Mary Wakefield

The reason middle-class parents are so anxious

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

On that record-breaking, sweltering day at the end of July, my three-year-old son did a pirouette in the paddling pool — ‘look at this Mama!’ — then tripped, slid under the surface and lay there on his back staring up at me through two foot of water. I was in the pool too, just an arm’s length away, and it seemed to me that I did nothing for ages. I had time to think: he looks so calm. Why isn’t he moving? And, why am I not moving? Then I had hauled him out and we were spluttering on the grass.

When he could speak, Cedd was more proud than scared: ‘I can go underwater! Did you see?’ But I felt the first stirrings of a familiar fear. There was clearly no reason to worry. He was fine. Children are forever sinking in baths and swimming pools. But the words ‘secondary drowning’ had appeared in my mind, and a half-remembered news story — something about a boy who died of water in the lungs a clear week after a light dunking…

An Aussie called John Marsden has recently written a book called The Art of Growing Up, about the blight of over-anxious middle-class parents like me, both in Oz and across the West. We worriers are toxic, says Marsden, not just for ourselves but for our offspring, who pick up on it all. ‘The scale of the problem is massive. The issue of emotional damage is pandemic,’ he told the Guardian last month. ‘The level of anxiety in kids is something I’ve never seen before and I don’t know how it can be improved.’

He might start by understanding it from the parents’ perspective, and I don’t think the solution is as simple as telling us all to get a grip. My feeling is that we’re somehow addicted to the panic. We’re fear junkies, enabled by iPhone, just as wedded to our habit as other junkies are to smack, but with less awareness of the danger.

I knew quite clearly on that paddling pool afternoon, for instance, that I should nip the whole secondary drowning nonsense in the bud. I knew that if I began to Google the possible after-effects of submersion, I’d quite soon be near-demented with pointless terror. But anxiety has its own magnetic pull. I couldn’t help it. I parked the kid in front of The Lion King with a packet of Mini Cheddars and set out to drive myself mad.


And if I wasn’t in some sense looking to be scared, why would I sweep past the reasonable advice from reputable sources explaining that secondary drowning is rare? Why would I just keep going until I found a worst-case scenario?

‘I don’t want to alarm you, but…’ Jackpot. The really good stuff is almost always to be found on Mumsnet, usually a few comments from the top of any thread. ‘I did hear about someone whose child drowned two weeks after falling in the pool. He seemed fine afterwards but then sadly he passed away (unhappy face).’ Terror lives in the alimentary canal: dry mouth, tight chest, stomach sick with dread. No wonder, as the Times reported recently, that babies in the womb are affected by their mother’s panic.

Then after the Googling comes the second stage of parental hypochondria: the wild-eyed staring at your sprog in search of symptoms. Was that a rattle in the lungs? Did he just turn down a biscuit? Are his hands cold? Drowning. Sepsis. Meningitis. Scarlet fever. I’ll pack the bag for A&E.

In Greece a few weeks ago, Cedd climbed under the restaurant table to give a cat a chip. It swiped at him and a few small beads of blood appeared on his head. Cat-scratch disease! Put the phone down, said my husband, please. He’s more likely to be hit by a meteorite than die of cat-scratch disease. But I couldn’t. And in the days that followed, until secondary drowning replaced CSD, I was quite sure that every patch of heat rash and every sniffle was a sign of its onset.

In London, especially N1, I see my fellow panic-junkie mums everywhere and it’s a consolation to me, if not to John Marsden. You’ll know us by the way we flutter around our children offering them too much choice, often between things they can’t possibly understand: ‘The quinoa, darling, or the escalope of chicken? Darling? Answer me! Why aren’t you hungry? Do you have a fever?’

We all have our particular poison. For some (not me) it’s a hygiene thing — ‘Don’t touch that sweetheart. No. Oh God. Come here. I’ve got the antibacterial hand gel.’ For others it’s vaccines or climbing in the playground: ‘Careful, careful, careful.’ Me, I’m a sucker for a rare disease. When my son was just a few days old, I became quite convinced that his lightly pointed ears meant he had some terrible condition. I feel ashamed now, and angry with myself on behalf of parents whose children are genuinely unwell.

So can’t we be persuaded to man up? We’re educated, rational people — can’t we somehow tailor our level of hysteria to fit the actual risk? At midnight on drowning day, I did read one helpful thing in the sea of enabling disinformation online. It was, I hope, a wake-up call.

Last year three emergency doctors — Schmidt, Sempsrott and Hawkins — wrote a report about ‘the myth of secondary drowning’ and it was so very clear and conclusive that even I couldn’t just dismiss it. All the stories and worries online — even those in reputable newspapers — were nonsense, said Schmidt and co. In fact there is almost no such thing as secondary drowning. What became a global parental panic stemmed from a single highly publicised case of a Texas boy who died one week after getting a dousing in shallow water. The autopsy later showed that the poor boy didn’t die of drowning at all. He had a dodgy heart and died of that. But word had got out and word snowballed on through the internet, passed from mother to hysterical mother.

All those wasted hours of worry. I hope I remember next time.

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