Motherhood Is My One Constant
On Friday, my Oldest son will celebrate his 13th birthday, which also means it’s been that many years since I crossed into the wildly uncharted territory of motherhood (my personal slogan remains “Successfully Keeping Someone Else Alive Since 2004!”). The occasion requires the necessary consumption of cake for the kiddos (and maybe a little shot of vodka for me), bemoaning how old I’ve become (which my sons gleefully point out a little too often), and how fast time flies (the sure sign of no longer being young is the sense that getting old is occurring at lightning speed).
By the time I (we) decided to take the plunge into starting a family, all the boxes for presumed success had been checked off; we were both college graduates, had been together for 6 years and married for 2, gainfully employed, purchased a home, etc. At 24, the idea that I might at some point be doing it alone never once crossed my mind; it was literally unfathomable. By 2014, I’d served time in literally almost every possible variation of “mom life”: part-time working mom, full-time-working mom, full-time-stay-at-home mom, chronically ill mom and even temporarily-using- a-cane mom. Along the way, I’d discovered the dirty secret of parenting turns out not to be what happens when you naively feed your kid a cookie with black icing (HINT: diaper contents of such a bright fluorescent green hue Sherwin Williams would be impressed), but that we’re all totally making it up as we go regardless of the branch of parenthood in which we’re actively serving.
But “winging it” took on a whole new definition when my marriage ended and I added to my portfolio of experience what has been undoubtedly the might be the most challenging one yet: single mom. And for the record, during the months leading up to the separation actually happening, I was terrified out of my mind about how that life was gonna work: Me, 3 boys, 2 cats, our grief, a 105-year-old-house… and MS??
There’s not one predictable ingredient in that recipe for Chaos Soup, people.
My boys were quite small when I was diagnosed: Oldest was 5, Middle was 4, and Youngest was 3 months, so the extent of how initially aware they were of MS was limited to explaining why Mommy was hooked up to a steroid IV in the living room and sweating so profusely from its side effects that Middle cheerfully told his pre-k class I looked like a sprinkler. What mattered to the two older boys was that although Mommy was sick, I wasn’t going to die; Youngest was perfectly satisfied once he figured out being fed from a bottle required way less effort on his part than being breastfed. They were only moderately older when I divorced their dad (ages 10, 9, and 5), and that life transition was challenging for us in every way possible because of the reality of my illness. No question there were some aspects of my situation that made being a rookie single mom easier at that point in their lives: everyone was potty-trained (important on the days when spasticity would have made butt-wiping a very questionable endeavor), the snack basket could be accessed without waking me up from a much-needed nap, and they all knew how to decipher a chore chart (although actual enforcement of said chore chart remains an elusive parenting accomplishment for me).
But I was keenly disappointed to discover that while there was a plethora of information available about my illness, no major MS organization had yet contributed an ounce of research to the topic “MS & The Single Parent: Or, How The Hell Am I Supposed To DO This?!” (hmmm.. perhaps the title for my first book). There was a steep learning curve to figuring out how to juggle what was being demanded of me, because neither the breakdown of a marriage or the existence of MS could erase the responsibility I had to raise my children. Exhausted tears of frustration, loneliness, and days of hopelessness were a natural outcome of being caught in a head-on collision between MS and Motherhood, while simultaneously trying to figure out how to navigate in the utterly foreign world of doing it all on my own. Somehow I survived we all survived nights when my body and mind begged for the mental release of sleep, but blocking the path to my bed was an apologetic 4th-grader earnestly explaining how he forgot his Safari Project was due tomorrow, while a cranky 5th-grader hollered from his bedroom like someone must have devised a CIA-level plot to hide his basketball uniform (because he swears he threw it in the dirty laundry), and a sweetly patient kindergartner who just wanted me to help him read his library books… Plus one of the cats had barfed on the dining room rug again.
I’ll tell you this about being a single mom with MS: it may not be easy or predictable, but at least it’s always been interesting.
Each time I gave birth to a hooligan son, motherhood changed my life. Then multiple sclerosis altered my worldview (and not just thanks to lasting damage from optic neuritis), while divorce required I throw out everything I thought was a “given” about my life and start over from scratch. Raising my children while trying to cope with the reality of my illness never stops being a challenge, and I remember as a new patient mourning the “me” my sweet young boys would never know: an energetic, social, woman with a career and a fully functioning set of eyes. But in the years since my diagnosis, their presence has anchored me to find the courage to acquire skills that I never dreamed I’d posses: like overcoming a rampant phobia for self-injections to be self-sufficient with my treatments, or gingerly crawling out on the porch roof to clean out my own gutters, or keeping my exasperation to a minimum as I explain to my helpful yet indignant Oldest boy that being “almost 13” means he should know that using the dirty sock he just removed to wipe off the dining room table is actually NOT an effective way to keep Mom’s blood pressure out of the hypertensive area.
My highest calling
The fact that Oldest is passing from adolescence into his teenage years is a predictable milestone, but how I got here has been a combination of misfortune and opportunities to redefine how I evaluate what I consider my highest calling. Motherhood made me more reflective, less selfish, and fiercely devoted to giving my boys the foundation they need to be responsible, independent, and capable men someday: in a nutshell, I’ve always known my job is to make sure my children don’t stay children forever. Chronically ill motherhood required a new focus on the importance of a healthy home–both spiritually and emotionally–because of the unpredictability that comes with MS as a life partner; I’ve actually used the illness as a teaching tool to impress upon my boys how important a positive attitude and resilience are in a world that can’t be controlled. And single motherhood has made me brave, resourceful, and incredibly humble: I still hate asking for help, but I’m much more likely to do it because I know I can’t do it alone; while I’m fiercely protective of the boys’ ability to have a “normal” life in the midst of so much uncertainty, I’m more focused on taking care of myself than ever. As I delicately step into my next parenting stage (motherhood with teenage boys), what has remained constant in the spite of the change is that I’m keenly aware of 3 loving, trusting sets of eyes watching me to make sure everything’s going to be ok–even when I wasn’t so sure of it myself.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.