Parenting through Troubling Times, part 2

Two of McGrath’s kids out having a good time….She did not go to the game, but they still found time for fun!
Two of McGrath’s kids out having a good time….She did not go to the game, but they still found time for fun!

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 2: Cancer in a box - the benefits of compartmentalizing

Need to catch up? Read Part 1: Telling the kids “the news” here.

"Mommy, I would like to sleep in your room with you because I can’t sleep, but I have to ask you a question. Is your cancer contagious?" My 13-year old sweetly asked me when he learned I would soon start chemotherapy.

I calmly said that it wasn’t contagious, but I totally understood why he asked. Kids really don’t know much about serious illnesses unless they have been touched by them. In truth, most adults don’t either. I know I have learned more about cancer than I ever thought I would need to know.

So, how do we navigate the practical, one-day-at-a-time life with children who know cancer is bad but are usually focused on themselves? Frankly, they don’t want to think about its implications. And of course, teens are very busy with homework, activities, and their own unpredictable emotions. They do not want to worry about their parents all the time, nor should they. However, when parents are in crisis, it is difficult to constantly pretend that everything is okay. We are busy, too, either healing or recuperating or feeling sad or trying to manage all the usual responsibilities.

I have found compartmentalizing has worked pretty well. I do not talk about my treatment all the time, though sometimes I have to remind the kids that I will be very tired and that I can’t do many activities I used to do. I even heard my daughter telling someone, "My mom just gets tired at the end of the day, and sometimes she cries for no reason." Helping my children come to a level of acceptance has made the process less overwhelming. Learning to accept this as an adult is very hard as well, so I manage my days in bits and realize that if it is hard for me, it must tough on my kids--even if they don’t always want to share.

Fortunately, I have gone through chemo very well physically, so I have continued to attend nearly all sporting or school events and have managed to get up every day and make breakfast, etc. I rest when they are gone so that I am usually ready for them when they are with me. Sometimes I cry in front of them because I can’t help it, but I try to maintain a positive attitude. Sometimes I have to remind them that I am dealing with a very stressful situation. If I do too much for them, they actually forget and then expect more from me. It’s a difficult balance.

Ideally, the children would offer to help me more with tasks, but like the Little Red Hen, I usually just do things myself. I have tried to find some ways for the kids to help a bit more, and this will need to continue. At dinner, each person must share how they helped someone else during their day, so we are slowly trying to move the focus a little away from self. They have also witnessed me accepting help from friends with meals and rides and emotional support. It has been good for the children to see that it’s okay to receive help. We can accept it with grace and thankfulness. After all, when we are able to give more, we do, but sometimes we are the ones in need.

Finally, putting cancer in a box on the shelf long enough to talk and laugh has been good for us. We do not need to feel shame or guilt for allowing ourselves to forget for a while. Compartmentalizing allows us to manage the ups and the downs of this crisis, from when we first wake up and assess the day to when we go to bed at night.

Up next...Part 3: It’s all about the hair