What if I can’t handle this?


This first appeared in Parent of Adults, my newsletter about life after the kids grow up. Read and subscribe on Substack.

In the comments of The Drop-Off (in which I described what it was like to drop my kids off at college), Mel replied:

This was helpful to read and… I need more 🙂 Meaning, I don’t see myself being nearly as okay with the moment. […] I need to know how to let that rational side of my brain (I prepared them, they’re ready for this, it will be good for them) be louder than the emotional side of my brain.

What an honest and (I think) brave comment. I totally identified with Mel’s worry about how she’ll handle her kid’s departure. I felt that way, too. During both my kids’ senior years, everything felt more poignant, as if the days played out under the fading light of a perpetual sunset.

We could talk about the inevitable grief that comes with kids growing up and moving out — something that can be hard to say out loud.

But Mel’s comment spoke to a more general fear I’ve wrestled with as a parent: the fear of failing my kid at a crucial moment. What if my kid needs me to do something important or be a certain way …and I screw up? What if I can’t handle this?

The problem with loving them so much is that the stakes are always so %@&*high. You know?

I don’t have a solution, exactly. But I have found two comforting strategies for when my thoughts stray too far into the imagined future.

Today, I’m okay

From 2016-2021, my Minimalist Parenting co-author and dear friend Christine Koh and I co-hosted the Edit Your Life podcast. In October 2021, we recorded an episode called “The Calming Power of Now” in which we talked about how we were coping with our fears about an uncertain future. This was about a month and a half after I dropped my daughter off at college.

At the time, I was dealing with major COVID anxiety. I was petrified my daughter’s college move would be upended by illness, and my anxiety ballooned into something beyond what I had ever experienced.

First, I called my doctor and got therapeutic support, which included a short-term course of prescription medication.

But I also stumbled onto a mental shift that really helped me. I talk about at about the 10:10 mark on Soundcloud, but here’s the gist:

In the days leading up to my daughter’s drop-off, when I found myself drowning in COVID-related “what ifs” — what if I get sick and can’t go on the flight? What if she gets sick and can’t move into the dorm? What if one of us gets sick and is stuck there for two weeks? — I’d take a deep breath, train my focus on the next 24 hours, and say to myself, “I’m healthy right now.”

As in: whatever happens tomorrow, today, I’m okay.

It felt like resting in a quiet room. Here’s how I described the feeling in the podcast:

“Now — this present moment — it’s almost like it becomes this safe place for me to pause and breathe.”

Many times since, I’ve used this method to gently reel myself back into the present. The more I do it, the easier and more effective it becomes.

I’ve done hard things before

This next strategy builds off a story my friend Karen told many years ago about a conversation her friend related to her.

After a painful session, this friend admitted to her therapist her deepest, darkest fear: that she was, at her most basic level, unlovable. The therapist responded, simply: “You understand, of course, that you have evidence to suggest otherwise.”

Well, damn. Is that not the greatest comeback?

I’ve never forgotten this story. In fact, I’ve run with it. When I start worrying I’ll fail my kids, I try to counter it by recalling how many times I’ve shown up for them, or said something wise, or avoided major disaster.

I also have evidence for times I’ve messed up and then apologized or tried something different, and it all worked out in the end.

Sometimes I have to write this evidence in my journal and re-read it several times before it sinks in.

I still worry. But during times of uncertainty, it helps to know I’ve done hard things before.

(For some of us it’s harder right now)

Finally, can we acknowledge that this particular moment — with its global pandemics and warped politics and climate emergencies and skewed reality — makes everything harder? Maybe not for everyone, but for some of us?

I know humans have handled plagues and wars and depressions throughout history, and others lead more precarious lives. But that doesn’t change how difficult it is to send our kids/adults into the world right now, whether it’s to college or middle school or the grocery store.

I offer this because I’ve noticed my base level of anxiety is so much higher than in the past. I assumed this was some sort of lifestyle malfunction or personal defect. What’s wrong with me? Am I sleeping too little/scrolling too much/drinking too much coffee? Do I need to buck up/meditate more/be more grateful? Or…am I one of those hovering, clingy, helicopter parents who secretly wants to sabotage my kid’s future so they’ll live with me for-everrrrrrr?

Let’s just agree that for some of us, the current state of things exacerbates the inherent challenge of every transition (not just college drop-offs). I regularly remind myself of this and try to handle myself more kindly.

I hope this helps you handle yourself more kindly, too.

Parent of Adults by Asha Dornfest is my newsletter about life after the kids grow up, and it’s free to read. Subscribe below or at ashadornfest.substack.com.

Photo credit: Michelle Tresemer