When I started the Jewish Mother Project, my goal was to try something new each week and then write about my experience. This week, I’m taking a brief departure from that plan to share a different kind of story. This isn’t about a holiday or ritual I’ve started practicing or some piece of Jewish knowledge I’ve recently acquired. But it is about an experience I’ve had, and am still having, that is intimately connected to my identity as a mother and a Jew.
This past summer I started taking anti-depressants. In my role as a clinical social worker, I have counseled many of my clients to consider the benefits of psychotropic medications. Until this past summer, I’ve never needed them myself.
I’ve been struggling with anxiety since my daughters were born. Actually, truth be told, I’ve been struggling with anxiety since the moment I was born, but it exploded after I became a mother. Despite my professional background, it never occurred to me that something might be wrong or, even more importantly, that I might be able to do something about it. I just assumed it was normal to worry about your children dying every day. After all, I told myself, I’m a Jewish mother. My babies weren’t old enough to nag yet, but I could obsess about how much they ate or whether or not they needed a sweater, and I could worry about them dying.
All of that anxiety was exhausting, and it certainly made my early years of motherhood harder and less fun. Eventually the most intense worries lessened, and I could walk down the stairs without fearing that I might fall or drop my daughter, but the shadow never quite went away. The slightest cough from either of them still sent me into a mild panic, and I ended up at the grocery store at least once a day, sometimes two, because I was terrified we might run out of hummus or cheese sticks and then how could we possibly make it through dinner?
I noticed things were worsening again last fall. Perhaps it was the upheaval of renovating a new house and getting ready to put our home of 12 years on the market. Perhaps it was the stress of spending three hours sitting in traffic each day for two different drop-offs and pick-ups at kindergarten and preschool on opposite ends of town. Perhaps it was the all-too-frequent news of school shootings and anti-Semitic attacks around the world.
Most likely, it was all three.
Either way, more often than I not, I found myself sitting in the parking lot outside my daughter’s Jewish day school thinking, “Today is a beautiful day. The sun is out, the sky is blue. Today is probably the day that someone will come shoot up the school.” For the first time in my life, I found comfort in cold, gray, rainy days, as I thought the weather might deter any possible attacks.
I thought I was doing a pretty good job brushing away those thoughts, but the anxiety was seeping into every area of my life. I was having a hard time focusing at work. I stopped reading because I couldn’t pay attention long enough to follow a story. I was getting increasingly irritable and snappy with the girls. At first I thought it was just because I wasn’t sleeping well, but even a few days of decent shut-eye didn’t seem to help.
I knew I was struggling, but it took me a long time to realize I could do something about it. Actually, it wasn’t until two of my girlfriends told me about their experience with anti-depressants that I decided it was time to give it a shot. I got back into therapy, and got a referral to a psychopharmacologist.
A few weeks later, I was swallowing a small brown pill each night.
I wasn’t sure if the meds were working until one Thursday night a few weeks later. I had just realized that I would be alone with the girls all day the next day without childcare. And I didn’t freak out about it. That was a big deal for me. Although it wasn’t the first time I had been alone with my girls—far from it—it was the first time I wasn’t overwhelmed with fear and worry at the mere thought of it.
We had a great day together. A really great day. I wasn’t nitpicking at them, I was patient with them, and I laughed at their silliness. I felt calm and connected.
The meds were working.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been all sunshine and My Little Ponies since then. The thoughts about an attack on the girls’ school haven’t disappeared entirely, but they’re not nearly as frequent as they were. I still get grumpy and snappy, but it’s usually in response to an identifiable trigger, such as a poor night of sleep or an insolent child, rather than coming out of nowhere. But I am reading and writing again, and I’m certainly enjoying parenthood much more than I was.
You may be wondering how this story ties into the Jewish Mother Project. I’m not sure how if it does, directly. But I do believe that my struggles with anxiety are directly related to my experience of motherhood and the genes that were transferred down to me through generations of worried Jews. (I’m sure I don’t need to explain to many of you that Jewish anxiety is a real thing, but if you do need a little more convincing, check out this piece by Daniel Smith in the New York Times, or these pieces by Madison Margolin and Gal Beckerman in the Forward.)
In addition, my friends’ decisions to tell me about their experience with medication helped me make the important decision to seek out additional help, so I wanted to share my choice with you. Finally, I believe that if I’m going to ask you, my readers, to join me on this journey into becoming more of the kind of mother I want to be, I need to be honest about the challenges I’m facing along the way.