When My Daughter's Ballet Teacher Gave the Pre-Surgery Talk I Couldn't


As a mother of two children who live with chronic illness and hearing loss, I’ve become somewhat of an expert at compartmentalizing my feelings and suppressing my emotions. During times of crisis, such as a new diagnosis or surgery, I’ve learned to just put my feelings aside and push on through whatever it is that needs to be done. I call this survival mode.

Let me give you an example.

Have you ever had one of those weeks when you’re preparing one of your children for an upcoming surgery and you get an email from their teacher who “has some concerns she needs to discuss with you”? And your other child becomes ill with what might be strep and you have to find the time to take to him to the pediatrician just in case he needs antibiotics so your child facing surgery doesn’t get strep too?  But secretly, a part of you sort of wouldn’t mind if your “surgery-facing child” got strep because then you could put off surgery a little longer? And for a moment you’re actually thinking about “accidentally” giving your surgery-facing child the cup their ill sibling just drank from, and then you begin to feel really guilty because you don’t want either of your children to have strep and you know surgery is for the best, but you still don’t want to go through with it, and every time you think about sending your baby to the operating room, yet again, you feel as if you’re going to vomit? 

That’s a little taste of what “survival mode” is like. 

Sometimes I’m afraid that living in it is robbing me of my ability to feel.   

This was never more clear to me as it was one Saturday morning when I took my at the time 11-year-old daughter Shea (pronounced Shay) to her weekly dance class. Earlier that week we learned Shea needed to undergo brain decompression surgery for chiari malformation. This wasn’t her first surgery; she was born with multiple congenital conditions which have required ongoing treatment and/or monitoring. In fact, just three months earlier, she’d had surgery to release her spinal cord, which was tethered (Tethered Cord syndrome).

Shea looked forward to the annual dance recital. She was always excited to pick up her beautiful costumes, and she would put them on in her bedroom and hold her own dress rehearsals. This year, she would perform a ballet and jazz routine. But surgery was scheduled for only five and a half weeks before the recital, and I knew there was a good chance she might not be able to perform at all. The doctor said that depended on how Shea felt. The time came to order costumes and I hesitantly put down the $50 deposit for each of them. Shea was determined to perform, and as her mother, how could I not back her up? I wasn’t going to discourage her in any way and marveled at her strength and determination. 

About two weeks before the surgery date, I approached her dance teacher, who was aware of our situation, and I asked her how things were progressing. She kindly stated that because some of the girls had a more difficult time than she expected learning the jazz routine, they were behind on learning and practicing the ballet routine. Shea noticed us talking and slowly walked over. 

I asked her teacher, “Is it a realistic goal for Shea to learn the ballet routine in two weeks well enough for her to be able to perform it during the recital?” She shook her head and kindly stated, “No, she is going to miss too much of the instruction. But the good news is that she has the jazz routine down so let’s just plan on that one.” As the tears begin to stream down my daughter’s cheeks I said, “Shea, come on, be tough, you’re going do the jazz routine, and it will be awesome! Let’s focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.”

She began to sob and I said, “Shea, come on kiddo, be tough OK? You are tough.” 

But before I could continue what I’d truly intended to be a pep talk, her teacher spoke up and said this:

“No, it is OK to cry, and it is OK to be sad that you’re not participating in the ballet performance.”

She put her arm around my daughter and she again stated, “Shea, it is OK to cry and it is OK not to be strong. It is OK to feel whatever it is you are feeling.” 

In a single moment, I went from Survival Mode Mom to feeling as if I was the worst mother in the world. I realized I was projecting my tough girl, Mama Bear emotionless self onto my 11-year-old child, and I was expecting her to just plough on though this disappointment with no emotion, just like me. As my own eyes filled with tears I looked at my daughter’s teacher and I said, “You are right, thank you for reminding me that it is OK to feel. It is OK to be sad, and we do not always have to be strong.” 

Shea and I moved to a more private area of the studio and I took her in my arms and through my tears said, “Baby, I am so sorry, your teacher is right. It is OK to feel disappointed, sad and scared about this surgery and all of the inconveniences it is causing. I feel all of those things too, but sometimes I don’t show it because I want to be strong for you and Daddy and your brother. Shea, I love you and I am here for you if you want to talk about how you are feeling. You do not have to be strong all of the time, and neither do I. Shea, it is OK to feel.”

And as we held onto one another in the quiet corner of the dance studio, both of us crying, that is exactly what we did… feel.

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