When a friend gets a bad cold, we know just what to do: We send them an encouraging text, order them some UberEATS, or rescue them from their kids for the afternoon. But when people come across a mom with a chronic illness — like me — they absolutely do not know what to do or say. And you know what? I don’t blame them.
It’s hard to picture a life if you haven’t lived it. To be honest, if I hadn’t lived with chronic Lyme disease since I was 13 years old, I would have no idea what to say to someone in my situation either. Even so, living with a chronic illness as a mom can feel like living on a different planet than every other mom around me. It’s often left me isolated — separated from other good-hearted moms who just don’t have that “get it” factor.
They don’t understand that sometimes pulling the laundry out of the washer takes too much strength for me on a flare day. (Fatigue and extreme weakness is my No. 1 symptom with Lyme disease).
They don’t understand why driving four minutes to the grocery store is out of my reach some days. (Lyme disease can cause neurological issues that make it very challenging to concentrate on the road).
They don’t understand why I can’t go out for a playdate at the park if it’s over 79 degrees. (My illness is triggered by heat).
I truly believe that the majority of people I encounter in my life want to be helpful and encouraging, but the truth is, they often aren’t.
For those of you who know a mom who struggles with chronic illness, I’ve highlighted five things not to say to them if you’d like to be a supportive friend.
1. “I’m so glad you’re healthy now.”
I can’t tell you how many times people have said this to me on days when I could barely stand or walk. Because my disease is an “invisible illness,” most people assume that if I appear normal, I feel normal. This is rarely the case. Instead, consider asking how your friend is doing first, rather than assuming they are doing well just because they appear healthy.
2. “So when are you going back to work?”
I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been asked this since having to resign from my job as a first-grade teacher due to a relapse of my Lyme disease. It is one of the greatest heartbreaks of my life to have left my career, and it is not something I appreciate being asked about in a casual conversation. If you have a friend whose experience is similar, consider asking how they are doing with their health. If they aren’t well, don’t bring up the topic of work unless you know them really well. Chances are, if they say they’re struggling with their health, they probably aren’t considering going back to work anytime soon, and it’s likely a sore subject.
3. “Let me know if you ever need help.”
This seems like a nice thing to say, but the truth is, if you know a mom with a chronic health issue, she does need your help.
If you aren’t able to help, that’s okay — but don’t offer help unless you mean it. If you truly want to help, mention specific things you are available to do if it’s ever needed. For instance, “I know driving to the store is difficult for you some days. I’m available Wednesdays to do grocery runs. Text me if you need that.” When people offer specific ways they are willing to help, I know they mean it, and it’s super-encouraging.
4.“Well, at least you get to stay home with your baby.”
When I first had my daughter, I got this one a lot. I agree — I’m extremely grateful to spend the first years of my daughter’s life at home with her. However, like all people, I want to choose my own life. And the truth is, I didn’t choose to stay home; it was my only option since I was already disabled when I had her. Even if it’s true, avoid saying this — at all costs. Talk about the weather or politics or anything else, really.
5. “When are you having the next baby?”
Ouch. This one is touchy. While it’s a perfectly natural question, having a second baby is not as straightforward when you have a chronic illness. Best not bring this up, unless you are very close with your friend. Even then, choose your words carefully.
Of course, this list is certainly not exhaustive, nor does it apply to every single mom out there. Different people have different triggers, but I’m willing to bet that I speak for the majority of moms with chronic illness out there. If you forget all of this advice, don’t panic. Even if you say the wrong thing 100 times, it’s likely okay as long as your friend is reasonable.
In the end, it’s your actions that will help those who are hurting around you. If you still don’t know what to say, just help out in tangible ways, ask questions gradually as your friendship grows, and most of all, just be a good friend.