“Bye-Bye, Normal Mommy”

How my kids and I coped with a winter of pain and guilt.

Mom’s life.
Mom’s life, as depicted by Dahlia’s son.

Drawing by Coby Fein

There came a day last November when I simply couldn’t get out of the car. After months of half-ignored back pain, I couldn’t move my left leg anymore. Apparently if you have reached your mid-40s and haven’t damaged an L-something disc, you’re simply doing it wrong. I was doing it right: Hundreds of hours in the car, tempered by hundreds of hours at the computer, and the disc herniated. The doctor at the ER prescribed drugs and bed.

I won’t bore you with the middle part: I was suddenly engaged in a four-month extramarital affair with pain. I thought of nothing but my pain, all day and all night: how to mollify and manage it, how to drug and muzzle it, how to feed the steroid-fueled hunger that was almost as vivid as the pain. My poor husband became, for several months, the reasonable onlooker who couldn’t fix things, the pipeline to the endless ice packs and English muffins and meds, and the person who had to stand by helplessly as I cried.

The surgery happened in February. I could walk a week later. Three months after that, I am coming off the last of the pain meds and the nerve meds. The fog of not being able to line my words up in rows upon a screen is finally lifting. Back injury is a rolling trauma, and as the many people who have suffered this same dalliance with pain and drugs and bed have patiently explained to me in recent months, this sort of illness changes you, probably forever. But it has a long tail, and now that I am in the tail, the whole experience is beginning to show itself as constructed almost completely of guilt.

My thoughts turn to this on Mother’s Day mostly because the single most devastating thing you can do to your children is to scare their faces off, and that is what I spent most of this past winter doing. My boys almost became accustomed to the bed rest and to the fuzzy brain-socks of drugs that led my younger son (age 9) to wistfully bid me a “bye-bye, Normal Mommy” every time I put a pill in my mouth. I was vague and forgetful, and at some point they learned to game this well enough to slyly start sentences with “Remember you promised …”

They’d sit in bed with me and do their homework, or read, or watch cooking shows, and at night I would be overcome with guilt over my new life. Gone were the days of leaning in, now I was laid flat, every day, invisible and disappearing. I missed their concerts and the New Year’s party and the whole of Christmas break and the ski trip. My older son learned to cook beignets and marinara sauce, and I felt like I was being gently sautéed in my own inability to do things for them anymore. Friends arranged a hook-and-ladder crew to drop off meals at night, and I was consumed by my inability to write thank-you notes. I was poaching slowly in guilt and in worry for my kids’ pain. My first conversation with my physical therapist was about how much pain my kids were suffering (10 on a 10 scale, as I recall) as opposed to my left leg.

The first time I was able to climb upstairs after surgery to kiss my sons goodnight, it felt like I was going to die. I did it to prove to them I was better, long before I was better, because what is being a mother if not always pretending that you are better when it hurts?

I’ve never been a fan of the martyrdom and false humility of Mother’s Day. It drips with clichés. I hate the message that “she does it for you the other 364 days of the year, so why can’t you just burn her some toast this morning?” “Would a card kill you?” We lie to our kids about motherhood for some of the same reasons we lie to them about Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Because how can children feel safe if their mommy isn’t made of magic?

But this year, as my children slowly shed the anxious lines that had become lodged in their foreheads, as they proudly quiz me on how many miles I clocked at physical therapy, I am trying to think about motherhood as something more than an endless shifting of guilt back and forth between parents and children. I hate how much my children suffered this year, but it does them no good for me to suffer for it. I hate that I have resumed the daily façade of trying to look immortal, even when I still have days when I feel awful, and I suspect that it’s important for kids to know that parenting isn’t about pretending that bad things never happen or that they will end, because bad things happen and sometimes they keep happening. I love that my 11-year-old learned to make marinara sauce this winter, but I kind of hate it too. My 11-year-old! He makes marinara! Maybe kids need to learn that part of growing up means that they are liable to become strongest at their mothers’ broken bits.

Not one day has gone by since my surgery when I haven’t been overwhelmed with gratitude that doctors exist who could get me to walk. Many, many moms aren’t better and won’t get better, and this year they are the moms I love best of all. If I get breakfast in bed this year, I hope it’s because my kids saw me broken and vaporized and loved me anyhow, and not because I was perfect or pretending to be. Maybe I will be perfect by next Mother’s Day or maybe I will still be shuffling a little and grunting when I empty the dryer, because did I mention? Long tail. But at least for this Mother’s Day I will be grateful that my family loved me when I was wracked and ruined. This year, that is more than enough.