Performance Anxiety and Parenting by Ori Lenkinski
*Originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz
About once a week, I have a recurring dream. I am in a theater, about to go on stage when I realize that I have no idea what I am meant to perform. I tell the dancers around me, “I don’t know this piece. I haven’t rehearsed it!” They always answer the same way, “Don’t worry. Follow us. You’ll figure it out.” I am the only one concerned by the fact that I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. In the dreams, I go on stage and do just what the dancers said, I follow them, I do my best, I get through it. Inside, I feel an utter sense of panic.
For years, I thought this dream was a side effect of my life as a performer. In truth, I have been in such situations during my career, perhaps less extreme but close. Once, when I had recently joined a new company, the dancer I was meant to replace a few months down the line injured herself and I had to perform in her place with one day’s notice. I botched my way through the show, glad that no one I knew was in the audience. The anxiety was there but it wasn’t as intense as in the dream.
In a recent conversation about parenting, I realized that this dream is much more closely connected to my experience as a mother than to my life as a dancer.
For me, becoming a mother was like performing a show I had never rehearsed before. And it was a very public show. Everyone I knew saw it. My parents and sister flew in for the premiere. My in laws were there. Friends came out of the woodwork to see it. Complete strangers came and most of them had something to say about it afterwards. My partner was in the front row.
I don’t invite people to premiers. Never have. I prefer to first see how a show feels, how it flows on stage, if there are any embarrassing costume issues and such, before letting people know about it.
But with parenting, there was no way to avoid the exposure. Everyone came, mostly to see the baby, but on the way, they saw me, in a weird physical purgatory between pregnancy and real life, more tired than I had ever been, more stressed, in shock and with no clue what the steps were.
For the first three months, I barely left the house. I didn’t feel ready to get on stage. Even the corner store was too much of a show then. How could I go out when I couldn’t figure out how to operate our very complex stroller, let alone the tiny thing inside of it? But despite my efforts to keep it under lock and key, my motherhood was visible.
When I think back on those first months with my first child, it’s the doubt that I remember most clearly. Was it ok to bathe her at 8 PM? Was it ok to dress her in two layers or was that too hot? Was breast milk really the best option or did all the moms in the parks with the little thermoses and cute bottles of formula have something figured out that I didn’t get? Did she need to wear a hat like that lady told me as I was trying to get her into the carrier? How much sleep was right? How much food? How much time in or out?
Would she survive my lack of knowledge and experience?
When I’m on stage, even if it’s a very important performance, the worst that can happen is a section goes badly or the energy is off. At the end of the day, it’s a show and there will be others. There is no life or death element to it. But here, in this, my most momentous performance, there certainly was. The stakes were high. There were real consequences hanging in the balance. I paid for my mistakes in sleep, showers, meals and worries.
I am now making those rounds again, with my second child. I go to the same parks, the same stores, the same Gymboree’s and play rooms. There are still worries, still uncertainties, still mistakes. But there is also a calm that I didn’t have with my first. There is some confidence. There is the knowing that everything passes, changes, gets easier or different at least.
When I’m out with the little one, I see those new moms. They are pretty easy to spot. They look uncertain, tired, worried. They look around like I do in the dream, following the cues given by others.
When I see performances, which I do pretty regularly, even if I don’t enjoy the choreography or execution, I always thank the dancers afterwards. They’ve given of themselves and I want to acknowledge that I see them, that I appreciate their efforts. I experience the same urge with these moms. I want to nod to them, to reach out to that shaky place, to give them some assurance that no one knows the steps at first, that it’ll be ok, that they can follow along if they get lost.