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My Child and My Self

Self-care while parenting young children can be complicated.  I've experienced this myself on a variety of levels throughout my son's first three years, and especially in the last month or so, when I began to buckle under the weight of a systemic illness brought on by a cracked and abscessing tooth. (Gross, I know.  Just yucky.) I've been kicking myself again a second time around for not taking care of myself...something I had control over, and could have prevented... I found myself heading into that tailspin of self-blame and negativity.  But perhaps I should be a little kinder to myself.  

I recall the woman I chatted with on the elevator of NYU's Langone Medical Center (the same one that was just evacuated after Hurricane Sandy) when my mother was in ICU this summer.  This woman's son had collapsed on the plane to his family vacation-- his plane had to be diverted to Cancoon-- and now he was in the ICU at a hospital at home after suffering from a bleeding ulcer.  A CEO or lawyer type, and father of young children. "Is his job stressful?" I asked.  She nodded. Poor guy's room in ICU was right next to the new elevator bank the hospital was building, where he had  to endure a constant, loud pounding noise.  My mother was in the other wing where she didn't have to hear that noise, but she was still having a time of it trying to overcome her illness.  Health complications can happen not only in parenting but in life, and the world and fate don't always collude to create a speedy recovery.  

But when you're down as a parent, you have to worry about your kids seeing you down.

I've had some health setbacks recently that have really challenged my ability to be a good mother.  My facade of wellness started crumbling. I found myself tired, short on patience, unable to filter out pain that a child shouldn't have to witness.  I heard myself saying things like "Mommy isn't feeling well."  Often. Every time those words landed on the air, I was appalled. What happened to the mom who wanted to protect her son from hurt? Why couldn't I just fake it, damn it?  I've heard my voice going up an octave in exasperation with my toddler; I have wept in front of him harder than I've wept since my sister died, when my son was just a baby and too young to remember; and I have watched my three year old taking on the role of caretaker as he brings me his stuffies to comfort me, or presses his soft cheek against mine.

When I was a kid, my dad was sick, and I watched him deteriorate until he finally died when I was eleven. I know how deeply it effected me, and undermined my self esteem, to lose him after watching him succumb to the ravages of illness.   

It has always been my goal to give my child a greater sense of security than I enjoyed when I was small.  

As his primary caregiver, I am his world, and I need to be whole and strong for him.  But maybe I need to pull away in small ways, in order to be able to be there for him in big ways.  I need to carve out the space for myself to go to the dentist and the doctor, and to create income that will ensure our future security.  If I want to be able to keep chasing him around the playground, and have choices in where he goes to school or whether he wants ice skating or violin lessons, I need to  find a healthier balance between kid time and me time. Otherwise the scale will tip and we'll end up ont he wrong side of happiness.

"What happened to you Mommy?" my little one asked as we pulled out of the driveway to head back to the dentist's office. It was my third time there in a week, and my child's second time coming with me.

I explained to him that I had a problem with my tooth, but that I would be feeling better soon.

"Are you feeling better?" he asked when I came out of the office a little while later.

I was happy to tell him that I was.  

But I sure hope we don't have to go through anything like this again for a very long time. 





Rachael, don't you think it is good for a child to learn to empathize? Tooth pain is not manic depression or alcoholism or slow growth cancer. All children must come to understand that the world does not revolve around them and that adults are vunerable.There is a "teachable" moment here for all of you.


Rachel Dowling's picture

Thanks for your comment, imawriter2.  I agree to an extent. But I think it can be traumatizing for children to see their parents suffer. We are mirrors for them, and when they see us hurting it effects how they see themselves. That is true especially for children of parents with chronic or terminal illness.  I think empathy comes mostly just from being loved and having a strong parent-child bond. When they receive love, they want to give love.  But if they are well bonded and secure kids, I guess they have the resilience to handle some hardship.