When Motherhood is Filled with the Overwhelming Ache of Fear

Stepping into motherhood was a fear-filled journey for me. I’m probably not alone in that, but it was a surprise to me just how impossibly overwhelmed I felt by the weight and ache of fear.  The reality of the cliché proved almost debilitating as I lived with my heart outside my body and felt the pinch of each painful new milestone.

The first time she sneezed. Fear.
The first time she cried while I was driving, unable to help soothe her. Fear.
The first time she fell and cut open her lip. Fear.
The first x-ray. Fear. 
The first time I drove away, leaving her with a babysitter. Fear. 

I had chosen 2 Timothy 1:7 as my labor mantra without fully recognizing how much it would be a life-as-a-mom mantra: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

Breathe in, “God has not given me a spirit of fear.”
Breathe out, “but of power and of love”
Breathe in, “and of a sound mind.”

These words have become a constant refrain in my days, bringing quick liturgy to my mundane moments as I fill my lungs with oxygen and my mind with Truth. 

Over the years since those first days of motherhood (though, to be fair, I only have three years of experience), I have wrestled through legitimately fearful situations while also battling through irrational fears.  In the process, I have learned a few keys that I wish I had known sooner.

I have to know what I am fearing so I can cast it to the foot of the Cross.

Feeling the struggle with fears and anxiety was too much for me to handle, I went to a counselor for help. As she listened to my ache, she pointed out that there is a difference between fear and anxiety: “Fear is usually an actual danger, whereas anxiety comes when the danger is unknown or poorly defined,” she said. “And anxiety is the color ‘brown’ of emotions – a wild mix of emotion. You need to know what you’re actually feeling so you can face it.”

While it’s often easier said than done, identifying the root fear has been a game changing practice for me. Practically speaking, it’s easier to cast one specific fear at the foot of the cross than it is to pick up a boulder-sized bundle of poorly defined anxieties for His care. 

Note: if you are struggling with mental health concerns, seek professional help. 

Let go of what you cannot control.

While another “easier said than done” principle, letting go of what I cannot control has been incredibly important in motherhood. I can’t control when my baby cries or when she doesn’t sleep or when my toddler falls off the swingset. I can’t control when my six-week-old needs a trip to the emergency room or when my toddler has a nightmare in the middle of the night right after I get the baby back to sleep. 

But I can control (or try to!) my reactions to these moments. I can choose to take my needs to the Lord and leave them there (Philippians 4:6) and I can let God’s care for me comfort me in the struggle (Psalm 23:4) and I can remember that nothing can separate me from the love of God (Romans 8:38,39).

All of God’s people have experienced fear. All mothers have wrestled with this cliched reality of having their heart running around outside their body. But it’s what we do with that fear that matters. I think of the Israelites as they left Egypt, wandered the desert, and (eventually) made their way to the promised land: Moses had to repeatedly remind them of God’s presence even though they had the pillar of fire to guide them. 

“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

So we rest in God’s promises, let go of what we cannot control, and do the hard things even when it’s scary.

Choose when to power through and when to cozy in.

Here’s the thing: in motherhood, we sometimes can’t choose when to face a fear and when to ignore it. But sometimes it’s okay to choose to stay home and ignore the fearful world.

Let me clarify: I can’t let my fear stop me when it’s a fear of a six-week-old screaming through an x-ray. The six-week-old can’t breathe. The six-week-old needs an x-ray. I have to lean into that and power through the struggle. 

But when we’ve walked a season of sickness and I am struggling with an (overwhelming, irrational, unrealistic) fear of germs, it’s wise to take a week to stay home from all activities in order to engineer a break from a sickness and foster a respite from the struggle.

I can’t let myself live paralyzed by fear, but I can give myself a break from the tension so that I am better equipped to do the hard thing next time.

And, when it all feels overwhelming, I can come back to my labor mantra: 

Breathe in, “God has not given me a spirit of fear.”
Breathe out, “but of power and of love”
Breathe in, “and of a sound mind.”

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