“I really appreciate your seeing me again,” Estelle Peterson says wringing her hands. I had previously seen Mrs. Peterson for a number of years. Although we made some progress in curbing her anxiety, she remained a constant worrier.
“My daughter’s pregnant,” she says.
“Congratulations. I remember you were afraid you’d never have a grandchild.”
“Yes, yes, that’s true,” she says dismissively. “But she lives in Florida.”
“And that means?”
“Oh, you’re worried about her getting the Zika virus.” Concern about Zika is certainly understandable, but I suspect it will only fuel Mrs. Peterson already considerable anxiety.
“And having a deformed child! I can’t imagine anything worse. I told her she has to leave Florida. Right now. Right away. She doesn’t have to worry about me, but she has to take care of her baby! I told her to go stay with her sister in Connecticut.”
“And she said?”
“That it wouldn’t be a practical. That she and Jonathon have jobs. That they just couldn’t pick up leave.”
“I told she could just quit her job and Jonathon can stay here, that she’d be all right with her sister. Then she got mad at me and told me to stop it. I told her I couldn’t stop it, that I couldn’t bear to spend the next six months worrying about her baby. They hadn’t even told me right away, so I’ll probably worry anyway, worry if one of those mosquitos got her early on. But she won’t listen to me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. How am I going to get through her pregnancy?”
“How’s your daughter feeling about being pregnant?”
“What? Oh, she’s pretty good. She said that some of her morning sickness was pretty bad, but I told her not to worry about that, that was to be expected. I remember when I was pregnant with her and her sister. I thought I would die. But I didn’t. And she won’t die either. But I might die of a heart attack if I have to worry about the baby for six months.”
I remember now. It wasn’t only Estelle’s constant worrying that was so difficult, but also her need to make everything about herself. Everyone’s pain becomes her pain. She sees herself as being constantly worried about others, but really she’s concerned about dealing with her own anxiety and discomfort.
“So how can we help you to survive the next six months?”
“No, you have to help me convince Diana. Tell me what I can say to her to make her leave?”
“Even if I could do that, which I can’t, it seems to me we both need to respect your daughter as an adult, to respect her decisions and to try to be as supportive of her as you can.”
“How can I respect her decision when it’s endangering her child, when it will leave me, her mother, a nervous wreck until the baby is born?”
“Do you generally respect your daughter’s decisions? Did you respect her decision to marry her husband, to become a teacher, to move to Florida?”
“I definitely wanted her to move to Florida. I wanted to keep an eye on her. Becoming a teacher was okay, although I wondered if she couldn’t do better. I guess that was true of Jonathon too, but he worked out pretty good.”
Knowing that I am most likely talking to myself, I continue on, “Mrs. Peterson, respecting your daughter’s decisions means recognizing that she’s an adult apart from you who has a right to make a decision even if it is different from the one you’d make.”
“Even if it endangers her child? No, I can’t respect her decision.”
And I don’t respect Mrs. Peterson’s way of being in the world, making it difficult for me to espouse respect when I don’t feel it myself. Perhaps I can try to accept Mrs. Peterson for who she is, and thereby move us both towards a more tolerant view of others.
“Mrs. Peterson. I suspect that you’re not going to change your daughter’s mind about not leaving Florida. Perhaps I can help you to accept that fact and perhaps we can work on managing your anxiety.”
“You’re not being helpful.”
“Sorry. I can only do what I can do.”
“You used to say that to me all the time, that I had to accept my limitations, that I couldn’t control everything, that I could only do what I could do.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But maybe this time I can do more.”
“I guess we’ll continue this discussion next week.”