I scanned the group and quickly saw a shy child, clinging to her twin who was in the other classroom. 

“See that little girl, darling?

Go to her and ask her name. She looks nervous and I bet she would love to make a friend.”

Public service turned out to be a cure for the most severe cases of treatment-resistant anorexia. Feeling useful and helping others raises our self-esteem and grounds us in a sense of efficacy and community. As I watch my daughter and her friends, I realize they seem more able to connect with each other than their jaded and worldly parents.

To read the part 1 of this series, click here. To read part 2, click here.

Friendship casualties and lonely mothers


Part 2 in a 3-part series on parenting

Friendships have been, for me, a sad casualty of this career. My friends without children don’t enter my life. I mostly see the mothers of children my daughter likes. If I am lucky, we enjoy each other’s company, but rather than sharing tips or woes, parents often hide their struggles with their kids because these struggles are now failures of career proportions.

Isolation from friends, in turn, takes a terrible toll on marriage. Women turn to their husbands for the sorts of intimacies we relied on from other women. Suddenly this one person, already so different by gender alone (I did not count men as my friends before I married) is supposed to be everything. Which is, of course, impossible. 

Women are lonely. I hear it everyday. My personal fantasy is Sex and the City. But not the shopping or the brunch. It is sharing confidences of a daily nature with someone real, live. Watching that show, I remember how much  zest is gained by laughing or confiding in others.

If you look at who is blogging, a lot of them are mothers; I suspect that many blogs exist because women are lonely. We miss the sort of confidences we used to share with real friends and now tweet and text to whomever might be listening.

When I realized I really was in this strangely alone, stopped asking and reading I asked myself what I thought I wanted Penelope to have: Resiliency, a sense of agency, and the belief that the world was a safe place which would welcome her.

Behavior and character do not come from magic. They come from a multitude of opportunities, from temperament and shaping. This is where my training as a psychologist helped me get through childhood. I know that I can only hope to get it right, at best, some of the time. I know that being ‘good enough’ is really not very complicated. In fact, it is quite simple. But it is hard and repetitive work and requires a great deal of self-forgiveness. 

To be continued…

The Ivy League Rules For Parenting


Just in case you were ready to accept that life is precarious, that our most important decisions are made with blinders on…along comes another reassuring reversion to The Rules. These are not the rules of dating; they are the next set, the rules of how to parent. More precisely how to mother.

The ever-burgeoning ‘science’ of parenting follows on the heels of the new ‘science’ of eating and the ‘science’ of happiness.

Americans keep looking to books for answers rather than ‘figuring it out’ or asking their elders and their peers. Whether you have ingested the pressure of The Over-Scheduled Child or participate in the backlash of The Free Range-Child, this cult of parenting has created enormous stress.  Mothers, marriages and friendships fracture and the very children whom this focus was meant to help burn like leaves under the intensity of our gaze.

Women who looked forward to leaving work, now find that the land of organic juice boxes and competitive martial arts makes raising children seem as hard as getting tenured. Detail-oriented ambitious women channel the same drive used at work into their homes: children have become a career. The joy of parenting may vanish because, ironically, parenting has become rarified and precious.

In our heads we all have an ideal mother we imagine ourselves. This new type of career mother makes that image real. Mine was a combination of Mary Poppins and Kate Spade. In my daydreams I take mother magic out of my Kate Spade bag along with my iPad. In reality I achieved neither the look nor the respect with any consistency.

Parenting is far more haphazard than I ever imagined. This is a terrifying idea for an ambitious woman used to measurable accomplishments and endless analysis. Standing in front of a playground, shuffling my frozen feet, I lamented out loud my bad habit of resorting to the BIG VOICE.  Another mother, a truth-teller, said to me “I often feel that this is not my real family. My real family is much more well-behaved.” “Aha,” I exulted, “there’s another like me.”

I also know a mother who sent vegetables to school with her daughter every day even though she knew that her daughter always brought them home. She sent them so the teacher could see “I wasn’t a bad mother.” This was, in essence her “Facebook lunch.”

What has, I hope, saved me from becoming truly mired in this conversation is a combination of my work and laziness. I don’t have time to follow the level of social intricacies required to navigate the world of  school. I can’t even be on time! And, frankly, I truly believe that my daughter’s teacher is the person best qualified to teach my child.

As Adrienne Rich wrote, we should use our energy where “it is taken up, restored and given back.” For me, being there in the morning and at night, framing my daughter’s day makes me feel connected to her.

To be continued…


Mold And Phosphorescence


One March weekend, over twenty years ago, I bombed my apartment with pesticides and went out for the night. The weather had turned cold. I could see my breath when I opened the windows and hear the reassuring hiss of chemicals cleaning the air.A car outside spun on ice. I was tired and impatient. Tired of slapping at my ankles and impatient because impatience is my nature. I blotted my lipstick and headed out.

Driving home after midnight was slick. The road from Brookline to Cambridge had become black ice and I was slightly exhilarated by the challenge. Sunday passed, forgettable. Monday, however, a surge of fire burned over my legs and arms as though I had spent the night sleeping under a radioactive sun. I turned on the air conditioning as I drove to work. By midday I had hives and my mouth burned  continuously inside. When I asked my colleague, Victoria, to look at my skin, she sent me immediately to the ER in the hospital where we worked.

My immune system had gone to war with the world. Overnight I became a foreigner. I was suddenly allergic to  familiar things, places and, depending on what they wore, people.  With glacial slowness and hundreds of trials and mistakes, I would have to climb out of the huge pit I had dropped in overnight.

I received the diagnosis of MCS. Family and doctors both helped and hindered. My illness fell into the group that border between the known and the unknown, the tragic and the merely hysterical. Chronic Fatigue, Lyme disease, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain Syndrome, Sjogren’s Syndrome.  

This physical change divided my life. Looking back from childbirth, divorce and the death of both parents, this time was the most terrifying I have known. Those other, developmental changes fell into the realm of what normal life brings. But my own self was neither familiar nor trustworthy. I was no longer a continuous line of associations. My past filled with scent and touch was severed. 

Ironically, I had sworn never to become this ill. My mother had spent a good portion of my life with fibromyalgia, bed-ridden and fragile. Consequently, I exercised a lot, took my share of risks, and inhaled deeply from life. I wanted to feel intensely alive.  

Genetics and stupidity trumped it all. In a few destabilizing years, I moved three times. I gave away my clothes and furniture. Every few months I stopped trying to live with my illness and simply rebelled against it. During those times I infused my blood with Vitamin C, rotated my diet, took hundreds of supplements, and drove to neighboring states so doctors could pass magnets over my body.  

When I emerged from the worst of this crisis, I became uncertain if I should have children. I told this revelation to my mother and she said she understood.

Fast forward. My daughter is 12. I am divorced and she is ebullient, popular, and practical. One week recently, also in March, I fell through time. In a few days I was deep into a surround of pain I had forgotten. Pulling down her shade made me wince. My deepest fear was that my daughter would see me as disabled or incompetent, even insane because my illness can’t be seen. I discounted twelve years of parenting in a day.

Mold was the problem. This time I could smell it in the house. My eyes began to tear and twitch. My bones ached. My daughter herself said, “I smell something awful.” My denial dissolved. She has allergies and asthma and zero anxiety about either. She carries an Epi-Pen and takes inhaled steroids every day. She is sturdy and secure as they come. Touch wood.

I scrubbed the washer and sink like a surgeon. But the smell came back, as though the earth itself were decaying under our house. One night I sat in my office and realized I was afraid to go home. The last days I felt myself become granular—as though I had sat in the sun all day and grit under my skin. My blood felt fiery.

But my daughter was coming home for the weekend the next afternoon. I was stumped. Was it time to pretend or was it time to escape?  Would this pass with distraction or worsen? What was sound and what was wise? Not the sort of answer found in a parenting book.

The only wisdom I could find was this: Where could I function best? I checked 

into a hotel and felt no better. We stayed for three days. Penelope knew exactly why we were at a hotel. She didn’t buy my tale of a mini-vacation for a minute. We talked truth. How long would we stay? Would we move back home? If not, could I keep the house for her to visit? Children need life to make sense and my job was to create reason. I answered carefully. Parenting had taught me that promise breed mistrust. 

We went to see Cinderella. I watched her watch the movie; I could not rest my elbow in the seat between us. The last night in the hotel she put her wet head on my shoulder, sleek as a seal in the king size bed. We listened in darkness to My Family And Other Animals. From the hollow of our white room we travelled to Corfu and saw a boy swimming in a phosphorescent sea. I listened to the story with all my concentration, the solid British voice reading aloud.

I lectured her a bit sternly: “We don’t do helpless. We have what is most important here, love. We can get our things. I can go to work and you can get to school, to your friends and to dance.” Solemnly she nodded. No comment.

The next morning she smiled. “I don’t want to leave. What time is breakfast?” Unlike her I dreaded what was to come, unwinding my muscles to get up, solving the murky puzzle of mold or moving. But there was a victory that weekend. I had feared I would become a mother who burdened my child but I kept most of my terror and doubt inside. 

I hope to take Penelope to Greece. We can go to Corfu, see the lemon- and pink-colored villas, and find dolphins surfacing, throwing off light from the phosphorescent sea.