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Mom Talk: When the Treadmill Stopped, So Did My Son’s Anxiety

Written by Courtney Knowlton

Photography by Photos Courtesy of Courtney Knowlton

Many studies show that the pandemic and anxiety—for both children and adults—seem to go hand-in-hand. However, for New York-based mother Courtney Knowlton, the opposite was true for her 8-year-old son. Below, the writer and administrator at The East Harlem School (who is also mother to a 5-year-old and 1-year-old) shares how her oldest son’s separation anxiety all but disappeared after months in lockdown. 

For seven years, I was certain that my first-born son’s anxiety was all nature. Until the pandemic came and the way he was nurtured was so drastically different that it made me reconsider. 

When J was a baby, he cried anytime I put him down. He’d lived inside me for nine months, I said. It was a lot to ask him to lie in a crib. So I accepted it. But at twelve weeks, on the verge of a breakdown, I tried all the books about sleep and schedules. After a horrific month, my choices seemed to be either hours of screaming or holding him all day. So I held him. He’s a force, we said. 

Then, my six-month maternity leave ended, and the treadmill that became our lives, started.

J cried being dropped off at daycare every day for four years. Four years! He refused to attend any birthday party, play date, or activity unless my husband or I stayed. And while he’d tolerate my husband, I was the person he wanted. There were giant tantrums because his dad was going to take him to piano or put him to bed. Managing him was a fulltime job. And we had two younger kids and two fulltime jobs. 

Pushed to the brink, we started therapy in the fall of 2019. Someone connected us with a therapist at Bellevue Hospital, the world-famous psychiatric hospital in Manhattan. Dr. S was kind and funny and J seemed to like her. Plus, Bellevue accepted insurance. So we schlepped. Like city parents do. 

Every other Thursday, J and I traveled an hour to therapy. I’d rush from work to meet his school bus, often texting the bus driver that I was a minute late, could she please wait at the 96th Street stop. The saintly bus driver always did. Immediately off the bus, J would begin complaining about the commute. Some days, he’d refuse to walk and I’d have to shove his wailing, stiff body into a taxi.

“Bellevue Hospital,” I’d say. 

Where else, the judgment in the cabbie’s eye would say back. 

Usually I bribed him with Pokémon cards to get him onto the stuffed rush hour train to 28th Street. When we got off, we’d walk 20 minutes east. I swear, Thursdays were always the coldest and rainiest days of the week. 

In therapy, J named his alter ego. Mr. Worry Brain. He learned that Mr. Worry Brain acted in a way that J himself wouldn’t, and he discussed strategies for keeping him under control. Calming breathing and mantras and asking himself how he’d feel if his friends saw his tantrums. My husband and I learned how to properly acknowledge good behavior. We were told to pick our battles, to give him more agency in his life and more alone time with us. Things got marginally better. But we were stretched so thin; we never quite finished the assigned readings about childhood anxiety. We didn’t add a jellybean to the jar every time J let me do an errand without hysteria. 

Dr. S told us that exposure to separation was the best way to address separation anxiety. J aspired to be a professional rock climber, so we chose the after-school program at the local bouldering gym for the place we’d leave him without us. Despite his love for climbing, he’d come off the bus, see his climbing shoes, and refuse to go. 

“Is rock climbing really that important?” my mother asked. It wasn’t climbing, I said. If we didn’t teach him to control Mr. Worry Brain, he’d be doing this forever. 

 Ten minutes alone was the first hurdle. I’d wrench him off my leg, run outside, stand across the street, my heart racing. Then I’d return to a sobbing child, tell him great job and sit in the chalky gym for two hours while happy J scaled the wall like a monkey. Ten minutes never got to fifteen or twenty or two hours. We weren’t supposed to extend the time until J was on board, and before he got on board, there was a pandemic. 

In March, Mr. Worry Brain activated in people everywhere. The world stopped and so did that treadmill our family had been running on for the previous seven years. We moved into my parents’ house outside the city, and we stayed home together. 

Instead of exposure to separation, J got exposure to me. All day, every day. For six months, we were never late. Never schlepping. Never apart. Plus, my husband and I had so much stress navigating our jobs and the kids’ schooling and our future plans and sterilizing the groceries that we didn’t pick as many battles as we once had. As we got deeper and deeper into quarantine, J blossomed. I first realized it in June when I’d left for a run three days in a row without him barricading the door as he used to. 

Mr. Worry Brain had gone dormant. 

There were plenty of struggles. Over schoolwork and listening and sibling disagreements. But when it comes to J’s confidence and happiness and ability to function in the world, one child went into quarantine and another came out. Maybe he just matured, as one lesson of parenting is that they outgrow so much, but I also think it was the full life reset we didn’t even know we needed. A break from the habits and routines that weren’t working, but that were such a part of the grind we accepted as normal that I never stepped back to reconsider.

For a while I worried that he’d never readjust when life resumed, but the opposite has proven true. I work at a school that is fully open and given the challenges of the moment, I currently leave before anyone is awake. My husband and a babysitter navigate most of the kids’ logistics. Not once has J burst into my room in the middle of the night to yell at me that I better not go anywhere. The kid I knew in February wouldn’t have stood a chance at navigating our current family schedule. 

I was hesitant to write this. It’s imbued with the privilege of having a family house to escape to. Of having been fortunate enough not to contact Covid-19. Of not losing our jobs. But recently I told my pediatrician about the changes I’d seen in J. How the unlimited access to me seemed to have been the exact thing he needed. She said she’d heard other parents of anxious kids say the same. And so I wrote it. 

J was enrolled in daycare before he was even born. Without any consideration of the force he’d be when he came out. Without any thought that certain natured kids need a certain kind of nurture. But what other choice did I have? In retrospect, the treadmill had started before he was even conceived. Schedules and activities and rushing. It was the kind of life I lived and enjoyed before becoming a mom, but it wasn’t the best way to raise J. As we piece back our life together, I’m working to be mindful of what I’ve learned from these months.

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  1. gemma says...

    Your story was so moving, thank you for sharing. Very happy to hear about your son.

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