Read an Excerpt
Cereal for Dinner
Strategies, Shortcuts, and Sanity for Moms Battling Illness
By Kristine Breese
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Kristine Breese
All rights reserved.
Adjusting to the News that You're Sick
We've all heard the numbers — one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the U.S., and 75 percent of individuals who contract multiple sclerosis are women. And while you may have heard the news, written the checks, and participated in the walk-a-thons, nothing can prepare you for the shock of actually becoming one of these statistics. This is especially true when you're a mother and in the prime of your taking-care-of-everyone-else years.
You're so busy getting everything and everyone to the table you rarely get to eat before your food is stone cold. Your only time alone is when you're on your way to work. You can't even sit on the toilet or take a shower without being interrupted.
This is a mother's world.
That is, until a doctor tells you that you've got a serious, debilitating, or potentially fatal condition, and you need to start thinking about yourself and your health full-time. Not only are you scared, you literally can't see how this is going to work. How will things possibly go on without you at their center, keeping it all together?
You're so concerned about everyone else that you hardly have time to be frightened, at least at first. You ask, "Who's going to take care of the kids?" before you consider "Who's going to take care of me?" You think we'll see when the doctor suggests a series of tests and appointments, and wonder who'll drive car pool and address the Christmas cards.
That's what it means to be a mom.
Whether we've been sick for years or are confronted with a sudden health crisis, whether the diagnosis comes quickly or after prolonged testing, we move almost immediately from grappling with what the illness means for us to worrying about how our illness is going to impact and inconvenience others.
I can't get sick, everyone is counting on me, we tell ourselves. Although what we need to realize is that now "everyone" is counting on us for something entirely new — they're counting on us to take care of ourselves.
While my first conscious thought after collapsing in the bathroom was about making dinner, when it happened again six weeks later, the first thing on my mind was exercise.
I had just been resuscitated after my "strikingly positive" tilt-table test and my cardiologist was explaining that my very serious condition could be taken care of by implanting a pacemaker to help regulate my heartbeat. As he began to talk about my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, I had only one burning question, which I blurted out.
"Can I still run?" I queried. Running was something I'd been doing since joining the track club in eighth grade.
"Yes," he replied. "Lots of my patients with pacemakers jog and even run 10Ks."
Thank God! I thought to myself. And it wasn't so much that I needed to run — I simply need to know. And when he answered in the affirmative it was like a promise — a promise that my life with a pacemaker would bear some resemblance to my life before.
In our culture, "sick" means weak, dependent, and needing to take care of oneself. "Mom," on the other hand, is synonymous with strong, independent, and taking care of everyone else. Sick people are all about tests, doctors' appointments, MRIs, and missed days at work. The two have nothing in common. In fact, it seems to us that they can't coexist.
But the fact is, moms do get sick, moms like you and me, and society has given us few tools to deal with the dichotomy of this situation.
So we have to come up with a few of our own.
What to Do Right Now
Understand that "sick mom" is not an oxymoron. You can take care of yourself (you have to) and still care for others, but to do so, you must learn to recognize your needs and know when to put them first.
Remember the directive given by flight attendants when discussing proper use of oxygen masks in an emergency: "If you are traveling with a small child, secure your mask before helping with theirs." The point is, if you don't take care of yourself first, you won't be able to take care of them.
Know that you won't be able to do this alone. You are going to need shoulders to cry on and people to rely on for everything from rides to the doctor to help with a big project at work. Start thinking about what you need and who can help.
Swear off guilt and see that your inability to carry on "as usual" could be the beginning of something new and positive. Really. Everyone (friends, colleagues, even your kids) will be able to adjust to the changes that are inevitable when you get sick. Can you?
"Sick Mom" Is Not an Oxymoron
The first thing we have to do is understand that "sick" and "mom" aren't incompatible terms or irreconcilable realities even though it feels that way — especially at first.
The problem is we really have no experience being sick. Sure, we've been hit with all the bugs kids bring home from school, but we call that getting sick and we rarely let that slow us down. Indeed, it takes something more than a scratchy throat to keep us home from work or looking for someone else to pick the kids up from school. Getting sick is about bad luck, being sick is about choices.
Being sick means letting yourself miss a deadline, go to the doctor, and maybe even take a nap. Being sick means being unreliable or even unavailable. And this, we moms seem to think, may cause the earth to stop turning — or at the very least, homework assignments will be missed, beds will go unmade, and there'll be hell to pay at the office.
So don't be surprised when you find this adjustment difficult. This is all new stuff. For some of us it may be as hard as grappling with the news of the illness itself. So much of our self-definition may be wrapped up in our unmatched ability to do lots of things for lots of people, when we're forced to cut back or slow down, it shakes our very sense of who we are. Paula Spencer, a columnist who writes the "Mom Next Door" column in Woman's Day and is a contributing editor at Parenting and Baby Talk, had this to say in her November 2002 Woman's Day column entitled "Mommy Fatigue":
I see too many mothers — good mothers — who put everybody else first, always. They have no interests that are not child-related. They claim they have no time to take care of their bodies ... They confuse selfless mothering with good mothering. Motherhood is not supposed to be so all-consuming that it chews a woman up and spits her out dull, soft, empty and exhausted.
What you learn when you get sick is that even mommies don't get any guarantees. You probably knew that, but in the back of your mind thought, If anybody deserves a guarantee they're going to be okay it's a mommy, but mommies get sick just like anybody else. — Jennifer
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my immediate thought was No, I'm not going to have cancer, I am not going to die. My first thought was No way, my kids aren't through with me yet. — Mary Ellen
After my accident, I basically lost a year out of my life. I was in bed for months. I had a live-in housekeeper cleaning my house, cooking in my kitchen, and driving my son wherever he needed to go. She even slept in the guest bedroom upstairs while I was in a rented hospital bed downstairs. Talk about feeling bored, useless, and unmotherly. — Sue
I was very aware from the beginning of the huge logistical turmoil caused by my back surgery. I was in terrible physical pain, but as soon as that subsided, and even sometimes in spite of the pain, I was in emotional turmoil because all I could think about was that I was unable to do all my normal stuff, the stuff everyone counted on me for. — Andrea
I had a hysterectomy and three weeks later found out I had breast cancer. Yes, you can say I was shocked, but I didn't dwell on that long. There was so much to do, to figure out, both about my health and who was going to watch the kids while all this was going on. You couldn't stay in panic or shock for very long because certain things just had to keep happening regardless of what was going on with me. — Jacqueline
Because our lives as mothers are so full of doing — doing the laundry, doing the dishes, doing the right thing — we come to think of ourselves as a collection of activities and accomplishments rather than an individual who needs to be nurtured just as much as we need to nurture.
The folks at the FAA must have had mothers in mind when they drafted the directive that instructs adults to secure their own mask before that of their kids in the case of an emergency. While our instincts when flying on a distressed airplane might be to grab the mask and put it first on our child, there's a chance that would take too long and then we would be at great risk and potentially no help to anyone on the plane, including our child. But while it's common sense, it contradicts a mother's instincts about how to react. Could we really do as instructed when push came to shove? Can we do this when our health is at stake?
Many less serious analogies teach this same lesson. Would you set an empty pitcher before a group of thirsty kids on a summer day? Would you begin a long road trip with your tank on empty? Of course not. Your pitcher and your gas tank would be full. Well, how full is your pitcher? How much is in your tank? Mothering requires a constant exertion of energy and emotion, but we often forget to rest and replenish. And when we're sick, this is serious business.
When dealing with health and sickness, life and death, it's more than just a figure of speech that you can't take care of others if you're not taking care of yourself. For in matters of health, conditions left untreated typically worsen. Whether it's ignoring a scratchy throat and pushing ahead with an overscheduled weekend, or rescheduling your mammogram because your daughter's teacher has asked you to decorate the classroom for Valentine's Day, mothers ignore the small signals, warning signs, and preventive measures at their own peril.
Here, the heart can be a great teacher.
Did you know that before the heart pumps blood anywhere else, even the brain, it feeds itself? It's as if the heart 'knows' that it won't be able to take care of the rest of the body if it doesn't first take care of itself.
As the "heart" and center of most families, moms would do well to do the same.
Gabriella knows she sometimes has to wait for mommy if she wakes up early and I am too tired to get up yet. She also knows that I can't run about getting her breakfast together until I give myself my shot. Sometimes she has to wait for me — not something three-year-olds are always good at — but she is learning that it's not something mommy can ignore. — Melissa
It sounds so funny to admit it to someone else, someone who doesn't live with diabetes like I do, but sometimes I have to take food from my kids or have the only granola bar if there's just one left and I know I need to get something to eat quick. Now that they're older, they understand. I'm usually prepared, but they know that if I ask, it's serious. — Darcy
These lessons came the hard way for me. Again and again, first as a young grad student, then a newly married career woman, and then, finally, as a dozen-balls-in-the-air working mother of two, I collapsed, "recovered," and went on as if nothing had happened.
So while I was thinking that I was doing what everyone needed me to do — that is, earning a paycheck, volunteering at school, getting dinner on the table — I was ignoring the only thing that would end up really mattering: my health.
If Jenny hadn't been there to call 911 and set into motion the process that eventually diagnosed and treated my condition, I might not be here. And while anyone can go to work, help out in the classroom, or shop for linens for the dorm room, no one can love my kids like I do. Thinking I was helping them grow, I might not have lived to see them grow up.
This is a central lesson that other moms learned as well and shared with me when we spoke.
I had an interesting experience when I came home from the hospital. I couldn't walk. I had to sit on the couch for pretty much three weeks, and I remember very clearly sitting there watching my family life happen as if it was someone else's family. The dinner and the table-setting and the chores and whose job it is and who gets the backpack down and the homework folder, all that stuff happened without me. And then I realized they don't need me for that stuff. It was a big epiphany for me that for lots of this stuff, anybody can do it — but what anybody can't do is love them and teach them what I want to teach them and convey the values that I want to convey. I was stressing over the stuff that anybody can do. — Jennie
You Won't Be Able to Do This Alone
Once you've recognized that the important distinction between what you need to do from what can be easily done by others, you're on your way to getting help and feeling better. The fact is, if you try to do this alone, you'll slow down your healing. It's as simple as that. If you've struggled with being Superwoman or Supermom, maybe you can use your illness as an excuse to bid her farewell.
The oft-quoted adage that "it takes a village" definitely applies here. In our scattered and hectic lives, we don't often feel the sense of community that was so readily available when society moved at a slower pace. Getting sick puts the brakes on, or at least lets us downshift for a while. And in that slowing down, community reappears, connections are made, and help arrives on your doorstep.
We'll talk more later about figuring out what you need and how to ask for it. But I promise that you're already surrounded by all the help you need. Your only job is to ask for it and get out of the way so it can materialize.
I found that my friends from all the different parts of my life — college, work, the kids' schools, dog-walking friends, neighborhood friends, you name it — they all found each other without me doing anything. They'd all talked and put together a plan to help me before they even knew who was who. — Cathy
When people heard what had happened, they just started coming out of the woodwork, people I knew, people I didn't know, doing all kinds of things for me. It was amazing. — Andrea
The help, asking people for it and receiving it — that's something I swore I would never forget. Asking for help is hard, but you have to do it. — Marty
When I got sick, I had a full-time job caring for my daughter, taking care of the house, everything that goes with that. Suddenly, those became my part-time jobs and getting better was my full-time job. I needed other people to help me with everything else. — Paula
What About the Kids?
I know your kids are never far from your mind and even while you're open to all this good take-care-of-yourself advice, you really want to know what you're going to do about the kids. I understand. Part II of this book is all about that, but let me make one critical point here. The most important thing you can do for your kids is to be good to yourself and honest with them. Think about what they need to know, what they can understand, and then think about how they may respond. They are going to be worried about your health and, depending on your illness, wondering "Are you going to die?" And once you've handled the most emotional topics, they're going to want to know who's going to pick them up from school when you're at the doctor, how long they're going to have to stay there, and what will be for dinner when they get home. Sound familiar? You're going to need love, wisdom, and courage for the first part, and your cadre of helpers for the second.
Catholic and Jewish comedians joke a lot about growing up in a culture of guilt, but as a group I don't think anyone is more guilt-ridden than moms. We try to do it all and when we can't we feel bad. We're first-rate caretakers but we rarely give ourselves the same care we bestow on others. When we have to slow down, cancel commitments, and upset the family's routine because we're sick, we feel awful. This has to stop. You might have to miss an important deadline at work. Your son might have to play with his less-than-favorite friend after school. Everyone will have to eat the meatless lasagna the church ladies brought over even though it doesn't look like the stuff you make. And your job is to not worry about it.
Trust that your kids will adjust and your friends will be glad to help in any way they can. Nip the guilt in the bud because your job is to stop worrying about them and start thinking about what you need to do to get better both physically and emotionally.
Excerpted from Cereal for Dinner by Kristine Breese. Copyright © 2004 Kristine Breese. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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