I'm A Mom Battling Cancer – And Mom Guilt

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I have to fight extra hard to not feel guilty ALL the freaking time. Being a “sick” parent, whether you have a mental illness or physical illness, means struggling to feel like you’re enough for your kids, especially when they have to miss out on certain activities or opportunities because of you. It’s exhausting.

I’ve laid in bed, too many times, scrolling through my social media feed. The green-eyed monster surges with each image and video I view. I see my family and friends enjoying their beach vacations and their kids’ sports games, with wide smiles, sunglasses, and tanned skin. Meanwhile, I’m curled up in bed, again, waiting to feel better. I’ve asked “why me?” a thousand times, but no one has answered me. I’ve been a “sick” mom for my entire motherhood. It started with my type 1 diabetes diagnosis, three years before I was a mom and continued with two breast cancer battles—one of which I’m currently fighting. I feel jealous, guilty, confused, angry, and downright sad at times, because being a sick mom is beyond difficult.

Yes, I remind myself that I need grace. What would I tell someone else going through this? I would tell them to be patient, to allow themselves to relax, and to anticipate better days. That’s easier said than done, of course. What’s even harder is that I have four kids, all of whom need their mommy. There are days I do the bare minimum, because that’s all I have in me. I know I’m not alone.

Many moms live with physical and mental illness that can make mothering difficult. The limitations that our diagnoses put in our way isn’t something we choose. Despite that we didn’t opt in to being “sick,” we feel guilty. Are we enough for our children? Can we just toughen up a bit and forge ahead? You know, fake it until we make it?

The reality is that no amount of toxic positivity, inauthenticity, or good vibes can magically relieve our struggle.

I asked Dr. Rachel Goldman, a clinical psychologist, speaker, clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and consultant in a New York City private practice to weigh in. What can a “sick” mom do?

First, Dr. Goldman shares that comparing our motherhood to another mother’s is unhelpful. She understands that comparison is “human nature,” but reminds us that “social media is a highlight reel and we never see anyone’s true story.” She adds that we often see other moms who seem to have it all together, accomplishing every motherhood task, and then we default to self-blame—that we aren’t “doing enough.” The problem progresses because, she notes, “our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked, so an unhelpful thought is not going to make us feel good and it can become a vicious downwards spiral.”

When I find myself spiraling into the “I’m-not-enough and other-moms-are-better” mindset, what can I do? Dr. Goldman suggests tweaking. Change the thought from negative to something neutral (not fake-positive) such as acknowledging that you are doing your best in your situation. She also suggests the power in unfollowing and muting accounts that bring us down. We can also take a social media break. After all, “We can’t change what they do, or what they post, but we do have control over who we allow in our feed.”

I’ve found that sometimes my mom guilt becomes all-consuming and counter-productive. Dr. Goldman responded, “Guilt tends to come from ‘should’ statements which is an unhelpful thinking style, or cognitive distortion.” She gives two examples. You might think, “I should do xyz” or “I should be a better mom.” These are unhelpful. They place “unreasonable demands and pressure on ourselves” and create more guilt. She wants us to “be mindful of the words you speak to yourself and try to catch, and then challenge, those unhelpful statements, especially those ‘should’ statements.”

What can therapy do for a mom who is sick, either physically or mentally? Dr. Goldman shares that therapy can help in many ways, including processing their experience and how they feel about it, validate their struggle, and learn coping strategies. She wants us to know that some avoid talking honestly about their experiences to avoid appearing weak, as a complainer, or a burden, but a therapist can provide a safe place to share.

We also need to be willing to ask for help. I know, I can hear you groaning. I’m the same way. I’m a do-it-all kind of mom, and I like control. Asking for help doesn’t come naturally to me. Once I entered this second breast cancer fight, I leaned on others more than ever. Dr. Goldman says we need to be honest with ourselves, acknowledging that we simply cannot do everything for everyone. She shares that we need to not only ask for (or accept) the help, but be specific in what we need. The reality is, people want to help, Dr. Goldman reminds us. There’s also benefits to joining support groups—in person or online.

Finally, we need to make sure we practice self-care. I know that sounds cliché, something that’s been drilled into us for years. However, when you are a person who has a physical or mental illness, Dr. Goldman shares that self-care is preventative care. She suggests incorporating small practices in your day, including deep breaths, naps, or walks. She acknowledges we have to be creative in carving out our time, since we are busy. However, we need to do it.

There is nothing easy about balancing an illness and motherhood. There’s also our jobs, partnerships, social life, and everyday household to-dos. However, it’s critical that we make the decision to not let social media dictate our thoughts, that we seek therapy when needed, we relish in supportive relationships, accept help, and practice self-care. These can alleviate some of the mom guilt, as well as help us become more happy, peaceful, balanced people.

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