The Legacy I'll Leave as a Mom With Hidden Chronic Illness

As I walked my 3-year-old to school this morning, the two of us chatting excitedly, I suspect I looked like any other mom on the school run. Covered by a rain slicker, cardigan, and turtleneck sweater, on the outside I look like your average under-slept parent. But under the woolly winter clothing, another kind of mom is wrapped inside.

I shy away from passing the time talking with other parents because I fear that after a while, I will inevitably mention feeling tired or being ill. If I somehow manage a conversation that does not include a remorseful disclosure about my health, I fear that I may make a new friend who will become frustrated when I cannot commit to play dates or trips out. If I do make it for a coffee or chilly visit to the park, eventually the activities wear me down and I know at some point I will have to explain.

There was a time when a younger version of me vowed not to have children. I didn’t want to pass my uncertain health legacy onto someone else. My mother had passed hers to me unwittingly at 23 years old. She went on to lead a life engulfed in anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and finally, isolation. I look back now with empathy on a woman who struggled in ways I could not have understood as a child. Those memories are illuminated by my own experience as a chronically ill parent. I know now she did the best she could, as I do.

What I hide under layers of winter clothing and in the warm and unconditionally loving arms of my little boy is a coil of conditions and symptoms. While they seek to tighten their hold on me each day, I struggle against them. They whisper dark possibilities: mycolonic jerks at the grocery store, sudden pain on a walk out, or embarrassing brain fog creating awkward pauses and forgotten names or details.

Despite their warnings, the voice of my strength beckons to me and reminds me that I am not their prisoner. My mother’s struggle and my own has given me perspective and made me more brave that I could have imagined. It has taught me that perseverance aids survival and I have so much to survive for.

Little boy looking up at the sky in wonder.

I walk home with my little boy, the sun on our backs in the afternoon, and I feel optimism wash over me. I know that despite my chronic struggles to maintain mobility and health, I am providing my son with a framework for building his own inner strength and developing empathy through my experience. My mother didn’t have the tools when I was young to openly share her own struggles and help me understand her and them. I feel strangely blessed by my circumstances and how they help me to plant the seeds of empathy and compassion with my son.

My gift to my son will be to teach him that what we may see on the outside isn’t the entire person. We are more complex than our appearance. My wish for him is to suspend judgement, extend compassion, and spread understanding. He has a great teacher, if I do say so.

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Photos by Duncan Cowley

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