There are two types of anxieties and fears that I want to dissect and explore in this column. The first are those that we grow up with, and are not able to overcome in adulthood and parenthood. And the second are those around our children and their future.
For the first, I don’t really need to look very far. Let me begin with my own anxiety around dogs. I know exactly where it came from. My father was terrified of dogs. While he had his own justification for the fear, and could narrate countless incidents due to which he did not like dogs, I developed that fear almost by default, through a process of osmosis. I never really gave it much thought. For me, it seemed quite the natural way of being. The only time it bothered me was when I wanted to visit a friend who had a dog. But she would put the dog in another room when I visited and that would settle that! My fear was only a minor irritant, not a show stopper, so life went on fairly peacefully.
And then I became a parent. Did I want to pass on my fear of dogs to my daughter? No, not really. So every time we visited someone who had a dog, I would put on a brave front and wear a straight face while every muscle in my body was taut. I would tentatively encourage my daughter to pet the dog, while never mustering up the courage to do it myself. The fact that my husband did not have the same fear was helpful because he could bring about an air of genuineness to that interaction, while I could not. Finally, my daughter was at ease. Not only was she comfortable around dogs, she also loved them and wanted one of her own. In one stroke of bravado I agreed, thinking that that would settle the discussion, and we could move on without actually doing anything about it. But she persisted and three years later, after I had exhausted every excuse in the book, we were on our way to pick up Cinnamon, our now five-year-old Beagle. I silently cried on the way home that day, as I feared what the future had in store for me. Would I ever be at ease in my home again?
But that’s history. I am now a dog-lover who coos over every cute dog that comes my way, and every cute doggie picture that crosses my eyes. Would I have rather not had a dog! No way! I am rather proud of this transition of mine from dog-fearer to dog-lover; and of not passing on my dog-related anxieties to my daughter. However, it need not have ended this way. Had I not been aware of my own fears and anxieties, and not had a desire to overcome them, my children may have feared dogs as much as I did – if not more!
The second type of anxiety I talked about is our anxiety around our children’s future. What will become of them if they don’t study hard? What will happen if they fail in the test? What will happen if they don’t finish their homework or project in time? What will happen if they don’t get into a good college? What kind of job will they get if they don’t get into the best engineering college in the country? It is a competitive world after all.
How will they manage in the world if they don’t learn how to struggle? How will they build relationships if they are so selfish? What will the world say about me and my parenting if my child does not end up with a respectable job/career/profession? What will happen if my child falls into bad company? What will happen to my child after I am gone? What will happen if my child falls sick? What will happen if…
So many anxieties, and each one of them natural and justified. Being anxious is half the story of parenting. We need to just be mindful about not making it the whole story.
Is our anxiety about our child’s future preventing us from being with our child in the present? Do we avoid playing with them because we need to push them to spend all their time studying and doing homework, because they need to get into the best college ten years down the line (which of course we cannot control)? Do we avoid spending time with them because we need to ensure that we have a big enough bank balance to secure the future (which again we can’t control)? Do we avoid connecting with them now because we are so distracted by our anxieties about the future, that we can’t waste time being with them in the present? We need to somehow control that future. Somehow.
To me it appears that the best way to do that, ironically, is not to try and control the environment, which of course we cannot, no matter how hard we try. But, instead, to try and secure our relationship with our child.
We should try to deal with our anxieties outside of the parent-child relationship. Recognize them, understand them, and consciously set them aside either by talking to a counsellor or a trusted friend. And then learn to be with your child in the present, in the moment, mindfully and whole-heartedly. Give your children a relationship they can count on, and feel secure enough to come back to in case of a failure. Just that knowledge will give them the strength, confidence and courage to march on ahead, full-steam – pushing their boundaries and achieving their potential in an area of their choice.
And I repeat, I said a relationship they can count on, not a bank balance!
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at email@example.com.