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.