Sharing my thoughts about Mother’s Day on Father’s Day. I am doing my final revisions a month later, with a toddler sleeping in my lap, at midnight. That is motherhood, folks.
This post has been challenging to write. I have come back to it several times over the last month and it keeps expanding and evolving. I wanted to make it more positive, but Motherhood is complicated and difficult, and so is life in the outskirts of Cancerland. I am struggling with my role as a mother lately. It is hard to admit, but I don’t really like it and I am not doing the best job. I seem to have lost some of my maternal instincts despite currently raising a 1.5 year old and a 3.5 year old. I will take credit for all the care I have put forth as a mother, nonetheless. I have committed more time and energy to them in a few years than anyone or anything else in my lifetime. But cancer has transformed my love for my daughters to something fierce and distant. I don’t have time, patience, and energy for smothering sweet and gentle anymore. It is an often thankless 24/7 commitment and I do not do it alone. The designated day to honor us mothers is a spotlight that feels both too bright and not bright enough. We are doing the basic and ordinary, but we are raising up the next generation of human beings! Bear with me through this drawn-out entry.
I am both more aware of, and less concerned with holidays since cancer. They help me measure time and my experience, reflect and remember what I have been through, and be grateful that I am still here. I care less and less about what I am supposed to do on these days, and more and more about what I want to do. What is it really about for me and my family? Gifts are nice, but I don’t need flowers or candy to feel loved on a prescribed day. I prefer an opportunity to spend time with the people I love or have an experience that I enjoy. Considering my life revolves around these 2 small people, I have to prioritize myself more in order to be a better mother to them. I have to take care of myself in order to take care of them. I now often choose time and space, without pressure or expectation, to decide what feels right in the moment. Sometimes that is rallying for a family adventure or a meal out on the town, and other times it is being alone to tackle everyday stuff without distractions.
I want to focus on the positive, to celebrate every occasion possible, because life feels more precious and fleeting in Cancerland. After being at my absolute low after surgery a year ago, I appreciate how far I have come, yet I am still not where I want to be. I am caring for my children largely on my own these days. I am living a seemingly “normal” life, but my body and mind are damaged. And I don’t like the obligation to be grateful for every little thing, every minute and hour and day. Sometimes I want to complain and yell and hide. I want to blow it all off. Sometimes I want to be lighter. I want to skim along the surface and not feel jaded or anxious or limited. Cancer is heavy, especially in the company of other younger women diagnosed with babies/young children. Last month cancer killed a few moms in my online support group. One had been struggling with aggressive metastatic disease from the beginning. Another with intense pain through a recurrence for (only) a few months, despite new lines of treatment. And the other was gone in half that time, before they could even start to address her recurrence. To witness Mothers suffering through debilitating treatment and then still being taken from their children before they can walk or talk is a simultaneous punch to the gut and heart.
So, for Mother’s Day this year I did a lot of reflecting. I felt grateful to still be here with my family, but also a bit guilty. Like why do I deserve to still be living and they don’t?!? Like I am doing a shitty job in this role and they probably appreciated it all more than I do. I thought of these mothers torn from their young children, still in diapers. Of how their families must be feeling and the logistics of them carrying on. Of what it would be like for my children and husband. Who would step into my role? Would my girls remember me? These are not pleasant thoughts, but also necessary. That is the reality I live in now. Plenty of serious things to think about that you don’t really want to think about. I am well aware that people die all the time, especially in Cancerland, but that doesn’t make it easier. That doesn’t make it fair. Would it feel better if they were in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s? Probably not. But it seems less cruel to have that much more time. My father died from cancer when he was 44, so with his day nearly upon us, I wonder if I will make it 7 more years to that age? On one hand that sounds great, and on the other, a super lame deal. What would it take to negotiate 20 more years, minimum?
My struggles with this disease have weighed me down, and so they have weighed down my mothering. To the point that I don’t feel like celebrating at all. My goal is neutral and realistic, to minimize the damage. The best I can do much of the time is live in the distance I have put between myself and my children. In the midst of major treatment, it was a physical limitation, but since diagnosis my emotional distance has continually increased. I have become a frustrated, impatient and angry person where I used to be adventurous and easy-going. The motherhood part is where my guilt creeps in. I love my kids, and I want them to feel safe, supported, and cared for, but my girls drive me crazy. I often find myself stuck in a loop of “I can’t handle it!” and “Give me some space!” Like I can’t wait for their father to come home. Rotating between saying NO all the time, or Yes, just eat ALL the cookies and watch ALL the Octonauts. I hear myself yelling and I don’t like it, but there I am.
It is easy to get stuck in the muck. To hold onto the negative, the shortcomings. I know I am being hard on myself, but I also want to do better. I love my kids and they have a comfortable life, but I want to be remembered as loving and kind, not grumpy and impatient. I apologize to them when I make a mistake and explain my frustrations, I just wish there was less of that. We spend plenty of time playing and cuddling, yet I want to increase our positive interactions. I want to do more and be more for them, even if it will make it harder when I’m gone.
Last year, for my first Mother’s Day with two children, I was most definitely stoned. A ghost of a parent. While I was feeling better than I had anticipated, a couple of weeks out from my mastectomy, it was not easy or fun or pretty. I was certainly not responsible for anyone other than myself, and not even that. It was a haze of lingering discomfort like I had never experienced before, except maybe childbirth, and then only vaguely. I had only used pot a handful of times previously (it is legal in my state, FYI), but recovery from major surgery seemed the right moment to really give it a try. I wanted to minimize the use of prescription painkillers because, side effects. I didn’t want to take drugs with my drugs just so I could eat or use the toilet. But then, medicinal marijuana can have its own drawbacks. Like, I passed out through my third Mother’s Day. I remember laying in bed with my girls in the morning and lots of giggling. Then feeling self-conscious about what I was saying and tingly all over. That’s it, done, whole day gone.
For my fourth Mother’s Day this year, I was glad to sleep in and wake up to an empty house. I have spent the better part of the year between the two holidays recovering my motherhood. As I completed treatment and recovered physically, it was a serious effort to make my way back to being the primary parent again. This Mother’s Day was my first feeling like I could own my part as a full-time mother to my two young kids, and with that, acknowledge I needed a break. There was no one I needed to care for and vice versa. I enjoyed doing chores and working on my ceramics in peace. Finishing a cup of coffee while it was still warm. Preparing some food for myself first, and eating sitting down. It was lovely to relax into a little piece of normal adult life that is often lost in motherhood and now even more cherished in Cancerland. And while I appreciate breakfast in bed or a gift certificate, what I need most these days is time and space to remember who I am. The whole me. The person I was for 33 years before I became a mother, and the 35 years I lived without cancer. To find balance between my life before and after both.
Motherhood is amazing and fulfilling, but it is so hard sometimes. Even harder than cancer. The physical and emotional work of parenting is consuming under the best of circumstances, then Cancerland makes it much more intense. With “No Evidence of Disease” I have a cushion, but it could be pulled out from under me at any time. While I am dramatically more capable than I was a year ago, I still don’t have full range of motion in my left arm or shoulder. I have persistent swelling under my left armpit that is often uncomfortable. My rib cage on that side is tender and sore. I am menopausal and take medication daily that make me stiff and moody. Recurrence is a real and regular worry. I worry about being sick, about having to be back in treatment, about dying, and more so of the toll that will take on my family, my children. Then again, Cancerland has enabled me to make and take time for myself, and to let go of a lot. I am going out with friends and running errands alone. I am not worrying so much about the small stuff, like apologizing for dropping my kid off late to preschool or letting her eat cookies for breakfast. I am not ashamed to have unwashed hair, the same outfit for days or that I wanted to spend Mother’s Day away from my kids.
No matter the daily challenges of life with kids after cancer, it goes on. I continue trying to celebrate everyday in some way. Sending love, patience, gratitude and strength to all the mothers out there feeling inadequate or struggling while doing the best they can. You are not alone.