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My Chronic Migraines Changed Everything I Knew About Parenting With My Partner

I tried not to think about it. But the invisible grill roasting my brain was making the pain hard to ignore. I knew what came next. My nausea would kick in, vomiting would follow, and the pain in my head would rise so high that the tiniest sound or smallest sliver of light would feel like a medieval torture device. The only way to survive without a trip to the ER was to stay in bed until it was over — 36 hours later. While this description may sound like an exaggeration, it’s not. It’s a migraine. Now, the hard part—telling my husband I had one.

Sitting across from my husband, I was quiet. Weekend lunch dates were such a rare occurrence as the parents of a 4-year-old that I tried to keep the conversation going and laugh at all his punchlines. I wanted him to feel we were connecting — but really, I just wanted to disconnect my head from my body. I’d taken my prescribed relief medication hoping it would relieve me of my migraine, but no such luck. The hot twinges in my head were cutting deeper so I reached into my bag to pull out my sunglasses. When my husband saw this maneuver he sank into the booth — away from me.

While I might be one of the 28-million women in the United States who suffer from chronic migraines, right then I felt completely alone. Migraine disease is one of the leading serious health problems affecting women. But when I mention I have migraines, many still explain to me how to get rid of my bad headache. Yes, I’ve tried taking a hot shower, two Ibuprofen, and many yoga classes. And, no, this hasn’t helped because a migraine is not a bad headache but a complex neurological disorder.

After years of doctor’s appointments and unexpected appointments with our dark bedroom, my husband knows how debilitating and unpredictable my head can be. But my migraines have changed us. Admitting that I had a migraine would alter the course of our day for the millionth time. My husband would be asked to change his plans and step into all the parenting roles for our son — a deal neither of us had officially made.

My husband knows how debilitating and unpredictable my head can be. But my migraines have changed us.

When we first talked about planning our family, I offered to put a career I loved on hold to let my husband have his. “I’ll do it. I’ll stay home,” I said. This seemed like a shockingly traditional move for my feminist self, but I was surprised to discover I was looking forward to days of diaper changing emergencies and baby drool. So, I’d do it. I’d take on the primary caregiver role.

I briefly wondered if this decision would change us. Until this point, our marriage hadn’t looked stereotypical. No gender stereotypes cluttered our counters. In fact, I had big feelings that marched me out of kitchens and moved me away from vacuums so I wouldn’t feel stuck in an outdated female archetype. The good news: my husband vacuumed better than I did anyway. So, in love with this plan, and with our expectations firmly set, we went about starting our family.

The plan worked okay — until it didn’t. Two years into being a stay-at-home mom my hormonal migraines moved from episodic to chronic. When my boiling brain became a daily event, I couldn’t be that full-time parent, and my husband got stuck in full-time resentment. During a migraine attack, I’d cry myself into worse pain because I’d failed us. I had mom guilt, wife guilt, and all the guilts because the family identity we created was falling apart.

Many migraine days, I tried to power through my pain, but I also depended on my husband’s flexible work schedule for help. The problem was he couldn’t depend on me. I watched my husband’s disappointment increase with each migraine attack. My chronic condition was kicking our parenting plan to the curb, but his heartbreak went deep. He became a master at the cold stare and bickering was a regular occurrence. Was I shattering his perfect family ideal?

During a migraine attack, I’d cry myself into worse pain because I’d failed us. I had mom guilt, wife guilt, and all the guilts because the family identity we created was falling apart.

After our failed lunch date, we rode home in silence. Stealing glances at his face, I saw glimpses of frustration, compassion, and disappointment. It was his disappointment that hit me. I felt the same way, but why? Why was it always so difficult and emotionally messy to switch primary parenting roles? Was our ideal a family dynamic that supported us or was it now character parts that were entrenched in Leave It To Beaver land? I wasn’t sure anymore. Maybe our approach to parenting had changed us.

“Honey,” I began after my migraine had ended, “I think it’s time for us to change our parenting plan.”

At first glance, my husband was hesitant. I explained that my migraines weren’t ending anytime soon and then he understood. The way we were parenting was causing a divide in our relationship. My migraines had changed everything.

As we talked, we unraveled a strange thread that led back to stubborn parenting expectations we’d set before we’d even become parents. He admitted he always felt more comfortable letting me be the go-to parent and I admitted that my guilt at not fulfilling this leading mom role kept me silent. Gender stereotypes we never knew we idealized were cluttering up our home and they had changed us.

It took some time, but the release of our old expectations made a huge difference in our relationship and in our parenting. Now we take parenting day by day knowing either one of us could take the lead. When my husband helps out fully, I can recover faster from a migraine attack, and then he can have more time to catch up on work later. This plan supports our needs so much better. And with this change in perception, my guilt doesn’t overflow and his resentment doesn’t pile up because we aren’t hung up on playing our assigned parts.

With all the pressure I was placing on myself to be that leading parent gone, I now bring in some much-needed outside help when we can swing it. This gives me more downtime and lessens my migraine frequency. Being more flexible in our parenting roles has repaired our connection and stopped us from trying to squeeze into these outdated molds that we’d forgotten we had the power to change. Now, we have an adaptable style when it comes to parenting our kid — one that actually works to support the health of our family.

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