The wasted wages of worry

I was multitasking at a swim meet, working on a blog in between my daughter’s races. For the opening, I wanted to list some tasks of parenthood that all parents hate. I turned to a friend, another pediatrician parent, and asked him for ideas.

“Worrying,” he said. “There’s so much to worry about. That’s what I hate the most.”

I felt pretty darn petty, as I’d been thinking about things like cleaning up vomit or matching socks. Rich doesn’t think like that. He’s an earnest man, a thoroughly good person who doesn’t care about having to clean up vomit or match socks. He cares about the important stuff.

He was right, of course. From the moment our children enter this world, we worry about them. We worry about their health. We worry about whether they are meeting developmental milestones. We worry about their safety. We worry about their grades. We worry about them making friends, getting invited to parties or dances. We worry about how well they will do at the game or meet. We worry about what school they will get into. It never stops.

His comment stuck with me because right now, I’m worried about whether my middle daughter will get into the high school she wants to go to. We didn’t expect to be in this process—our older two were perfectly happy at the local high school—but for various reasons, it became clear that Elsa might need something different. Now that she’s seen what her life could look like at the new school, she wants it badly—and because she wants it badly, I want it badly for her. It’s eating me up.

These things are hard for me, because I’m a worrier. And my worrying is made worse because I think that I should be able to make things happen, that by good planning and hard work I can get what I want for myself or my children. I’m like Rabbit in Winnie-the-Pooh; when Pooh told Rabbit that songs come to him sometimes, Rabbit didn’t understand—because “he never let things come to him, but always went and fetched them.” Not only do I worry, I worry that I’m not doing everything I should.

“Worrying doesn’t help,” my husband says to me (he’s much more like Pooh). He’s been saying it to me for years, and for years I’ve ignored him and kept on worrying. But recently I have begun—just begun—to understand that he’s right.

And—this has been harder for me to grasp, but I’m getting there—worrying misses the point. Life isn’t all about outcomes.

Worrying doesn’t really change anything. When I look back on all the worrying I’ve done over the past 20 years of parenthood, it’s mostly been wasted energy. Yes, it may have prodded me into doing things, but I probably would have done those things anyway because I love my family so much. And what is fundamentally true is that life is not really ours to control. Sometimes bad things do happen—but worrying doesn’t stop them from happening.

And—this has been harder for me to grasp, but I’m getting there—worrying misses the point. Life isn’t all about outcomes. It’s about living. Between now and when Elsa gets an admission decision, there will be day after day filled with moment after moment, opportunities for wonder and interaction and happiness. Filling those moments with worry just wastes them. As James Taylor sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” There’s nothing like worry to mess that up.

Also, I’ve been learning from experience that things have a way of working out. My son Zack was disappointed not to get into Princeton or Georgetown, but he is so happy at the College of William and Mary that it feels like he was meant to be there. And Elsa….Elsa is an extraordinary person, full of passion and creativity and integrity, with so much to give the world. In my heart, I know that with our love to support her she will find her way in life, no matter where she goes to high school.

As a family, we’ve lived through tragedies; we’ve lost people very dear to us. But even in those times, there has been goodness and love; there have been heroes, and moments of courage, understanding and grace that have left us all better and stronger.

I’m still going to worry, of course. It’s not that easy to give up a lifetime habit; I think I will always be a bit more like Rabbit than Pooh. But when I feel that worry starting to eat at me, I will take a deep breath and remind myself to have faith—and to live.

Last week, Dr. McCarthy wrote about why “the talk” just got harder.

9 thoughts on “The wasted wages of worry

  1. All my worrying in life has done nothing to “save” anything. My daughter still passed away in an accident at 25, my middle child still had to find his own way through addiction (with the guidance of the sweet Dr. Sanchez at Children’s Hospital), my youngest child is anxiety ridden and at home today on the couch with an injured knee (waiting for his Thursday appointment at Children’s Hospital!).

    My worrying, may have done nothing more than make me lose sleep and shed many tears. However, my actions and having a plan, in many instances has been what has worked and aided my children.

    In hindsight, life unfolds as it should. Pain has brought great joy and love into our lives. We’ve been blessed with so much, often because of life’s troubles and turmoil…it absolutely puzzles me to try to sort it all out! We’ve met amazing people, made new friends, and had the happiness of seeing things turn in a better direction.

    Matching socks…eh, I toss all the socks in a basket and let everyone else match their own pairs on an as needed basis. And yes, I still worry…but now with the understanding that, in time, much will sort itself out.

    1. its like the song….life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.

  2. I used to be a worrier and I’m not certain what changed it but I’m just not anymore. I’m not religious but I do believe things happen for a reason. It may take hours or years but it seems that in retrospect all of my hardest times in life were passages to something else, be that strength I would need for an even harder chapter later in life or to move on to something wonderful. With my 3 daughters I believe things will unfold as they will unfold and planning is great but worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. With my son it is different. He’s bi-polar with ADHD and OCD with a few other diagnoses in there too. He cannot make friends and has never in his life been able to maintain friendships. He is academically “gifted” but his behavior keeps him out of so many opportunities. His teacher wants to put him in honors classes because he gets straight As with minimal effort; however, he is so difficult to get along with and has such awful outbursts that he cannot go in those classes. I worry about him. I worry that he’s like this because I did something wrong in his infancy. He was my first baby and I had no idea what I was doing afterall. I worry about who he will become. I worry about how depressed he gets. I worry every time I read about a child taking his/her own life. I worry about the bullying he’s dealing with. I want to fix all of this for him but it just isn’t possible.

    Leaving the worrying behind is easier with some children and not so much with others.

    1. I totally understand. I feel the same way about my beautiful, smart, funny, ADHD daughter, who kids view as off or quirky. She scares a lot of kids away, and has never been part of the in crowd. However, at least this year, she has found her way into a small group of friends at work, and she has a straggle of a friend here and there from outside of school. I know that having her IEP/504 include visiting the school counselor has helped a lot with her self-esteem as well. Don’t push him to attend the Honors classes. Let him be top of his class and succeed where he is and not put any additional pressure on him. And, know you are not alone!

    2. my daughter has all of the same issues as your son and it can be very difficult..I feel for you..there are times when your heart bleeds for them…but when I look at all of the other blogs especially the one where the mother lost her child at the age of 25, life in retrospect isn’t that unfair….best of luck to you….

  3. My idea of ‘worrying’ changed drastically when my middle child was hospitalized several times with serious emotional issues, just prior to finding out her father was dying. There are so many things that no longer concern me. It certainly puts priorities in perspective! But, as the poet Robert Frost once said,” The is one thing I have learned about life; It goes on.” We are moving along, one foot in front of the the other, inhaling and exhaling,and still buying green bananas!

  4. I saw this article and it put a smile on my face. It had this effect because I have been telling my wife this same thing for years. She is a worrier and with two kids that between them have ADD, ADHD, Cystic Fibrosis and a unilateral cleft palate, she tends to worry quite a bit. I have long tried to convince her that worrying does not change the outcome. It only hurts you. I always say that she needs to assess the situation and come up with the best way to deal with it that she/we can. I am going to show her the article. Thanks

  5. Excellent post!  And so true and close to home.  My husband encourages me to worry less, also.  I wonder what the male/female psychology issues are here.

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