I’d already lived with chronic migraine, occipital neuralgia, and thoracic outlet syndrome for seven years. When I learned I was pregnant, I knew that my pain would affect my parenting, but I didn’t realize just how significantly.
I remember one night in particular so vividly when my son was just a couple months old. It was around 3 a.m., and I couldn’t lay down. I couldn’t move around. I couldn’t watch television. I couldn’t read. I just was. Since he was a colicky infant, I knew my baby would soon wake and need me.
The problem was that I didn’t know how I would even physically manage to hold him.
The pain of the most intense migraine attack of my life was so bad that I was shaking, and I had vomited a couple times too. My vision was blurry, and I could only manage silent tears because any movement or sound I made exacerbated my agony. I longed for dawn to end that dark night, certain that morning would never arrive — but both literally and figuratively, it did.
Since that night, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a parent living with chronic pain. My hope is that my words will help other mothers struggling with their own endless nights. Here are a few things I’d like other mothers with illness to know:
1. You aren’t alone.
Pain is a subjective experience, unique to each individual who suffers from it. Since pain is so uniquely personal, living with a chronic condition can be isolating. Unfortunately, the odd sleep schedules and physical demands of parenting can lead to even more loneliness.
When you are both a new mom and a mom in pain, you can sometimes feel utterly, hopelessly, inconceivably alone — even when you’re lucky enough to have a strong support system beside you.
The good news is you’re not alone — even if it feels that way.
2. You don’t have to parent the same way other parents do.
The internet’s endless wealth of information is an empowering tool, but it can also be a curse when you’re a scared new parent trying to sort through so many competing voices telling you what is best for your child.
The internet is also a sounding board for some of the most confident and cruel know-it-alls who will convince you, at one of your most vulnerable times, that you are the world’s worst mom if you don’t subscribe to x, y, or z style of parenting.
Few parenting topics are shrouded in as much debate and controversy as how we feed our babies. Some moms find breastfeeding easier because they can sit and rest while the baby feeds. Others have conditions — like mine — that can make holding the baby for so long difficult, even when lying in a laid back position. Choose what works best for you and your child.
Parenting critics are not living through your pain and suffering. Only you can know what is best for your individual situation, your health condition, and your unique baby.
3. You don’t have to parent the way you would if you weren’t in pain.
Before I had my son, I read so much about the benefits of babywearing that I was fully convinced that I needed to attach my baby to my chest at all times. Many of the so-called parenting “experts” online had convinced me that babywearing was essential to good parenting.
Then one day I took my son to the grocery store, and I wore him in a baby carrier for the entire trip. It was a beautiful day, he slept peacefully against me, and I was able to get all the shopping done while keeping him close.
Unfortunately, the day did not end so beautifully. I spent that night experiencing one of the worst pain flare-ups of my life, with lightning-like pain stabbing and shooting into my face until I was veritably incapacitated with pain. I knew I could never babywear again, but I kept my son close to me in a stroller where I could smile at him, talk to him, and watch his facial expressions as he discovered the world around him.
We all have things we wish we’d done differently, and we all have things we’d do differently if only our circumstances were different.
4. Let go of the guilt.
If there’s one word I’ve heard repeated again and again in the parenting with chronic pain community, it’s “guilt.” After I had to stop babywearing, I felt so much regret that I couldn’t parent exactly the way I wanted to.
I wish I’d been more flexible in understanding that my preconceived ideas of what good mothering looks like had to shift to accommodate my health. If I had understood that sooner, I would have suffered through a lot less guilt.
5. Accept help whenever you can.
I know that many mothers don’t have a spouse or other loved ones to help them parent. But even the mothers who do can feel an undue sense of responsibility to be the sole care provider for their child.
It’s okay for someone else to help with infant feeding while you rest. It’s okay for a trusted loved one to get up with your child in the night. It’s okay for your family member to assist with housework.
Your child will benefit from being surrounded by loved ones, even if you can’t be there every minute.
6. There are resources that can help.
When my son was a newborn, I didn’t fully understand which medications I could take while breastfeeding. Since he was so dependent on nursing for comfort, I tried to manage my pain without any meds — which caused a lot of unnecessary suffering on my part. Once I met with my hospital’s lactation consultant, we were able to figure out a more viable plan that allowed me to start on safe medications without forcibly weaning him.
In addition to hospital lactation consultants, there’s also the Infant Risk Center at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, which provides some of the best guidance and most up-to-date research on medications and nursing for free. For moms who opt to formula feed, Suzanne Barston’s Fearless Formula Feeder site offers a wealth of support.
If you need additional help managing a chronic illness and parenting, many psychologists specialize in helping people with chronic pain. Many doctors can recommend therapists with whom they know their patients have had good experiences. The Psychology Today website provides a searchable directory, too.
I wish these resources were made more readily available to moms, but they are there. Sometimes they just require a bit of digging.
When you’re a mom with chronic pain, there will be times when you feel hopeless and alone. But things can get better, and when they don’t, we adapt our parenting habits as much as possible and strive to keep a positive outlook for ourselves and our children.
We moms with pain are tough.