Looking back, the early years of being a mother felt like one long foggy day that engulfed me in a cloud of love, exhaustion, and grief. I’d lost my mother to metastatic breast cancer just a few years before my first child was born and his birth opened an emotional floodgate.
I instantly fell in love with this new little creature. I experienced a love truly impossible to put into words, while simultaneously experiencing my mother’s absence like a tsunami hitting the shores of my tender, raw heart. I couldn’t seem to escape the intensity of constantly feeling overwhelmed with both love and loss. It became my normal.
As a young adult, I’d had such a clear picture of how I thought my life would unfold, and it didn’t look much like the life I was living. I wanted to be present, happy, and able to celebrate the joyful little moments of each day. Instead, I tried to squash my feelings of sorrow by filling every waking moment with guests, travel, or work. I forced myself to keep moving, believing I was trying to savor every moment of my potentially short life.
But, I didn’t want a short life. I wanted to watch my son and my daughter grow up. I couldn’t bear the thought of them watching me suffer in the haunting way my mother had. So in early 2009, at the suggestion of a friend, I saw a physician at NYU who specialized in cancer risk assessment.
I began a rigorous screening schedule. Every six months I alternated between a mammogram and an MRI with an ultrasound. The pattern of doctors appointments, testing, and waiting for results, left me feeling like a time bomb. It was both financially and emotionally taxing.
In 2012, after finding a benign fibroadenoma in my left breast, I decided that I wanted to take more aggressive preventive action. After almost a year of planning, fighting with insurance, and doctors’ appointments, I had a preventive mastectomy in the spring of 2013.
During the weeks before surgery, I was a bit afraid, but my close friends filled my life with as much humor and joy as possible. Thankfully my surgery went well and my pathology came back normal. Even in the post-surgical haze of exhaustion and pain, I felt amazing. I was, as a close friend said, “future proofed.”
When I returned home, I spent weeks recovering in a hideous, gray-blue recliner that kept me upright while my ex-husband (who is an excellent and supportive co-parent), friends, and family took care of me and my children. When I’d wake up from naps, I could hear the kids and my aunt laughing over a silly poem, or joyful shrieks from the backyard while my dear, childhood friend helped turn an old cardboard box into a rocket ship. When my two-year-old cried in the middle of the night, my landlord would come downstairs, lift her out of bed, and hold her while I gently sang her back to sleep. This kind of help lasted for months.
Through moments of truly awful pain, I felt supported and loved. Taking control over my health was an enormous relief, but it was the overwhelming generosity of my friends and family that left me a changed person.
Recovery affords one plenty of time for thinking. I imagined ways to repay my enormous karmic debt. I thought about how to use what I learned from my surgical journey to become a better parent. Five years later, I still wonder about these things every single day.
I’m not naturally a very patient person, but during this time I learned to cultivate acceptance for my healing body and tired mind. This was perhaps the first time I’d ever given myself a break. Now I can pause before I react when I feel frustrated with myself, my kids, or anyone really. We are all doing the best we can.
Being happy, most of the time, is a choice. In the eulogy my brother gave at my mom’s memorial service, he thanked her for being the most amazing example of how to “live happy,” which was perhaps the greatest gift she shared with us. Witnessing all of the happiness my friends and family brought to my house during my difficult time was a reminder that I could be happy, too. I wanted to model happiness for my little ones. I wanted this to be my normal.
I am by no means a perfect mother, but I try my best to be mindful and considerate. As a parent, I remind myself to not rule my household authoritatively and to explain my expectations instead. I’ve learned to make more time for the small things—letting my 10-year-old stay up a few extra minutes to chat with me about his day, or making an airplane out of recyclables with my 8-year-old.
While I cannot bring my mother back or totally escape my lingering fear of cancer, I do have the power to choose to live happily. As I learned in my first moments as a mother, the positive and negative aspects of life are often happening at the same time. Accepting and learning from the difficult moments while focusing on the joyful ones is an ongoing daily practice. My new normal is not easy, but it’s totally worth it. Just ask my kids.
QUESTION: Have your challenges in life changed your perspective? Are you modeling happiness for your children?
CHALLENGE: If you’re going through a difficult time, consider if you are allowing others to help you and if not, think of where you might be able to let go and accept help. Alternatively, if someone in your life is going through a difficult time, do something this week to bring some happiness to them.
Edited by Sharon Brown and Kimberly Price.
Image provided by the author.