It’s one of those parenting clichés that tends to ring true, especially during cold and flu season: “Moms don’t get sick days.”
I remember the first time I got very ill after my first child was born. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed, turn off my phone, and sleep for the entire day. But then, the realization dawned on me that I was still going to need to nurse my baby every two hours, then burp him, change him, and do it all over again throughout the day — no matter how bad I was feeling. After all, most moms (whether our kids are still babies or not) don’t have someone we can call to fill in for us so we can stay in bed and rest. But what about the mom who is sick every day?
Last year I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an auto-immune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues and joints. Along with daily pain and debilitating fatigue, it also causes me to run fevers and constantly feel as though I am coming down with the flu. To add insult to injury, the medications most often used to treat RA are immunosuppressants, and come with a daunting list of warnings and possible side effects.
Facing a chronic disease has opened my eyes to the mothers everywhere who are living with an “invisible illness” every day. The difference is, when I would get sick prior to my diagnosis, as difficult as it was — it was only temporary. But when you live with a chronic illness, you almost never feel “well” or “healed.” Some days are better than others, but you never know how you are going to feel at any given time.
And we moms, especially, are good at hiding it. Most of the time, you won’t be able to tell if a mom is suffering from a chronic illness. We get good at putting up a tough front, but we do struggle. You may see us at the park, where we may be sitting on the sidelines rather than playing alongside our children. Sometimes we cancel plans last minute, or come up short in one way or another. But we are doing our best.
We are learning when to push through, and when to show vulnerability. Our kids are learning to have empathy for others, and how to become more independent when Mom can’t be relied on to do everything that she was doing before she was diagnosed. It can feel soul-crushing to see yourself through your children’s eyes when you witness them noticing your deficits, but then they say or do something thoughtful and caring, and you realize that this may actually be helping them to become wonderful humans.
I have three sons, and the other day, my youngest turned five. It had been a very stressful week leading up to the big birthday, and I could feel that I was pushing my body too hard to get everything done on time. Accepting that my body does not work the same way as it once did has been difficult for me, so I just kept pushing through, determined not to let it slow me down.
Then, eventually, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Multiple joints in my body began to throb and ache, and I got to a place where I couldn’t walk and even vomited a few times from the pain. This is an RA flare, and it’s brutal. Fortunately, my husband was able to step in for me, but my thoughts immediately went to single mothers living with pain and chronic illness — what do they do in these circumstances?
My sons are sensitive towards me, which always warms my heart while also making me a little sad because they don’t like to see me in pain. I try to keep a lot of it from them, but I am also honest about what is going on with me.
“Mom, I wish there was a hot tub for you to get in tomorrow when we go swimming,” my middle child told me the night of my flare. We had planned to visit the local aquatic center the following day as part of the birthday celebration. It was just one of the many, many, times my boys have surprised me with their thoughtfulness and empathy. I guess that’s the one thing I am grateful for in all this: that my boys will grow into men who understand that the challenges people face are not always visible from the surface — and that how we treat each other matters. We are all facing battles whether they be physical, mental, financial, etc. What’s important is that we keep going and doing what we can to help each other.
Moms may not get sick days, but we are all trying to find balance — whether we have a chronic illness, or face any number of other unique challenges. What we really need is a little grace for ourselves, and from others. Accepting our limitations is not a weakness, but rather an opportunity to teach our children more about what really matters.
Here are our top tips for traveling with a chronic illness, according to women who’ve been there.