Every Parent Should Have A ‘Panic Mantra’

By Nils Parker, Ghostwriter; Multiple NYT & WSJ Bestseller; Partner at Brass Check

My son is pandemic years old. 

He was born late in the evening on March 10, 2020. The last normal day of this decade. The last normal day…ever, maybe. 

The following day, while my wife and I holed up in the quiet and soft light of the birthing suite with our new baby after a long labor well into the night, the World Health Organization officially declared coronavirus a pandemic. The Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus and the NBA suspended their season. And then President Trump announced a travel ban in a live address from the Oval Office. 

The day after that, the NHL, MLB and MLS followed the NBA’s lead; the NCAA canceled March Madness; the Masters golf tournament was postponed; school districts closed schools, and local governments across the country started banning large public gatherings of any kind.

The next day, my wife and I left the blissful seclusion of the hospital as new parents and arrived home into a new world. 

It’s a strange feeling to have your entire world change twice in two days. You go to bed Monday night, childless and maskless. You wake up Thursday morning, directly responsible for the protection of one innocent life and indirectly responsible for the protection of millions of others. 

The whole thing is disorienting, like being flipped upside down and backwards in the dark. Eventually you get used to the chaos and commotion, but in the beginning there is only confusion and terror.

All parents leave the hospital with a certain amount of shock. This has to be a mistake. We have no idea what we’re doing! They let us just leave with this baby!? What if we get in a car accident on the way home? What if he starts crying and won’t stop? What if we’re bad at this? Shouldn’t we have to take a test first before they let us go? Something!? Anything?!? Are they sure it’s safe? What if we get sick? What if he gets sick? 

These questions turned over deafeningly in my head, like shoes tumbling in a dryer, as I pushed my bleary-eyed wife and our newborn son in a hospital wheelchair down the long pedestrian skyway that connected the maternity ward to the parking garage, and the past to our future. 

There’s a line from Rilke, the Austrian poet: “Life is not even close to being as logically consistent as our worries; it has many more unexpected ideas and many more facets than we do.” That never felt truer than the day we got home from the hospital. On March 13, 2020, twenty different countries reported their first coronavirus cases, the president declared a national emergency, and thousands of cruise passengers remained quarantined on their ships–some of them docked in port, some anchored off shore, all of them quickly turning into floating disease factories. 

In retrospect, my worries were almost quaint. They were also totally pointless. If you’re going to worry, at least worry about the right things; and with the world turning upside down, worrying about things that are not in your control is the definition of pointless.  

When we got home, the unpredictable, unexpectedness of life that Rilke was talking about greeted us in the form of the first unmistakable signs of the “new normal”. There was no one in our typically very busy parking garage. Instead, the three of us were outnumbered by hand sanitizer stations. Next to both elevators, where notices about hallway carpet cleaning and HVAC maintenance would normally be posted, signs had been printed, laminated, and anchored securely to the wall instructing residents how to press the elevator button (knees, elbows, back of the hand only, please) and how many other people they could ride the elevator with (zero). On a separate sign inside the elevator, we learned about our building’s new Covid protocols and the property management company’s new “Covid liaison”. And still, we saw nobody. Not in the garage, not in the lobby, the hall, out on the street. 

To escape the unsettling feeling of this emergent viral cataclysm changing the world right under us, I did all the things one might do in an effort to pretend that everything was like it used to be, that things were actually normal. I put our overnight bags away. I made tea. I turned the heat on. I made sure the bathroom had toilet paper. I opened the blinds and welcomed in the light. I did everything I could to make our place seem like it was the same old condo we’d left a few days earlier…which of course it wasn’t and would never be again. 

As Heraclitus would say, you can never step in the same river twice. That’s especially true when it appears an earthquake and a landslide have shaken and slammed into the river and physically changed its course and character forever.

When there was nothing left to do, I sat down on the sofa next to my wife and our sleeping baby boy. She turned to me, kissed the top of his soft, round head, and said, “Honey, I need you to take him. I have to lay down.” She’d just been in the hospital for the better part of ten days. First with the flu, then dehydration, then pre-eclampsia, then finally childbirth. She’d been through the ringer, and that’s not even accounting for the fact that hospital rooms are a horrible place to get a good night’s sleep. “I just need thirty minutes, an hour at the most,” she assured me, noting the rising panic on my face as I stared into the gray baby eyes of our own personal “new normal.”

My wife slept like the dead for the next six hours. And much to my initial surprise, my panic slowly but steadily melted away. It began with the realization that the only way my wife could sleep so long, or even be willing to go to bed at all, was if she had confidence in me to take care of our son. She trusted me. She knew, even if I didn’t know it when she disappeared through our bedroom doors, that I was up for the job. Realizing that, accepting and embracing that, evaporated whatever doubts or fears still remained. 

Those six hours changed my life…again. Sitting with my son, asleep on my chest, calm and assured of the faith my partner had in me, I no longer felt like the anxious father of a young boy, I could feel myself starting to confidently become his dad. All those emotions that scrambled my brain on our walk to the car–the fear of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, the anxiety about the unknowns of infant behavior, the doubts about the wisdom of having kids at my age, at all, in this crazy world–I was able to put them to the side and, at the same time, shut out the roiling uncertainty of the new world under Covid that was starting to take shape outside the four walls of our apartment. 

That’s when I realized the truth in what the Stoics say about anxiety, and the critical importance of understanding it as a new parent in a changing world. Anxiety, the Stoics believed, is not something you run away from, it’s something you get rid of, because anxiety is not an external force, it’s an internal creation. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions–not outside.” In my case, that was literally what happened. I didn’t escape those overwhelming emotions that emerged when we left the hospital. Even if I wanted to escape them, I had nowhere to run. I was rooted right there in my living room, with that precious little baby, for six hours. And if I was going to unburden myself of this anxiety, if I was going to be the dad he deserved and the dad my wife knew I was capable of being, I would need to accept that these were emotions living within me, not hanging on to me, and that it was up to me to actively shed them. 

The solution, I knew, was to focus on my son, to focus on what I could control right in front of me, and to let the rest of it go. “Don’t let your imagination of the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might happen,” Marcus said. “Stay focused on the present situation.”

“Be here, now,” is how I phrased it to myself. I even said it out loud at a few points; whenever I sensed the worry might be bubbling back up, and with it the urge to catastrophize, and then to distract myself–with the phone, with mindless television, with work. This is a common phenomenon among new parents, this anxiety-producing cycle of catastrophe and distraction. And it’s been made so much more common by the actual health catastrophe that has been playing out all over this rapidly changing world since, well, the day my son was born. Which is why finding a way to focus only on what you can control, to discard your anxiety, to be present, to be here now, is more important than ever.

Be here, now. 

It has become a kind of personal dictum, a ready reminder for me, like the way you might say “return to your breath” when your mind wanders during meditation. I call it my ‘panic mantra,’ and whenever I feel myself slipping away from the moment or sinking down into the darkness, it helps me return to my son and to my wife…still to this day.  

Some people have panic rules, almost like first principles they can return to when things are going crazy around them, or inside their heads. Others have what Marcus Aurelius called “epithets for the self”—these are principles committed to paper that describe the kind of person they want to be, always. Every new parent should have a panic mantra. Some phrase that brings them back to the present moment, that helps them discard their pointless anxieties, that reorients their focus to this young innocent life they’ve brought into this world and are responsible for helping to flourish here. Even if, from time to time, it’s to flourish from a distance, behind a mask, through a glaze of hand sanitizer, in this new normal.

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