Pontificating on Parenting


For the two and a half years my son had cancer, I felt like the poster mom for the struggle of parenting.  I mom’d the heck out of life while constantly saying, “who the hell let me be in charge?!” People would come to me with their messy mom feelings, and it was so easy for me to cheer them on. It usually looked like, “You want to hear about dropping the ball as a mom? I lost my car keys and was almost late to take my son for a blood transfusion…” or “I let my oldest watch TV for ten hours today and just put out a large platter of snacks for her to eat all day because I was too tired to care anymore.” My mama drama would seem messy, dramatic, and, when said with a sarcastic flair, could make someone else breathe a sigh of relief. They would say “It’s not just me…” or “At least mine isn’t that bad…” It was my own form of evangelism.

My son’s cancer meant I couldn’t pretend to be the mom I wasn’t. I had to embrace the mom I was or I’d drown in the darkness of cancer and take my kids down with me. I couldn’t take on the cancer and all the emotions that went with it and keep up the facade.

Plus, so many of those insecurities… oh, I’m not breastfeeding like everyone else… oh, I don’t want to send my kid to the same school as everyone else… oh, my kid watches a ridiculous amount of tv and I should care more… just seemed stupid. Not knowing if you are going to bury your child before they even make it to elementary school puts shit into perspective. Yes, shit. Because that’s what most of that is. It’s not that the reasons behind parenting in certain ways are not important, but we place way to much value on them. My child will not be ruined if they don’t get the perfect birthday party. My life won’t be ruined if the people at the park think I’m a bad mom for being on the phone. Cancer put everything in its place.

It’s been almost three years since my son was deemed cancer free. It's been one year since it actually felt like he was cancer free. I’m not the same “I don’t give a …” mom I was, which is healing. I’m no longer deep in crisis control. However, I don’t want to forget what I learned.

Life happens. We can’t control it. My 20’s seemed to be all about figuring out how to do life. Managing relationships, people getting married, having babies, starting careers, and so on. My 30’s seem to be about realizing I don’t know what I don’t know. You will never be able to be fully prepared for everything you’ll face in a marriage. You will never be able to know how you’ll feel as a parent, or how you’ll handle each new phase of your kids life. Life throws completely unexpected curveballs at you. You can’t prepare for it all. You don’t know what you don’t know. There is going to be stuff that you are going to have to deal with only after it slaps you upside the face.

As a mother, this realization is heartbreaking. If I was smart, if I planned ahead, if I got my life together, my kid wouldn’t have to deal with…  But I can’t control everything. My kids are dealing with elements I can’t protect them from. I can’t even protect them from myself.

Right after my son was diagnosed I talked with child life specialists, therapists and oncologists about how to best handle it for both my son and daughter. If I kept it together, did everything right, then this out of control tragedy wouldn’t affect my kids in a negative way...too much.

If I just… always gets you in trouble.

But there were times I broke. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t suddenly going to be the only person in the world to be perfect, and looking back I think it’s ridiculous I ever thought I could. But I needed to get my kids through it. That’s all I could think about, so I needed to do what I had to. What that actually looked like was very different than I expected.

The belief that just surviving the day was good enough became a mantra. Figuring out our own normal instead of trying to maintain the normal we had before was a daily pursuit. Being honest with others about what we needed was not arrogant, but actually helpful, and oh so humbling.

Today I was reminded of another truth I held onto when I was knee deep in the cancer fight: There are times I can’t control my kids seeing me break, but I can control them seeing me rebuild.

I wish my daughter never saw me cry from fear, or yell because of stress. I wish my son didn’t notice that mom is in bed a lot when my depression is bad. I wish my kids never felt the tension between my husband and I after a fight. I wish I could protect them from loss and death, and people they love making stupid mistakes.  I wish… I wish…  There is so much I wish they didn’t see, feel, or experience.

I can’t control all of that. I can try, but I’ll only be somewhat successful. What I absolutely can control is how they see me recover from my brokenness. I have the power to show them that going to see a “feelings doctor” when you are struggling is a normal, healthy thing. That being kind to a rude neighbor is possible, even if it’s frustrating. I have the power to show them that when you feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained, it’s necessary to take some time to refresh. I have the power to show them that I apologize and take responsibility for mistakes. I have the power to show them how I learn from my mistakes.

I have the power to walk next to them and let them know that they are loved, even as they battle their demons. That they will be loved and supported as they recover and rebuild.

That’s what parenting is actually about in the end. Yes, part of it is protecting your child, but a bigger part is teaching them how to deal with life. A big part of life is sometimes being broken,  stressed, or overwhelmed, or making mistakes. That’s adulting. Instead of beating ourselves up that we can’t control everything that happens to our kid, we need honor and celebrate what we can control.

If cancer taught me anything, it's that we all just need to get over the pretense and support each other, because raising kids is hard. We need to be constantly reminding each other that we will get through this. That we are enough. And our kids will grow more and be healthier if we focus more on how they see us address our imperfectness instead of acting like perfect is possible in the first place.

Jennifer ArmitageComment