Parenting with Cancer, Another Battle

Cancer is an insidious enemy.  It can lurk in the body, undetectable by scans and the human eye.  It wages its vicious attacks not just in the battlefield of the physical body, but also in the more subtle psychological realm, assaulting the mind, spirit and soul.  It’s the psychological warfare that is the toughest for me, especially when the attacks affect my abilities and perceptions of myself as a parent.  Of all the things I am – wife, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, friend – my role as a mother is what defines me the most these days and demands the most of me.  Cancer often times makes me feel like a terrible mother (and I don’t think I was some superstar mother before I had cancer), seeking to destroy my sense of self and achievement in this regard. 

There are people who love children, people who were meant to educate, doctor, raise, counsel and nanny children.  There are people whose hearts melt at the site of a baby’s cherubic cheeks, who long to one day have their own children, who have names preselected and themed nursery fully designed in their heads years before they are even pregnant with their first child,  I am not any of those people.  I don’t love all children; I love my children.  I never had the desire to be a teacher, pediatrician, child psychologist or professional babysitter.  Few babies arouse the oooh-she’s-so-cute-I-need-to-hold-her-right-now impulse.  My brother threw out the name Mia (after Mia Hamm, the soccer player) and Josh and I liked it so that’s what we named our first child.  Josh and I struggled to come up with the name Isabelle months into my second pregnancy and sort of settled on Isabelle as a default and because Josh likes the name Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  I didn’t decorate the nursery with any frilly curtains or stencil their names to the wall or do anything else for that matter other than buy the required furniture.  I wanted to have children because children seemed like a natural manifestation of mine and Josh’s love.  Plus, I loved my childhood and felt the desire to give a semblance of that childhood to my own offspring.  I wanted to have love thrive in our home through the creation of my own nuclear family like the love I had known in the nuclear and extended family into which I was born.  My mother told me that I had to have children because I would need them to care for me and fill my loneliness in my old age – a very traditional Asian view indeed – so maybe there was a little of that too.  But if I’m being truly honest, I wanted to be a mother because it was something everyone else did and what everyone expected of me, and I wanted to have that seemingly quintessential human experience (even though I had absolutely no clue whatsoever what being a mother entailed and the hardships it would present).

Since I’ve become a mother, more times than I can count, I’ve felt like a pretty mediocre one at best.  There are mothers who have elaborate arts and crafts projects planned for their kids months in advance for birthdays and holidays, and who drill their children on rhyming skills by day and read with them something other than the usual Green Eggs and Ham and Good Night Moon by night, who seemingly never begrudge all the time they must devote to their children (because they love children and have known from the time they were six years old that they wanted children).  Again, I am not one of those mothers.  I literally received barely passing grades in art in elementary school and pretty much detest arts and crafts – being called upon to make a snowflake out of tissue paper and then glue it onto purple construction paper caused me heart-palpitating stress in third grade; so no, I suck at decorating our home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and I don’t encourage my children to make birthday cards for their friends because scissors, glue, markers, crayons and all other manner of artsy and crafty paraphernalia (junk) means one big mess that I will have to clean up and I’m paying thousands of dollars for my girls to go to school where there are experts aplenty in dealing with messes.  My cousin, C, who sends her daughters to elite public schools in Connecticut, tells me that all the kids are reading by the time they start kindergarten now and so she has diligently worked on building those reading skills in her children.  Even though I live under the pressure of knowing that Josh read when he was three, I just look at C like she’s crazy and continue to put minimal effort into teaching Mia what sound the letter Z makes.  When I was a child, I shunned books for television and watched eight hours of TV a day (doing homework during the commercials), which I credit for teaching me how to pronounce tricky words like “Prairie” as in “Little House on the Prairie”: and “Galactica” as in “Battle Star Galactica” – they were hard sounds to make considering I only spoke Vietnamese and Chinese at home and didn’t hear any English until I was four.  I wasn’t reading on grade level until 4th grade; even so I’d say my reading and writing skills are pretty good now.  That is the context in which I choose not to read to my girls every night and I almost never work with them on their reading skills.

I admire all the women out there who choose and actually enjoy being stay-at-home-moms.  I could never do it.  My children are a very big part of my life, but there is more in me that needs to be nurtured than my maternal instincts.  I remember a few months ago when I was feeding my girls blueberry oatmeal – yes, I spoon feed my children even though everyone says you shouldn’t because I remember how my mother used to spoon feed me as I watched TV and how much I enjoyed the food so much more that way.  I actually said out loud to them, “OK girls, hurry up and eat.  I have better things to do with my life than sit here and feed you oatmeal.”  After I made the statement, I said to Josh, still shocked that I’d actually verbalized the sentiment, “Wow, so many people would be horrified if they heard me say that to my kids.”  Well, be horrified if you must, but I’m willing to bet a lot of mothers feel the same way, but are just afraid to say so.

And if I felt mediocre at best before cancer, I often times feel like a downright failure as a mother post cancer.  Fatigue, nausea, weird tingling and just the general strain of living with a black cancer cloud overhead not only makes me even less inclined to do all the things that I see supermoms doing, but it has destroyed whatever order was once in this household – a tenuous thing when dealing with young children to say the least without cancer in the air.  I succumb to whining pleas for snacks and treats because sometimes I just don’t have the energy to fight and because I just want some peace and quiet even for just 10 minutes.  I agree to lay down with Belle at bedtime and let them sleep in my bed sometimes – something I never did before – because I think that my time with them is in all probability limited and that I need to spend that time holding my girls as much as possible.  But children need rules, boundaries and consistency and when the rules are broken too often, the boundaries become blurred and consistency waivers, disaster reigns.  And that is what has happened because of cancer.  I break all the rules I once enforced so vigorously.  It makes me feel terrible about myself, weak and a horrible mother.

I may not have been one of those mothers all into the arts and crafts stuff, but I was really into cooking for my kids.  I made fancy bento box lunches for Mia with things like avocado roles and morning glory mini muffins made with whole wheat flour.  I learned from my own upbringing that food is love and my cooking and constant efforts to teach my girls to eat a diverse, healthy and constantly evolving array of foods was my way of showing them love.  It’s important to me that my girls become intellectually curious about the world, hopefully lovers of travel and all the wonders that the world has to offer.  For me, food is the first step towards that goal, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job.  Mia’s favorite dishes are chicken tikka masala, broccoli cheddar soup with brown rice and broiled salmon with roasted cauliflower and broccoli.  Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve lost all desire to cook.  There are no new foods, pizza and macaroni and cheese make more of an appearance these days and Mia eats school lunch.

Often, cancer robs me of whatever little patience I have.  I’m not a very patient person to begin with.  I tend to give orders and yell when my patience is tested and skip all the sweet talking and attempts at reasoning.  Mia, Belle, do it now! If you don’t do what I say by the time I count to three, you’re going to getting time out.  You’ll hear that kind of yelling more often these days but instead of time out, I’ll threaten spanking.  Compounding the stresses of cancer is Mia’s transformation into a very challenging and petulant child who tests and pushes me at every turn (even though she’s an angel for everyone else) – I want to eat puffs now; no! I want to wear the new shoes in the store before you pay for them; I only wear purple and pink so I’m not going to wear anything you picked for me.  I don’t think the Terrible 2s were that terrible at all; they’re nothing compared to the Fearsome 4s!  My mother-in-law assures me that four year olds go through a “transitional” phase and that they become nicer closer to their fifth birthday – seriously, do I have to wait almost another whole year for this behavior to improve?

Things with me and Mia hit rock bottom the Monday before Thanksgiving on the B41 going down Flatbush Avenue during rush hour.  I managed to find two seats for the girls and told them to sit still while I went to swipe my Metrocard.  I rushed back to them through the throng of people since they were both screaming at the top of their lungs.  Mia had kicked Belle because she wanted Mommy to sit next to her which caused Belle to hit back.  It was one of those moments when everyone on the bus was staring at me, some with annoyance, some with pity and some with understanding.  I told Mia in my best low but threatening voice, “Be quiet right now!  You do not behave like this on a bus with this many people around.  You know better than that.  When we get home you will received the worst spanking of your life.”  With that I yanked her and her sister, still screaming, out of their seats and dragged them to the door at the back of the bus in anticipation of getting off at the next stop.  Of course, it was Flatbush Avenue at rush hour so I stood there for what seemed like forever with the folded stroller over one shoulder and a child’s hand in each of mine, swaying with the movements of the bus.  Since I had no free hand to hold onto a railing, other passengers had to prop me up so I wouldn’t fall.  Mia screamed all the way home.  I spanked her three times and sent her to her room.  I then screamed some incoherent things into the air, pounded the kitchen counter and then went on with heating dinner, feeding them, bathing them and putting them to bed (without reading a bedtime story).  In some ways, it’s a good thing that cancer happened to me when my children are so young because they don’t understand what’s going on.  Mia who might soon understand for now thinks that being sick is having a cold.  That being said, because they are so young, they don’t know how to moderate their behavior to help their poor suffering mother and give her a break.  So, they just take and take and take, even though these days I feel like I don’t have much to give, and often I find myself totally depleted, filling with an aching emptiness, exhausted and defeated.

So we arrived in Greenville, South Carolina, Josh’s hometown the day before Thanksgiving, I feeling fairly worn down and depressed about my ability to successfully raise my children while living with cancer.  I was grateful to my father- and mother-in-law and others in Josh’s family for providing distractions for the girls and giving me a break.  Thanksgiving dinner was prepared by one of Josh’s sisters, K.  K, a pediatrician seemed to have picked up a stomach bug from one of her patients because she was immediately incapacitated after Thanksgiving dinner.  Within 24 hours, K’s husband and two daughters were also sick.  Within 36 hours, my father- and mother-in-law, other sister-in-law and her boyfriend, Mia and Belle were also sick.  Since Belle doesn’t eat, she did not throw up; she just acted lethargic for about 24 hours.  Mia, on the other hand, went to bed on Friday evening seemingly fine.  At midnight, she was whimpering in her sleep and soon was awake crying and complaining about her stomach hurting.  For the next hour she tossed and turned and complained, and then at 1:30 the vomiting began.  She threw up right onto the queen sized bed which Belle was also sleeping on.  I got Mia into the bath, moved Belle into a spare twin bed, removed the dirty sheets, cleaned the mess and put Mia and myself into the same twin bed.  There would be another two baths that night and multiple changes of clothes.  Mia mastered the art of throwing up into the toilet.  I held my little girl’s hair back as she bent over the toilet, told her that the good germs were fighting off the bad germs in her tummy and that being sick was part of becoming a big girl.  Mia doesn’t stay up at nights when she’s sick.  This was a totally new experience for her and she was scared.  I held her in my arms and told her to not be afraid, that I was there with her and that it would all be okay.  “I hate being sick,” she cried.  “And I’m going to be tired tomorrow,” she whined.  I laughed and told her that she could sleep as much as she wanted.  I was not impatient or resentful or annoyed at her for all her crying and for the many times she woke me up that night to throw up again and again and for the multiple baths and changes of clothes.  I wasn’t tired.  I was there for my little girl when she needed me.  I knew that I was a good mother that night, that cancer hasn’t robbed me of the ability to take care of my children when it really matters. [Side note:  Josh and I were spared from the stomach bug.  Who would have thought the girl on chemo would be immune?]

My mother never decorated the house for Halloween or Thanksgiving or Christmas (because we didn’t celebrate those holidays).  She didn’t make fancy cupcakes for the school bake sales because, like most Chinese women, she doesn’t know how to bake.  She didn’t read bedtime stories to me or teach me how to read.  She didn’t do a lot of those things that I would have categorized as supermom things.  But I always knew she loved me.  She was always there.  She hovered over me at countless doctor appointments, asking in her broken English what I thought were such stupid and annoying questions, but she didn’t care.  She agonized for hours over buying a red jacket for me for $80 because she wanted me to have it but we were so poor – I wore that jacket long after it became too tight and short.  Yes, she would get up early to cook breakfast and dinner before work, just as I once did before I was diagnosed with cancer.  I have hope that I will return to cooking one day soon, that I will rediscover my joy in the process.  My point is though that we as mothers sometimes put the emphasis on the wrong things, the things that really don’t matter at the end of the day – the holiday decorations and the fancy birthday parties and the most educational toys and pushing our children to read as early as possible – truly, what do those things really matter?  Cancer has made me realize that what really matters is love and for me love shines through these days when despite my pump being attached to me, I jump out of bed at the first sound of crying from the other room.  It shines through when I’m so so tired but still manage to get up and get the kids ready for school.  It is evident when I lie with them at night even if I’m breaking my own rules.  Love for them lives in every word of this blog.  I have faith that my girls will remember what I do for them despite the cancer and that they will know without a doubt how very much I love them.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Holly Han
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 12:22:21

    You’re a wonderful mom. And cancer just wears us down. I agree, the children not understanding, is a blessing I think. And, I laughed when I read “OK girls, hurry up and eat. I have better things to do with my life than sit here and feed you oatmeal.”


  2. Maxine
    Dec 04, 2013 @ 12:33:25

    Dear Julie: I never did arts and crafts or decorated my house over certain holidays, but my daughters love me dearly and know how deeply I have loved them. Through the years I have always been by their side to help them when they needed me and worried about them all the time. That is true love and sacrifice…the other is just gingerbread! So what if they do not eat “home cooked meals” or your house is not decorated with home made arts and crafts….believe me in the long run it really does not take away from the warmth and caring that you give them.


  3. Lisa
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 05:00:45

    This was so moving. I can totally relate. it is about love and not about perfection.


  4. Kris
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 13:09:24

    Julie, your love of your girls shines through every time you write about them. You are right that the important thing is that your girls know you love them and are there for them. Do things with them that you all love to do together.

    When it comes to parenting while having cancer, you have to do what is right for you and your family and that may not fit anyone else’s image. Cut yourself a fair bit of slack. Parenting is hard enough when healthy, so when so much of your energy and strength are taken up with fighting cancer, of course you have to adapt. That said, sometimes kids pick up on a lot more than we expect. They often sense that something is wrong from the changes in their lives or the moods of people around them. Especially at their young ages, consistency makes kids feel more secure, so as much as you and Josh are able to keep rules and routines in place may help Mia and Belle. Mia’s acting out is pretty typical for 4, but it is also pretty typical of a kid who senses something is going on but doesn’t understand. I don’t know if you have told them anything about your illness, but super simple explanations can help kids gradually start to understand as best they can why things are different, why you may be tired or look different, why they may be spending more time with family members, etc. And while I am very hopeful you get through this and have many, many more years with your girls, if you don’t, telling them a little while you are fighting cancer will give them time to absorb the idea of illness before they have to face the even more challenging concept of death.

    I work with children with cancer, so these tips are things I share with parents on a regular basis. But they are just that: tips. Not rules, not standards. Take what feels right to you and leave the rest. Because as I said before, the most important thing is sharing your love with your kids, and you are clearly doing that.


  5. Faith
    Dec 05, 2013 @ 14:08:20

    A huge AMEN to all of this! I think just about any mom could relate to what you say here, Julie. I definitely go through seasons where I feel like a terrible mother for any number of reasons that are much less severe and draining than fighting cancer. Can’t even tell you how many times I’ve said to my girls, “I have better things to do than sit here and…XYZ” — and honestly, I think it’s good for them to hear that sometimes! I’m convinced that the terrible 2s last from 18 months through 4 years — 5 and 6 seem much better, so there’s hope. And stomach bugs are the absolute worst, and it sounds like you were a true supermom in how you handled it! We don’t have to be perfect for our kids to know that we love them — I think love shines through best when we love them in ways that are true to ourselves.


  6. Paula McKenna
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 16:19:55

    Hi Julie, I meant to contact you sooner, I’m sorry you are going through this. I laughed and cried while reading your blog. I am now a dedicated fan. Your gift of words made my day a little brighter.


    • julielyyip
      Dec 10, 2013 @ 16:52:48

      Paula, I’m also so sorry about what you are going through. I’m glad my words brightened your day. Look for another hopefully good post soon. All the best to you, Paula.


  7. Shan
    Dec 25, 2013 @ 20:28:30

    You are a wonderful mother! And I have no doubt your kids feel your love and feel safe and secure in it.


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