In this millennium there’s been a lot of talk about the capacity for women to “have it all” in no longer having to choose between having children or having a career. I contend that it is impossible for women to truly feel as if we “have it all,” as there are always sacrifices made when juggling a family and a career. Those who maintain a focus on their career paths often have less time with their children than they would like, and may not be completely satisfied with their childcare options while they are at work. Other women alter the structure of their professional lives, and often their overall income, by choosing to stay at home, work part-time, or change jobs in search of greater flexibility. In the midst of all this, many women feel they have little time remaining to tend to their own needs and interests. When you add a chronic condition to the mix, it only gets more complicated.
Rheumatoid arthritis has had a significant impact on me as a parent. I took my disease into consideration when deciding whether to have biological children, whether to be a full-time working mother, and how far apart to space my kids. The pain and fatigue of arthritis can affect the levels of patience and playfulness that I have with my small children, diminishing the “quality” of our “quality time” together. As a parent, it’s natural to want to put my kids’ needs before my own. However, if I’m not meeting my own needs, I’m not as well equipped to take care of my children. All parents must find a balance between caring for themselves and caring for their kids. This is all the more true when a chronic health condition is at play, as sacrificing my needs can impact the well-being of my entire family.
When I was struggling with the decision of whether to wean my son sooner than I’d planned in order to go back on my RA meds, a wise woman told me, “The best thing you can do for your kids is provide them with a happy mother.” Those words felt like medicine when she said them. Sure, there are benefits to breast milk, but being in pain and off of meds wasn’t going to help me be the best parent I could be. Since then, I’ve realized just how many areas of my life this advice applies to.
For instance, if I run myself ragged trying to be “the perfect mom” or the woman who “has it all,” my RA is exacerbated. When I’m in a lot of pain, it affects all aspects of my life. I’m not as productive at work, and I’m less effective at home. My irritability is increased and my patience dwindles. This means that my reaction to sibling squabbles, marker streaks on my furniture, or food spills on the floor is stronger than it is on my good days. I end up yelling at my kids more often and being more punitive than playful, on top of having less energy to be active with them. Burning the candle at both ends may temporarily make things seem brighter, but it doesn’t take long before that candle is burned out.
Therefore, self-care becomes essential not only for my own health and happiness, but for that of my husband and children as well. While I am very much a work in progress, I have developed some strategies to try to give my kids the happiest mom possible.
The most important of these has been learning to ask for help, and to accept offers of assistance. If I’m in a lot of pain at work, I will text my husband to let him know that I’m having a hard time and won’t be up for cooking supper. Wonderful man that he is, he will make an effort to get home a little earlier and throw together some dinner or take the kids out to eat. When he’s really busy at work or out of town, I try to line up some grandparent assistance so that the kids will be occupied and happy while I rest for a while. When that isn’t an option, I’ll occasionally shell out the dough for a sitter in order to give my body the rest it needs.
When I am taking care of the kids solo and I’m in a lot of pain, I sometimes have to let go of some of my preferences. For instance, I’m pretty finicky about how much screen time I allow my small children. Yet, I’ve come to change that stance slightly when I’m feeling bad, as I think it does my children less harm to watch some PBS than it does being yelled at by their stretched-too-thin mother. They are happy as clams watching tv or playing games on a tablet, and I can get some much needed rest.
In addition, I try to get creative and plan ahead for my bad days. This might mean going to the craft store or dollar aisle and loading up on inexpensive art projects, stickers, puzzles and games. I keep these stored away in the top of a closet, and pull them out when I need to refocus their attention on something quiet and engaging. I’ve also started keeping a list of ideas in my phone. When I think of a “project” my kids can do during one of my bad days, such as sorting our big jar of spare change, folding washcloths and napkins, washing rocks in the sink, or drawing with sidewalk chalk on the patio, I add it to the list so that I don’t have to rely on my memory when I’m not feeling well. I have also found that audio books can be a lifesaver. I check out three at a time from the children’s section of the library, and I’ve discovered that having a story playing automatically takes the kids’ volume and intensity down a notch.
I’ve also been working on making time for me. I’m very fortunate to have a supportive husband, and we’ve started making an effort to give each other “time off.” For me, this may mean dinner or weekend brunch out with girlfriends or going to a yoga class, both of which help me recalibrate. For him, this may mean meeting a friend at a ball game or attending photography lessons. We’ve even started giving each other the occasional opportunity for a weekend getaway with friends. I’ve also reconnected with one of my passions, reading, which I neglected during the first few years of parenthood. I’ve started reading on the couch and telling each of my children to grab a pile of books. They look at their books while I read mine silently. This not only feels restorative for my own needs, but it’s modeling the importance of reading for my kids.
Being an RA mom is hard. Yet, reminding myself that my kids are not the only ones who need nurturing helps things feel a little more manageable. By making peace with baskets of laundry yet to be folded or a sink full of dirty dishes, thereby going a little easier on myself, I’m learning that in the long run it’s better to neglect some tasks than to ignore my own needs. Hopefully I’m also modeling for my kids the importance of caring for our bodies and our selves.