Culture

I was Worried my Child Would Inherit my Anxiety—What Happened Next was Surprising to say the Least

From the moment that our children come into our lives, we know that it's our responsibility to guide them. But what about the lessons that our little ones teach us along the way?

By Rohini Rajagopal
01 November 2021

The other day my son was selected to participate in the school assembly. I was taking my obligatory mid-day nap when his grade 1 teacher called and threw a firecracker to ignite a perfectly still afternoon. She explained that my son would have to login to the online assembly the next morning, read out a riddle at the start of the session and then wait until the end to give out the answer. As I listened to her give instructions, a cocktail of emotions washed over me—cold panic about my ability to find an appropriate riddle (funny yet meaningful), trepidation about my son’s ability to deliver it and an inordinate pride at his selection as an assembly ‘panelist’. Within seconds, phones started ringing in different parts of the world. Calls were made to his father at work to come home early. To his grandparents to take pictures of pages from The Big Book of Riddles and send them to me. I asked my son several times if he really wanted to do it. I found his composure and enthusiasm for the riddle completely baffling because at my end this was not a pleasant addition to a regular school day, this was a life-stopping emergency.

 

Well, this panic and anxiety have been standard features of my response towards anything that is marginally anomalous, made only worse by the highs and lows of parenting. I feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility for everything that happens in the lives of my loved ones. I believe that I am solely accountable for their well-being, and therefore must work towards orchestrating perfect outcomes, whether that is a big-ticket item like health and safety or a not-so-big-ticket item like an assembly-riddle. Whatever the case maybe, if I lower my vigil, something terrible will happen.

 

My husband is convinced that I have inherited this anxiety from my mother going by the number of times he has told me ‘You are exactly like her’ (Eyeroll). I believe I am nothing like my mother who is a bundle of nerves if we let the landline ring more than once, but I do know that anxiety is contagious. My son is picking up the signals I emit both consciously and unconsciously. Earlier this year, my first book, an infertility memoir was published. In the weeks leading up to the book launch, I must have said ‘I am so nervous’ a million times. Within a few days my son was repeating it. He saw it as the legitimate response to anything out-of-the-way, even something as innocuous as a birthday party.

 

If there is anything I am responsible for, it is to break this chain and undo the links that hold them together. For starters,embrace the radical idea that my son is a different entity from me—unique and whole. His choices, experiences, likes and dislikes—they all belong to him and not to me. Even at the age of 6 years and 10 months he owns all of himself. As parents we are guilty of thinking of our children as extensions of ourselves and we end up leading double lives—one as ourselves and one as our children. To think like that is to deny them their distinctive personhood and existence. I do have a transformative influence on him yet I am not the cause of everything that happens to him—good or bad. Only if I free myself from this sense of culpability can I begin to be truly there for my son—offering him my strength and not just my worry or concern or fragility.

 

The next day, my husband was asked to be on standby until the assembly was over. In addition to creating a slide for the zoom call, I wrote the riddle down on a piece of paper and left it in front of his desk. I stood at a safe distance and taped the whole thing on my phone which nearly dropped when my son interrupted the school principal out of turn with ‘I want to say something’. I shook my head manically as he unmuted himself and proceeded to share a fact about tigers, a piece of information he thought was relevant and timely. In that split second, I worried that I might be summoned for not coaching my ward properly, that he will be asked to leave the assembly or at the very least that his career as a panelist was over.

 

Nothing of the sort happened. The riddle was delivered successfully and the taping was shared on multiple family chats.When my normal heart rate was restored, I could not help but feel a quiet envy towards my son—his staunch confidence, his sense of importance and the sparkle and unpredictability he brought to something as mundane as a school assembly. Yes, my anxiety may be contagious and virulent and contaminating but I trust he also has the antibodies for it. Isn’t that how you break the chain?

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