Have I Doomed My Daughter to a Childhood of Fears?

One mother remembers the debilitating anxieties she grew up with as she helps her child cope with invisible demons of her own.

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I have two kids: a girl and a boy. The boy’s fearless—too fearless in fact. The girl, not so much. With my son, I have several moments each day where I feel like my womb is dropping out of my abdomen, as he spins out into the path of an oncoming bus or some such. My daughter, on the other hand, is the type of kid who repeats my advice back to me verbatim. In some ways it’s great: She’s careful on the street and on the jungle gym and saves me from a lot of worrying. Then there are those other moments, when her fears are heartrending, frustrating, annoying, embarrassing, and, well, scary.

The last few weeks I’ve gone with her first-grade class to their swimming lessons, as I will today. This interruption to my workday was prompted by a few weeks of her occasional crying the night before, at bedtime, when the swimming-class demons came out in full force.

Now, usually her big fear is dogs. My daughter will skirt the edge of the sidewalk to avoid them. But while dogs can be very sweet, swimming is a useful skill and good exercise to boot. I’d hate for her fear to impede her.

I recalled a time on a trip to Connecticut when my daughter had spent 20 minutes saying she wanted to go in the water at the yacht club, but was too afraid. My friends—both mothers with more experience—stage-whispered that I should just throw her in.

I had scooped her up and taken her into the water with me, carefully carrying her down the ladder as the teenage lifeguard stood on the pier a few feet from us. It was one of the safest possible situations in which to immerse yourself in the Atlantic Ocean, which, taken from the perspective of someone who couldn’t tie her own shoes, is admittedly daunting. She let out relentless, blood-curdling screams the entire few minutes we were in the water, clinging to me like a koala to the last eucalyptus tree on Earth. I quickly got out and dried her off.

Several years earlier, at her second birthday party, on a friend’s terrace, I took her into the 500-gallon pool when she insisted she couldn’t. Gradually she relaxed and I got out of the pool. She spent the rest of the party gleefully hopping in and out with the pure joy of being submerged in water with friends on a hot July day, back to our watery origins, and probably—I imagined neatly—the joy of facing up to her fear and conquering it.

According to some quick research on the Internet about children’s fears, everything I do is wrong and it’s all my fault, nature and nurture, apparently. Before I can slog through all the experts and the comments, it becomes clear that I am going to have to use my own judgment. It seems that mocking her as she gave super-wide berth to a toy poodle on a leash was a no-no, too. I’m not sure I agree with the experts there. A good laugh can help to break some of the spell. And breaking the spell seems to be all there is to do. Getting mad, which is easy because you’re frustrated, doesn’t help at all. At least not with my daughter. She is afraid of my anger, too.

If the advice online was to be believed—some of it even came from Harvard—I’d have to go further back, to my own childhood, which I tend to remember more vividly than I’d like. I think of the lyrics to the Indigo Girls’ song “Kid Fears,” from their self-titled album, which I listened to repeatedly when I was 17: “What would you give for your kid fears?” I was quite taken with the promise I interpreted from that song: That my childhood anxieties would be made laughable and envious by what awaited me as an adult.

One night my husband had gone out with his buddies and I was putting the kids to bed. A book much more age-appropriate than what he usually reads them gave the broad strokes of Batman’s story. Of course, the caped crusader’s raison d’être is the horrific killing of his parents, by a mugger, in front of him. A few minutes later my daughter starts to cry hysterically about the death of our cat Ike three years earlier. Three years earlier. What could I say? He was sick, he’s not suffering anymore, Ike knows you love him, he loves you too, etc. I held her tight while my son hovered, quasi-teasing and making pointed comments about how his big sister was crying and not him.

Amid easy-to-tackle questions like “But why did he have to die?” and “Why does death exist?” came a “You are young, right, mom?” While it’s not the first adjective I’d use to describe myself, I said of course, of course, stroking her hair as her face contorted.

My daughter is now the age I was when my mother died. I’d always attributed my kid fears to that DSM-certifiable trauma. In one nightmare I still remember I was a grasshopper. Chitinous, hopping through the tall grass. Someone was after me and he caught me. He pulled out a cigarette lighter and lit it beneath me. I crackled and screamed silent grasshopper screams. My father wasn’t able to offer a panacea that made it all better. I now find myself in that position of not having an answer. I hear myself saying, “It’s not that dark; I can see you,” or “It’s time to close your eyes anyway.”

There were other nightmares, more fodder for the analyst’s couch: my father dying; my father being killed by my fourth-grade teacher. The doomed man would read me a chapter of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and leave me in the bottom bunk on my Peanuts bed sheets. “Happiness is being one of the gang,” proclaimed my pillow. I couldn’t sleep. Just like my daughter tells me every night lately, swim class or no.

The magical thinking I had as a child—that my actions could save me from further trauma—has a parallel in the prevailing idea that our grumpy little inabilities to be every single thing to our children will scar them for life. Yet how awesome would it be to be the mother who could make it all go away with just her presence, her sage words or her kisses, to be that mother I’ve been led to believe exists.

What the hell does “afraid of the dark” even mean? Afraid of monsters under the bed, of men like the one who killed Martha and Thomas Wayne? Of the void? Of death? Of being orphaned to a hard-knock life?

Sometimes I want to deflate my daughter’s fears, dismiss them the way we do “first world problems.” But after this journey back to those damp Snoopy sheets, I beg to differ with the Indigo Girls. Those fears were as real as the ones I have now, and perhaps even more terrifying. And there don’t seem to be any easy answers. That said, here I am at the swimming pool, watching my daughter splashing joyfully.

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