Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water: On Childhood Anxiety, Mine & Theirs

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My daughter told me today, as we went on a walk through our neighborhood, that she doesn’t like walking by the pond.

“I don’t like going this way, mama.”

“Why?”

“Because what if I fall in?  What if I drown?”

What if.  That dreaded phrase.  I know “what if” like I know the sound of my breath drawing in and back out.

*  *  *

When I was little, we lived in New Orleans.  Whenever we went to visit my grandmother in Mississippi, which was several times each year, we had to drive over the Pontchartrain Bridge.  If you don’t know, the Pontchartrain Bridge is the longest bridge in the world.  For me, it was 24 miles of unmitigated terror.

The bridge is situated very low over the water.  As you pass over it, you’re almost convinced you could reach out and touch the murky, swampy lake water and the dead stumps of cypress trees poking up out of it.  If you’re a small, anxious child riding in the back seat, all you see is this, for miles and miles:

postpartum depression

And miles.  Nothing but bridge, and water.

I always imagined us going over the side.  My mind would play the scenario over endlessly the entire way across the bridge.  I knew it would happen when we were way out in the middle, too far from land for any rescue people to get to us quick.  I’d try to think through what I would do, how I would get out of the car, what I might try and hold on to.  I had no idea how deep it was, or what might be in that water.  I was just CONVINCED that one day my luck would surely run out and I’d end up there and there’d be nothing I could do to save myself.

Did other children who rode in cars over that bridge have the same anxiety? I have no idea.  For me, it was just one of my “what ifs”.  I hated that bridge.  In fact, I’d probably go out of my way to avoid driving over it even now, just so I wouldn’t have to relive how traumatic it was for me as a child.

*  *  *

As I walk with my daughter by the pond, she says she doesn’t like it.  She angles her body away from it, as if it might reach out and grab her.  What if she falls in, she asks, even though we’re walking at least six feet away from the very shallow edge.  This is a serious concern for her.  I can hear it in her voice.

I’ve never mentioned Pontchartrain Bridge to her.  We’ve never discussed drowning, or any fear that I may have had as a child.  I know how to swim.  So does she.  I like water and so does she.  So how is it that she has the same kind of what if?  How can it be that my troubled bridge over troubled water is hers too?

Maybe it’s normal to have fears and anxiety like I had as a child.  I don’t know what normal is.  I never felt comfortable enough to tell my parents how afraid I was of that bridge, or how my heart practically beat right out of my chest or that I was barely able to breathe for however long it took to drive over it.  I never told them.  I knew they’d dismiss my fears as ridiculous, without ever really trying to understand me.  I didn’t think anybody would understand me and my “what if” mind.

I asked my daughter, “What would happen if you fell in?”

“You would get me out,” she says, half questioning and half assured.

“That’s right, presh.  I’d get you out immediately.  It’s okay that it makes you nervous. I’m right here with you.”

I know what ifs.  I know anxiety.  I’ve lived with it.  I want to hear her troubles and fears.  I want her to know that she can be whoever she is with me, and I will encourage her and let her know it’s okay.  I will never dismiss her outright.  I know the fear is as real to her as it was to me.

As much as possible, as much as is appropriate, I will be a safe bridge, a bridge without fear.  I will be my children’s bridge over all the troubled water.

I’m on your side 
When times get rough 
And friends just can’t be found 
Like a bridge over troubled water 
I will lay me down 
Like a bridge over troubled water 
I will lay me down 

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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  1. Rachel V. says:

    I have an 8 year old who is right now who is having issues with "what if's" and also with worrying. About EVERYTHING. I often wonder if they are learned behaviors. She is not my biological daughter..but she certainly does seem to take after me in that department. (and I thought my worries and fears were my own cause I am gernreally quiet about them!) Great article :)

  2. Rachel V. says:

    *GENERALLY…

  3. My 12 year old daughter has had a case of the "What Ifs" for years. It's only in the last year or so that she has let me help her by listening and also teaching her coping techniques like thought changing and present moment work. She's a little better and the best part is that she does come and talk to me about it. That's a blessing in itself. I was a very anxious child, too, and so was her dad.

  4. This is really beautiful. I think that since we've been through it, we are able to recognize this in others and we are ready to help them through it. You're a great mom Katherine.

  5. This hits SO close to home for me. As a child, I was so anxious, all the time. I have particularly strong memories of burying my head in between my Nan's couch cushions to cry with nobody seeing because my mother was late picking us up after work, which caused all sorts of what ifs in my young mind: What if she was in a car accident and died? What if she wasn't coming for us at all? Like you, I never told anyone then about all the what-iffing; recently, I told my mother but really it just made her feel guilty for being a single, working mom.
    Like you, I promise to never dismiss my child's what ifs & to be a bridge for him. Thanks for sharing another wonderful post.

  6. I think you said just the right thing. They need to hear we'll save them, even if we know we can't *always* save them. There's time enough to learn that later.