The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 15, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Internal fears play a role in parenting

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — I remember standing outside her door, sweating bullets. She was a few months old, and, whether it was because of my inexperience or my devotion to a baby guidebook I now consider to be hogwash, I was overwhelmed.

According to the book, my baby should've been sleeping longer than 20 minutes at a time. The fact that she was awake proved that one or both of us were doing something wrong. I felt utterly lost.

My heart raced. My blood pounded in my ears. I teetered between rescuing her for a long snuggle and staying put to let her cry it out.

This went on for months. Eventually, a sort of Pavlovian conditioning took over. At the first sound of her crying, a heat wave would wash over me and I would stand immobilized, feeling like I was sinking in layers of suffocating sand. Later, I would sob and scheme, all in response to a little bit of crying.

By the time my second child was born, I'd eased into mothering territory that felt more comfortable. It wasn't natural, I concluded, to rely on strangers' rules for my own babies; this was something I had to learn with love by trial and error.

Hundreds of trials and errors later, I no longer break into a sweat when my babies cry. I've long since burned the book (at least symbolically) and conquered some of the fears that led me to doubt my decisions.

But where one fear-based reaction has retired, another has grown. Now I have a habit of coming nearly unhinged when my kids start arguing.

Their back and forth bickering and yelling sends me right up the wall. I can't think. I can't breathe. The only thing I feel certain I can do in those moments is freak out right alongside my children.

Looking at it objectively, I see that I need to go back to my roots. The only way to solve this knee-jerk reaction is to examine its cause so I can move forward and parent more effectively.

We all have issues in our past that affect the way we approach life as adults. For me, it comes down to a real fear of broken relationships and people who are -- to put it bluntly -- mean. Each argument between my daughters makes me fear that they will have a terrible grown-up relationship or that, at their core, they aren't nice people.

When I recognize that fear, I can begin to dissect it realistically. Siblings argue. They get on each other's nerves, sometimes on purpose. This is not an indicator of future hatred, nor does it prove their mean-spiritedness. Instead, it merely proves that these siblings are behaving naturally and all they need is some guidance for this one, single moment of friction.

But the projection of my fears makes it hard to zoom in on the moment at hand.

When we back away from the visceral reactions our children sometimes evoke within us, we'll begin to see a way around the problem. It starts with uncovering the fear behind the reaction. When fear, the great motivator, is seen in broad daylight, we can then approach it with reason.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog,