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The Guilt I Feel as a Mother With Migraines

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My baby daughter had barely been born and my migraines were already interfering. After my C-section I was taken to a room in the maternity ward; there were seven other mums with their babies. It was noisy, as you would expect with eight babies, their mums, visitors and nurses. But what hit me the most was the smell of a beautiful bouquet of flowers on a bedside table. Lilies: lovely scent, but poison for me, as within minutes I started to feel a migraine coming. I asked if it would be OK to move the flowers somewhere else; I explained to that mum that I have migraines and strong smells triggered my attacks. Her jaw dropped and before she had a chance to answer, the nurse said she would take them to the reception area. I will never forget the look of contempt that woman gave me. After all, her beloved husband had brought her flowers and I was ruining it. I felt bad, but on top of my pain from the C-section, did I need a migraine attack?

My daughter is 7 years old now – people say that time goes fast when you become a parent, but to me it feels like the longest seven years of my life. Juggling chronic pain and looking after a baby is no fun. Well, the first part, I mean. When you’re healthy and your baby screams, it’s stressful; when you have a migraine and she cries, it’s like someone sticking a sword inside each of your ears. And if you can’t settle her down, the torture is prolonged – it just drives you wild.

Sometimes you’re doing OK. By “OK” I mean you’re in between migraine attacks – that is, instead of a bomb going off inside your head, you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck the day before. That’s the new normal for you. The fact is that babies scream then too, and so far no one has invented the all-important volume control for babies. At most you could use earplugs, but it’s not that practical. So you just get on with it and grind your teeth. You make sure she’s cared for and happy. That’s what really matters in the end.

Then come the toddler years; I thought it was hard when she was a baby, but this is a whole new game. She starts to walk, and she can reach dangerous places. The most innocuous things at home become a real peril: stairs, shelves, open windows, electric plugs, cleaning products, cookers and taps. I had to keep an eye on her all the time, so the little energy I had was spent figuring out ways to keep her entertained and safe simultaneously. Try to juggle that while you have a migraine.

Taking her to the nursery some afternoons seemed like a good idea. “If I drop her off at 2:00 p.m., I know I can get four hours of work done.” But as I say goodbye, my heart sinks, each time. I tell myself she’s happy, she’s smiling, it’s good for her to interact with other children…but then the guilt-trip sets in: “You could have done more with her in the morning, maybe built a Lego castle, or jumped on the trampoline, or gone and played ball in the garden, instead of sitting on the sofa holding your head while she watched Peppa Pig. You’re not cutting it.” Oh well, I did feed her, I washed her, I gave her a few cuddles and told her how much I love her, but still, deep down, I feel like I’m a rubbish mum.

Anyway, those four hours at the nursery are extremely precious – time to think and get some work done. But as I drive home, I realize how exhausted I am, how I can barely “feel,” let alone think. Maybe I should have a rest. Only half an hour – that should be sufficient, so I set my alarm clock. The alarms sounds off too soon. That half hour only lasts two minutes. Has the clock cheated? I need another 10 minutes of rest and before I know it, I’ve fainted into a deep sleep for over an hour. I wake up in panic, with the dreadful realization that now I have only two hours to do the job that needed four. “How could I waste that precious time?”

Then the big day comes, the day she starts school. She’s so grown up now and looks so cute in her uniform. Where did the time go? I mean…she was just a baby a minute ago. She’s grown fast and yet my daily pain has stretched for decades. I feel like I’m 97 years old. Some days it’s really hard to get up and get her ready for school, as my head has got a pneumatic drill fully active inside. I still do it, and when I come back from the school run, all the stuff I had planned to do gets pushed aside. I go and lie down in a dark, quiet room and hope for the best. Yeah right, as if a full-blown migraine attack has any chance to go away in less than 24 hours. I have been robbed of another day in my life.

Then come all the fun things she likes to do, which are no fun for me. Swimming, for instance. Define hell for a migraineur: take your child to the pool and get four for the price of one: 1) the screaming kids, 2) the smell of chlorine, 3) the light reflecting on the pool and 4) the hot temperature. As if one trigger wasn’t enough. I could only take her once a week for eight months, and that was it. A migraine attack, each and every time. I’m strong, but not a saint. She loves swimming, but I feel like I’ve let her down.

Did I mention the playdates? All children like to go to each other’s house and play, right? We used to do it as kids ourselves, why shouldn’t my daughter have her friends over? Well, not when I have a migraine, possibly. But as I have a migraine on average five days a week, and I don’t know in advance when I won’t get one, it’s kind of tricky to plan playdates. So, we try to stay away from them. Bad mum. You can only let your daughter go X times to her friend’s house before they want an invitation back. It’s only fair. But there’s a challenge: how can I say to one of her friends “come to us next Wednesday,” get both children excited and then cancel last minute because I can barely stand up? There’s when the magic ball would come in handy…

Oh, I forgot the birthday parties. In her class there are about 30 children; say she’s friendly with half of them – that means 15 party invitations a year, which is more than one per month. Sorry, can’t do kids’ parties. That’s another version of hell for a migraineur: music, chaos, food smells or even the effort it takes to talk to other parents. I am very sociable, but when I have a migraine (or am recovering from one on those two famous days per week) the last thing I need is to be in a noisy hall surrounded by lots of people. Not to mention your own daughter’s birthday party. We skipped birthday 1 and 2, but we’ve had 3 to 7 so far, and only on one of them I didn’t have a migraine. The effort it took just to turn up was immense, let alone the organization before. But I can’t let my daughter not have a birthday party if she wants one: on a scale of mum-failure, where zero is total failure and 10 is doing well, no birthday party equals -10.

So, all in all, I feel like a no-fun mum: no play dates, no swimming, no friends’ parties, no going out to restaurants, fun-fairs or cinema (all too loud), no running around in the park. Ah, and since we’re in there, I even manage to ruin most of our vacations, as I get a migraine before, during and after travel.

So, where does this leave me? Am I to be confined to the useless-mum department?

When I have 10-15 rare minutes where my head doesn’t hurt and my brain isn’t full of cotton wool, I occasionally ponder: what does any child need more than anything, really? When you strip it all down and look at the essential? She needs to feel loved and supported. Can I at least do that for her? Normally the answer is yes. I show her my love in the small things, I pay attention to what she has to say and I encourage her when she feels insecure. Last night at bedtime she told me that I’m the best mum in the world. In that moment I forgot about my pain, and I realized that maybe I am not doing that bad.

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Thinkstock photo via Liderina.

Originally published: April 27, 2017
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