I so totally want to skip Mother's Day this year. Can I disappear for just this one day? Do you know of a country that doesn't make a big deal about Mother's Day? Can I just quietly slide there without anyone noticing?
Can I please ignore all preppy mommies and toddlers rolling in the grass type TV ads? Can I pretend not to see the magazine pages of young moms aging to wise old moms? Can someone delete all emails I get about "you still have time" mostly implying, buy stuff for Mother's Day?
I would really like to not be reminded of Mother's Day this year.
I admit, I feel awful. I am angry at myself. I feel guilty. I feel sad.
I am a mom and I have metastatic breast cancer, the kind that kills.
Being a mother, "technically" (my nine year old son's favorite word) I should gladly participate in the annual honoring of moms. I should look forward to the printed pink gift bag packed with some combination of a pretty mug, a fragrant candle, ditty print pajamas, spa certificate or a piece of jewelry. I should be excited at the thought of receiving handmade cards or the flowers or chocolate-coated strawberries that I will duly "share" (read: get only one) with my kids.
But I feel disengaged from all of it. I am just not feeling it this year. I feel like a lame-ass mother. I have never neglected my kids, or been an addict (Facebook addiction is questionable) or abused them (feeding them avocados and broccoli is NOT abuse) but the mother inside of me is ambivalent and distraught.
My motherhood is plagued with cancer. Those who know me will probably vow to my brilliance as a mother (ok, maybe; and, yes, brilliance is somewhat of an exaggeration). I think I can even get my kids to say that I am a good mom (coercion is a supermom skill) but in my heart I feel guilty and undeserving of this acknowledgment.
Can we just skip Mother's Day this year?
I do not want the tray of breakfast in bed, I really don't. After chemotherapy and spells of vomiting as I sat in bed, can I please take a raincheck on anything to do with food (cooked or partially digested) and laying in bed?
One of my favorite rituals of Mother's Day has been the traditional Pakistan breakfast served at Devon Ave in Chicago. Last year however, I couldn't tolerate the deep fried poori-bread(more oil than in the Gulf States in the Middle East) since I adapted a low carbohydrate life style after cancer (this does not mean I don't eat fruits and veggies, yes, stop right there with your dietary advice). I was very nauseated after barely eating a quarter of it and honestly, nausea does not trigger pretty memories.
As I was wiping my greasy fingers, I had told myself, the farther I move away from cancer, some of these awful memories would fade, but that hope was taken away from me for good this February.
The cancer was back to reclaim the strength, hope and courage it had mistakenly left behind. I am still raw from this recurrence. I am still trying to find a way to live peacefully knowing that my illness can no longer be cured. This mom, now officially has incurable cancer.
For the last nine years, I have felt infinitely special to be a mom. I have understood the hard work, the pain, the sorrow, the joy and the laughter this bond entails. My two children, 9 and 5 are the joy of my life, my life which has been now changed irreversibly. I may be that mom who took off before getting her job done. (Granted a mom's job is never done)
I have tried very hard to be the best mom I could be and to do whatever it takes to raise them well. Medicine has been my first love, the one for which I left my country, the one for which I turned down what many would consider "good proposals" (I come from a culture of arranged marriages) and made many lifelong sacrifices. But when my son was born, I had no qualms about going part time. I decided to remain part time until my youngest turned 5. She turned 5 and a month later, the cancer returned as metastasis in the liver.
But such is life, when does anything ever work out as planned?
A month after the recurrence, I quit my practice completely so I could enjoy the upcoming summer with my family. I know it's the right decision, at least for now, but I grieve the loss of my identity as a practicing physician for the last 20 some years. I worked through my entire treatment last time, through chemotherapy and through radiation but this time; the stakes are different. I want to maximize my time with my children.
Most often people don't fear death itself but its the suffering that is scary. When a mother suffers, a family suffers. I feel guilty for the suffering that all of us may be destined for. But I don't know how to protect them, the very basic job of a mother to shelter her young ones from suffering. How do I customize my motherhood right?
As a psychiatrist, I know there is no one right way of loving a child as long as they subjectively feel loved. I understand deeply how important a good mother is, in building the self esteem of a child. I am their mirroring object, their moral support, their nurturing influence and their safe place.
Motherhood as much joy as it entails, has also started to haunt me for I feel I am failing my children.
Two months ago, there were spots seen on the liver on the MRI. The spots that come with expiration date, similar to when you attend the company meeting and are enlightened about the declining profit margins and vague references to possible layoffs. That kind of feeling, where you know, it's time to clean up your resume and re-activate the "LinkedIn" and "Monster.com" account. The feeling where you hear rumors in the office that the company may merge with a competitor and nothing is guaranteed. The time when you do the math again of the expenses to see how many months you can pay house payments without a pay check. I am having those dark feelings about motherhood. I may lose this job because cancer may get me laid off.
How do you smile at your "boss", when you have the resignation letter in your drawer and pretend its all normal?
Can I honestly promise my kids that I will keep their handmade cards forever? The little plant that my daughter will bring from the Montessori, which I will vow to water every day, even on days when I feel awful. Is mommy lying to them?
I think about the day my oncologist called to confirm that the spots on the MRI were indeed breast cancer that had now spread to the liver. It was dinner time. I quietly took the phone call and went back to serving dinner. My husband and I put the kids to bed following our nightly ritual. I had decided to wait to "fall apart" until they went to bed.
I ruminate and battle these thoughts. I reflect on the essence of motherhood. I look at other moms with their pretty smiles and worries that don't extend beyond "What's for dinner?" or "What summer camp should I sign them up with?" with envy. I was one of them, three years ago. I wish I had stressed less than about the things that seem so trivial now.
I also know that all mothers, with or without cancer, have at one point or another seriously doubted their skill as a parent, have gone off to a corner and muttered under their breath, "If only I had not birthed you!" in anger, have lost it when tired and have felt guilty going to work.
Motherhood is a treacherous emotional journey, an experience that teaches you more than you ever wanted to know and learn. There is nothing comparable to the emotional growth it offers, when you put a "little" person above and beyond all your own needs. Every mother can relate to the times she has held her pee, only to fix a sandwich for her hungry child to the point she has almost wet herself or the time when she woke up at 3:00 am to check her child's fever. I have experienced many such moments and feel lucky for those times.
Motherhood beyond all is love and sacrifice and that is what I must deliver, with or without cancer. My motherhood has been my strength in my fight against cancer and the fire in my belly. I have fought hard to live for my kids.
So, perhaps, a celebration is in order with a healthy side of denial and hope.
And as far as next year, oh well, as my friends say: It isn't guaranteed for any one!