I have a chronic stress injury from being a mom. Like, actually. I have had shoulder pain for about 18 months, shoulder pain that I would shrug off (well I would if it didn’t hurt), that I would dismiss, and generally ignore as best I could.
Women often push our pain (internal or external) aside, push our issues aside, to better take care of others. It may be generally in our nature to take care of one another, but there is an element to it, especially with mothers, that it is also in our societal programming.
Despite the pain, I didn’t want to have to go to the doctor because making appointments during the week would require my husband to take time off work to be with our child. I didn’t want to use any of our money for an injury that I hoped would resolve on its own (regardless of the fact that injury was brought on by the very selfless acts of birthing/nursing/carrying/holding). I didn’t want to be told that I would have to immobilize it or stop doing things that I need to do to take care of my child, my household. Mostly, I didn’t want to be seen as selfish.
The notion that motherhood requires constant selflessness is a damaging one. From pregnancy, we are literally living for someone else. When the baby is small, we insist that their needs come first. They are too fragile to not. Yet, our programming is such that once our kids are beyond this stage, we must continue to live solely for our children, lest we be perceived as selfish.
If we work, we are selfish. If we stay at home, we are not setting a good example of a career woman for our children, and thus selfish. With pregnancy, the flip gets switched so quickly from being allowed to be an autonomous, independent person to being required to live and breathe only for this child.
Yet by March of this year, the pain had become unbearable. Picking up my child would send radiating pain through my collar bone. Reaching for a dish high up in the cupboard would leave me clutching my shoulder. It was getting worse with inattention, not better. Selfish or not, I needed help.
Finally, I went to see a physical therapist. This smart, brash, seventy-something woman has been an angel in my life. She has told me at every appointment how I must take care of myself. How I must be better to my body. That we take our bodies, our health, our mobility for granted. That women, in particular, struggle to prioritize our wellness until the pain becomes unbearable, at which point the road to recovery is so much longer and, sometimes not even guaranteed.
Since starting this therapy, both physical and kind of emotional with all of her encouraging words and support, I have become increasingly more aware of my body. Increasingly more aware of my habits.
Before PT, I would try to do it all. I would do all diaper changes even if my husband was around, I would carry the stroller down the stairs, I would lug the groceries out of the car. I rarely asked for help, and my husband, as wonderful as he is, would wait for me to ask.
It didn’t occur to me that this injury (ultimately diagnosed as a rotated rib [possibly from childbirth. I know] and chronic stress injury from holding/nursing/lifting for two years) was enough reason to preclude me from doing these things. Pain is a big, loud horn saying “STOP” and still it took me almost two years to listen to it. It would hurt, but I would reach, carry, lift, strain over and over because it didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t.
“But I need to make dinner.”
“But I need to put the dishes away.”
“But his diaper is dirty.”
“But he wants up.”
After PT, my husband says to this reasoning,
“Well, I can do it.”
Oh. Yeah. You totally can. Why do I feel like I need to do it all?
After PT, it is our shorthand that when he is around, he does all diaper changes, lugging, carrying and hefting. If he sees me reaching for a glass, “Honey, get the step-stool.” If I start mindlessly massaging my shoulder, “Honey, put some ice on it.” He is invested in my care and wants me to get better. Yet, I still push it sometimes because I want to be helpful. I want to do it all. And, because, you know, guilt.
Before our nanny-share, my husband would have to stay home from work to watch the kiddo for my appointments, and I would feel guilty. When the pain is flaring up and my husband does have to do all the things, I feel guilty for not helping. When my son wants UP!!!! and I have to explain to him that I can’t because my shoulder hurts, I have the biggest guilt pangs of all. I crouch down and give him a hug, but it’s not the same for either of us.
Even though my recovery is slow-going (as my PT explained to me all orthopedic injuries are), it is helping immensely. I’m in less and less pain every week. And despite knowing this, experiencing this and feeling unbelievably grateful such care is available to me, I STILL have guilt.
Guilt around taking care of myself. Guilt for doing all the things necessary to ensure that this doesn’t become a lifelong issue, that I won’t need highly intensive interventions somewhere down the line. Guilt for spending time and money on myself.
This is the danger of the programming. This is the danger in telling moms we are not allowed to be independent people. Because the thing is, we ARE independent people. My body is separate. My body is mine and I need to take care of it because no one else will or can. My two-year-old is not going to say, “No need to pick me up mama, think about your shoulder.” He’s just going to be two and say “UP!!!”
I finally had to ask myself, what is this guilt doing for me? Is this emotion serving me in ANY way?
Because you know what? I need to be able to go to the damn doctor and not feel bad that by doing so, I’m not doing enough as a mom. Because actually, the opposite is true. If I ignored this, lived with the pain and let it get worse, let the pain inform my mobility, my mood, my days, then my son, my family would be affected far more negatively. By taking care of myself, I am more present, I am healthier, I am a better mom.
What I’m modeling for my son by taking good care of myself, whether it be by going to PT or getting my nails done or working out or locking myself away to read a book because I just need to be quiet for awhile, is that I value myself. I respect my body. I honor its limitations. I will always go above and beyond for my kiddo, but only so far as is healthy. Because I am a person, too.
The guilt just incurs suffering. It only serves to make me feel insecure, lesser-than, unstable for no reason other than it being the cultural expectation that I do so. I’m being microaggressive to myself.
So let’s dispel this programming. Let’s banish this guilt. Mothers are people. We are vital to our children AND we are vital to ourselves. Our children deserve us at our most balanced, at our healthiest. But more importantly, we deserve ourselves at our most balanced, at our healthiest.
Whatever it is you’ve been putting off or neglecting for fear of being perceived as selfish, I encourage you to GO FOR IT. Schedule that massage. Take that seminar. Go on that trip. The only thing you’ll be guilty of is being a human with needs, a woman who loves herself, and a mom who is changing the conversation on what it means to be enough.