Having recently recovered from the flu, I was struck by how sorry I was able to feel for myself. There are some physical aspects of being a mother of young children that do not afford me the luxury (if one can call it that) of being sick. The physical obligation of nursing my baby are real. The night I took ill, I was up four times to nurse her. This was an uncharacteristic number of night wakings for her, but in my less than optimal state it seemed easiest to feed her and return to bed. Upon reflection, perhaps this was the beginnings of her own health decline as the following day she was vomiting as well.
To me the saddest part of being sick is that I can’t be there for my children. Being present but not present was one of the most difficult things to navigate. Although they had been through the same illness themselves, children experience their lives so ‘in the moment’ that they often will forget the fortitude with which illness affects your daily functions. They also do not yet know the idea of having others depend on them.
But there are many things about my role in this household as ‘mother’ that are not true obligations. They are fabricated needs that appear to me to be essential to family functioning. My emotional misery comes when these apparent urgencies go untended when I take ill. The house becomes more cluttered (especially on the heels of an indulgent holiday), the laundry begins to pile up (especially will illness in the house), the dishes pile up and I begin to feel utterly overwhelmed at my incapacity and the growing workload before me.
So for me, illness is not only about the unpleasantries of being sick, but it is also riddled with guilt. In my mind, ‘the mom’ can’t get sick. I feel like things ‘fall apart’ when I’m not able to keep them together. My mind then turns to self-pity, feeling that I want someone to take care of me when it’s my turn to be the needy one. But all this trajectory of thought led me to was a heap of emotional discomfort on top of the physical symptoms I was already experiencing. So why do this to myself? Every time I feel the pang of emotional discomfort, it pushes me to take time for reflection. Why did I need to create this sad story for myself? What exactly were my expectations of others? I think therein lies the problem – my ideals are rooted in expectations of others.
I have created a role for myself in such a way that I can suss out who needs what and attend to it as gracefully as possible. But when this rhythm is turned on its head, what am I left with? An inability to ask for the support I need and a pile of stories I tell myself about how things ought to be. There’s nothing like being sick to make me feel my most vulnerable, and ultimately bringing out the darkest parts of myself. It certainly makes me realize how I take my good health for granted. Now that I am able to gain some emotional distance from the situation, I can clearly see that help was there. My husband did as much as he could with the children and tasks he normally isn’t responsible for after a full day at work. My inlaws also braved the germs to come over and watch the children for a day, so that I could get the sleep my body was craving. I have learned intuitive caregiving through being a mother. It has become part of who I am, so I’m not sure why I feel others should have this same skill set. I can now better understand why many things were not done as I would have done them…because I wasn’t doing them!
While sick, my stories included a sad lyric of self-sacrifice. Yes, there are times when that indeed is part of being a mother, but there are many more instances where I’m inventing that role. So what I’m left questioning after my health has returned is, how often am I telling myself this story of ‘self sacrifice’ when it is not warranted? I’m left feeling that I could open so many more opportunities within myself if I were able to let go of this unnecessary weighty baggage. Mothering is a fundamental reworking of my inner landscape. My children continue to teach me about myself. At least over the course of being sick I have stumbled upon another opportunity for growth. I was pushed into my edges and now realize that I have to press a bit deeper into my stories of martyrdom to try and unpack them.