Picture a mother. She is steady. She is sturdy. She runs to her children and scoops them up when they fall. But what if she can’t?What if she isn’t steady at all — if there are days when she is flat on her back in bed, yelling to her children not to spill the cereal they have to eat for dinner?
What if that voice coming out of her mouth doesn’t sound like a mother’s at all: not patient, not kind, not gentle? What if it sounds nothing like her own, the same way her body feels nothing like her own?
What Is Mothering in Pain?
This is the reality of my motherhood journey, and many others, though you would never know. So few of us speak about it. We don’t walk up to moms on the playground and ask if they, too, live with chronic illness or chronic pain. We’re tempted to — at least I am — when I see another mom grab the small of her back a certain way, when I notice a wince as she settles against the wooden slats of a bench. I’m tempted to say, “today is a tough one, they won’t all be this bad,” when I see another mom close her eyes, just for a second, before she manages to stand up.
But I don’t. Because I am constantly on guard against mom-shamers, and terrified to be vulnerable. I stay quiet because in outing myself as a woman with chronic pain, I feel like I need to be a warrior. And sometimes, the only war I can manage to fight is the one my body wages against me.
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This has been my reality for my daughter’s entire life, and I have gathered a few insights along the way that I hope will help other moms in pain, and those who want to understand us a little better.
Let Go of Expectations
Mothering in pain means finding rhythms and routines that are different from all the expectations I had about what a mother should be, what my life should be. Sometimes, letting go of these expectations feels like the hardest part. On my best days, I can say it’s humbling to realize that all of the carefully arranged plans vanish in the sight of a flare-up. On my worst days, it feels like another disappointment.
It hurts to disappoint my child, to tell her I can’t pick her up, to tell her I can’t drive her to an activity or cheer for her at a game. But then something else happens that defies expectations. I get to watch my child develop empathy and resilience.
She is discovering, at a young age, that she has the power to help herself and others. She is learning strength and patience. She is realizing that not everyone is the same, not every experience is the same, and love and support can live in the same place as pain and difficulty. She is learning that we are all in this together. And I am learning those lessons right along with her.
This kind of shared learning only comes with open, honest communication. Moms, please know, it is ok to let our children see us when we are weak.That way, they can see that, even in our weakness — even in our pain — we love them, we protect them, and we support them. Our children do not always need to be strong, and they should never feel like they need to navigate their emotions on their own.
They should never feel like they are responsible for our pain in any way. Check in on them. Ask them what makes them feel sad or frustrated. Be ready to listen without judgement and without guilt. Then talk together about the best path for them to feel taken care of, loved, and supported.
Build a Network of Support
This means calling in reinforcements. The reality for moms in pain is that we aren’t always able to be physically present for our children. I try my best to mitigate those disappointments by gathering family and friends who can help when I need them. This starts with creating plans and inviting children to be a part of the process.
Then I release myself of the guilt. This is a tough one for all moms, but say it out loud: asking for help is not admitting weakness. It is not giving up another piece of ourselves after we feel like we have already lost so much. Asking for help is modeling strength and trust for our children. It shows them that we all have the power to help each other, and that sometimes, it takes just as much strength to ask for help as it does to give it.
Look for the Good
Recently I realized that my daughter has been absorbing all of these lessons, and that she is doing so with a confidence and a resolve that I am still struggling to find. On the way to school, she noticed that I was having trouble walking and she slowed down her stride and started to rub my back. She did this without missing a beat in our chat about friends, and plans, and the book she had finished reading the night before.
As we approached the corner, I noticed another parent from her school and I worried what they would say, worried what they would think – why was my daughter rubbing my back? Wasn’t I the mother? Shouldn’t I handle everything and make everything perfect? She noticed me noticing, as children so often do, and she went right on rubbing my back.
“It kind of hurts today, mom, right? But this will help a little.” And it did. In more ways than she imagined. At a time in her life when gossip, and cliques, and the opinions of others are coming at her in full force, my daughter didn’t let anything stop her from sharing a little love, a little empathy, and a mountain of much needed support.
I am not grateful for chronic pain, and I would not wish it on anyone. But I am deeply grateful to know that the strength of a mother’s love, and a daughter’s, is far greater than the challenges we face. And far more powerful than I ever expected.
Do you have experience dealing with chronic pain as a mom? How have you coped? Please leave a comment on this post and tell us your story, if you’d like. And just know that you are not alone.
Elizabeth Eames is a writer, communications consultant and coach who has been helping entrepreneurs, small businesses and non-profits tell their stories for over a decade.
Liz lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and daughter and has a master’s degree from Fordham University. Her writing has appeared in business magazines and a variety of parenting and business blogs.
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