Parenting Through Troubling Times

McGrath with two of her children during treatment.
McGrath with two of her children during treatment.

Being a mom is tough on the best of days. But when crisis hits a mom - from work to grief to health concerns - the stress of managing her own issues can make parenting even tougher. Join this Charlotte mother as she shares her tale of being mom and keeping a positive attitude while facing a personally challenging diagnosis.

Part 1: Telling the kids “the news”

So, you have just learned some bad news. Awful really. This is the kind of news that is life-changing. You know you are going to have to tell your children. Anxiety and fear overwhelm every part of your body. Tears stream down your face. But this is not the parent you can present to the children, right? You must be their pillar of strength and courage and perseverance. While you have shown them sadness or other emotions over the years, this is new. The depth of pain and worry is so great you don’t know how you are going to hide it.

And you can’t. It’s cancer. They are going to figure it out when you lose all your hair and you become too tired to play. They are going to know when you stop doing many of your normal activities and succumb to the pain of chemotherapy and its many side effects. Even with the most positive attitude, one cannot always fight the physical, psychological and emotional effects.

When I had surgery to remove a fibroid (that I assumed was benign), it was tough enough on my children. They did not like seeing me in the hospital. They were angry and worried and did not want to help around the house. I had worn my helicopter parenting blades proudly their entire lives without realizing I should have been requiring more help from them all along. Now I had three pre-teen/teenage children who expected me to continue to do everything for them, and I just couldn’t. The surgery was supposed to be a temporary situation, but dealing with cancer would be different and certainly would require change. More help. More independence. And this came at a time when emotions run high--the teenage years are difficult even in the best of circumstances.

Their father and I decided to wait before telling them about the cancer until we had plans in place for the changes we knew would be coming. It was hard to hide my worry, but since I had had surgery, I attributed my stress to that and the kids accepted my explanation. We made arrangements for someone to help our family on days I needed it. We decided to wait until the day after Halloween to tell them so we could spend the next day processing.

Late morning, we gathered the children together and let them know that cancer had been found but had been removed in the surgery. Instantly, the children burst into tears and had many questions. The primary question related to my chances of survival. However, their deepest anxiety came from how all this would affect them and why I would really need chemo if the cancer was gone. It was hard to explain that scans don’t detect everything and that loose cells might still be present, so chemotherapy would be necessary.

This is where, as parents, we have to be extremely cautious. We must balance the uncertainty with confidence. We must reassure without masking the seriousness. The conversation lasted a long time, but we knew it was far from over. The coming months would be very difficult, so we would have to take the questions and the days one at a time. And we would have to give ourselves grace when we, like all parents, make mistakes. Though my eldest son told me recently that we had done a “perfect job” in how we shared the news, there would be no exact formula to follow.

Up next...Part 2: Cancer in a box - the benefits of compartmentalizing