Friday, April 29, 2011

On Being a (Chronically Ill) Mother

The next installment of the ChronicBabe blog carnival is all about motherhood and chronic illness, and given my recent post on trying to balance work, parenting, and chronic illness, this theme is certainly on my mind these days.

I’m working on a piece about Mother’s Day, infertility, and parenting, (and hey, did you know this week is National Infertility Awareness Week?) but I think it’s important to look specifically at the chronic illness aspect of things, too…and as the daughter of a chronically ill person, a patient myself, and the mother of a child with some health issues, I definitely have fodder.

The biggest thing that living with chronic illness has reinforced in my parenting is this: trusting my instincts. Our instincts. We bought all sorts of books and guides before she was born, but once she arrived, we quickly realized that getting to know her and paying attention to her cues was the best guide of all. We trusted her to let us know what she needed, and trusted our own intuition, too.

As a rare disease patient with a history of missed diagnoses, I have learned to be an advocate—to speak up when information is incorrect, to ask questions even when it is uncomfortable or awkward, to make sure my voice and my knowledge of my body and my symptoms are part of the dialogue.

As a parent, my job is to advocate for my daughter and to always work for what’s in her best interest. From firing her pediatrician when he continued to ignore her worsening symptoms to fine-tuning the balance between keeping her away from sick crowds during the winter season since she was very susceptible and also allowing her to socialize (she’s an outgoing girl!), I have more confidence saying “I know what is right for my kid”—and, more importantly, “I know when something is not right for my kid”—than I might have had I not lived through 30 years of illness.

I also think we are both more risk-tolerant than we might have been otherwise, especially me. She was such a tough little survivor all the way through this long journey of ours, and through her own health problems (which are under nice control these days), that it is easier for me to let go of fears and anxiety. I joke when I say it, but there is a lot of truth to the fact that if she could survive 37 weeks inside this body of mine, she can handle what the outside world throws at her.

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the labels and categories that come along with becoming parents (and I don’t mean Bugaboo versus Uppababy): Are you an attachment parent? A co-sleeper, a CIO-er, an E.A.S.Y. parent? Are you a breast feeding mama? Do you give your baby a pacifier, do you wear your baby, do you swaddle? Are you a working mom, a SAHM mom, or some variation of the two?

Parenting is never as black and white as these choices. They might contribute to the much larger picture of who we are as parents, but they are only as defining or absolute as we allow them to be. At least that’s how I feel, and how I feel about the possible implications of being a chronically ill mother. Or rather, a mother who happens to have chronic illness. Just as illness was never what I wanted to define my relationships or my career, it certainly isn’t what I want as a defining element of my daughter’s life.

And it isn’t.

But some days, making sure that isn’t the case takes more work than others.

There have been days where I have been really sick and run down and couldn’t imagine getting out of bed, but a certain squealing, chuckling little girl needed to eat whether I felt well or not. There have been days, especially earlier on, when trying to be the mother of a breastfed infant with health problems and the daughter of chronically ill parents who had their own needs left me flattened. There have been nights where, after another 18-hour day, staying up most of the night to watch her and hold her upright when she wasn’t feeling well was difficult if I wasn’t feeling well, either. But you do what you need to do in the moment and get through it, like any parent. Her needs come first.

Living with chronic illness already showed me how important it is to ask for help. Admittedly, this is much more difficult with my daughter because I want to be the one to do things for her and with her, but this is perhaps the greatest negotiation of parenting with chronic illness: I can’t be what she needs me to be if I am too sick.

It’s a line I am always balancing, and it took me many months to be able to start to make some of those choices—some days, that means she has to wait while I have my chest PT, some days her father does the morning shift, some days I abandon my word count to get some more rest so that the next day, I can give her all the energy I have.

I’ve come to see that those days where I have to shift things a bit still mean her needs come first—it’s just an alternative way of making sure she has two happy, (relatively) healthy parents who can give her what she deserves.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Working, Parenting, and Chronic Illness (Part 1)

This week, my spring semester ends.

And while in many ways it was a great semester (engaged, intellectually curious students, new assignments and experiments in the classroom that worked out well), I am profoundly relieved it is over.

I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts about work, parenting, and chronic illness for awhile now; a recent Boston Globe column on working from home only intensified this.

I knew back in December that finding balance would be my main challenge and while I might be self-aware enough to anticipate this, I wasn’t self-aware enough to actually do something about it in time.

During the academic year, I teach a full-time course load, plus other administrative and professional development projects and meetings. I’m also a writer with an impending deadline for an incredibly research-intensive beast of a book. Both are full-time responsibilities.

Like anything, there are compromises and trade-offs to this type of career path, one that is not a traditional office job. I work from home a couple days a week during the year, and work from home full time during summer months. I’ll discuss the pros and cons of working from home in an upcoming post, but the number one benefit of my current career is that it means more time with my daughter than I could ever have in an office job.

(Plus, the health insurance I provide for my family is awesome. Really and truly.)

After all, after working for almost five years and risking my life to have her, I don’t want to miss a thing. This was the promise I made to her and to myself when I went back to work: when I am with her, she gets all of me. No laptop, no hastily typed work e-mails, no frantic checking of the inbox for replies from editors or interviewees or students. I don’t want to be half-present with her and half-present with the other people in my life who need me.

She deserves more than that—and so do my students, and so does my book and all the people who have given me their time and insights during the writing/research process.

Some days (the best days), I am mainly with her. Other days, like when I am on campus, I make sure the mornings and the later afternoons and early evenings are all about her. Luckily, we have had family who have been able to help with watching her some of the time, and a wonderful caregiver some of the time, and the more flexible nature of my work demands means that most of the time, I spend a lot of time with her and make up what I need to do for work at other times in the day. I know we’re fortunate to have help, and I know not everyone does.

In terms of being with her and watching her grow from a precocious 4-month-old just starting to sit on her own to a chatty, giggly little girl who feeds herself and loves turning the pages of her books, in terms of being an active, engaged participant in her everyday life and routines, I have no regrets. I never felt my work took away from her, or took me too far away from her. In this way, my semester was a success.

But, a full-time workload plus a book plus daily chest PT (and all of the logistics of her health needs and doctor appointments) and everything else means that making up what I need to do was pretty challenging. For a lot of the semester, it meant staying up very, very late and getting up hours before my daughter woke up to get stuff done. It meant working almost every single Friday and Saturday night and during weekend mornings and naptimes. And all of that is clearly worth it, because it means I get to pick her up from her crib when she is all smiley and up from her nap, or take her to all her doctor appointments, or watch her devour her sweet potatoes or gluten-free snacks.

However, a schedule like that is not sustainable, not for healthy people and certainly not for people with chronic illness. (Oh, hey, and it goes against practically everything I’ve written about here and in my book, too.) It’s almost May, and the infection I caught at Christmas is still recycling itself through my lungs and upper respiratory tract and causing problems. By February, I started noticing my lung capacity was limited enough that I had a hard time walking through campus and talking at the same time. By March, my adrenals started acting up and some days, my arms and legs were so heavy and concrete-laden I needed a ride to and from work because I couldn’t get myself from my parking garage to my building on the other side of campus.

I realized a bit late in the game that all of this hard work would be for naught if it meant I was too sick to be what my daughter needs from me. Duh, right? My health affects her. What good are the carefully preserved hours with her if I can’t lift her, or take her places, or play games with her?

I’d like to say I had this huge revelation and made all sorts of drastic changes, but responsibilities are what they are. I did need to prioritize even further, though, and that meant letting go of some expectations of how much research and writing I could do during the semester. I don’t get up well before dawn anymore. I try not to schedule activities on both weekend days. I tell myself regularly (no really, I do—I find I have to repeat it to myself) “all you can do is what you can do” and what I can’t get done I leave behind me when I go to bed at night.

My husband, a fantastic father and a wonderful support system, now has a little more flexibility with his time since starting his own business, and that’s made a huge difference. (Even though he’s pulling very long hours himself, it’s amazing how much more time he has to see her now that he doesn’t have an hour-plus commute on the T every day and can walk to his nearby office.)

In the end, I made it. I made certain decisions that upheld certain priorities and I made it through. We made it. Since I don’t plan on ever having a baby and an enormous book due at the same time again, I do think life will be more manageable from here on in. This semester, my body paid some of the price but that means my daughter and my students did not. The beauty of teaching is that next semester, I can try it all over again and hope to do much better at this whole balance thing.

(And between now and then, I’ll finish that book. There’s nothing as clarifying as a deadline…right?)

I know so many of you out there have done this whole working-parenting-being sick juggling act much longer than I have. Any words of wisdom (or, moments of defeat) to share?

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I do plan to post something coherent about work, chronic illness, and parenting very soon, but right now, while I am limping across the finish line of the semester, indulge me in some more unstructured thoughts on being a parent.

Time. As I taped my daughter’s Easter picture to the refrigerator this week, I realized a few things: this was the first time my own child’s holiday picture kept her cousins’ pictures company up there; this time last year, we already had three (of many) ultrasound pictures up there to greet us every time we went into the kitchen; it was this week last year that I finally went public about being pregnant. A year ago April 16, I felt my daughter move for the first time, and this year, almost to the day, she cut her first tooth and balanced on her own standing up for a few seconds. It is hard to wrap my head around everything that has changed in this past amazing and challenging year.

Relief. I was back at my (our) hospital for an appointment of my own this week. I’ve done my very best to avoid going back there, having spent far too much time there during the pregnancy. Anyway, it is such a different experience evaluating pulse oximeter results and medications without worrying about the impact of the numbers on a growing baby. Knowing her welfare is no longer tied so wholly and viscerally to my own health is reassuring, yet the relationship between my health and what is best for her is still a regular negotiation: to be the best mother I can be for her, I need to feel as well as I can. (See also: upcoming post on balance….)

Gratitude. “Every morning is kind of like Christmas morning.” We agreed about this the other night. It was almost 1 am and we’d both had a very long week, but none of that mattered, or matters. Knowing there is a wriggling, giggling little girl waiting for us every morning often makes it hard to sleep.

And, in lighter terms…
Humility. I was getting a bit cocky last weekend. In one day, I’d managed the logistics of swimming class, a play date, and a birthday party with nap time and meals (and final papers! And work deadlines! And a nasty, plague-like virus thing, oh my!) and everyone was intact and smiling. Clearly, I was too confident.

As I went to fold up the new stroller and head to our final destination, I could not figure it out. Like, 10 minutes into it, sweating and exasperated, I still couldn’t fold it up. I pulled tabs, I pushed bars, I moved wheels. I may have sworn a few times, and I may have even tried shoving the whole thing in the back still upright. With the guy who was waiting for my spot impervious to my motions to move on, I got more flustered and more inept. Eventually, he got out of his car to help me and he couldn’t do it either, but that didn’t make me feel better because I’d had lessons. Fearing a situation just like this, my husband, who is used to the manifestations of my spatial relations problem, had walked me through it several times. Thankfully, a second passer-by, the mother of twins, hopped out of her car and came to our rescue.

So a good fifteen minutes after I buckled my daughter into her car seat and tried to leave the parking garage, I was ready to go. The only upside is that this time, I hadn’t gotten lost actually getting to my car, which is a routine occurrence in parking garages.

So there’s that.

Let’s hope she gets her spatial abilities from her father….

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Stigma of Illness: An Article, An Interview

As a patient, it is always pretty neat to see health-related issues I care about handled in the mainstream media. And when they are handled well? When there is research and depth and narrative all packaged in an accessible yet thoughtful way? That makes me smile.

As a writer, it is a whole different kind of experience to see issues I am so heavily invested in researching and writing appear in popular mainstream media. As many of you know, I am publishing a second book, and it is a social history of modern chronic disease. It is a project that involves an extraordinary amount of research, reading, and interviewing, and interviews aside, most of it takes place by myself, often late and night and before the sun rises. It is an exciting endeavor, but sometimes an isolating one.

So when I read an advance copy of “The Stigma of Illness” that appears in the May Issue of Woman’s Day (on newsstands right now), I was excited. The stigma around illness, including issues of gender, socioeconomics, and politics, is, quite obviously, a major element of the book.

And when I saw research that I’ve used in my own work for several years and discussion of ideas I’ve carried with me everywhere I go for such a long time, I was hooked. People are talking about this stuff. People realize stigma matters.

The article looks at the judgments and blame often placed on patients, particularly those who live with conditions where individual behavior often plays a role in transmission or severity of illness. Individual responsibility for behavior versus genetics or random chance is a comparison I find fascinating, and the inherent (and harmful) hierarchy of patients it sets up is one the most compelling and thorny issues in modern chronic illness.

“For years, social scientists such as Gregory Herek, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis, have been trying to unravel why certain conditions seem to carry “marks of dishonor,” writes article author Joan Raymond. “Their conclusion: Whenever there’s a widespread perception that something can be attributed to personal weakness or poor lifestyle or moral choices, that disease is going to be stigmatized.”

So why such an article right now? Amy Brightfield, a health editor at Woman’s Day I spoke with yesterday, acknowledges these issues have always been in existence, but play an even larger role in public discourse right now, especially when it comes to health care reform and health insurance coverage.

“People talking more and more about what should and shouldn’t be covered…illnesses that tend to get stigmatized don’t tend to get covered as well,” she says. She points to mental health problems a prime example. “You have to prove some physical concrete toll it is taking, which why it is so hard to get coverage for mental health because of the stigma.”

With profiles of three women living with some of the most heavily stigmatized conditions—AIDS, lung cancer, and bipolar disorder—the article does a good job of laying bare the tension that exists when morals, person decision-making, or sanity are questioned as a result of physical illness. The non-smoker who contracted lung cancer anyway and the AIDS patient who contracted the virus in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship profiled in the article know firsthand how painful judgments and assumptions about lifestyle and worth can be.

And of course these are just a few of the illnesses where individual responsibility for behavior is called into question. Obesity and its attendant complications are at the top of the list, too. Brightfield, who is working on a story right now about different communities’ initiatives to reduce obesity and conditions related to it, says personal responsibility is only part of a more complex problem. It’s one thing to say people should eat right and get more exercise, but if you live in an area where fresh produce is hard to find, if you can’t afford a gym membership, can’t walk to school or work, etc, it isn’t as easy or obvious.

“The modern world is not conducive to exercise and making healthy choices about food,” she says.

Turning back to the women profiled about stigma, it is clear that gender often underlies judgments about illness, particularly since more of the nebulous conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or fibromyalgia, which are harder to isolate biological causes for, affect more women than men. Given the historical context of “hysterical illness” and the huge differences in acknowledging and treating chronic pain in men versus women, there is clearly a lot more to be said about all of this (trust me, I’m working on it!)

Still, as Brightfield points out, and as many patients I’ve spoken to concur, stigma is not gender-specific. Even if we just look at men living with AIDS or lung cancer, it is clear that gender may be a dominant force but it is not always a defining force.

Stigma is equal-opportunity. And because we’re all living with a constellation of hereditary, environmental, socioeconomic, and other lifestyle factors, it’s not our place to assume or blame.

“Don’t judge anyone because they are sick….that’s why we did the story, to show that people get stigmatized…in the illnesses that we featured here, you don’t know the whole picture medically because you are not the doctor,” says Brightfield.

How many times have you felt blamed or judged for your illnesses, whether implicitly or explicitly? Was it by a doctor, a friend or loved one, or even a total stranger?

To read more about this, and perhaps to empathize and commiserate with the brave women featured in the article, make sure you check out the latest issue of Woman’s Day.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

An Exciting New Venture (Or, A Better Life…)

In five years of marriage, we’ve acquired two rescue dogs, two different homes, two graduate degrees, four new jobs, two book deals, and after a long (long) journey filled with more challenges and compromises than we ever imagined, we are parents to a fiercely loved little girl.

And now it’s time to announce the next big venture. I am incredibly proud and excited to tell you that as of today, my husband’s new company, The Well Fed Dog, is up and running. If you’ve read the posts about gluten-free cooking on this blog, you know we are both passionate about eating whole, healthy, fresh foods. With experience as a line cook and restaurant manager before he went into banking, John is the one who executes our culinary adventures, and he is happiest when in the kitchen.

If you know us in real life, you know we’re both insanely passionate about our two rescue dogs, and dogs in general, and making sure they are as healthy and happy as possible. (And yes, one of our dogs has a major food allergy, so we know how important knowing what’s in your dog’s food and knowing where those ingredients came from really is.)

Now, John has combined these two passions into The Well Fed Dog, which delivers fresh, all natural, grain-free dog food. All ingredients are human-grade and hand-selected, and all recipes are carefully formulated to meet dogs’ special nutritional needs. The Well Fed Dog also offers locally made treats and eco-friendly chew toys, as well as a totally customizable membership plan and benefits. You can find out so much more about the mission, philosophy, and product offerings by checking out The Well Fed Dog’s brand-new Web site.

This has been a long time in the making, and comes from the heart. It is a big change for him and for our family, and having him doing something we both believe in so much is an amazing opportunity.

So many of you have watched big events unfold in our lives through this blog, and have been such a source of support and encouragement, and I am happy to be able to share this news with you. Whether you’re a dog lover or someone who knows dog lovers, there are lots of way we’d love for you to be involved and spread the word:

• Link to the Web site if you have your own site or blog
• Click this link to "Like us" on Facebook
• Click this link to "Follow us" on Twitter
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