The Everyday Anxiety of a New Parent

Kelsey Miller baby

I used to tell this great story about the time my dad took me to the ER…

…because he thought I was having a heart attack. I was three. We were cozied up reading a bedtime story, and he realized that my heart was racing a mile a minute. He was in such a lather by the time we got to the hospital that they rushed me in for an EKG. This part I found hilarious. Me, sitting there with wires and patches all over my chest, and my father sprinting around the ER like Shirley MacLaine in that scene at the end of Terms of Endearment, so panicked that he convinced a team of medical professionals that his sleepy toddler was having a cardiac event. Once I’d been diagnosed as absolutely fine, the doctor pulled my dad aside and gently explained why my heart was beating so fast: Because I was three. And three year olds have faster heartbeats than middle-aged men.

Thirty-two years later, I have a new baby girl of my own: Margot. The other night I asked my husband to check on her, sleeping in the bassinet next to our bed. He got up, leaned in for a good look and gave me a thumbs up.

“She’s good.”

“Is she breathing?”

“She’s fine.”

“But did you check her BREATHING?”

“She’s moving, so…”

At this point, I rolled my eyes and got up to check her breathing myself. This has become our own little bedtime ritual: First, I check the baby, make sure she’s alive, etc. Then I ask Harry to check her, just in case I was wrong about the alive part. He inevitably does not do a good enough job assessing her aliveness, and I have to get up and go put my hand on her tiny chest and in front of her tiny nose to confirm that air is moving both in and out.

I nod. “She’s breathing.”

Harry scrolls through his phone. “Imagine.”

We do this once, maybe twice a night. I would like to do it more, but I would also like to stay married, so I don’t. Instead, I lie there wondering if Margot is alive and then deciding she is not and then wondering if our marriage will collapse under the weight of this unspeakable tragedy, because if I’m going to get divorced anyway, then why not just go ahead and check her again? And then I fall asleep. This, by the way, is what managing anxiety looks like.

Nervousness is to be expected when you’re a first-time parent. A few weeks of late-night breathing checks? That’s normal. It’s just that for me, it’s always been normal. Just ask my husband, the person I used to stare at in the dark, imagining him to death. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this kind of behavior is a-okay, and if you’re a new parent struggling with anxiety and intrusive thoughts, please do get yourself some help. I can only make light of this stuff because I do. I’ve been managing anxiety and intrusive thoughts my whole life, and I prepared myself to manage them even more — with medication and therapy — when parenthood dialed them up to 11. Yeah, that’s right, checking the baby’s breathing only twice before bed is actually me on a good day! Having a baby may change your whole life, but it doesn’t change who you are. At least, it didn’t change who I am. Oh God, am I doing it wrong?

Am I Doing It Wrong is the queasy motto of all new parents. Babies bring with them endless opportunities for you to screw them up, mistakes to make and things to be afraid of. But don’t worry, there’s a Facebook group for every one of them! Sleep training, colic care, reflux management, weaning, diapering, babywearing — turns out there are dozens of ways to do these things, and whichever route you choose will define you as a parent in the eyes of others. Of course, the only eyes that really matter to me are Margot’s (is what I tell myself).

One night I blew it. I leaned in just a little too close and Margot startled in her sleep, jerking her head and whacking her little nose against my arm. She blinked her eyes open, squinting and disoriented, and then her face cracked into a pissed-off wail. Harry’s jaw dropped and he looked at me like — well, the way you’d look at a person who’s just woken a happy, healthy, sleeping baby for no good reason.

Like my father before me, I had become Shirley MacLaine.

A few days later, I bemoaning this to another mom friend — stressing out about stressing out, if you will. She reminded me of the concept of “the good-enough parent,” made famous by the legendary psychoanalyst D.W. Winniccott. In a nutshell, Winnicott suggested that children don’t need “perfect” parents. In fact, it’s the opposite: they need parents who make mistakes and fall short sometimes. Imperfect parents are how kids learn that the world is an imperfect place, that people are fallible, and that life is not without hardship — and that it’s okay. They’ll be okay.

I think of that phrase every day now. I think of it when I find myself obsessing over finding the “right” teething toy, while Margot is quite happily gnawing on a book. I think about it after spending 20 minutes Googling “how to tell if baby bleeding internally” only to pick her up and realize that she’s crying because she has a wedgie. I think about it when I catch myself wondering if maybe her heart is beating too fast, and perhaps my dad wasn’t so crazy after all.

But of course he was, and so am I — and both of us are good enough. One scary night at the ER didn’t scar me for life, nor did it change the love and closeness I have with my dad. If anything, that story has gotten even better since I became a parent myself. Now it reminds me that parental missteps are important, not just because they help kids learn to accept life’s imperfection, but also their own. And if there’s one thing I would give my girl with absolute confidence — perhaps the only thing — it is the bone-deep belief that she does not have to strive for perfection. She is already, and always will be, good enough.

Thank you, Kelsey! And congratulations on your beyond adorable little one.

Kelsey Miller with her new baby

A hilarious video of Harry walking newborn Margot down the stairs — very, very carefully.

P.S. 15 things Joanna would tell a new mom, and Kelsey’s body acceptance during pregnancy.

(Photos courtesy of Kelsey Miller.)

  1. Jessica says...

    I had an extremely difficult and long labor that ended in a c-section with my first. After getting to our room around 2am and everyone leaving us alone, we tried to get some sleep. One of my first memories of her was thinking everyone talked about checking if she is breathing – do I need to do that? Am I a bad mom for forgetting? It was a very rough night where she let us know most of the night that she was breathing – enough that my husband called my mom at 4:30am to come back to the hospital and help us!

    Needless to say – she’s 3, I still check on her and her brother’s breathing all of the time and we all survived that rough first night of parenthood.

  2. Cew says...

    I laughed out loud at the entire paragraph about wondering if your marriage would collapse under the weight of such tragedy etc etc. That spoke to me. I am like that at work and my son is one and a half ffs.

  3. Lisa says...

    Dear CoJ, I would appreciate an article of this type on technology or other tips for parents who have had a stillbirth or early infant death or miscarriage(s). In the early 2000s, I used an alarm (Angelcare) beneath my child when he was born due to my history and fear of SIDs. I also used a fetal monitor daily during my pregnancy after this was pooh, pooh-ed by drs (which I got on ebay). Both were helpful in making our marriage stronger, because I didn’t have to ask my partner to do these “checks”. I think telling this story would help some Moms (like me) feel a bit more included her (I love reading CoJ) and also might give them a tool/tips to help alleviate the anxiety (founded in their history) that is part of pregnancy and the birth/bringing home of a living child. Even with post-partum therapy or prescribed anti-anxiety/depressants after loss(es), the anxiety is a day to day struggle. with living children.

    • NPH says...

      Lisa, I understand where you are coming from. I too used a home Doppler because I had previously miscarried in the second trimester. Doctors definitely discourage using them but it gave me peace of mind.

  4. YC says...

    I had to stop myself from shrieking with laughter at this comment. My 2.5 year old is also terrifying me daily with her drama…it’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels hoodwinked on occasion.

  5. Lauren says...

    Thank you for this! This entire paragraph… “We do this once, maybe twice a night. I would like to do it more, but I would also like to stay married, so I don’t….” brought back so many memories for me! I was obsessed with my daughter’s breathing when she was a newborn… she was just so tiny and fragile and I felt completely out of control. This was also mine and my husband’s nightly routine, and I had a very similar internal dialogue about it. My daughter is now 10 months old and I still check to make sure she’s breathing before I go to bed, but the level of anxiety associated with it has certainly gone down, thankfully!

  6. Carol says...

    This is LOL hysterical!!! And the video!!! 😆😆😆

  7. This! I’m on baby no. 3 and I’m still checking for aliveness.

    This is beautifully and hilariously written—a joy to read!

  8. Rya LAUBER says...

    Please remember that when you have your second child, all of this will go away…!

    • Cew says...

      Don’t say “when” please. Some of us absolutely love having one and only one. :)

    • Callie Kurtz says...

      Well, not always! I’m seven years into parenthood and 2.5 years since my youngest of three was born and I still check for aliveness every single night before bed and also cannot settle when they out-sleep me in the morning and I have to check again. I think it’s all relative to the experiences you’ve had, and the experiences of those you’ve known.

  9. Genevieve says...

    I say all of the following to be helpful, and also as the mother of a 1 year old: parents, if you can afford technology to help you through the first several months of taking care of a newborn, please go for it!! If you are anxious about your baby’s breathing so often and so much that you accidentally wake up your baby, there are devices out there to help assure you.

    I relate to this issue of always knowing if the baby is breathing or not. I haven’t tried the anklet device, but I know a friend who has and finds it extremely helpful. I know not everyone has sufficient funds to buy this or that, we don’t NEED technology to necessarily help us, and not every anxiety can be solved by technology, but if anxiety over breathing/being alive affects you to the author’s level, please go buy a breathing monitoring device. Or borrow from a friend or see if you can buy it secondhand. We have so many more resources nowadays for getting us through parenting that we should be making use of it.

    • Meg says...

      oh this is so good! even with baby two, the breathing checks continued. i second someone above who mentioned taking advantage of technology to help with this kind of anxiety – Owlet monitor has been a big help for me : )

  10. Caitlin Scott says...

    Oh this is so, so good. It had me laughing (quietly, into my sleeve, so as not to wake my two sleeping children, whose aliveness I am not completely sure of. Let me go check)

    • Lauren says...

      Thank you for this! This entire paragraph… “We do this once, maybe twice a night. I would like to do it more, but I would also like to stay married, so I don’t….” brought back so many memories for me! I was obsessed with my daughter’s breathing when she was a newborn… she was just so tiny and fragile and I felt completely out of control. This was also mine and my husband’s nightly routine, and I had a very similar internal dialogue about it. My daughter is now 10 months old and I still check to make sure she’s breathing before I go to bed, but the level of anxiety associated with it has certainly gone down, thankfully!

  11. Maranda says...

    I am not a parent yet, but it is something that is on my radar. So even though I can’t directly relate to the article, I still loved it and really identified with parts of it. I deal with anxiety and intrusive thoughts on a day-to-day basis, but I just know that pregnancy/having a baby is going to make my anxieties an entirely different ball game. My husband and I have already discussed how I plan to see a therapist all throughout and after pregnancy. I know myself, and what is manageable anxiety to me now will likely change and morph in ways that I would want to seek help with handling. Congrats on your new baby!

  12. Lauren says...

    One night when my oldest was 2.5 and her new brother was just a newborn, my oldest was screaming in pain that her belly hurt. That is all she would say and she literally would not let anyone even look at or touch her stomach. She eventually passed out from the screaming. After consulting Dr. Google, I was convinced it was appendicitis and I convinced my husband of the same. We packed at least 4 bags — because obviously we all had to go to the ER together because there was no way I was letting her go without me, and I had a nursing newborn who could not be apart from me. We went to bed with the plan to immediately go to the hospital when she woke up screaming in pain. At 8AM when she finally woke up (after I checked on her multiple times in the night), she was happily playing in our room when I casually asked if her belly was better. She lifted her shirt, said “Owie” and showed us . . . a pimple. In her belly button. We almost went to the ER, with a newborn in tow, over a pimple.

  13. Lizzie says...

    If this isn’t me 😂
    In the cot, in the baby carrier, in the car 😂😂

  14. I love this post for many reasons but mostly because this afternoon I put my hand on my 8-month olds chest and her heartbeat felt really fast (I hadn’t really felt it before). Then I googled how fast a baby’s heartbeat should be (and as you mentioned, it is quite fast) and relaxed a little bit…but also still worried for the next few hours. Your story came at the perfect time for me! I also do not trust my husband’s ability to check her “aliveness” as well. Sign.

  15. Geneviève says...

    As a new mama to a five week old, this resonated a lot! Thanks Kelsey for the insights and the laughs.

  16. Sharon says...

    Kelsey, Margot is so adorable! Congratulations, Momma. My due date is 11 days away and this post made me smile. A beautiful reminder that being a good enough parent is realistic, admirable, and achievable. Lead with love, and we’ll be doing pretty darn great.

  17. Sarah says...

    When my daughter was 3 months old, my sister-in-law came over to meet our baby. Feeling the exact anxiety that you describe, I asked her when she stopped checking to see if her son was breathing when she was a new mother. “Oh, I went in to make sure Matty was breathing last night!” she exclaimed. Matthew is 28 :) It’s just a worry that comes with being a mother I guess. And that’s okay. We’re all in it together.

  18. Anna says...

    I can’t go to sleep until I have checked to make sure that all four of my girls are breathing – they are 8, 6, 4, and 18 months. I imagine I will be doing it for as long as they live under our roof, and may casually suggest that they call me every night before they go to sleep until they are in their 60’s.

    When we brought our oldest home from the hospital, we didn’t get out of the car for at least 10 minutes because we couldn’t figure out how the safest way to bring her inside the house (leave her in the car seat and carry it? take her out and carry her?). Finally, my mom yelled at us from our front porch to get the baby out of the cold and into the house. Being a new parent is fraught with peril, and but it does get easier! And then it gets harder, but that’s a different story.

    • Genevieve says...

      As the daughter of helicopter parents, and as the mother of my own child, I beg you not to pester them to call you every night when they are adults, and not to worry about them so much. My relationship with my parents is currently good, but at times it was not so much, and if you over-parent your children there is a chance they may end up resenting you and distancing themselves from you. Overparenting can be almost as harmful as neglect.

  19. Allyson says...

    First time mom with a two year old daughter here (Marion!) and I am stressed out, today, about what high school will be like for her. And if she’s ever REALLY eaten a veggie. And if am I compliment her on the right things (???). I know I’m doing good enough, and so are all of us, really.