Sweating The Small Stuff

February 25, 2010

Yesterday, Emilia brought home her very first report card. Emilia is four. Just yesterday she was in diapers and nursing and the only thing that anyone ever reported about her was quantity and quality of her bowel movements. How did we get to report cards?

For the longest time, I couldn’t open it. I’m not sure why. The reasons that I gave myself – that reading others’ evaluations of my child would be awkward and challenging; that the report card was a symbol of school and so a symbol of her moving ever further into a life of her own, a life apart from mine; that I just couldn’t bear to see anything other than the highest praise for my child – were not, in themselves, convincing. They just landed in my psyche and fell limp, like drained water balloons, or banana peels, or something else more figuratively appropriate that I can’t think of right now. I was anxious for all of these reasons, and for none of them, and for a thousand other reasons that I probably wouldn’t understand until sometime around her high school graduation, and as I sifted through these known and unknown and entirely inscrutable reasons for my anxiety, I thought, this is the problem. This. This worry. Not the reasons for the worry. The worry itself.

Here, I realized, is one more set of things to worry about. How is she doing in school? What do her teachers think of her? What does she think of them? Is she thriving? Is she not? What words will be used in her evaluations? What will the words mean? Emilia is working to use her conflict-negotiation skills independently… Emilia uses oral measurement tools correctly… Emilia actively enjoys playing Submarine and is proud of her navigational abilities… Emilia loves to collect data from her peers and explain to the class what this data represents (wait, what?) (Years of graduate training in critical textual analysis and I’m stymied by a junior kindergarten report card. Is my daughter a Black Ops Naval Intelligence Officer in training, or is she just good at math and challenged by conflict? Also, what are ‘oral measurement tools’ and should I be worried?) One more set of things to worry about, one more reason to stock up on Ativan. When does this all end? Does it ever end? Will I be fretting over her tenure review when she’s thirty and teaching International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Goverment?

Motherhood, for me, has been a complicated mixture of anxiety and joy. The joy, obviously, outweighs the anxiety – by volumes it outweighs the anxiety – but the anxiety is always, always there, lurking in the dark corners and bursting into the light when I least expect it, casting shadows, imposing a chill. Emilia’s junior kindergarten report card – the first report card of years and years of report cards – was a reminder that there are anxieties awaiting me that I haven’t even yet thought about, anxieties that lurk in shadowy corners that I’m not even yet aware of. That I’m not prepared for these worries me – but to devote my energies to seeking them out in advance just fosters a different kind of anxiety, and so I find myself caught in a cycle of worrying about worrying and worrying about worrying about worrying, and you can see how this could be a problem.

I don’t want this to be problem. I want to just get her report card and snicker a little over her teacher’s observation that Emilia is quick to raise her hand and eager to share ideas and ask questions but sometimes needs to be reminded to let her peers ask questions, too and not be so quick to sweat the small stuff and to remember that, really, it is all small stuff, so long as we’ve always got the joy.

And we do have the joy. Also, data-collection.

How do you fight the impulse to obsess over small worries? Do you obsess – even a little – over the small worries? Or is this just me? You can tell me if I’m crazy. I kind of already know.

(IS a report card a small worry? It’s not, is it? It’s HUGE, isn’t it? IT IS. See, I’m totally not crazy. I am ALERT. I know a your-kid-is-so-totally-going-to-be-a-Mossad-agent warning when I see one. SO THERE.)

(I am so freaking doomed.)

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    Lisa February 27, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    As I’ve said before, I’m one of the lower worrying moms. Now, I still convinced myself that my 5-day old was blind, so I am not immune. I worry a lot. Am I giving her good enough food, etc. but I don’t let it run me. To answer your question on how, it’s several things.

    First, my mom was not a worrier. She came by that the hard way (warning: tragic story ahead.) My older sister was killed in an accident when I was 4 and she was 6. Needless, to say, it changed my mother. One of the ways it did was that she decided that she could do everything right (and she did) and it still may not be enough to protect her children (it wasn’t. My sister was actually run over by her school bus.)

    So my mom accepted she couldn’t control everything. Thank goodness for my sake, that she did. I could see a mother reacting by clamping down and worrying even more. I was spared that, fortunately.

    I also had a dad who pushed me to be independent, to climb that tree, etc. I think that was because he was the youngest of 8 and was constantly told he was too little for stuff.

    So those are gifts they have given me, gifts I want to pass on. Of course, you can’t control what kind of parents you got, but I can tell from how you write that your husband is a great father, so your girl will do just fine. I’m sure you’ve heard the truism that girls get their self-confidence from their relationships with their fathers, right?

    Lisa February 27, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Other, more concrete things I do to keep the worry from consuming me:

    I read books that either reassure me or teach me parenting skills.

    – “Freakonomics” taught me that the single most reliable indicator of how a child will do in school is the education/intelligence of her mother. Everything else is pretty much fluff.

    - “Nurture Shock” taught me how this praise culture is crippling our children and that the true path to success is in giving a child challenges and praising her for her work, for her efforts at overcoming, not just calling her brilliant.

    - “How to Talk so Your Kid Will Listen” taught me so much I can’t even list it.

    - “Mother’s Almanac” by Margeurite Kelly (and her weekly newspaper column “Family Almanac” teaches me concrete skills and also how little there is to truly worry about.

    I’m also wicked smart, myself, and know that it’s no road to happiness. I’ve known plenty of doctors and lawyers who have rotten personal lives. I wouldn’t want my child to be “successful” like that. I want her to be successful in life skills, in relationship skills, in being comfortable in her own skin.

    Another way I fight the worry is that I think that marketers exploit parents’ worry to sell them things – safety devices, bigger cars, private schools. I resent the hell out of that, so I enjoy rebelling against the worry they spawn. That actually helps a lot, thinking of “sticking it to the man.” :-)

    I find my worries have an OCD aspect to them. They are ruts I can get into. I find it’s best to have something else to think about when I find myself starting to worry, so it doesn’t get into a rut. Really just not letting myself indulge in the worry is the best thing for me.

    Lisa February 27, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    In wandering around, I came across this post on your blog:


    That is what mothering is about. All this other stuff? So inconsequential.

    Catch the Kids February 28, 2010 at 1:27 am

    I am an Australian teacher. I don’t know how reports are set up in your country, but here it’s quite common to use a “bank” of computer templates. So don’t stress because it’s probably some teacher waving her finger over the keyboard going eeny meeny miny mo. Honestly, at 4! It breaks my heart.

    Zina March 2, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    I’m late here but I did skim the comments to see if anyone’s already said this, but I think I’m the first with this particular pet peeve. The comment that said, “quick to raise her hand and eager to share ideas and ask questions but sometimes needs to be reminded to let her peers ask questions, too” really bothers me, because what the teacher’s really saying (or at least, what many teachers mean by comments like this one) is that he or she wishes all the kids would participate as enthusiastically as yours, but getting your kid to be less enthusiastic won’t change the other kids’ behavior, and your daughter learning not to raise her hand too often (at four?! Really?!) is not going to make the other kids start raising theirs.

    (End of peeve.)

    Kim March 8, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I think worrying about the small stuff (and yes, a report card at 4 years is small stuff) is a lot easier than worrying about the big stuff.

    Like will my child become terminally ill or get hit by a car b/c she ran into the street without looking or how is she going to adjust when we move or am I doing the right things now to raise a “good” person – one who will not get caught up in drugs or stealing or lying – or how on earth will I pay for her college (and her siblings’?) or will she actually tell me if someone touches her in an inappropriate way or, or, or??? See? The “big” stuff is too much. It is what will make you crazy. :) Which I may just be since I rattled all of that off the top of my head!

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