The Anxious Mother
Updated: Feb 25
**Preface: this piece applies to parents of all genders, however I’ve used the word Mother throughout in association with the ‘Refrigerator Mother’ theory.**
Following his study of autistic children in 1943, Leo Kanner was the first to remark that he had observed the mothers of autistic children to be unemotional and cold toward their children.
In later years, he expressed remorse and regret that he had said such things and recognised the insurmountable damage he had caused families who had been judged by a society of suspecting eyes looking upon Mothers as the cause of their children’s ‘strange disturbances’.
What his bias and ignorance overlooked at that time was his confusion of cause and effect.
A dismissal of the possibility that this mother who was unsure of how to connect with her child was distressed, and living with internalised anxiety and self doubt as a result of being studied, observed and judged.
A human being who strived to love and support her child, but had to contend instead with a society that told her he was disordered and disturbed.
Similar studies today may even reflect the high probability of autism in the parents of autistic children.
Yes, we abandoned and debunked the ‘Refrigerator Mother’ theory.
Yet sadly, on many occasions I have noted the replacement theory among outsiders:
The Anxious Mother.
The anxious mother that causes the troublesome behaviours in her child.
We’ve all seen it and heard it.
Perhaps we’ve been that Mother.
Had our child’s autism overlooked or not believed because it appears we are hovering, engaging in some helicopter parenting.
We might even present as anxious.
Overbearing. Overinvolved. Always at school, always in the faces of those supporting and caring for our children. Always writing lengthy letters and notes in communication books. Always on the phone, checking in.
“Little Mandy only behaves that way when Mum is around”..
“If Mum would back up a bit, or loosen the reigns a little, things would change”..
“She’s fine all day at school, we don’t see what you’re telling us happens at home”..
And here’s the truth..
Autistic children spend their days at school masking.
They do it when they love school. They do it when they struggle at school.
We do it when we grow up. We do it in social situations. We do it at work.
Some of us become so skilled at it at such a young age, that you would never be able to guess that we’re autistic at all.
Many of us don’t even know ourselves.
We put on a face to avoid becoming vulnerable.
I put on a face so I could blend in, not be noticed for the wrong reasons (being different, being anxious, not understanding the work, being afraid to participate in competitive activities, not being able to get my voice to work under pressure, not wanting to be called up, not wanting to be paired up, not wanting to work in a group…)
Autistic children do this. They do it all day long. They won’t show you their anxiety, they’ll pretend they’re okay.
And then when they get in the car, or walk in the door, or get in their room at the end of the day..
It all unravels.
Because home, because Mum is their safe place.
It’s where they can just be.
It’s when they can let go and be exactly who they are with safety and without long term, irreversible social consequences.
Yep, sometimes Mums hover. Sometimes they’re anxious.
I am that Mum.
I don’t hover. But I can be anxious, yes.
Anxious around the fact that my beautiful autistic children are exposed to a society that encompasses values that aren’t always aligned with my children’s incredibly trusting, loving, generous, accepting and embracing nature.
No matter how they behave, those attributes are exactly who they are.
No matter what you see, I know who my children are.
Autistic children are often misunderstood, judged, mistreated, unaccepted.
And as their Mum, I was created to be their protector.
And I do that with a ferocity that no amount of judgement, looks or words will deter.
In 20 years from now, my girls will know I am present. In their lives, holding space, loving them, accepting and embracing them, learning from them, cheering them on, helping them to create the opportunities they dream of.
In 20 years from now, I won’t be too fussed about the people who called me overbearing or over the top.
Or the people who felt annoyed or inconvenienced by my phone calls or notes or the boundaries I set around how my girls are to be treated.
But my girls will.
They’ll always remember where I was. What I thought. What I said. How I responded in their most challenging moments.
And this is what others so hastily overlook.
A Mother’s priority is to be connected with her child, not to appease those who don’t understand them.
A mother’s joy is to bask in the beauty of her child’s happiness and wellbeing, not to be fighting for their acceptance; for them to be treated with equality.
A mother should not have to fear each new school year, worry that each new teacher will understand or at least accept her child and treat them well.
A mother should not have to be seeking ways to endlessly prove her child’s challenges and endlessly seeking ways to beg for their needs to be met.
This confusion comes from bias.
The belief that a Mother’s expression of her constant fight and internalised struggle is the problem; the cause of her child’s behaviours
And completely inaccurate.
The next time you encounter that Mother,
I encourage you to see the person who is losing sleep worrying, wiping away her child’s tears, organising and advocating for support,
And I’d encourage you to consider that although you might see a Mother who appears hard, harsh, unrelenting, anxious, in your face, in constant contact,
She might be broken.
In and out of burn out.
Second guessing each time she makes the decision to contact you,
Experiencing a physical sickness each time she hears yet another disappointment in the many ways her child has been let down again.
I’d like you to consider how her internalised stress is reflected in her child’s sense of self, sense of security.
I'd like you to imagine how supporting her, the Mother, might be reflected in her child.
And finally, I’d like you to consider what kind of person you want to be.
What kind of contribution you want to make?
Because as educators, as professionals, as fellow parents, as family members, as friends,
We get to choose.
We don’t need the whole picture to be kind, compassionate people.
We don’t need to be right.
We just need to decide whether we want to be part of the problem,
Or part of the solution.
And the starting point?
Is to listen. To hear. To suspend disbelief. To connect. To be gentle. To be kind. To accept. . . . . Kristy Forbes Autism & Neurodiversity Support Specialist inTune Pathways . . . . Image: brooke-smart.com