Alexa and I have something in common. I’ve always known it was in me, and I’ve fought against it my whole life. I haven’t won the war—I never will—but I’ve learned to hold my own well enough that I think most people don’t recognize anymore when I’m in the midst of the battle. With Alexa, it’s out there, front and center, where no one can miss it. Just as it was for me when I was a child.
What is it? Fear, in all its forms: from relatively mild anxiety all the way to full blown terror.
I’ve always been full of anxiety. Full of fear. Fear of doing or saying something wrong. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of taking risks and having them blow up in my face. Fear of not taking risks and regretting all the missed opportunities that come with playing it safe. As I grew up, I learned to fight it, to control it, to refuse to allow it to dominate me. But it's there so much more often than I care to admit.
I was a painfully shy child—my strongly introverted temperament contributed to some social awkwardness, some difficulty in interacting with my more extroverted peers. That difficulty led to social anxiety. I’m not sure if my other fears arose from that, or if something about my temperament made me more vulnerable to fears of all kinds. In any case, the fears that I recall most, the ones that still impact me most, tend to have a strong social element. Making small talk—with anyone, not just with strangers—because I don’t know how to do it, and I just know I’ll say something wrong, so I end up not saying much at all. Looking idiotic—even when everyone else around me is doing something silly, I just can’t join in without having the admittedly self-centered feeling that everyone is looking at me, laughing at me. Failing, because I wasn’t very good at getting people to like me, so I needed desperately for them at least to respect me.
I remember talking with a classmate at the residential high school I attended my junior and senior years. She told me of a conversation her parents had with my parents during orientation. Her parents said that she was wild, and they hoped that boarding school would calm her down. Mine replied that they hoped it would loosen me up and that I’d spend some time with their daughter so she could influence me. That’s how anxious I was about everything: I was so afraid to break the rules—so afraid of the consequences and of the shame of punishment—that my parents wished I would loosen up. (I’m still a rule follower, but now it’s a conscious choice to follow most rules as a matter of principle, of respect for the authorities that God has placed over me, and of respect for those whose rights the rules protect; back then, I would have denied it, but my main motivation was fear.)
But it isn’t just social anxiety that I fight. It’s overall timidity. If you look at the broad outlines of my life, you wouldn’t think that fear enters into it—people back home sometimes tell me how strong or brave I am for living overseas; long-term expats here occasionally allude to the uncertainties I face as a more nomadic expat, moving every few years. And there are occasions when I truly want to do something that most people would agree is way too risky—I wasn’t kidding when I wanted to travel to Minya province in Egypt, knowing that it was a hotbed of anti-Christian violence, and I wasn’t kidding when I wanted to get a firsthand look at the protesters in the early days of the Revolution or when I wanted to stay in Egypt rather than evacuating with the rest of the embassy dependents. But even in those situations, I was motivated by fear: fear of missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
If you look at the particulars of my life, the anxiety starts to become more apparent. My nomadic expat life is cushioned by a well-organized, supportive network called the U. S. Department of State, which provides a whole host of benefits to make my life overseas more comfortable and less risky than that of the average expat. And I’m still one of the most timid expats I know. I won’t try a restaurant unless I’m certain that other westerners have eaten there with no ill effects, and you don’t know me at all if you think that I’d ever eat from a roadside food stand in a developing country. I never rode an Egyptian minibus—and I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have even if the security office hadn’t made them off-limits. I only considered riding a moto here in Cambodia for a few seconds, and even then I was amazed at the recklessness of the thought (though I am still a bit tempted … my curiosity and sense of adventure is fighting the fear a bit on that one). I don’t even like to go exploring a neighborhood—any neighborhood, in Cambodia, Egypt, or the United States—without being accompanied by someone who’s been there before or who is more adventurous than I am, unless I've mapped out where I'm going, because I’m just uncomfortable walking around looking clueless. Even the possibility of small talk still fills me with dread, and it isn’t just because of the boredom that most people complain of—I don’t do it well, though I fake it better than I used to. And just a couple of weeks ago, at a baby shower, I found myself compulsively making sure that I would be the last “artist” in a game of Pictionary, because I’m not a good artist and dreaded demonstrating my lack of skill to my friends--I hoped that somehow we'd run out of words before it was my turn!
So I still experience anxiety. A lot of it. And I still struggle with it, trying not to be as timid as I feel. And now I’m seeing it in Alexa.
It’s more than her clinginess in new situations or in social settings. It’s more than her terror at benign occurrences, like the phone ringing unexpectedly or seeing a man pushing a laundry cart for the first time. More than the long time it took her not to require my physical presence at all times after the evacuation. It’s in the small things. Her adamant refusal to dance or do anything silly in front of anyone but Mama, Daddy, or Ming Ming—and sometimes not in front of us. Her reluctance to do things which she’s developmentally capable of doing but not necessarily of doing skillfully. Her insistence that “Lexa is a baby” and “Lexa wants to be a baby,” rather than allowing me to call her a “big girl” or a “little girl” or a “sweet girl” or a “girl” of any type other than a “baby girl.” I get the distinct impression that she feels comfortable being a baby; she knows how to do that. She doesn’t know how to be a girl—big, little, sweet, Mama’s, Daddy’s, or otherwise, other than a baby girl.
And I find myself wondering how much of her anxiety is her temperament—probably inherited from me—and how much of it is learned—also from me. I stand by our parenting strategy overall; we’re careful to allow her to experience only those consequences that she can handle, and not to allow her to face that which she’s incapable of handling, and we try not to let her see that we’re shielding her from worse than we’re allowing her to experience. But I also know that I have been hypervigilant for signs of fear. Since she was a newborn, I’ve worried that she will fall prey to the nightmares that plagued me for my first two decades of life. When she’s cried, my automatic reassurance always has been, “It’s ok, baby, Mama’s here. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Even the lullaby that I made up during the evacuation, the one that she wants me to sing before every nap and before every bedtime even now, starts with “There’s no need to fuss; there’s no need to cry; Mama is here; I’m right by your side” and continues with similar sentiments—it’s ok because she’s not alone, not because there’s nothing to worry about. So one of my newer anxieties is that I’ve taught her not that she doesn’t have to be afraid, but that she does. That there’s something hovering nearby that would cause her harm if only her security forces (her father and I) were away or distracted.
And I wonder how to fix it. If I even can fix it. If I had help getting to the point where I am with my own anxieties, it was subtle, subtle enough that I can’t say with certainty that it was there. Maybe that’s because no one knew how to help, or because I hid it better than I realized and no one knew I needed help. Maybe it’s because this is one of those things that no one can help with—that a person just has to learn to manage on his or her own. Maybe the best thing for me to do is just to encourage Alexa, gently, to try new things at her own pace; to allow her to watch new skills as long as she needs to, without pressuring her to try them herself; to force myself to be silly in front of her (I still hate doing that!) so that maybe she’ll realize that it’s ok to let loose once in a while. Maybe I should just make sure she knows that I’m there, that I understand, that I’ve been through it too—and make sure that no matter what fears or anxieties she faces, she never has to face the fear that no one loves her; make sure that her father’s and my love for her is so deeply embedded into her psyche that it never occurs to her to doubt it, even when we’re disciplining her, even when we’re angry or disappointed at her behavior, even when she feels like she hates us and she’s not afraid to let us know it … of course that leads into a whole other area of inquiry, such as “how do you instill that certainty of being loved so deeply in her psyche without allowing her feeling of being loved—or not—to become her ace in the hole that she can use to manipulate you into allowing her to get away with anything, which would actually do her greater harm?”
Hmm. I guess it’s a good thing that I’ve been as successful as I have been in my battles with anxiety. Parenthood has opened up a whole new front in the war …