Being an anxious kid has its challenges. But what happens when that anxious kid grows up to be a parent?
In this episode of In It, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra have a candid conversation with Morra Aarons-Mele, author and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast. Morra describes herself as an “extremely anxious introvert.” And she often wonders how that anxiety affects her parenting. Hear Morra describe her own strengths and challenges — as an anxious kid, a neurodivergent adult, and a mom.
And check out Morra’s book: Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay Home
Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org, and I’m also a parent to kids who learn differently.
Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And this is "In It."
Amanda: "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. We offer perspective, stories, and advice for and from people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences.
Gretchen: Today, we're talking about being a neurodivergent parent and parenting neurodiverse kids.
Amanda: And our guest for this episode is someone I have known and admired for a really long time. Fellow blogger, fellow podcast host, fellow introvert Morra Aarons-Mele.
Gretchen: Morra is an expert in online marketing, and she hosts a fabulous podcast called "The Anxious Achiever" for the Harvard Business Review.
Amanda: Morra also wrote a book that is really near and dear to my introverted heart, "Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You'd Rather Stay Home." And it's an Amazon best-seller.
Gretchen: Last but not least, Morra's married and is a mom to three kids between the ages of 6 and 12.
Amanda: Morra has had her own challenges — as an anxious kid, as a neurodivergent adult, and as a mom — and, as you'll hear, she's someone who's not afraid to get in it real fast. So this conversation may be a little more focused on her journey than the kinds of conversations we've had before.
Gretchen: Morra, welcome to the podcast.
Gretchen: So happy to have you. And I know we gave a little bit of an introduction, but can you start by just telling us a little bit more about what you do in your professional life?
Morra: Sure. I feel like I have a really amazing job. I have actually two jobs. By day, I am a digital communications executive. I actually just sold my business, Women Online, which was a digital consulting firm, to a public relations firm called Geben Communication. And there I act as EVP of social impact and I get to work with lots of amazing nonprofit world-changing clients and create digital communications programs. And then I, as you mentioned, am, geez, I've been a blogger since 2004 or 5. I write books and I have my podcasts. So I get to talk to really smart, interesting people about all matters mental health and leadership.
Amanda: And I know you've described yourself as sort of an extremely anxious introvert, which I totally relate to. Can you tell us a little bit more about what makes you different in terms of how you think and exist in the world?
Morra: Yeah, so, I am introverted, but more than that, I am pretty socially anxious and I have pretty intense clinical anxiety that manifests in many different ways. And I got my diagnosis when I was 19, and I'm 45. I also have major depressive disorder. So, I can alternate between periods of high anxiety where, ironically, I'm super productive and kind of, like, go-go-go. It's not manic, but it's also not far from manic in its look and feel. And then every couple of years, it seems, I will get hit with a pretty strong depression. And that's way worse for me to deal with, frankly, than the anxiety. The anxiety is with me a lot but mostly manageable, but I find depression, even after all these years, just really awful.
Amanda: That is really relatable to me.
Gretchen: I'm wondering, um, how does all this show up in your day-to-day life? Maybe give us a hint of what it was like when you were a student and then now, as an adult.
Morra: Oh, it's tons of fun. Um, you know, I was always a very anxious kid. When I was 3, I had such bad agoraphobia that I wouldn't leave the house. You know, I was always a pretty highly strung, anxious, temperamental, intense child, apparently. And then by the time I got to college, a string of events in my sophomore year set off a really, really bad season of my life, where I had really intense panic attacks and clinical anxiety, and then also severe depression. So, I would say that I sort of learned to cope.
You know, anxiety is really comfortable for me. I don't know if any of you out there can relate to it. Like, in our society, when you're anxious but you can also channel it into your work, you get rewarded, right? It's kind of unfortunate, but it's the truth.
That's why my show is called "The Anxious Achiever," because so many of us have become socially conditioned to sort of throw our anxiety into our work. And it works until at some point it doesn't, and then we really have to change things. So I would say that my pattern has been sort of when I'm in a highly anxious phase, I think it's really difficult to be around me probably.
And my experience of life is very hard, but I'm also very productive and outwardly quite successful.
Amanda: And that's hard in its own right. It's hard to be anxious and productive because sometimes people don't believe you can be both at the same time.
Morra: A hundred percent. And I have OCD, as well, although it's less. But I think that OCD and anxiety — again, not a scientist, not licensed to say this — but my totally layperson's opinion is that very anxious people who are perfectionistic can really get a lot of OCD symptoms, uh, that are not about washing your hands a hundred times necessarily, but are about driving to completion something that may not need to be, and also intrusive thoughts that can really power you forward. And so I find those really difficult as well.
Amanda: Totally. Does that affect how you parent?
Morra: Oh, of course. Right? And it's only as my children are getting older and we as a family are doing a lot of exploring and therapy that I'm realizing that my anxiety totally affects how I parent, and it affects how my children live in the world. I'm really trying to work on that right now, because I think it's one thing for me to try to deal with all of my anxieties and intrusive thoughts and fears, but I don't want to infect my kids. And I'm really trying to work on boundaries while also, of course, modeling to them that feelings are normal and it's OK that Mommy gets sad sometimes and blah, blah, blah. But, like, I want to protect them from my fears in a very strong way.
Amanda: Our household, you know, I think I mentioned this to you, Morra, at one point, that it's like neurons gone wild in our house. We have, we, you know, I have anxiety and OCD and sensory processing issues. My husband has ADHD. My kids have learning and thinking things, are neurodiverse. Do you have a household like that too?
Morra: I do. I don't want to go into too much detail because I think I'm not as far along in my journey, maybe, as you are, Amanda, but, yes, my house is definitely neurons gone wild. Um, and the funny thing is it's all we know.
Gretchen: Right. I'm wondering then, you know, you have three kids, and that seems like a challenge enough. What is, like, a day in the life, or, like, what are some of the typical challenges that you might encounter in your household because of all that's going on?
Morra: You know, I think also the thing that I've realized and the pandemic helped me realize that I'm going to throw in as a layer is that, um, my kids have two very career-driven parents.
You know, we try to be really great parents, but we are very, very career focused. And before the pandemic, we traveled a ton, you know; we've had long periods where we both worked for ourselves, which adds its own pressure. So, there's that. I would say that what has been super interesting over the pandemic is that one of my kids has had pretty severe mental health issues of his own, anxiety and depression.
And so that has been a huge wakeup call for me as a parent, really trying to be super conscious about my own actions and how I parent, as someone who struggles with this.
I also have a kid who has an ADHD diagnosis. He's been diagnosed now for five years. And so, you know, when you have a child who has that sort of diagnosis, you learn to work with it as well. So every day in our house is an evolving circus. I'm trying to keep everybody calm, and that includes Mom and Dad.
Amanda: I'm going to tell you something really personal that, you know, when my husband and I first started thinking about having kids, we worried about how our own differences were going to play into how we parented, whether or not our kids would be a little bit, you know, at the time we were calling them "quirky and complex," kind of, right? Do you mind answering whether or not that's something that went on in your mind, too, when you first started parenting?
Morra: OK. Well, I'm going to tell you something super personal. When I first got pregnant with my first son, I had the worst depression I've ever had in my life.
So, I think we're all pretty familiar with postpartum. This was prepartum. So, it hit me so bad in my first trimester that, like, it was like, uh, the world's coming to a halt in our family because this is a crisis. And thank God I got help. And I would say by the mid-second trimester I was in really good shape again, you know, emotionally and sort of, like, worked my way out of it.
And then when I met my first son, this miracle happened, like I fell in love with him. But the fear of what I had experienced being pregnant with him, I don't know if that's ever gone away, you know, and that experience colored everything. And I worried because my mental health challenges were so strong with that first pregnancy. Would that be epigenetic, like, would that be genetic with all my subsequent children? I've been under a psychiatrist's care. It's been a process now. I love being a mom more than anything else. And I wouldn't, I mean, I had three kids by choice. Like, it's not, it's not even an issue for me, but there is always that layer of, you know, did I make my kids this way? Am I shaping them? How is this affecting them? And I don't know that that — I don't know, is that ever going to leave me? I don't know. And then when my son got his diagnosis, you know, again, it was this moment of, oh my God. Right? We sort of knew that things were needing addressing with him, because he had had a lot of issues in school, but when we got the ADHD and anxiety disorder diagnosis, I definitely had a moment of real questioning in myself.
Gretchen: Well, can you tell us a little bit about the son that you fell in love with, your oldest? What is he like now? What's going on?
Morra: So here's the thing, right? So I'm going to brag, OK?
Gretchen: Please, yes, please.
Morra: He had really wonderful early intervention. So he got diagnosed when he was 8. And being a mom with mental health issues who had been extremely therapized my whole life,
I was like, let's do this, you know? I mean, there was no group we didn't go to. I went for it and I'm so glad I did, because I joke that, like, putting a kid, basically, in some form of therapy, five days a week, since they're 8 years old, can really make a kid self-actualized.
My son is independent. He has incredible empathy. He has incredible social skills. There was a back-to-school picnic last week. And there was supposed to be a parent on-site for each kid — to supervise. But my son was like, "Nope, I'm going by myself, Mom, I got this." He came home. He ordered a pizza. He had it delivered. He paid for it. He took our little cute dog to the picnic 'cause it was outside and he knew that a dog is the best way to meet new people. Like what's better than like, "Oh my God, I love your dog." Right? So he rocks out carrying the pizza and the dog and his little picnic blanket and walks to school and walks to the picnic. And that was it. And I can't even tell you, like, I had this moment where it was, like, my kid is amazing. He's self-sufficient, he's independent, he's solving problems, and he understands, like, how to talk to people in this giant school. Um, I'm going to cry. So it's been such a bumpy road, but I really believe in the power of great adults. And my son has had the best support teams. I mean, I am so lucky. I think he's going to do great things.
Amanda: You know, one of the things that I hear in that story — first of all, as a former early intervention specialist, woo-hoo, yes — go, intervention, for the win! Also, I think one of the things I'm hearing there is that you understanding him, right, because of your own differences and lens on the world, interacts with him in a way, too. Do you think that you have a better understanding — or maybe not a better understanding — of how to parent this child, this wonderful, amazing picnic-going child that you have?
Morra: Well, I mean, I think that one of the amazing things about parenting is that you learn to understand and parent your kids differently, right? Each kid is so different. I think the thing about my son is that we kind of swap skills, because I'm a big believer in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to manage my day and my OCD and all of my issues. I don't have ADHD, but when I'm in a really anxious phase, I get really distracted, and it's really hard to pay attention. I don't know if any listeners out there can relate to that feeling of being super anxious and sitting in front of your computer and, like, your heart is racing and you can't sit still. And like you're not getting anything done, right? Because your mind is an F1 engine. So, sometimes I'm like a person with ADHD, and I need to break things down and schedule and plan and use techniques and breathe and use mindfulness. And so, like, I'm on that journey too. And my son teaches me a ton of things.
Gretchen: Well, Morra, you've brought up things that have affected your life, you know, and are different. So, I'm wondering as a parent then, do you think that makes you better? Does it make you more empathetic? Does it give you more tools? Like, what do you think?
Morra: I, you know, it's, like, I hesitate to call myself a better parent because every day the other shoe could drop, with three kids, but I definitely think that our children, they're nice. They're empathetic. And we work really hard at trying to stop and take other people's perspectives in our family. And I think that that's probably because we all have a lot of feelings that we can just dive straight into. I call it a feelings tunnel, when you're so flooded by your own feelings it's really hard to step back.
This is one of my worst character traits is that, like, I get flooded and I lose perspective. And so I think that, like, we, as a family really work on that. And I have to say that as a result, I think my kids are, like, nice and empathetic in a way, they open to the world. And I'm proud of that. Even if the reason we do it is because it can be a struggle sometimes.
Gretchen: And it sounds like your kids have impacted you, right? And perhaps have made you better in some ways.
Morra: Oh, yeah. And especially my two older ones, you know, they check me. Sort of, like, the, "Not now, Mom. OK, Mom, I've got this. It's going to be OK, Mom."
One of them broke their wrist biking this summer and I, like, oh God, that was really hard for me. And my husband was great too. He was, like, "They're boys. It happens. It's going to be OK." Like, you cannot lock them up forever and not let them leave the house, because of course that's what I wanted to do. So they definitely can be like, "No, Mom, this is what I need to do."
Amanda: That's amazing. It's also interesting what I hear you describing is, it's like the inside things that you do, the flooding and talking about the emotions, you're doing them outside, right? With your family. You're, you're doing it out loud. And I wonder if more parents need to be doing that.
Morra: The flip side is you shouldn't be doing that, right? Because you're putting too much on children, who don't need to carry your crap.
Amanda: That's fair.
Morra: Sometimes. Absolutely. I mean, I will say, and, you know, in full disclosure, I've had therapists very kindly suggest to me, "You have one kid who's extremely empathetic, as you are. He's sort of an emotional sponge. Maybe, like, try to not emit so many emotions." So, I don't know how I feel about that one.
Amanda: That's fair. And I appreciate you saying that out loud.
You know, we started this whole conversation, talking about anxiety. We went in all these different directions, Morra. And I'm wondering if there's something that we didn't ask you that you wanted us to ask you.
Morra: Wow. This is going to sound corny, but it's something I've been thinking about. I'm 45. And while not from a generation where people with learning differences were sort of shamed or punished, from definitely a different generation than now.
And my mom actually tested for IEPs. So, I was immersed. I knew what an IEP was when I was 6. But I learned from the public school system and the amazing educators that, like, there is not shame about this. Kids are so open about their IEPs and their ADHD and their anxiety. I feel like adults need to learn from kids.
When we struggle with our own feelings of either getting our child's diagnosis, that makes us uncomfortable, realizing that we are ourselves neurodiverse and having bad feelings. I mean, when I see kids who I know really well from, you know, having been in the system for so many years, they like themselves. They're cool. They integrate with everyone else in school like it's not a big deal.
Amanda: Morra, thank you so much for sharing such personal stories with us today. I really appreciate it.
Gretchen: Thank you so much for being with us.
Morra: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It," part of the Understood Podcast Network.
Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to "In It" wherever you get your podcasts.
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Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors. Thanks for listening, everyone. And thanks for always being in it with us.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.