It’s True: Becoming a Mom Helped Me Deal with Social Anxiety
It was a blistering summer day when we moved to our new townhouse in the suburbs last year. It’s the kind of place where people watch out for one another and new neighbors come knocking just to say hi. There’s even a city park where boys play basketball until well after dark right across the street. For me, moving to a new neighborhood with a true sense of community was essential. I wanted my daughter to have the social connections that I did not have as the kid of a socially anxious parent who moved around a lot. Something put a damper in my excitement, though. The truth is, I’m socially anxious, too.
Our new neighborhood proved to be full of friendly faces and many young families like ours. But the fun-filled summer I envisioned quickly turned into something else entirely.
Each morning, I would psych myself up just to get out of the house. Sometimes we would run an errand, like going to the market to pick out fresh produce for dinner. Other times I’d venture out to the park across the street. That was the hard part. Interacting with parents has been one of my toughest anxiety challenges. Would they think I’m too young? Or that I was too strict? The fact that my daughter is biracial doesn’t usually help. I’ve heard the question, “are you her mother?” too many times, but it never gets any easier.
At the park, I saw other moms flocking to each other under the rain canopy while I sat with a book. I worried about how my daughter make lasting friendships if I wasn’t taking responsibility for facilitating them or even modeling that behavior.
Summer carried on in this way. Every morning was a struggle to figure out an activity for the day, the swirl of negative thoughts, a common occurrence in those suffering from anxiety, was relentless. When school finally started and my work picked up again, I handed the parent-socializing baton to my daughter’s stepdad. He was the type of person who could chat anyone up—in fact, he holds up to the cliché that he could talk to you for a few minutes and you’d feel like his best friend. He had the confidence that I lacked. Unlike me, he was excited about the challenge.
Each day, he walked our daughter to school about two blocks away. And each day, he said hello to each person he passed on his way. Some would smile and lower their heads, trying to balance their cups of coffee. Others would reply back with a solid, “good morning.” Many became his good friends, forming a kind of active dad support group.
It didn’t take long for him to start suggesting playdates at the pool and movie outings on the weekends. This was fantastic news. We were finally making progress at creating a community for our daughter. But I wanted more. As I worked toward creating a sense of community for her, I noticed I craved a supportive community for myself.
Deep down, I knew I had to overcome the anxiety that had kept me sitting at so many tables alone. I wanted to show her that being a part of a group brings a sense of joy that can be found nowhere else. Studies show that longevity is strongly impacted by our social connections. We live longer—and better—when we are surrounded by a strongly supportive group of people.
Despite the evidence, irrational thoughts ballooned in my mind. I wanted to provide a structured way for us to connect with others, an activity that we could do together as mother and daughter—something just for us. That meant regular meetings with a singular purpose. But what if I couldn’t make it to each meeting? How would I know who was there? What if someone criticized my parenting style? What if my daughter didn’t like it? What if someone made my daughter feel like she didn’t belong?
These racing, negative thoughts are typical for someone who suffers from social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by extreme shyness and a tendency to avoid social situations due to fear of being ridiculed.
I had lived with this intense and irrational fear since my teenage years, unable to understand what it was until I sought counseling in my twenties. And I knew, too, that a child with a parent that has been diagnosed with social anxiety is much more likely to develop it. But I was determined to stop the generational cycle of anxiety and depression that had taken root in my family. I took a step back from the web of negative possibilities that were brewing in my mind and picked up a flyer that had been sitting on the counter for a few days.
The flyer was for an expo and attending that expo was a small step in a more peaceful direction. Through the fog of anxiety, I saw that exposing my daughter to different social environments would be great for us both. I added the event to our family calendar and made the commitment to go, no matter how I felt that day. When we did finally attend, my daughter was excited to register for our local Daisy troop—and I was ready to take on a new adventure.
My anxiety took over before our first scheduled meeting. I had to leave work early, pick up a quick dinner, and get my daughter cleaned up after her karate lesson. All the while, the negative thoughts coursed through my head. That’s the worst part of having social anxiety: you just know how silly your thoughts are but you are still unable to control them in a meaningful way. I gathered up my courage and headed for the already open door, greeted by an array of smiling faces and about ten bouncing girls already getting to know each other.
Over the next nine months, I observed a very strong group of friends emerge from what was once a wild herd of kindergarteners. Many times, I drove home overwhelmingly grateful that I had witnessed this simple magic. I also saw a group of neighbors and parents coming together with the goal of creating a supportive community, not just for our daughters, but for us all.
Seeing the positivity and the support of others helped me face my anxiety in other ways. When it came time to participate in my local literary and writing community, or as an alumna of my university, I was faced with a much smaller mountain to climb. Although my anxiety still hands me a challenging day or two every once in a while, I know I don’t have to allow it to have the same isolating force it once had over me.