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What Baking a Cake Taught Me About Being a Parent With Chronic Illness

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I made cake this past Memorial Day. I had planned to make either jelly-filled cupcakes or a mostly-from-scratch two-layer cake with strawberry and whipped cream filling. With my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flaring, I made a last-minute decision to make something involving a little less time standing. I started with a blue velvet box mix, hacked the heck out of it — milk, vanilla, mayonnaise, extra egg — plopped it into a 9×13 glass pan, and into the oven it went.

Once it was baked and cooled, I left it in the glass pan, frosted the top with whipped cream frosting from a tub, and got out the sprinkles. My 9-year-old daughter Amelia and I proceeded to make cake art. Red and white (and pink — there’s never enough pink) on top, with blue on the side. The result? My family gobbled it down like they’d never seen cake before.

After being reasonably well controlled for a couple of decades, my RA has been back with a vengeance the last few years. There are days I can barely make it to the bathroom, let alone think about cooking something. Before my daughter was born, I’d be upset on the days I truly felt the “chronic” in chronic disease, but I could sequester myself away until I felt better, and my husband could fend for himself. Once Amelia came along, the RA ratcheted up again, and I started to see myself not for the loving mother I could be, but for all the moments I had to say no. Things other parents take for granted, like playing on the floor with their baby or taking the stroller out for a spin around the neighborhood, either didn’t happen or were abbreviated versions of what I thought I ought to be doing.

I have spent several years forming a progressively worse image of my worth as a wife, and especially as a mother. I view myself almost solely in terms of all of the things I can’t do. I get worried that if I’m not like those awesome moms who can balance 1,000 activities a day, Amelia will wish she had another mommy. On my worst days, I’ve crumbled and tearfully apologized to my family for being less than they deserve.

The funny thing is neither my husband nor my daughter have ever given me any reason to feel like a failure. In fact, they are my biggest champions. They see me for who I am, and they know how hard I push to accomplish everything I can for them. It turns out the only person who thinks I’m not good enough is me.

Homeschooling Amelia this past school year has allowed me to more completely appreciate how amazingly intelligent and creative she is. I have also seen how tough she is on herself. She is a 9-year-old me. I, of course, know what she should do. It is so much easier to see things in other people and guide them than it is to help yourself. I could have adopted the “do as I say, not as I do” stance and been minimally successful in convincing her to give herself a break. Instead, we spend time talking about how demanding we be perfect and viewing ourselves as the sum of what we are unable to do is hurtful to us both.

Talking to Amelia openly and honestly about both my struggles and my efforts to deal with them has helped her view herself in a more positive light. I suppose the ultimate stand against perfectionism is owning who you are, warts and all, and striving to be the best version of yourself that you can be. She is trying her best to embrace that message, and it shows. I’m so proud of her.

Rheumatoid arthritis and depression often go hand in hand. Over the years, I have sporadically tried antidepressants, only to drop them if I didn’t feel better (or especially, if I did). What I hadn’t tried was therapy. So now, I am doing both. Every person’s approach is individual to their needs, but I’m hoping this combination helps me. I’ve also started taking my own advice. I apparently kick butt, but I have been too busy putting the spotlight on what I saw as failures to notice.

That said, I am very much a work in progress. I still have times that I long to be someone who doesn’t need to worry so much about pacing myself and prioritizing what really matters. There are still those moments when even though my body says stop, my brain urges me to keep going, and I end up in pain. I don’t think progress is ever a straight line. It is a road with the occasional speed bump. As long as I’m not defining myself by the speed bumps, I’ll be OK.

I could have made the two-layer, filled, decorated cake from scratch yesterday, and it would have been marvelous. And I would have been unable to move for three days. Luckily for me, my husband and daughter reminded me that they just wanted cake. Not fancy, tall, professional cake, although that would have been fine. Just cake. It was delicious, and as a bonus, I was able to walk the next morning.

Originally published: June 20, 2021
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