Navigate to Community section

Why We Worry

Is a certain level of anxiety part of my DNA as a Jewish mother? That’s one of many things I worry about.

Jamie Betesh Carter
May 09, 2024

Kurt Hoffman

Kurt Hoffman

Worry is my mother’s love language. It varies from worrying about the weather to potentially catastrophic real-life scenarios that I won’t even write down for fear of them ever coming true (tu tu tu). There was the practical worrying that I’d brush off (“It’s going to rain, think about staying inside today”) and the impractical worrying that I’d laugh off (“There was a tornado eight states away, think about staying inside today”). Truthfully, I used to find her worry comical—until I became a mother myself.

Growing up, I was never allowed to have sucking candies. Ever. Why is that? you may ask. Our neighbor once choked on one, and my mom had to jump in and help dislodge it. It was traumatic, so much so that the candies were banned from my home and from my vocabulary. Was it warranted? I have no idea, but I’ll tell you this: My kids have not had, and likely will not have, sucking candies for the foreseeable future. My daughter got a sucking candy in a goody bag at a recent birthday party and asked, “Mom, what is this?”

“Oh, it’s like a lollipop,” I said. “But they forgot to put the stick on it, so we can’t eat it, oh well, into the garbage it goes …”

Thinking back, my worry was always there, and for good reason. My husband and I haven’t even been married a decade and have already experienced our fair share of loss. Now, as a mother to two young children, I just have more people and things to worry about. And even though it took me nearly 40 years to truly understand that worry does not, in fact, change the outcome of anything, I still worry.

I worry about the small things. I worry that even though my son loved crackers and hummus yesterday, he won’t love crackers and hummus today and will abstain from eating his lunch that I so lovingly packed him, and the school will call me to tell me he’s starving.

But fear not—I don’t just worry about the small things. I worry about the state the world will be in when my toddlers become teenagers. I worry about where we’ll live. I worry about the choices my children will make once they’re older. I worry about the choices I’ll make as a mother. Because that’s what we do as Jewish mothers. We worry.

Why, though? Why do we as Jewish mothers hold all the fear? Why are Jewish moms known to be the ultimate worriers? (We’re also the ultimate warriors, but that’s for another essay.) Is it because the world has told us we’re worrywarts, so we became them? Is it because our moms and grandmothers worry, so we think we’re supposed to? Is it because of our generational trauma as Jews? Is it because we’re genetically prone to stomach disorders? (We have two between my husband and me.) Or do we have stomach disorders because we worry so much?

Sometimes I think that when the world does finally fall apart, it might be us, the Jewish mom worriers (and warriors), who will be so prepared—having played out every possible bad scenario, having every exit strategy planned out—that we’ll all be the survivors while all of you carefree “la di da” people walking around leaving the worrying to us will be blown away in the wind. But, until that day comes, I’m left worrying about why we worry so much.

To help me understand more about why we Jewish moms worry, or why we think we’re supposed to worry, I reached out to a few creative Jewish moms I admire. My first email was to Sabrina Orah Mark, an author who writes about motherhood in the most relatable, prolific way. Mark also experienced a catastrophe, one many of us worry about often: our houses burning to the ground. “A house burning down, that sense of destruction, and the gutting and rebuilding, feels like that’s a kind of heartbeat in my body,” said Mark.

We talked about where this undercurrent of worry we feel comes from. “In my own writing, there’s always a sense of ruin, repair, ruin, repair,” Mark said. “It’s almost like I’m organically inclined toward it, and I do think it’s in our bones.” The idea of generational trauma came up, and we delved into what that means for us as parents, generations removed from some of the trauma of our Jewish ancestors. “Whenever I answer the phone, I always say, ‘What’s the matter? What happened?’” she said. “I’m always kind of on edge, because something is always the matter, and something has always happened.”

Mark and her family and pets all survived the fire. She credits fully stepping into her role as a mother with helping her family come out the other side. “There is something beautiful in seeing people around you rising to the occasion when something terrible happens,” she said. “One day, my son said, ‘Maybe it’s okay that our house burned down, because now we know how much everyone loves us.’”

We talked a lot about what happens when a frightening event that we spend so much time worrying about as parents actually happens. “I think worrying is anticipating disaster,” Mark said. “There’s this idea that if I can create the entire narrative of the worst possible thing that could happen, and I say it out loud, then we’re all gonna be okay. But one of my very dear friends always says to me, ‘None of us are getting out of this alive,’ so there’s that.”

The next Jewish mom worrier I reached out to is a mom I know well and admire. Daniella Rabbani is the host of the “Mom Curious” podcast, on which she’s conducted more than 100 candid conversations about parenting. I asked Rabbani what role worry plays in her life as a mother. “I don’t think it’s worry,” she said. “I think it’s realistic.”

That’s what we do as Jewish mothers. We worry.

Rabbani’s grandparents on one side were Holocaust survivors and on the other side fled from Iran to Israel. “My son’s name is Ness, which means ‘miracle’ in Hebrew, and my daughter’s name is Paz, which means ‘peace’ in Spanish,” she told me. “I have a very acute sense of awareness that their existence is a miracle. Knowing where my family has come from makes me understand that the chance that my children ended up on earth is miraculous, and that’s an inheritance that Jewish mothers pass down to their children.”

When it comes to understanding the root of her worry, Rabbani looks to some of her greatest parenting teachers. “There’s a lot of wisdom in the amount of care Jewish parents put into parenting,” she said. “And I think that tremendous care can sometimes look and feel like worry.” She looks to experts like Aliza Pressman and Siggie Cohen to help her understand that it’s okay to worry, as long as we filter it through the knowledge and instincts we have.

“After interviewing over 100 mothers for my podcast, and after doing some digging into my own parenting experience, I don’t actually think worrying is always a bad thing,” said Rabbani. “It’s a survival mechanism, and that deep care that we feel has brought us to where we are today, which is quite a long way.”

Years ago, before I became a parent, I was at a first birthday party for a friend’s child. At that time, I was simultaneously trying to get pregnant, save my dad from dying from cancer, and comfort my husband after his mother became terminally ill. My friend, the host, saw the worry on my face as soon as I walked in the room. She walked right over to me, handed me a mimosa, and said, “Give me your worries. I’ll hold them and carry them for you today, so you can relax and take a break from worrying.” I’ll never forget that conversation and the grace of my friend. I don’t think I was able to let go and hand off my worries during that party, but it made me think, What can happen if we stop worrying, even for a brief moment?

That led me to my final interview for my investigation about worrying. Alyssa Shelasky, columnist at New York magazine and author of This Might Be Too Personal, is a writer I’ve always admired. When we met through our children’s preschool, her laid-back, unbothered personality drew me in just as much as her ability to say, and write, what we’re all thinking but might be too worried to express.

Shelasky acknowledged that she’s free to worry less because her mother, whom she’s very close to, takes on the worry for her. “I’m the opposite of a catastrophist,” she said. “Maybe it’s my stoic Massachusetts upbringing combined with my mom staying on top of all of our sh*t, but I know that there’s very little that a glass of wine and a long walk can’t fix.”

“In my case,” continued Shelasky, “I grew up in one of the preppiest towns in America: Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Most of the Irish Catholic families we’d meet would always sweep their worries under the rug, and my family was known as the token eccentric warm-hearted Jews. My mom was everyone’s favorite because she was so nurturing and loving to my friends while their moms were at the golf club sipping gin and tonics.”

I asked Shelasky, half-jokingly but mostly seriously, what happens when we stop worrying. What happens when we go about our day living mostly in the present, not worrying about whether or not our kids ate the snack we packed for them or how we’ll have time to do laundry, cook dinner, register our kids for camp, and make our work deadline? “I just trust myself as a mom,” said Shelasky. “It’s not my personality to look for problems. It gives me the time to relax, and I sleep really, really well.”

While I’m convinced I’ve found my unicorn in Shelasky, she did indulge me in wondering where this stereotype comes from. “I think we are probably hard-wired to be more anxious and intense than other mothers,” she said. “It’s not scientifically speaking, but I believe that when you have a Jewish heart, you care deeply about the things that matter to you. And sometimes that can be what makes us so special, and sometimes it can lead us to a place of madness.”

I think back often to that party I attended. I wonder what could happen if we could take turns transferring our worries to others so that we really could let go and feel a reprieve. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully be able to know. I am a worrier (and a warrior), and this world has given me lots to worry about.

While my many conversations led me to believe that worry is in my bones, in my DNA, and a coping mechanism I use to deal with anticipatory grief, I’ve been working on understanding what space I can create in my mind by worrying less. So, I launched an experiment. Last month, my husband traveled abroad for work. I found myself worrying, in anticipation, how I would get my children—a spirited toddler and an opinionated preschooler—to school on time each morning. I decided to try letting go. Instead of worrying, stressing, and feeling insane mom guilt, I gave myself grace. I didn’t make a homemade breakfast every morning like I usually do; most breakfasts were some version of a partially defrosted frozen waffle eaten in the stroller on the walk to school. One morning, as we approached the stairs of the school, my son’s teacher let me know that his shoes were on the wrong feet. “Oops,” I said with a laugh as I waved goodbye. So what if my kids were late to school some (okay, most) of those days? What would happen? It turns out, nothing. Worrying, or not worrying, did not change the outcome of my week of solo parenting. All it did was allow me to feel better about myself.

I’m beginning to learn that while I’ll never fully stop worrying, I can free up a lot of space in my mind and my life when I learn to pause it. Some beautiful, inspiring moments can occur when we make space for wondering what good things could happen, instead of what might go wrong. Worrying less, especially about things we can’t control, can empower us to enjoy the things we can control. And while I know that the world is unpredictable, full of many scary things that fall out of my hands, I’ve never felt more confident that our generational trauma, stomach disorders, and worrywart mothers contributed to making us Jewish moms the loving, dedicated, warrior moms that can handle whatever comes our way.

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.