My son was just shy of a year and a half when I found out I had cancer so explaining to him what was about to happen wasn’t really an option…let’s be honest I didn’t even know what was about to happen. I mean how do you explain cancer to an innocent baby/toddler? I remember thinking, it’ll be fine, he’s too young for any of this to even register. All he’ll see is mommy getting a haircut, it’ll be fine. Oh the lies we tell ourselves!!
From the time my son was laid in my arms I was in love with him (okay I was in love with him the minute I found out I was pregnant), he became my whole world. I’d always heard that boys and their moms have the best relationships. That boys grow into men and that they always take care of their mamas. From the beginning I felt like we had an amazing bond. I sang to him regularly, held him as much as I could and basically smothered him with my love. When I found out I had cancer I told myself that none of that would change.
Unfortunately, even toddlers are perceptive enough to know something isn’t right when mommy is too sick to get out of bed every other week, smells different (thanks cancer drugs), stops singing, and goes bald overnight. Not to mention being so drained of life that play time becomes strained and less and less lively.
The fact of the matter is when I started chemo I stopped being able to be the mom I was before. No one expected me to be the mom I was before, however, toddlers and even young children don’t understand illness, depression, grief and suffering. So they do the only thing they know how and they pull away, act out and become different themselves. They evolve around the situation. As the treatments went on, as I became less and less recognizable to myself, I felt my son starting to pull away, almost as if he no longer recognized me. I don’t really remember how it started, I felt like one day he just woke up and didn’t want to be around me, obviously that wasn’t entirely the case but our relationship had definitely changed.
He lashed out, he was noticeably more agitated and oftentimes seemed downright angry. There were evenings when my husband was working that I would go to bed in tears because my once happy toddler had turned into a hitter, bitter and screamer. I’d fall asleep saying things like “This is just a phase, tomorrow will be better.” Tomorrow wasn’t. Now I’m not writing this for pity or to shame my son but to hopefully help another mom going through the same thing, to tell her it is okay, it sucks and it breaks your heart but it’s not your fault. I also, on occasion, still have to tell myself the same things.
The good news is, eventually the chemo stops, radiation stops, surgical wounds heal and your toddler or young child starts to see their mom again, not that ghost of a women you were when things were at their worst. After almost two years, things are getting better. I sing again, I smell like me, I’ve got hair and when I smile it’s full of life and love for a son that I thank God for every day.
They say life with a toddler is hard, cancer or no cancer, that’s just part of being a parent. You add on to that a toddler with his moms stubbornness and his dads low flash point and you’ve got a recipe for many tears and worries about whether or not you’ve messed up somewhere along the way regardless of the cancer.
There are days where I still wonder if cancer caused irreparable damage to my sweet boy. I ponder what he’d be like today if I hadn’t gotten cancer. Would he still have these moments of intense anger if he’d never had to watch his mom battle cancer, to young to communicate the emotions and stress verbally?
Unfortunately we’ll never know what life would’ve been like if I’d never gotten cancer, and I pray daily that the stress he felt during the last 1 1/2 years fades and that he uses that stubbornness he inherited from his parents to do amazing things with his life. I see glimmers of this, on days when he is the happiest, as he takes my hand to walk me around the house after my last surgery or wakes from his nap needing to check on me downstairs while I am recovering. There’s hope he won’t remember this time in his life and that my husband and I can continue to shape him into the amazing man we both know he is going to be.
So to all my fellow cancer mommies, don’t give up hope, don’t beat yourself up for getting cancer. Each day that bond with your toddler/child will get stronger, as you grow stronger.