Let me tell you a little bit about the way I parent. I talk about feelings. A lot. When my son, Oliver is laughing, I acknowledge that he is happy or that something is silly. When he hits me, I tell him that I notice that he’s angry (although hitting is not allowed). And when he cries, I hold him close and let him know that I know that he feels sad. I never tell him not to cry. I just ask him to let me know when he is done and that I’ll wait until he is. Crying is a normal reaction to sadness, anger and frustration in our household. It’s a human reaction and we treat it as such.
It’s been my position since the beginning of this whole cancer business to be as upfront and honest with Oliver as possible. While he is too young to understand cancer and what it means, he perceptive and observant and knows instantly when something is different. It’s amazing how he questions everything in his world, making sure it is all as it should be or he will find out the reason why it’s not.
When I had my mastectomy, I didn’t hide my wound or scar from him. He watched me change my drains, clean my wounds, he has seen me in pain. When chemo took my hair, I didn’t hide it with a hat, pretending nothing was different. I slowly introduced my new look to him, letting him know that this was the new me, the new mommy for a while. When I started wearing compression sleeve and bandaging my arm due to lymphedema, I let him know that I was having problems with my arm. Honesty and openness have been my policy, while making sure that all information was developmentally appropriate.
I don’t know if I have always gotten it right. What is the right way to explain the side effects of cancer to a toddler anyway? I just know that I have always tried my best. But the one area where I have faltered and questioned my choices is when I have cried. Which has been a lot, especially lately. For whatever reason, I have been okay with Oliver seeing my physical wounds but I feel the need to protect him from my emotional ones. I don’t want him to see me cry.
There are times when Oliver has caught me crying. He’ll come up to me and say, “Mommy, you are crying?” This would be a perfect opportunity to let him know that mommies get sad too and cry sometimes. That it’s ok and human. But that’s not what I have done. I quickly wipe my tears and swallow my sadness. “No, mommy is not crying. Mommy is happy!” “You are happy?” “Yes, you make me happy.” And he does. That’s not a lie. But life has made it hard to smile in this last year. I’ve had to cry a lot.
What am I afraid of? Why can’t I cry in front of Oliver? First of all, I don’t want to scare him. I think that seeing a parent cry can be frightening for a child. We are supposed to be a pillar of strength. In control. Crying can represent a break in that control, of things falling apart. Secondly, sometimes I cry a lot. I don’t want him to know me as someone who is sad all the time. I don’t want him to begin blaming himself for my sadness. But mostly I want to protect him. I want to protect him from all that is evil and dark and broken in this world. And right now, I am broken. I’m slowly picking up the broken pieces of my life after a traumatizing year and gluing them back together into a new, imperfect me. But as I glue those pieces back into place, you can still see the cracks from where I shattered. It is from those cracks that I am vulnerable.
Is it wrong to let him see my vulnerabilities? I believe in my heart that the answer is no. I think it is important for Oliver to see that I am human. I think it’s important to trust him with my feelings so that he knows that he isn’t alone in his. I want him to always let me know what is on his mind but I think that trust comes with a mutual respect and sharing. And yet…. And yet, I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can share this crippling sadness, pain and fear with him. I don’t want him to ever have to know.
Do you cry in front of your children? Are there people you feel comfortable crying in front of and other you won’t let see you cry?