Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Worry is Everything

            I wrote a couple posts awhile back, maybe a month, on worry. I basically argued that worry is self-inflicted misery and, as such, is almost entirely pointless and those who can train themselves to avoid it as much as possible will lead happier lives. 

             I stand by that assertion, but I consciously left one major aspect of life out of that discussion, one that some days seems to be constructed of nothing but worry: parenthood. Being a parent is, if your brain functions in a way that most of us would consider normal, being a worrier. In my three and half years as a father, I've discovered degrees of fretting, hand-wringing and worrying that I had not previously known existed. 

              And I am lucky; my daughter, Charlie, is frighteningly intelligent for her age, generally doesn't do any of the really dumb little-kid stuff you hear about- swallowing random objects, chasing balls into the street, pulling on doberman's tails, etc. And she has the language and capacity to communicate almost anything she wants with us, so when something slightly hair-raising has happened when we are out of the room, she will explain it to us in great detail, and generally will understand, and follow, our explanations of what to do differently in the future.

               So while I may be fortunate to be forced into less worry than some parents whose children seem more bent on self destruction, that doesn't change the fact that, in three and a half years, she has given me more reasons to worry, more reasons to lose sleep at night, than the previous thirty years of my life had all together. An example:

              A couple weeks ago, I was upstairs in the bathroom and she was playing in our fenced-in backyard with the dog, Layla. The bathroom window, which overlooks that yard, was open, and I heard nothing unusual. I went downstairs after only a few minutes and she calls to me from the yard, "Look, Dad, a groundhog!" I go running out and stop at the top of the steps leading into the yard, expecting to see it darting under the house or fence, but nothing is moving. I look down to see, right at my feet, that she and the dog have managed to corner the creature, who is enormous for a groundhog, right at the base of the stairs I am on, all in a triangle with 18 inches between any two of them. The groundhog is backed up as far as he can go, all his hair on end, and chatting his teeth ferociously at all of us. I jumped over him, grabbed her by one arm and the dog by the collar and put her down on the stairs, ordering her to go in the house right away. She protested, "But Daddy, Layla and I were playing with it!" to which I yelled louder, "Get in the house!" I then dragged the dog in a wide circle to the far side of the stairs and pushed her into the house, followed, and closed the door behind us. The groundhog immediately took off for the nearest gap under the porch and disappeared.

            A groundhog. A fat rat land-beaver. And it had my heart racing. We've seen several groundhogs in the yard, and it is always fun for her, but this one weighed as much as she does and was close enough to knock her down in one leap. And it was in the yard, that our dog has lived in for 2 years, in the middle of the day, with the dog standing right there. 

            We went back outside, and I asked Charlie what had happened. She pointed to a gap under our kitchen, "He came out there and he put his teeth together," (mimicking this with her hands,) "and he said 'Chat! Chat! Chat!' and then Layla BIT him really hard with her teeth and then he said 'Chat! Chat! Chat!' again. Then he ran over by the stairs." Over the next couple of days she told that story, in exactly those same words, about six times without any prompting, so I think it is roughly the truth.

             At no point in my life prior to being a father would a groundhog cause me to react with anything except the mildest curiosity. But something fundamental shifts when you are a parent, something that is in many ways terrifying. It is akin to the expression "Wearing your heart on your sleeve," in the sense that the most important part of you, the thing you value and cherish more than anything else in the world, is exposed, constantly, to an unlimited number of uncontrollable dangers. It is utterly, abjectly horrifying. 

              And I don't consider myself a particularly worrisome parent, and neither is my wife, since neither of us are big worriers to begin with. And our concern manifests itself in different ways. My wife frets about the preservatives in hot dogs, the high-fructose corn syrup in soda, and the chemicals in sunscreen, but is far more apt than I am to continue a conversation with another parent when Charlie is struggling near the top of the climbing wall at the playground. In my wife's mind, if she's gonna insist on climbing that wall, she needs to learn how to fall from it, so long as she isn't going to get seriously hurt. I undertand this intellectually as well, but daddies don't let their baby girls fall. Ever.

               Parental worry is unavoidable. You can learn to stop worrying about the money you don't have or the hair you're losing or what people are saying about you behind your back, and these are all worthy projects. But, in general, a parent who is making a conscious effort to worry less about their child is, one, probably engaging in an exercise in futility, two, failing in their duties as a parent. Now, this isn't to say that there aren't some people who actually do need to chill the freak out, since their hovering is causing way more irreperable harm to their child than anything the world is likely to throw at them. But most people fall in the happy middle between those parents and the criminally negligent ones.

              But the most amazing thing about all of this inescapable, eviscerating worry? Every second is worth it. When I walk into Charlie's day care at the end of the day to pick her up, and I see her look up from a puzzle or a book, my first thought is always, "Thank god, she survived another day." But that thought is always immediately replaced by another; seeing her face light up, hearing her scream, "Daddy!" and run across the room for a hug, hearing her immediately launch into some frantic yarn about what she saw or did that day, I can't help but think, "I am the luckiest person in the world. Nothing on earth could possibly be better than having her in my life. Absolutely nothing."

              When you have been entrusted with the care of something that seems infinitely more valuable than yourself, worry isn't just normal, it is manadatory.


  1. They say that nothing ever disappears on the internet, but I hope for Charlie that this post is still in some accessible form when she's old enough to appreciate it.

    I'm aware that some of the people I went to high school with have dutifully sought to become grown ups, but I find that the people I like best are, like me, fairly content to hold on to youthful enthusiasm with all its idiosyncrasies, failure to be satisfied with a life of stress and discontent among them.

    It's interesting, then, to see parenthood enter the picture. How does the drifter/artist/ne'er-do-well/average joe reconcile their light-hearted laidback self with the new parent self, motivated by love and responsibility such as they've never experienced? It's not a matter of replacement, but of the two learning to live side by side, as bewildering as they may be to each other. You've summed up quite beautifully that meeting and synthesis.

    As I told Jen a bit ago, picture-Charlie is absolutely adorable. Sounds like the personality in the pictures is probably only the tip of the iceberg in terms of her awesomeness.

    In an unrelated note, Google+ may well be the wave of the future, but at the moment it's invite only. I'm sure I'll probably end up over there eventually, but I'm unmotivated to seek out an invitation and spend the time to get familiar. So, selfishly, I'd prefer you kept things here. On the other hand, patience is a virtue. I'll catch up later if you decide to move it.

  2. Yes, Charlie's awesomeness is the stuff of legend. We've still got to figure out when to get together so you can experience it in person. We can negotiate that via email/fb/G+ whatever.

    I was never terrified at the prospect of having children, but almost all of my closest friends are in the never-gonna-have-kids camp. I don't really get it, but to each his or her own. The funny thing is, many people hit our age and end up living the same life-style, home on the weekends, in bed by ten, work-tv-sleep, but without any really excuse or reason for not doing the things that their freedom ought to be allowing them to do. But there are exceptions on both sides.

  3. i finally sat down and remembered that i hadn't read this last post before summer kicked in. i love it so much. it is such a wonderful description of worry and parenthood in general and charlie perfectly.
    it is so funny that the way we worry about some things is so different, but at the end of the day i also say to myself, oh i am SO happy that you are with me another day. rob and i have never even really told each other that. yeah, i think it must just be a parent thing.
    i loved what you said too meghan. (: i too hope charlie gets to read that post some day...