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When My Son Reminded Me Why 'Sick Mommies' Don't Need to Feel Guilty

Mommy guilt… I think we’ve all felt it at some point!¬†Mothers with chronic illnesses may have an extra layer of Mommy Guilt: We feel guilty about our illness and wonder how it might¬†be affecting our children’s well-being.

This Mother’s Day, I want to encourage “sick¬†mommies” to remember: We still have a lot to offer our children!

I hope my story strengthens your spirit.

Sometimes I get lost in grief, when I think about the type of mother I can no longer be.

Before, I was an active and sociable mother.¬†I went on long walks with our little man almost daily. My survival mantra? Get out of the house in the morning! While our son¬†tirelessly climbed and swung and slid at the playground, I would chat with the¬†other moms. We’d have a laugh and moan about the “joys” of motherhood: the¬†sleep deprivation, the toilet training, the vomit episodes, the public tantrums.

It was so therapeutic! We’d share snacks and lend baby wipes. We’d laugh at the¬†cute things our kids said and did. The camaraderie buoyed me in those first years as a mum. And all those sunny days I spent outside with our little boy… Some of the happiest days of my life.

three photos side by side of a mom with her son
Ruth and her son.

Before, I was a working mother. Returning to¬†work part-time when our son was a toddler gave me a sense of accomplishment,¬†and even (dare I say it?) freedom. Who would have thought that going to work¬†could feel like a welcome break?! But I still remember the thrill of seeing the¬†little guy again at the end of the day. Bliss‚Ķ Pudgy fingers reaching towards¬†me as soon as I enter, like petals opening in the sunlight. I’d grip him in a¬†bear hug until he could hardly breathe, overjoyed to see him again. My work also¬†supplemented our family income. The five-year plan was to move to a “family home”¬†once child number two came along. So much for that plan! I got sick two weeks¬†before our second child was born. Oh, how “our future” has changed!

Now I’m a mother who spends most of her time¬†at home. Alone. Resting. Carefully pacing my physical and cognitive activity in¬†order to maintain homeostasis. Do too much and I can be sick for days,¬†sometimes weeks or months. The social isolation has been perhaps the most¬†grueling aspect of life with a debilitating neurological illness. Typically I¬†am brimming with motivation, but I lack the physical capacity to do the things¬†I love. When I am well enough to¬†briefly leave the house, there are no outwards signs of illness. I look fine!

Understandably, it’s very confusing for people. They say well-meaning, “encouraging” things like, ‚ÄúYou look well! Are you getting better?‚ÄĚ I suppose¬†it’s a bit like a battery that’s flat: Put it next to a fully charged battery and there’ll be no visible difference. It’s not until you try using the flat battery that the difference shows. At a glance I look well; spend an hour or two with me and my illness shows.

Now, I’m neither a stay-at-home mom nor a¬†working mom. I’m not even capable of being a proper housewife! Oh, how I mourned this loss of identity in the early¬†days of illness. My husband, and the kids’ grandparents, were burning¬†themselves out while I lay in bed longing to be more “useful.” An aching, toxic¬†guilt slowly smothered my spirit. Having¬†our kids spend most of their time away from me was certainly not part of the plan.

I yearned to spend time with them, like I had with our son when he was small. I¬†even missed the less-pleasant tasks we used to do together, like grocery shopping! Lying alone in an empty home day after day, being sick year after year, I felt cheated. This illness was stealing from me the precious years-you-can-never-get-back¬†of their infancy, and I was powerless to change it. I think I’ve cried just as many “separation anxiety” tears as our kids have, at daycare drop-off, since falling¬†ill! My tears have just been less public.

mother's day card made with buttons
A Mother’s Day card made by Ruth’s son.

But something beautiful happened last Mother’s¬†Day, something that soothed my grief. It was a real turning point for me. Our son brought home a handmade Mother’s Day¬†card from daycare. My heart throbbed when I read its sweet personalized message,¬†dictated by our little boy (who indeed loved long cuddles on the couch) and¬†typed by his caretaker.

What unexpected joy this simple statement brought me! And what a relief when I remembered: No other woman loves our two kids the way I do. I am their one and only Mommy, the woman who cherished them before they were even born.

I realized something else: I’d been allowing a¬†sense of inadequacy to cripple my confidence. And that toxic guilt steadily gnawing¬†away my joy? I saw just how unnecessary it was ‚ÄĒ I hadn’t chosen to be sick! Gradually,¬†and with professional help, I was able to acknowledge the terrible reality of my¬†losses, while also gaining a new perspective on my “new” life.

So, yes, our children do have a sick mother, but¬†they also have a mother who loves them with her whole heart. She may not be¬†with them all day, but when she is with¬†them, they get cuddles and kisses galore from a mommy who’s relishing these early¬†years ‚ÄĒ when kids love all that attention! A mom who makes them feel cherished¬†and wanted‚Ķ What else does a small child need?

Our children have a sick mother, yes, but¬†they also have a mother who always aims to be consistent and “present.” She has¬†set up morning and evening routines at home, to help the kids feel secure.¬†She comforts when they’re frightened or sad; she coaches when they’re angry or¬†sulking; she lets them be silly and totally wild sometimes. Yes, it’s done in¬†very small snippets, usually from the couch or the carpet where she’s reclined,¬†but that’s good enough. A mom who does all she can to meet her family’s¬†emotional needs‚Ķ What else does a small child need?

woman lying on couch playing with toddler daughter
Ruth and her daughter.

Our children¬†have a sick mother, yes, but they also have a mother who seeks help when “believing¬†in herself” and “positive thinking” simply aren’t enough. Life will throw many¬†challenges at our two children ‚ÄĒ life does that to every human being!

I hope our¬†children might be strengthened by my example. No, it’s not the example I would¬†have chosen. Before getting sick, I wanted to be the hero of their story. I¬†wanted to model a¬†strong work ethic and an active lifestyle. I wanted our daughter to see in me a¬†woman being more than “just” a wife¬†and mother. Well, that’s¬†no longer the example I can set ‚ÄĒ I’m not even in¬†the running for the Superwoman or the¬†Supermom titles!

But I can¬†still be an example to them. I can model one of the most valuable truths in¬†life: We don’t thrive on our own strength alone; we thrive in community. These¬†days I’m a person who must rely on others to get through daily life. But isn’t¬†that true of us all to some degree? We just may not like to admit it!

With help¬†from family, friends, and workers in our local community, we are thriving as a¬†family despite my ongoing illness. A community of people working together, and weak-but-strong¬†role models… What else does a small child need?

So, I may not be the active mother I used to¬†be, or even the independent mother I wish I could be. But I do know this: I am the mother our kids need me to be. And¬†that has made me tearfully glad this Mother’s Day.

“My mommy is the best because… ‘She makes me happy when I’m sad.¬†She gives me cuddles.’”

Our daughter is now old enough to understand Mother’s Day for the first time.¬†I read that sweet quote in a daycare “learning story” just before publishing this post…¬†What a perfect ending!

Follow this journey on Fruitful Today.

The Mighty is asking the following: Are you a mother with a disability or disease? What would you tell a new mother in your position? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.