There are many women in my BAYS support group who are mothers of young children. A common thread of conversation tends to be not so much the logistics of this, but the emotional force and impact of being a mother who is ill. It is not only the first consideration when debating treatment options and the primary worry when thinking about being even temporarily incapacitated, but it dictates how we let ourselves process the experience. One woman at a recent meeting—her first—said she came prepared to cry because she hadn’t let herself do that at home, not wanting her children to see it. A friend of a friend told me she never let her children see her even once without a wig. Afraid, overwhelmed, mothers want to shield their kids from anxiety and the brute force of strong emotions—but this comes at a great cost. I don’t think it does us or our children a service to maintain this veneer of invulnerability.
From the beginning, we spoke to our children very frankly and directly about my cancer and about what they could expect to happen. Nathan, almost eight now and relentlessly inquisitive, has asked constant questions, “How did you get this? How long will you be in the hospital? Are there any other side effects of chemo that you haven't told me about?” Still a preschooler, Theo's understanding is more limited to the practical effects, “Who will pick me up from school?” and “If you had an operation on your chest, how do you eat?” (It seems he thought I’d been cut in half at the level of the upper torso). When I first came home from the hospital after surgery, they relished finding ways to be helpful; they even gave me a whistle to blow from bed if I needed anything, and when I blew it, they would come running (“I really should've gotten one of these things earlier!” I thought).