What, Me–Worry?


Science Says That Women Who Worry Have Overloaded Brains (No Kidding)

Want to know the main reason Tired But Happy Mom is tired? She wakes up at around five o’clock in the morning, almost every morning. This is not because she is a morning person. It is because she worries. A lot.

For instance, this morning Tired But Happy Mom worried that Older Daughter is entering the sixth grade this fall and that, because she is changing schools, the entrance into the dreaded middle school passage—combined with the inevitable hormonal changes—will be heartbreakingly difficult. Tired But Happy Mom worried that Younger Daughter will not get the part in the play to which she has bound her heart so tightly that she stays up night after night practicing for the audition, over and over and over—and over—again. She worried that Little Boy’s lingering cough might end up being asthma, even though the doctor had said that the chances were only about 20 percent. Still. Twenty percent. Asthma.

Then, Tired But Happy Mom worried about how she was going to pay the mortgage, the school fees, the electric bill, get the laundry done, get her articles and book proposal completed on time, make dinner—wait, was there even anything in the fridge for dinner?

Now, researchers at Michigan State University have learned that women who worry a lot are flummoxed by even simple tasks. In the experiment, scientists measured electrical activity in the brains of female and male college students as they completed a straightforward job. Subjects were asked to identify the middle letter in a series of letters. In easy versions, all of the letters were the same (“FFFFF”), and in more difficult versions, the middle letter was different (“EEFEE”). Then, they filled out questionnaires about how much they worried.

The results showed that anxious women had more electrical activity in their brains while completing the tasks compared with their more relaxed counterparts. But anxious men didn’t show any excess activity. Moreover, as the tasks got more complicated, anxious women messed up a lot more than the guys. The bottom line seems to be that women who worry a lot have brains that work overtime even during easy tasks. What’s more, women are twice as likely as men to have anxiety disorders.

Well, great. These findings certainly go a long way to explain why Tired But Happy Mom often finds herself bursting into tears at the end of a harrowing day while chopping tomatoes for pasta sauce. It also explains why Awesome Dad responds with such questions as, “Why are you crying? It’s just tomatoes.” Because Tired But Happy Mom’s brain is on overload, dude!

But here’s the question: What mom’s brain isn’t on overload? What mom doesn’t worry? To be a mother is to worry—not exclusively, of course, but there is just no possibility of separating the two functions. To have children is essentially to have your heart beating outside of your body. It’s miraculous and wonderful. And terrifying.

Moreover, we are living in the midst of a crippling economic period, and most households require two incomes. How is it possible not to be anxious when you must work an exhausting day to bring home the bacon (or vegan equivalent), fry it up in the pan, tuck children in, pay bills, and somehow, prepare oneself for “alone” time with one’s spouse? From where Tired But Happy Mom sits, the old feminist credo of being able to “have it all” was a serious bill of goods. To have it all, you have to do it all. And, as much as Tired But Happy Mom is indebted to, and admires, Gloria Steinem, Gloria Steinem did not have kids.

Most of the mothers whom Tired But Happy Mom has known who are not anxious to some extent or another are those who are independently wealthy, don’t work outside the home, and have at their disposal a network of support staff or family who keep the household running smoothly. It’s still hard, and Tired But Happy Mom definitely believes that every mother is a working mother, but it’s not anxiety producing on the scale to which the rest of us are subject. 

The other mothers Tired But Happy Mom has seen unworried are dead drunk at some mom’s night out occasion—and they probably got that way because they were worrying about all the things that are, in fact, genuinely worrying. But that’s obviously not a great solution: being hung-over generally results in guilt and more anxiety.

Tired But Happy Mom’s basic takeaway is to accept maternal worry as an inevitable reality—and to try not to worry about that in itself. Besides that, she does some yoga at home after the children are asleep. She reads in bed. She drinks herbal tea. She tries to take things as they come, even though she rarely succeeds. She thinks a lot about how much she loves Older Daughter, Younger Daughter, and Little Boy: their sparkly minds, their courage, their cuddliness. And she feels her blood pressure drop with contentment. Not to worry.

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