Thursday, March 8, 2012

What It's Like To Be A Mother With Cancer

Having cancer has changed just about everything about what it means to me to be a Mom.

There are the more obvious, expected changes of knee dropping gratitude that I get to have these small people in my life.  When the definition of 'forever' suddenly changes on you, and you realize you may not have all the time that you thought you'd have, gratitude for what I do have is more powerful, more meaningful, than it ever was.

I find myself  watching them play, overcome with awe and their mere existence.  How is it possible that they are even here?

Before cancer I would have moments like that, but they were fleeting and they weren't felt all the way deep down in the core of me.  And the moments of annoyance, irritation or frustration far outweighed the moments of awe.  I mean far outweighed them.

I can only think of one time in the past two months where I got really angry, and it was because Finn had dumped toothpaste all over Greta right before bedtime.  Getting angry in that circumstance is good parenting.  I used to get frustrated if they didn't move fast enough to get in the car, if they made a mess while they drew, if they bickered over some imaginary game they were playing together.  Basically, I was a Mom who was 'short' most of the time, now that I can look back at it objectively.  Having to fill a long Sunday with no plans was a chore; I would lie in bed with a pit in my stomach and think, how am I going to get from one end of this day to the other?   Now, that same Sunday is a gift.  Pure and simple.

I am also more of an absent Mom.  Maybe that is why it's easier for me to have patience when we are together, or at least part of why.  I was determined that my kids wouldn't have to endure a sick, sleeping Mom more than they absolutely had to.  It brought back too many horrible flashbacks of a sick Mom who slept all the time because she was hungover.  I didn't want my kids to go through that again.

I'm lucky to have help; my Mom comes almost every day, and we have a fabulous sitter who shows up after school everyday around 3:30pm to get the kids off the bus, get their homework started, play with them when they are done.   I am upstairs napping every day from 3:30 to about 5pm.  I need a big morning nap, too, from about 9am to 11am.  My body is so slow to recover from the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation (although no slower than most, I'm told this fatigue is normal) that I need this much sleep during the day - plus a full ten hours at night - for me to function.

This means I spend a lot of time upstairs listening to my kids play with other people - with my Mom, the sitter, Steve.  I lie in bed and hear their giggles as they tickle each other, their shouts of triumph when they figure out a homework problem, their smack talk as they play their favorite game - Stratego - all without me.  Nowadays when they need something, they are more apt to call for Dad, or Mimi (my Mom) than me, even if I'm sitting right in front of them.

I try to make sure I sit around the table with them every night for dinner, even though I can't eat, so I can hear about their day; much of which transpired right beneath me as I slept.  They babble on about doing things I used to do with them.  Every now and then Finn will thoughtfully cock his head to the side and say, "Don't worry, Momma. You can play wif us again when you're done wif the cancer."

The thing that amazes me the most is that I'm not resentful or angry that I can't be with them more.   I think it has been good for all of us to have me not be the focal point of everything.  A lot of my previous anger and resentment came from having to be in the middle of everything, all the time ... from being the Keeper of All Knowledge, whether it was where the socks and shoes are, to where the dentist's office is - all this information was packed into my head, alone.

Now Steve can do all the things I used to do.  And more.

The kids are more autonomous without me running around behind them all the time, pretending to let them do everything on their own but basically leaping in every time they didn't do something fast enough, or to my liking.  They are much more independent, and because of this their self-confidence has never been higher.

The old me (or at least my perception of the old me) would have had a hard time letting go, I think.  I had a love/hate relationship with being the center of it all.  It gave me a sense of being needed, for sure, but that was purely for me, really.  It held the kids - and Steve - back, because they could never do anything as well as I could, or at least that is how I made them feel with my constant corrections, or jumping in and doing it myself.

At the end of the day, when the kids plop on my bed and we read stories and exchange back scratches, I am moved almost to tears (and sometimes all the way to tears) at how lucky I am, how blessed we are.   I do have moments when I wish I could be more present for them, but I know my job now is to heal.  I can't do it all; I never could.

Being sick has taught me to stop trying to be everything to everyone, to do it all.  My little family is far more capable than I ever gave them credit for.

In the darker moments I'm glad for this, because - God forbid - what if they have to learn to do it all without me?   I expect to fully recover from cancer; I hope and pray everyday that I do.  But it's such an odd thing to sit and watch Finn - his little face screwed up with concentration - put his shoe on all by himself and think: good job, kid. There's one less thing you need me for.

I can't help it; that's where my mind goes.  I'm able to move past the darker thoughts, eventually, but sometimes when I'm lying up in my bed, trying to nap, all I think is "I have cancer.  I have CANCER."

That's part of my reality, too, one that I may never fully adjust to.  But I'm trying.


  1. (((Ellie))) My sister's recovery from radiation was much as yours is going. She was very tired for what seemed like a long time, and then she got better. Healing thoughts for you, I'm glad you're making yourself rest like you need to.

    It's amazing what our kids and husbands can do if we just let them, isn't it? I have struggled the same way you have with letting go, not criticizing, and learning that they can do it just fine without my hypersupervision. This was a lovely post, thanks for sharing it with us. Glad you're writing. :)

  2. Oh my gosh! I have been taking a much needed break from the blogging world but I clicked on your site & saw this & my heart just breaks for you! I'm sorry to hear about your having cancer. Your post really spoke to me because I completely know how you feel/felt about being the center of your family's world. I feel exactly the same way sometimes but I agree with you in that I sometimes think I put myself there. I am working harder to remedy that. I will pray for you & keep you in my thoughts! Take care!

  3. Beautiful, Ellie. You're amazing, I have no words *hug*

  4. Your honesty is beautiful, wishing you many wonderful times ahead.
    Your words have struck such a chord with me all the way here in Austrlia x

  5. " I can't do it all; I never could. " Wisdom through experience.

    Letting go of the need to control everything about my loved ones' lives has been the best thing that has ever happened in my life. The realization that I could let other people be who they were and choose what they chose without me feeling threatened ... was life-changing. I had to be driven to it by sheer desperation... but it did happen and I am grateful for it. If I could change anything I think it might be to have come to this realization many years ago, when my children were as small as yours are now - to spare them the pain of feeling inadequate, helpless, worthless. Fortunately, God has restored our relationships and forgiveness reigns.

    If the cancer (I would prefer to think of it as being in the past tense) gave you this gift of learning to let go while your little ones are still little - to celebrate their successes instead of stepping in to fix every little thing - then it has fulfilled its purpose in your life and it can NOW LEAVE. The lessons it has taught you .... (sadly) very few people have the opportunity or the willingness to learn. Although I know you would rather crawl over a mile of broken glass than go through it again - I believe you consider yourself extremely blessed to have had this opportunity to live in deep, abiding gratitude.

    Thank you for sharing those lessons with us. They mean so much.
    YOU mean so much.

  6. You know Ellie...nobody ever goes there until they have to. I mean really...why would you ever want to. You've handled this chapter of your life with the grace and dignity and beauty that has made me love you.

    Everything about your cancer experience has been so good for you and your family. There is now a deep level of gratitude that all of you have - Steve now has a level of understanding and gratitude for all you do as a mom and so do your kids - they have a love and appreciation of who their mom is. But none of us ever go there until we have to. We get so caught up and distracted with CRAP in our daily lives.

    You inspired me to get off my @#$ and get in for a physical and mammogram. I haven't had one in over four years and finally I thought, with the help of your words in your blog, "...this is STUPID."

    You are such a blessing to me. You will beat this cancer and healthier days with energy and gooey cheesy pizza are to come.

    Hugs and love and healing prayers to you always,
    Atomic Momma

  7. Love this post. I'm all teary and emotional thinking of all you go through, and how I have been that mom before, the critical complaining grumpy momma, much more often lately than I used to be. Thanks for a little perspective.

  8. Keeper of All Knowledge

    Oh, this was a good reminder for me. I need to think about letting go here more often--giving my family a chance to grow without me hovering and fixing and scheduling...and...resenting at times.


  9. This makes me want to be more present in my own children's lives, so thank you for that Ellie.

    I love how you gave us so much insight into what a day is like for you and your family and I can totally relate to being the keeper of all of that information about the kids, etc.

    I hope you had a good day today, Ellie. Much love and hugs...


  10. Oh Ellie - this insight. Wow. So awesome. Again and again I'm learning from you. Through this cancer thing. Really? Do you have cancer? That is so weird I can't even believe it. Still. But wow - I read this and I learn. I'm home with my kids now. Not working and believing that I am getting things back in order at home. Like only I could "get things in order." Such bullshit. I'm gonna remember this tomorrow when we start a new day. The self-confidence that comes from letting them figure shit out, make mistakes, and move forward. Awesome.

    Thinking of you so much and CA '12 is so underway. Looks like last weekend of Septmeber 27-30th. Much more on that sister...keep resting and healing....


  11. This was beautiful. Thank you for sharing and reminding us all how easy it is to fall into the role of being the Keeper of Knowledge. And holding my kids back by my "corrections". And being a 'short' mom.

  12. Thank you for this piece. I can't tell you how many times I snap at my son for completely insignificant things. Sleep as much as you need to sleep. It is your body telling you what to do.

  13. Oh sweetheart. I love you. That is all.

  14. Yowza -- I see myself in this -- this description of "short mom" and holding on to the idea that only I can do it fast enough, right enough, etc. When I've had to step back, I am always amazed at how they manage just fine without me and end up as proud of themselves as I am of them. Thank you for sharing this, Ellie.
    As always, it is so good to "see" you here. Thinking of you. Lots. And often.

  15. Beautiful thoughts. I love your gratitude for both the small and the big things. It so encourages me. I get what you are saying about trying to adjust to the reality of having cancer, but, I remember saying to myself "I have CANCER" and it NEVER really did sink in. I just couldn't wrap my head around that. Was it denial? Maybe. But then, eventually, I didn't have to accept it, because it was gone. You "have" a family, you "have" a home. You "have" friends. That's what you HAVE. Cancer is more like that unwelcome guest that comes over to stay with you awhile, always outstays it's welcome, makes you miserable with it's presence, and to everyone's relief, finally gets up and leaves. Don't forget that. Like all unwelcome guests, sometimes you think, "they'll never leave." But take heart... you know what remains... what you really have. You do have ALL the time...since what you have is right now and what you have is timeless.

  16. So much love to you, Ellie.

    (A lesson in every word. That's how I feel reading your posts. Thank you for that.)

  17. Ellie,

    Your post spoke to me so deeply. Thank you for this gift today. Sending loving and healing thoughts in your direction.


  18. This is profound enlightenment. Love to you, Ellie, and thank you for writing.

  19. I have a 3 year old daughter and have just been diagnosed this month with breast cancer, stage III. Two days ago I began chemo. I'm terrified about how to mother my child while also going through the steps of healing myself from this cancer. Your post cast a ray of light in this direction and I think you for the simplicity with which you wrote it. Beautiful. Best to you and your family.

  20. Hold tight to your faith. Fear is your worst enemy. I didn't have cancer but my son did...which was, I think, almost the same as having it myself. Fear clouds your judgement. Prayer plus family and real friends can help you through this time.