Managing the storms of parental anxiety
When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, Hope, fatherhood was still somewhat of an abstraction for me.
Infant clothes, onesies, diapers and baby furniture began filling the room that would become a nursery, but I was still pretty oblivious to what was coming my way.
The reality of fatherhood didn’t really hit me until 12:06 p.m. on May 16, 2016. Suddenly, there was a tiny, crying human being in front of me and a pair of scissors in my hand to cut the umbilical cord.
In a matter of minutes, my life had changed forever. I was now responsible for the survival and general well-being of an infant. After a couple of days in the hospital, the proverbial training wheels would be taken off, and my wife and I would take our little girl home, where we would have to figure out a feeding schedule and make sure she got enough sleep as she adjusted to life outside the womb.
I’m not going to lie, it can be terrifying, especially when you’re a first-time parent. The anxiety is bad enough when you put your newborn in her car seat for the first ride home from the hospital. It can be overwhelming when you start thinking about everything that goes into being a parent, all the good and bad things the future could hold for the gentle little soul in your care.
Questions swarm your mind: What if she gets really sick or has a learning disability? What can I do to help her become a well-adjusted teenager? What will I do if she is bullied or if she has self-esteem problems? How do I respond if she dates an abusive man?
Letting go in faith
Very early on in my life as a father, I had to remind myself often of St. Padre Pio’s advice to, “Pray, hope and don’t worry.”
Also, as a Catholic father, it dawned on me that I have a responsibility to make sure my baby is brought up in the Faith, that I teach her prayers, that I tell her about Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and what it means to be a Christian, and model that for her.
There is a picture of me feeding Hope a bottle when she was five days old. She was so tiny that she was practically swallowed up in my arms. The look on my face was one of intense concentration as I was careful not to make a wrong move and somehow “break” the baby.
About six months later, there was another picture taken of me feeding Hope. But in that photo, my body language is relaxed, my demeanor pretty casual, as Hope and I both look at the camera with a sort of nonchalant expression.
You see, despite the worries and doubts that you may have of your ability to be a parent, the love you have for your newborn and your desire to be a good mom or dad will enable you to adapt to the demands of raising a child.
You find it is easier than you thought to wake up at 4 a.m. for a feeding, to change a diaper, to support the baby’s head when you hold her, even to brew a cup of coffee with one hand while holding a sleeping infant in the other.
And having a spiritual grounding helps to cope with the anxiety, self-doubt and uncertainty that new — especially first-time — parents such as myself often experience. Here are some insights rooted in our Catholic tradition that I found to be helpful in my transition to fatherhood. I pray they may be helpful to you as well.
1. Worrying is a waste of energy.
St. Padre Pio knew what he was talking about. Of course, the saintly friar was basically saying the same thing the Lord Jesus told his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount when he asked, “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Mt 6:27).
No. Worrying does not change a thing. It accomplishes nothing, except to stress you out and give the devil an opening to wreak havoc in your life.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, and some people, like myself, are more prone to anxiety than others. But keeping in mind Our Lord’s promises that God the Father knows what we need is a source of consolation and strength that can assure us he will equip us for the demands of parenthood.
“If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?” Christ says in Luke 12:28.
2. Don’t be afraid of the future.
It can be easy to fall into a trap of perseverating over various future scenarios and all the possible consequences that could happen. But just like worrying, you are wasting energy and strength obsessing over things that have not happened and probably will not come to pass.
“Do not be afraid!” Pope St. John Paul II was fond of saying during his pontificate. It’s also a phrase that we find in one form or another hundreds of times throughout Scripture.
As a father, I found it helpful to connect God’s exhortation to have courage with the example of St. Joseph, who probably still had some uneasiness about the future even after an angel appeared to him in his sleep and told him to take the pregnant Mary as his wife. Even if he still had his doubts, Joseph put his trust in God and became the great foster-father of Our Lord and the patron of our Church.
And through the messiness of everyday life, where we make mistakes and say and do things we shouldn’t as parents, I am comforted in St. Paul’s insight in Romans 8:28, that God ensures “all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
3. Rest when you can.
Again, easier said than done, but important. Our bodies, and our minds, need rest. It’s easy to become sleep-deprived as a young parent, but that hampers your decision-making, frays your nerves and damages your health.
The Lord Jesus took breaks from his grueling itinerant ministry to pray and rest. Matthew tells us in his Gospel that Christ was asleep in a boat at sea with the disciples when a violent storm threatened to overtake them. The disciples had to wake up the Lord, who calmed the waves with his voice.
Excerpt from “Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids” by Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D., and Lisa Popcak:
“Is there a Catholic way to parent? And if so, what parenting style is dictated by Catholic culture? It might strike some readers as rather odd to talk about parenting in a way that is consistent with Catholic culture. After all, we live in a big Church made up of many nationalities, many languages, and many customs. But regardless of our nationality or ethnic heritage, Catholic people must first and foremost be ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own’ (1 Peter 2:9).”
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4. The Lord is always with you.
Just as he was in that boat, Christ is present with you now — even when you have doubts — and he is always ready to give you the grace you need for your particular state in life.
“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age,” Christ told his disciples in Matthew 28:20.
I find that reassuring, and it helps me to focus less on the storms of life to be more present in the here and now. As a parent, you want to be present because the baby you bring home from the hospital grows up fast. And believe it or not, one day you will yearn for these early moments, though they be filled with challenges and all.
Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.