Will My Daughter Be Anxious and Sensitive Like Me?

Kid wearing an owl mask

Before my husband Rodney and I decided to have children, we met with a physician for counseling. I was worried about having a child given both our history of anxiety and depression. The poor kid would be doomed? Do we have a child anyway? Would having a child be selfish? How can create another person knowing that her chances of being anxious and depressed were pretty high?

While I don’t remember the exact conversation with the physician, he said that any children we had would have a predisposition for anxiety or depression, meaning they would inherit the propensity for a those disorders, but full blown depression or anxiety wasn’t a given.

Now, nearly ten years later, my daughter Zora sits in front of me with a stomachache, glistening eyes, and a voice knotted with anxiety.

“I don’t want to play capture the flag at climbing camp,” she says in a scrunched up voice, her dark eyes buried under furrowed eyebrows.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I never get to climb on the wall. I just sit on the side!” she croaks angrily.

“Why?” I persist.

“Because there are always people ahead of me!” she says.

“Why don’t you push to the head of the line?” I ask.

“Because they won’t let me,” she answers.

Her dark red hair forms an angled curtain around her face. Her skinny arms wrap around her knees. She’s determined to be angry and left out.

I try changing the subject. “Have you had breakfast?” When she’s anxious, she won’t eat. I was like that, too.

“No.”

“C’mon, then,” I say as I lean over to pick her up. She struggles in my arms then grudgingly throws her arms around my neck. 

“What am I going to do when you’re bigger than me and I can’t pick you up?” I whisper into her ear as I carry her lanky frame into the kitchen. 

After a bowl of dinosaur oatmeal and a glass of soy milk, we’re upstairs in her room picking out clothes. She flops on the mattress and looks at her feet.

“I still have a stomachache and I’ve eaten,” she announces.

“Look, next week I’m off and you don’t have camp. You don’t have to go anywhere. Won’t that be fun to look forward to?” I say.

Transitions are difficult for her. New situations are difficult for her. Asserting herself is difficult for her. There are expectations to meet, not only hers, which are likely high and unreasonable, but also what she perceives others may expect of her a.k.a. mind reading. Reminding myself that I think and feel may not always be real, has always been a struggle for me, and I can see that my little girl  shares that propensity.

She nods and we get on with the business of getting dressed. Even though she is nine and too big for me to dress her, I kneel down beside her and pull a t-shirt over her head and mint green leggings over her feet and narrow hips. I grab her hand and we head downstairs and out the door to camp.

Once in the car, Zora and Jasper request no music or NPR. They’re not bickering, which means that dark cloud of emotion has moved on. I relax and pull out of street onto the main road. 

“Next year, when I’m in fifth grade, can we get a fluffy dog?” she asks.

“We’ll get the dog that’s right for us at the right time,” I say. My response is maddeningly parental and noncommittal, so I add, “I read that cockapoos are good for kids.” 

“What’s a cockapoo?” Zora asks. Jasper, who is four, snickers. I said “poo.”

“A cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle,” I say. Then, knowing that silliness takes her out of negative place, I continue.

“So… you and Jasper are either,” I pause for a moment, thinking “‘Evodneys’ or ‘Rodvonnes’ — a combination of me and Daddy.” They giggle. “Which name is better?”

“Rodvonnes!” she’s taken the bait. We spend the rest of the trip to rock climbing camp describing the characteristics of Rodvonnes, everything from sensitivity to loud noises like toilets flushing in public restrooms (all Rodney) to wide, freckled noses (all me). And, I think to myself, the sensitivity and mood issues. 

But so what? Yes, Zora is a genetic mashup of me and Rodney, but our own struggles with depression and anxiety aren’t her destiny. Zora is her own person: sensitive, anxious, change adverse, but also funny, creative, sarcastic, tenacious, and original. As her mom, I can’t mold her into less anxious, gregarious person. Changing her into something she’s not is a losing battle and a rejection of her unique talents. My job is to help her become and accept herself. 

“Tell us more about the Rodvonnes, Mommy!” Zora urges me, as we pull into the parking lot at the camp. Yup. She’s excited about her own possibilities.

My Morning

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Three Perfect Shots.”

1. In Which We Discover a Redhead in Our Bed.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. And then my seven-year-old daughter’s lean, sharp body insinuates itself between me and my husband. In the dark, all I feel are elbows, knees, and soft skin. When I peek, I see her hair falling like an auburn curtain across her face. Safe under Daddy’s arm, she snuggles in. Parenting experts encourage you to walk your kids back to their own bed, but my husband and I defy their advice and keep her with us. Right now, she believes we can protect her from anything.

2. “My Spoon Is Too Small.”

“I can only hold one piece of cereal on this spoon,” she complains and shows me the lonely square of Life cereal in the spoon.

I stare back at her.

“Well?” she says.

“I would like…,” I prompt.

She answers with a dark glare. “I’m not a baby.”

“I’ll get you a spoon,” I answer. I grab a large, slotted serving spoon from my ceramic utensil jar and hand it to her.

A grin breaks across her face as she takes it from me. “It’s working!” she giggles, using the serving spoon to pick up the entire cereal bowl.

3. Steggie Loses His Head

Apparently the Dinosaur Era follows the Thomas the Tank Engine Era: my son has carried around two plastic Stegasauruses for nearly a week. Stegasauruses, or “Steggies,” as my son calls them, are very popular with the toddler crowd. While the toy store had lots of Giganotasauruses and a slew of Pentaceratops (yes, I know too much about dinosaurs), we snagged the last two Steggies. Relative to their body size, Steggies have very small heads and even smaller brains — approximately the size of two eggs. They also have weak necks. When my son dropped his Steggie at the daycare center this morning, Steggie’s head snapped off skittered off to parts unknown.

“I’ll let you know if I find the head,” the associate director assures me as my son walks to his classroom and lifts the headless Steggie for his little friends to see.

Monday forecast: Cloudy with a vomit and tears; kidless with wine in the evening

Today’s daily digit: 6

This morning: Cloudy, vomit, lots of tears, one forgotten lunch.
Tonight: Kidless, evening class until 8:30, chance of wine — 90%
Tomorrow: Sunny, chance of toddler rejecting pants — near 100%

This morning started off well: I woke up before either of the kids, prepped breakfast, and brewed a pot a coffee before waking the kids. Found my seven-year-old daughter, Zora, lying face-down on the bed with tears welling up in her brown eyes. After twenty questions, I learned she feels nervous about a standardized test she has to take tomorrow. Successfully explained “assessment” vs. “judgement” (“You can’t be kicked out of second grade for not doing well”) to her and convinced her to get dressed and go downstairs.

Grabbed the two-year-old from his crib along with his clothes, brought him downstairs and plunked him next to his sister, who is staring at her cereal but not eating it. Two-year-old demands chocolate milk, not vanilla. Chewing ensues.

Next: Attempt to get toddler dressed, which is a lot like trying to catch pig and put clothes on it.

Get the pants on. Toddler starts coughing, then choking, then puking, then crying. Take toddler’s pants off. Toddler refuses to put on clean pants (“I no LIKE these”), so I try a pair pants, which he also rejects. I pin him down with my leg and yank the pants up and then convince him to wear a Thomas the Tank Engine shirt. Vomit pants go in the washing machine.

Walk out the door with both kids and see the car seat sitting on the front steps. We had taken it out so we could pick up my mother-in-law and her friend from the airport. Spend the next seven minutes cursing and installing the carseat in my car using its medieval system of nylon belts and metal buckles. Toss the kids into the car and strap them down and whoosh off to school. Get stuck behind a garbage truck and three school buses.

Zora’s Morning Stats

School arrival time: 7:56

Hairbrushed? No.

Backpack? No.

Lunch? No.

The Power of Touch: When Mom Braided My Hair

Daily Prompt: The Power of Touch

Textures are everywhere: The rough edges of a stone wall. The smooth innocence of a baby’s cheek. The sense of touch brings back memories for us. What texture is particularly evocative to you?

I did not come from a physically affectionate family. Oh sure, as a child each night I would give my dad peck on his plump, stubbly cheek and received my fair share of hugs from Grandma, but there were never great tickle wars or hamster piles that I witnessed in other families. We’d bump, separate, and move on.

My mother, by the nature of her schizophrenia, rarely demonstrated any affection. Instead she lived alongside of my father, my grandparents, and I as if in an impenetrable bubble. Whenever I DID try to embrace her, her arms and body remained rigid. She acted like a robot executing a hug command, going through the motions without any feeling, letting her arms fall away from me after a prescribed number of seconds.

The only time she would maintain physical contact with me was when she brushed or braided my hair. Then, I could take a chance brushing my back or elbow against the soft heft of her body without her pulling away. I savored the feel of her gently raking her nails across my scalp, gathering hanks of hair, and the slight tug as she wove my hair into braids, the stacks of costume rings and bracelets, clinking close to my ear. For those brief moments, she was a regular mom.

Becoming the Mother I Never Had

Unexpectedly, I discovered that becoming a mother has helped me heal. I’m reminded of this during seemingly mundane moments: at night when my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zora lays in a relaxed heap in my lap while I sing her Beatles songs like “Blackbird” and  “In My Life;” in the morning when she insists on pouring herself a bowl of cereal (“Ima gonna do it myself!”), and I let her, knowing full well that more of the cereal will end up on the table than in the bowl; and anytime she announces that she’s mad at me for not letting her eat rainbow sprinkles for breakfast and slams the door to her room, only to come out minutes later to tell me that she loves me. I worried so much about giving Zora the love and attention I never had growing up. So I was surprised when my daughter was able to give something back to me.

***

Dr. McLaren moved the transducer around my belly pointing out an arm here, a femur there, the four chambers of my baby’s heart. In some cases, I could pick out the body part he was talking about, but mostly I felt as though he was using Doppler radar to examine a weather system that existed inside my body. Toward the end of the screening, Dr. McLaren focused on a particularly cloudy blob.

“It’s a girl,” he announced

My husband Rodney’s dark eyes got that shiny look. We grinned at each other. A girl! Then, I felt a twinge that I couldn’t identify.

Later, I recognized that twinge as anxiousness about having a daughter. Because my mother is schizophrenic, I had no experience with a true mother-daughter relationship. If I were having a boy, at least I wouldn’t have any mother/son expectations of myself. But with a girl, I felt as though I should, well, know more. But I didn’t. Without a blueprint I felt lost and inept; a daughter left me in unfamiliar territory. How could I develop a close relationship with a girl when I had broken relationship with my mother?

I set to work making up for this perceived gap by reading every baby book I could get my hands on. I filled my bookshelves with titles like Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, The Girlfriend’s Guide To Pregnancy, and the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting. These owner’s manuals described in great detail the care and maintenance of my daughter: how often to feed her (on demand); what color her poop should be and how it should smell (mustard-colored and sweet if you breast fed, which of course, you did); whether you should introduce the “family bed” to encourage bonding (yes). My husband Rodney listened as I read passages from my weekly email on in utereo development. “What fruit is she this week?” he’d ask jokingly, referring to the email’s description of how large the baby was. She dutifully grew from the size of a blueberry to a lime to an heirloom tomato, to, finally, a mini watermelon. Acquaintances and colleagues, who weren’t aware of my mom’s illness, exclaimed that my mother must be excited about her first granddaughter and asked if she’d be staying with me after my daughter was born. Not wanting to explain, I pressed my lips into a tight smile, and avoided their questions by saying that my mother-in-law would be helping me and my husband out.

I also scripted my daughter’s birth: I would try for natural childbirth but not rule out the pain-relieving epidural, I would give birth and immediately hold her to my breast and nurse her so she would get that first infusion of colostrum, the high-octane milk that would inoculate her against germs. She would sleep with me, skin-to-skin, and we would bond. It was a very tidy plan that was never meant to be.

In the summer of 2007, after missing my due date by nearly two weeks, I was induced early one morning. I endured three hours of hard contractions before saying yes to an epidural at 10:30 a.m. Zora Kathryn entered the world at 8:31 p.m weighing eight pounds. The heart rate monitor indicated that she was distressed during delivery, and when she emerged, the cord was wrapped around her neck. Although she began breathing on her own, her breath was ragged, so the nurses whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for observation. I remember returning to my room later that evening, crawling into the hospital bed, and putting my hand on my now empty belly before turning out the lights.

Because Zora was in NICU, I couldn’t nurse her right away and my checklist to becoming the perfect mother, the mother I never had, fell apart. She was drinking formula. She was sleeping in an incubator instead against my skin. I watched the nurses scoop her up with ease and confidence and coo to her, “What’s a big girl like you doing here?” While I was resting, my husband and his mom would go to the NICU and stroke her fuzzy head (“I think she has red hair!” my redheaded mother-in-law said excitedly) and squeeze her impossibly small hand. “She has quite a grip,” Rodney said proudly.

Two days later we were back at home, and my obsessions with the details continued. I assiduously charted feeding times and wore rubber band on my wrist to remember which breast I fed from last. But within weeks of coming home from the hospital, I learned my father had been admitted to a hospital in Connecticut: his doctors wanted to remove a tumor that was blocking his bile duct, and I needed to be with him. With my mother- in-law, Marian, in tow, we drove the six hours from our home in northern Virginia to stay at my aunt’s house in Connecticut. Zora was six-weeks old.

Once in Connecticut, I would nurse Zora, change her, and press my nose to her peach fuzz head to breathe in her warm, yeasty smell. Then, I’d hand her to Marian, who cared for her while I sat by my father’s bedside. To console myself during the long days at the hospital, I’d tell myself “She’s with her grandma.” But I couldn’t help thinking about my baby girl, and when I did, my breasts would ache and then leak the milk I couldn’t feed her. I felt exhausted and guilty. Late in the day, when I left the hospital and returned to my aunt’s house, Marian would tell me about Zora. “I know they say that babies don’t smile, but, Evonne, I swear she is smiling!” She told me how alert Zora was, taking in the world with her dark eyes and squawking when she was put down. “She doesn’t want to miss anything,” Marian told me.

Neither did I,  but I was missing so many of those mundane moments in which a mother comes to know her baby, and there was nothing I could do about it. Though my father had been diagnosed with cancer and his prognosis was grim, he stabilized enough that we could go home to Virginia. Marian left to visit Rodney’s sister in Colorado. A week later, I received a frantic three-a.m.-phone call from my father’s girlfriend: he was unconscious and in the Intensive Care Unit. I drove up with Rodney and Zora the next day. When the doctors told me that there was little chance for recovery, I let them withdraw life support. My father died two days later. Rodney cared for Zora, who was now eight weeks old, while I made the funeral arrangements. At the time, I felt like I was a failure as a mother. My initial vision of  how I would spend the early weeks of motherhood had been a far cry from the reality.

After the funeral we returned home to northern Virginia. In an effort to alleviate my anxiety after Zora was born, I had brought in a postpartum doula to show me the ropes. She was capable, self-described Mary Poppins who showed me how to change Zora’s diaper, sterilize bottles, and bathe Zora—all the things a mother typically teaches her daughter. Initially, I was grateful for these basic care lessons, which gave me a measure of confidence. But now that I was back from Connecticut, Mary Poppins had new lessons for me. If , when I put Zora down for a nap, she protested, I was to let Zora cry it out. Pacifiers were forbidden. Baby wearing was scoffed at. “Are you one of those mothers in the bush or working the fields?” she’d ask in her indignant British accent. “No! You don’t need to wear her. She needs to learn to be by herself.”

So I sat on the couch and tried to make small talk with the doula while Zora cried herself hoarse. Conflict! The Dr. Sear’s book said I was supposed to wear her. But Mary Poppins said no. Marian, who had returned from visiting Rodney’s sister in Colorado, despised Mary Poppins, subverted her advice, and encouraged me to hold Zora whenever she cried and give her pacis. “You can’t spoil them when they are this little,” Marian told me. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t trust myself to make a decision. And so I lived a double life, pretending to follow Mary Poppins’ advice, trying to listen to my mother-in-law, but in the end feeling clueless, alone, and just plain wrong. When we knew the doula was coming, Rodney, Marian, and I scrambled to hide the pacifiers so we didn’t have to listen to her lecture about teaching Zora self reliance.

Marian could see that my confidence was low. One afternoon while Zora napped, she told me how alone she felt when she had Rodney and his sister. Her own mother was an ocean away in The Netherlands, and Rodney’s father worked, so she followed the advice she heard most often: don’t spoil the child. “I wish I had listened to myself,” she told me.

Listening to myself turned out to be much easier once I could be alone with Zora. Once my hours with the doula ran out and Marian returned home to Brussels, Belgium, I had more moments when I stopped second guessing myself and let myself just be with my daughter. I joined a new mother’s group, and during our first meeting the facilitator asked us to answer this question: What do you want for your child? It was such a simple question, but for the first time I really stopped and considered what I wanted for Zora. I wanted her to take risks, I wanted her to feel express what she wanted without worrying about what other people might think, I wanted her to love and trust me, and to confide in me, and fight with me. I wanted for her all the wisdom and confidence that I felt I didn’t have. All the lessons my mother couldn’t teach me. The relationship I could never have.

Becoming the mother I wanted to be wasn’t contingent on breastfeeding, paci guilt, or using the cry-it-out method: it meant being with Zora; it meant listening and responding to her needs so that she could trust me. So I relaxed. I laid on the floor with Zora and dragged my long hair across her face to hear her gurgle and watch her eyes crinkle because it tickled. I learned that she was content resting in my arms drinking formula from a bottle and that I was less anxious, I learned to get a big belly laugh out of her by snapping a pair of pants inches from her face.

Rodney’s relaxed approach helped me, too. After putting Zora down for a nap, he’d eschew the baby books and crack open a book or a magazine or chat with me about what was going on in the news. Squeezing in a shower when you have a newborn is difficult, but Rodney experimented with bringing Zora in the shower. “What?” he asked when I shot him an incredulous look. “I’m multitasking.” Zora promptly turned a shade of persimmon and burst into tears. We laughed.

I was realizing that I didn’t have to be perfect. These kind of moments built my confidence as a mother. I began to accept what I didn’t know, tried to figure things out, all with the understanding that I was going to mess up, and that was okay. I wanted Zora to be confident enough to try something new and not be concerned about being wrong. The day I let her cry and endure that discomfort until she found her thumb was a small triumph for both of us.

Each moment with my daughter is a joy and a sorrow for me. In raising her, I recognize what my own mother could not give me. I can lock eyes with Zora and mirror her expressions, but schizophrenic mothers can’t do that. Zora will collapse into my lap and rest her head against my chest without a second thought. My mother shrugged off my affectionate hugs. One of the few positive physical memories I have is of her brushing my hair. If I close my eyes I can remember the gentle click of her rings and bracelets and the feeling of her long fingernails against my scalp. I still love it when someone massages my scalp.

I wonder who I might have been had I received the love, affection, and attention I give my own daughter. But along the way, the balance shifted from worrying about “am I good enough” and dwelling on my loss, to giving what I never had to my daughter. I had planned for all the practicalities of Zora—her birth, the nursing, the napping—but I hadn’t counted on how she would heal me.