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).
Their initial anxieties seemed to center around the hair thing. They really didn’t want me to lose my hair, and really didn't want anyone to see me bald. When I cut it short and dyed it blonde (then various other shades) in preparation for chemo, it was in large part to destigmatize this for them. “What color should we dye it this week?” I would ask.
By now, it’s remarkable to me how completely unfazed they are about my baldness. Wig, hat, or bareheaded, they don't bat an eye. We’ve been spending time at various pools (wherever sun can be found) and they've expressed zero reticence about my exposed state. While in Southern California, my four-year-old niece walked in on me unexpectedly one day and said, wide-eyed with shock, “How did you take your hair off? I’ve never seen a human take their hair off before!” When I was amusedly relating this story later, Theo jumped in and said, in an ultra-blasé tone, “Doesn’t she know it's just a wig?”
But it’s more than just giving them information, more than just realizing they can adapt. I tell them when I'm just too tired, or when I'm feeling down. I let myself cry in front of them. I don't want to overwhelm them, but I think it's important to let them know these emotions exist. An early childhood educator I know said to Micah and I that we should reinforce for them that “everything will be OK.” I respectfully disagree. I want them to feel safe, to feel loved, to know that they will be OK, and they will be taken care of no matter what. But not everything will be OK. Some things have changed and will never be the same. I want to acknowledge that, while still affirming that we will adapt and recover. Otherwise, if we just mask our emotions and pretend everything is OK, how will they learn what it means to face challenges and deal with them? If we put on a facade of normalcy, when they can sense all the cracks anyway, we’re conveying that it’s better to stifle our emotions than communicate them.
As an analogy, I read an article about a study about parental discord and it's effect on children (I can't remember where, or I would link to it), and it said that the kids with the best outcomes weren't the ones in households where parents never fought, nor obviously in ones where the fighting was abusive, but in ones where the parents could argue and the children could see them resolve the issue in the end and make up. They were learning how to fight, how to keep it within boundaries, how to regain equanimity. If parents never let kids see this, or if they never got to this end point, anger and resentment and aggression remain baffling and uncontrollable.
In general, all of us parents, struggling with the myriad challenges and losses of complicated living, shouldn't underestimate our children’s capacity to discuss and process the hard stuff. Some things we ought to shield them from, but not everything. Just as it’s true that if we don't let them take risks, we inhibit the development of their own capacity for independence, if we don’t show them that we feel deeply, we’re not conveying that there’s a way to move through those emotions.
One day in the aftermath of surgery, Theo went to his preschool teacher, sat in her lap, and asked if she would give him a hug. He wanted to be squeezed really hard, “because my mom can't squeeze me hard right now.” As heartrending as it was to hear that, I was also happy that he was able to recognize what he needed emotionally and to ask for it. I considered that a victory.