Sick As a Mom

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos Getty Images

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I’ve spent a lot of this year having to explain to my two young kids that I — my body, my health — have limits and then navigating our relationship around those limits. Most recently, I’ve spent the past month or so in bed or housebound, dealing with a vicious infection that has included a nasty fever, chills, and the kind of wet cough that makes you feel like you’re drowning from the inside out.

At first, the kids and my husband were sick too, so we built a nest of blankets and pillows in the basement and comforted ourselves with movies and silly cartoons, until one by one everyone got better … except for me. Remaining in this state of illness, in a place where I’m forced to operate on a lower frequency longer than the rest of my family, has forced me into a different parenting mode, one I’m realizing might actually have a lot to offer me in both sickness and health. Did I mention I’m nine months pregnant, too?

Back in late spring, seven weeks into my pregnancy, hyperemesis hit and I was throwing up all day. I have vivid memories of having to push my kids out of the way so I could vomit in the toilet as they were finishing up in the bathroom. I felt like a ghost in the house, barely present those many weeks, just trying to keep enough food and liquid down to avoid the hospital. I maintained as much of our normal routine as I possibly could and quickly explained it all away with “This is just what happens to Mommy!”

Then, midway through the pregnancy, there was an issue with my placenta. I was placed on pelvic rest, including not lifting anything over 20 pounds, which mostly meant my own kids, who are 6 and 3. It was horrible having to deny them basic things I used to do before — even something as simple as carrying them to bed or getting them into their car seats — but I was really open about what could happen if I didn’t follow these rules. Not only could it hurt my body now, but it could potentially hurt the baby, causing early-term bleeding. I wasn’t sure if they’d registered the reasoning, only the disappointment, until months later when the issue had cleared up and I’d resumed my usual activity and offered to carry my son to bed one night. He jumped back and said, “Mom, you can’t carry me, you’re not allowed!” The tenderness and concern in his voice made me grateful I’d been so open with them about not just what I couldn’t do but why. Rather than creating barriers between us, being honest and vulnerable actually improved the way we talk about our bodies and how we’re feeling in them and how gently we treat one another.

Farrah, mother to a 4-year-old, has been in treatment for breast and cervical cancer for the past year. Over the weekend, we chatted about how what parenting looks like, for her, has naturally shifted over the course of her treatment and how it’s been an adjustment to figure out what works not just for her family but for her idea of what it means to be a mother. “Being a parent, especially as a woman of color and queer, brings so much pressure to be ‘good,’” she told me. “What happens when, all of a sudden, many of the ways you showed up for your kid have to stop because you are sick?” Part of the adjustment has meant relying more on the community she and her partner have built and actually accepting help. “I had to know that trusting other people to care for him was being a good parent,” she said. But the most significant change for her, and for her son, has similarly been communication. “I had to realize that being a good parent for me was not hiding that I was sick but finding language to talk to him about it,” she said. “I have surgery coming up, so we talk a lot about which side he can hug mommy on, where the hurt is and how the doctor is fixing me up.” For Farrah, the past year has shown her how much the full picture of parenting matters in these moments, and how much the trust she’s nurtured for years affects them both. “He won’t forget our love just because, for a year, I have not been able to get out of bed, take him to the park, or be the first person to kiss away his hurt,” she said.

In the past, I might have allowed guilt, instead of my own body, to dictate what I was capable of. I would have forced myself to continue doing as much as I used to despite knowing it would prolong my recovery or make me feel worse. It would have led to resentment and exhaustion, but I would have told myself, That’s what parents do. Over the past month, though, I’ve found ways to keep as much of our normal schedule as possible without making things harder on myself. I brought our bedtime stories to my bed, reading with the kids where I was comfortable until my husband took over and finished their nighttime routine back in their rooms. We love this new ritual so much it’s now replaced what we used to do.

At every stage of recovery, I’ve been as transparent as I can be about how I feel and what I can do, and the kids have responded with empathy and understanding and we’ve found ways to manage together. I usually would do morning drop-offs and be up and running through the morning chaos with them for two hours. Suddenly, I had to find ways to be present for them in the mornings without doing everything, which forced them both to become more self-sufficient and independent. As I get better, they check in and ask if I’m still sick, if they can help, and that support has encouraged me to take as much time as I actually need to get better, rather than rushing through recovery and willing myself to do more than I can. It’s made me question how much harm I’ve caused myself by giving into shame and guilt rather than communicating my needs and my limits.

Guilt in parenting, especially around how much we can physically do, is hard to let go of, an incredibly sticky thing to manage. So much of how we see ourselves as parents is tied up in what we can perform that setting boundaries, even just temporarily, can feel like failure.

Though my physical state is in flux — again, nine months pregnant here — these months have shown me how little it matters that I put on a performance of infallibility for my kids. Seeing me as a vulnerable, honest person who has limits has helped them grasp how we all function together, as a whole, not just as parent and child. In fact, in many ways, admitting out loud what I can’t do has helped me understand just how much I’m capable of as a mother.

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Sick As a Mom