A Little Love for the Very Very Nervous

A recent LA Times article by Mary MacVean about over-anxious parents in our age of hyper competition made a key point worth pondering:  if the majority of “experts” are telling us that we need to calm it down a notch (or three), why is it that we continue to parent like chickens with our heads cut off?

My friend, Sonya Gohill, a pediatrician in Brentwood (and a fellow colleague in a group of parenting experts who meet privately to discuss such matters) is quoted as saying, “For my patients, I have a lot of moms who are extremely well-educated, who were practicing lawyers or have their MBAs, and they’ve retired to be stay-at-home moms. They’re rechanneling their energy. Their kids are their project. The outcome is so important because they’ve put so much time and effort into it.”

Sonya highlights one of the starting guns that sets off the race to nowhere:  the failure to fully recognize our children as separate others.  Other triggers to our misdirected fear include the pervasive notion of scarcity—the idea that we are all competing for limited resources.  “No child left behind,” not only leaves plenty of kids behind, but furthers the manic idea that we’re all boarding lifeboats as the Titanic sinks; hardly an optimal emotional message to facilitate love and learning.

Being terrified lowers our IQ in the moment… and thus we are a culture of smart-when-calm people who are neither calm nor smart about parenting.

Yet we all know this.  My aim today (in keeping with my theme of wishing to help parents calm down, since they already know they are nuts with anxiety and still do not know HOW to actually calm down) is to be reasonably brief, and in the service of encouraging greater security and basic trust in whoever stumbles across these words:  in those I recognize to be my fellows, and with whom I am not competing… only connecting.

We, the nervous, (intermittently myself included) first got nervous in relationship to others.  We never achieved basic trust—the idea, naïve or not, that the world is a safe place.  Now we have a very very nervous group, and like babies crying in the nursery, we keep triggering each other to greater levels of mistrust, alienation and, frankly, meanness.

But all the judgment only makes us further batten down the hatches and secretly plot to get ahead of our fellows.  Yet it is our very terror, poorly masked, that further scares our kids and compromises their being accurately understood by us, which in turn blocks our own happiness and impedes our kids from developing basic trust.

We have become a rabid dog chasing its own tail… and the best that beast can hope for is a true shot from Atticus Finch.  We do not need to die, however, we need to dis-identify with our fear; we need to get a grip.

The path to basic trust and secure attachment is being accurately understood, so perhaps at a collective cultural level a little understanding might invite a more compassionate response.

The “War on Terror” crystalizes the era in which we live (think future history class:  the roaring twenties, Great Depression, atomic age, Vietnam, the internet… and then:  911 and The War on Terror).  Terror is the very essence of the age in which we fret.

Yet the truest terror is within us.  We cannot brook our own Godzilla lizard brains, and so we project it onto “others,” be they terrorists or tiger moms—those who crouch and loom to take the precious wonderfulness and specialness of our very children away from us.


This is paranoid thinking:  we start to think people are “out to get us” when we can’t stand the feeling (or even the fact) that nobody cares.

Everybody’s talking up a storm: broadcasting, emoting, tweeting and posting… but hardly anybody (often including myself, I must admit) is truly listening.  The less we are heard, the more we seem to say (and the more manically we seem to say it… be still my tiger heart).

How very human of us.

We lose our faith in love, in connection, in compassion, in fellowship, and so we turn to whatever is at hand that will not abandon us:  the teddy bear of alcohol, the lizard brain of “nobody cares anyway, so I’m in it for myself” (and we justify pushing to the front of every line because we’re with an infant).  This fear turns us all into stage mothers of the worst, and yet most understandable, stripe.

I have no wish to lead the charge in the counter-attack on tiger parenting. … I would rather evoke my Buby.  For although she was a limited mom to my mom and uncle, by the time she’d lost her husband in her thirties and raised two kids alone in Indiana and been in a bad car accident and endured a failed back surgery and was living alone with a heart problem… she learned to slow down and hang out.  Buby learned how to listen, which was love.

Buby learned not to judge (to not judge my anger, or drugs, or sex, or disrespect, or cynicism).  I remember her, in her Buby heels, ready to step onto a tennis court with me, a couple of Darvon in her blood, but still… She was game.  Buby had game.

We would actually hang:  in the car, in the tub when I was little (she so free, naked, beautiful and utterly without shame, in contrast to my neurotic and frightened parents), at the park, eating candy, at the kosher pizza restaurant, even in temple (a real temple, boring but at least authentic in contrast to my parents’ phony temple where everyone wore Joseph’s coat of many colors and then threw each other in the pit).

Sorry, if this is my best attempt at brevity (you can see why I adore Rumi and try to sit quietly next to him, and Lao Tze, and ultimately have nothing original at all to say).

So, let’s cut to the loving chase, or not even the chase, let’s cut to the love scene where everyone keeps their clothes on, let’s get to the real love, real nurturing, real compassion and real understanding in the hopes that it might show up for a quiet and uncelebrated moment.  Call it naïve… or join me in striving to be calm by way of being honest about our fear, anger and hurt.

I send love and understanding to you, my fellow nervous and neurotic parents.  If you want to tell me more about how you actually feel, I will listen.  When I have nothing much to really say, I will hope my listening does more good than harm.  I will be quiet now, inviting you to trust the seemingly irrational notion that the best part of you, your best Self, your loving, calm, patient, Great Parent self is alive and well and waiting for you at the silvery place we call the mirror, but also in the eye of every “other” you meet.

Go to her (or him), to Martin Buber’s “thou.”  Gaze with love into that lovely soul’s glimmering eye and know that you are loved, you are known, you truly are (and thus you are love, you are not alone, you are not a beast, but you can live your animal nonetheless and be spirit at the same time… so long as you do not turn away from yourself and from love).

Namaste, BD

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22 Responses to “A Little Love for the Very Very Nervous”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    As usual, Bruce, stunning. Thank you for this proactive an very real guide for HOW to calm down which, as you say, is something we all say we want but seem unable to figure out. I think what sticks with me most is the notion that because we feel unsafe in the world we transmit that, surely against our desires, to our children. This must be why I am so focused on emotionally connecting to what I intellectually KNOW is a benevolent universe out there … your words help. They help a tremendous, tremendous amount. Thank you. xo

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      And sometimes each other is the very part of that universe that we can connect with, steadying each other as we go, and learning, perhaps, that the connecting was one of the central points of it all. Your words help me as well. Namaste

  2. Katrina Kenison Says:

    I second Lindsey! You are a voice of wisdom in the wilderness. One thing my own parenting/yoga practice is teaching me (and it ALL feels like the Yoga of Parenting these days) is that we have a choice in every moment between love and fear. When I can remember to pause, breathe, and choose love, I find my way forward. Can’t always do it — fear is powerful — but I’m learning. So grateful to all of my teachers on this path, especially YOU!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Katrina, I so excited to have by back from yoga teacher training—trailing your clouds of glory, and inviting us into the yoga that is always all around us… and especially in between us all. As for gratitude, right back at ‘cha—always learning and unfolding together, most assuredly when we all know that we are in this together.

  3. Mark Brady Says:

    Hey, Bruce, I’m guessing you would agree: that master of brevity and neuroscience, E. M. Forster nailed it when he said: “Only connect!”

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      It may have been Howard’s End, but it was my wife Andy’s favorite (or one of her faves anyway) read that plugged me into this all-important concept. But, of course, it was her love that taught the living lesson. Here’s to hoping the living love of art, connecting and neuroscience falls softly upon us all, like James Joyce’s snow… or perhaps the falling petals of blossoming trees as we emerge from winter into spring. All Good Wishes

  4. mark Says:

    Hey Bruce, There were alot of good points in that article in the LA Times. But what stood out the most to me, was the observation that many people think that if they aren’t WORRYING , it is a sign that they don’t care and therefore might invite bad things to happen. I see that all the time in people around me and I constantly have to remind myself to avoid that trap as much as possible.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Mark, This is an excellent point—the defensive aspect of worry, of trying to control when we feel out of control. Consciousness and compassionate connecting can only help. Here’s to being those things together, in friendship which is such an important way of giving and getting love. XO

  5. Saska Says:

    Lovely, like the morning light peeking through the leaves-inviting, clear and precious.
    If this light is ever naive, so are you : ) Thank you, Namaste

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Nervous Nellie waving Hi! at you! How did you know I was up at 4am with a sick kid, blaming myself for not taking her to the doctor yesterday?

    You are just what I needed this morning.

  7. Pamela Says:

    Awesome Bruce! You are the brown rice to my sprouts – so calm and grounding. Thank you for this!

    It’s summer camp sign-up season here in DC and it’s challenging to keep saying NO to french camp and nature camp and farm camp and music camp and yes … wait for it …. even Waldorf camp. Thank you for the encouragement to trust. And the reminder that our children too are on their own karmic path and if they don’t go to Harvard, it’s not (necessarily) because we screwed up.

    Much love,

  8. denise Says:

    I sat reading this beautiful gathering of words, Bruce, and felt a light in my soul that I’ve been missing. Thank you. I’m going to go now, but I’m going to save this post to reread because it’s that full of love and helpfulness to me. I’ve been on a worrying streak…and now, I feel calm. Peace.

    Peace to you. And thank you.

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I’ve certainly been going through my own version of this in recent months, and in my particular situation, I believe the anxiety was well-grounded. But it’s the degree of anxiety, and the tendency to have to battle panic – that’s what is troubling.

    Fear (like anger) can be motivating, can aid focus and help get things done. But panic? Not so much. It becomes its own burden to manage, interfering with what needs to take precedence in parenting, or anything else for that matter.

    How to walk that fine line?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      The research supports mindfulness (attuning with our own feelings, sensations, thoughts and intuitions… paying accurate, non-judgmental attention) as an effective way to stay in that zone where our activating experiences can be just that, and not cause us to shut down from overwhelm. So often I find that it is actually memory of past overwhelm that threatens to overwhelm us in the present. Either way, sending calming thoughts to you, BL Wolf. And hopes for calmer seas ahead.

  10. aq3supermom@gmail.com Says:

    I definitely feel the anxiety. I am anxious about whether I push my kids hard enough. I am a single mom, the dad isn’t around, so I think I put more pressure on myself. If the kids get messed up, there’s only 1 parent to blame! I have a hard time finding the balance of challenging them and pushing too hard. We had a really rough time for a few years, and I feel like we are now, finally, getting through it. I kind of pick my battles with them because I know what stress they have had to deal with. I also judge myself a little harshly. I look at other parents and if I feel like I don’t measure up, then I think maybe I am not doing as good of a job as I should. Anxiety city, everywhere I go! I enjoyed reading this post!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi aq3supermom, Here’s to hoping you might find compassion for that parent in the mirror. Parenting with a partner is hard enough, and single parenting is like the double-black diamond run in skiing (not that I’ve had much chance to ski since having kids, nor was I ever up to the double black diamonds)—nerve wracking. I’m just hoping that a little more attuning, within ourselves and between as well, might take us in a connected, and thus calming, direction. All Good Wishes.

  11. aq3supermom@gmail.com Says:

    I forgot my name above~

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