I have a shark phobia. And I don’t mean I have a healthy, just-like-everybody-who-is-not-a-surfer fear of sharks. I mean I have proper anxiety. I’m scared, petrified, terrified, panic-stricken, crazily aghast when it comes to sharks. On a good day this means I can’t really swim in the ocean or go on a sailing boot. Having grown up on an Island in the Caribbean this is quite an inconvenience. On a bad day I have trouble swimming in a pool. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know if you have seen James Bond, but it’s definitely possible a shark may be lurking in your pool. I know it’s probably not, but hey, it’s a phobia, so by definition irrational.
I don’t swim in the Dutch ocean. It’s dark, unclear water, so I can’t see my toes even if I’m in only ankle deep. Whenever we visit the Caribbean I have a ritual for going into the ocean. It takes about ten minutes. I choose a spot where people are already swimming. Preferably big, fleshy people, who are way tastier than me. I stand by the shoreline for a good 4 minutes and observe. Do I see anything that indicates a shark? I watch the people, convinced they will be pulled down by Jaws any minute now. When I am sufficiently reassured that the sharks are currently somewhere else (because I don’t care how many divers tell me there are no sharks around, I am convinced there are), I slowly walk into the water. Stopping and checking at every step, scanning the surface and staring into the clear blue water directly around me. When the water reaches my belly I jump in, twirl around and immediately swim back to shore. Here I lie, in the shallow water, the sand right beneath me, trying to enjoy the feel of the sea, until the images of sharks grabbing me from behind and tearing my flesh apart become too overpowering and I have to get out.
I would love to bring my daughter to the Caribbean and show her where I grew up. I would love for her to play on the beach and swim in the sea. Care-free. I would really love that. I don’t want to project my stupid fears unto her. I don’t want to pollute her happy look on life with my irrational thoughts and habits. The way I see it I have three options.
How to deal with anxiety as a mom
Option A: I face my fears. I believe the divers, trust the statistics, jump into the ocean with Isaya, ignore the panic, breathe and persevere. In time my feelings will catch up with my new found attitude and I am a free woman who loves to swim, sail and snorkel in the big blue. My baby is a mermaid and we giggle at the thought of angry fish. As you can probably tell by now, I don’t think this is an option for me. The thought of her getting eaten by a shark is enough material for ten weeks of nightmares.
So, option B: I listen to my fears, believe what my brain and nerves tell me and keep her away from the ocean. I will tell her to be careful, without being able to properly explain what I am afraid of. I will basically pass on my fears to her. Because I believe they are true, unchangeable and functional. I want to keep her safe, so why not? Well, because I don’t want to deny her the things I wish I could enjoy, but can’t because I am scared. I want her to live a full life.
So I will go for option C: I will ask help from someone who does not share my fears, but does respect my boundaries and takes my feelings serious. So obviously not a care- free surfer dude that loves to scuba and kiss sharks on the nose. Lucky for me my wife is the perfect woman for the job. We will go into the ocean together. I will hold my breath, but since my wife is the one who will be holding our daughter, Isaya won’t be bothered by my fears. We won’t go too deep, but I will be able to see how much fun my daughter is having. This will distract me from my thoughts and her happiness will give me the strength to stay in the water.
When she is older I will explain to my daughter that I am afraid of things, just like she is afraid of things. These fears tell us something, about a situation, about people around us but mostly about ourselves. We should of course use this information to make decisions that ensure our safety. But we should not let it interfere with our happiness, our freedom and our longing to follow our hearts.