Chronic illness in a parent creates a unique dynamic between them and their children.
Whereas in most homes, the parents are carrying the heaviest load in running the household, in chronic illness homes, the kids are forced to pick up a much more significant amount of that weight. Despite the fact that the chronically ill parent may want to shoulder the load alone, or even experience guilt and depression that they can’t, the simple fact is that a chronic illness parent doesn’t have the capability to do it.
I learned a long time ago that if I want to be there for my kids in any sort of functional way, they had to be there for me. I have limited energy so I have to spend it wisely. If I spend my energy doing dishes and folding laundry, I will be in bed when my kids want to play or go to the park.
I use to have serious parental guilt over the quandary that my chronic illness put me in. How could I be the parent I wanted to be for them if I couldn’t do everything I wanted for them? I felt like I wasn’t measuring up as a mom. If I made my kids shoulder my chores I felt bad for them but then if I did them and had to skip making great memories doing things together and I also felt bad. There is no way to win!
My kids are a bit older now and in or on the precipice of those teenage years so I am able to look back with a little bit of insight into what chronic illness parenting does to a child.
I have to say, I’m pleasantly surprised to find out that most of my guilt was in vain.
Chronic illness taught my kids some great lessons that have shaped them into wonderful, beautiful people.
Here are 5 good things they’ve learned from my chronic illness.
My children have developed a truly amazing grasp of empathy. They respond to the pain and suffering of others with great maturity and insight. They know from having a parent with a chronic illness, the practice of how to care and be supportive. They have learned how to care for others and what it looks like to show their support in tangible ways that matter.
They have also seen what it is like to have people judge a struggle by what they see and have also seen what suffering was hidden from those judgemental eyes. As a result, they have learned to consider others need mercy, and to give it to them.
We live in a world of instant gratification. We are so used to things happening instantaneously that we tap our foot in front of the microwave for having to wait a full minute for warm food. Patience is quickly becoming a dying trait in the world. This makes me especially grateful that my chronic illness forced my children to learn this better.
Because my energy is so limited my children have had to routinely wait. Plans to do things and go places have to be spread out for me, and even then, sometimes they are delayed further. If we plan a big energy expenditure this weekend then we take time off for me to recover, no matter how anyone feels about it.
Waiting has developed the habit of patience in them. Their whining and complaining don’t give me energy, only time does that, and consequently, they have learned that patience reaps rewards. If they give me recovery time, they get to do more than if they try to force me to keep up with them and I crash for weeks. Now, they are happy to wait because experience has taught them that pushing things with impatience only creates more waiting. As a bonus, they are also learning great time management skills by watching me manage my energy levels through scheduling!
3. Self-discipline and Responsibility
Try as I may, to avoid crashing into the wall of my limitations, there are times when my chronic illness flares up and gets the best of me. When this happens, my children are more on their own than usual.
I can’t always physically can’t stand over them and make sure they are doing what is expected. Nor will I try to recover while yelling orders and threats from bed all day long. I need to rely on them to have the self-discipline to take care of things because they know they should be done. They have to be responsible enough to know what is expected and self-disciplined enough to do it on their own sometimes. My chronic illness has forced me to teach this quality to my children for my own sake and it has been a great benefit to them. These traits are necessary for a good and quality life, and they have learned it better because of this.
My children have watched my struggle with my health. They have observed the good and the bad of chronic illness nearly their entire lives. They’ve seen me say no to things or cancel plans and watch people get upset. They’ve noticed people criticizing the way I’ve done things without understanding my health forces me to do it that way. They’ve even recognized the feelings of being excluded, misunderstood, and often misjudged that accompany chronic illness.
As a result, they’ve learned they need to stand up for themselves sometimes, not because they can change someone else but because they need to be true to themselves. They have also learned that it is okay to be different because whether you see it or not, everyone is dealing with something.
It takes courage to be you and do what is right for you when it goes against the grain. They have learned this courage by observing the courage it takes to live with a chronic illness. They have even learned courage from their own set of adversities that they face in dealing with my chronic illness.
Sometimes they do miss out on things because of me. Sometimes they see me really, really sick. They’ve been there when I’ve been in the hospital, and when I’ve needed scary emergency surgery. They’ve heard the doctors talk about scary complications. They’ve read the facts about autoimmune disease that would make your hair stand on end. I know, and they know, still we smile and live well. That’s courage, my friend, and they learned it first hand through my chronic illness.
5. How to take care of their health
If there has been one major focus that chronic illness forces, it is on health. In my battle with chronic illness, nearly everything in my life has become related to how it affects my health.
My children do not see food, medicine, toiletries, travel, exercise, cleaning products, or more through the lens of someone who has never had to deal a crazy immune system that causes them to have a negative impact on health. When they make their plates, they are as aware of nutrition as I am because it has simply become an everyday way our home has had to change our thinking in order to help my chronic illness.
They know that everything you come into contact with affects your immune system because they have watched me have the weirdest immune reactions to things time and time again. They know that exercise is important to maintain your health because they witness the struggle for me to continue moving normally each day.
They have learned that health is not an unlimited resource we don’t have to think about because their shining example reminds them of that every single day. My chronic illness has taught them that their bodies are precious and need to be taken care of. They have learned to take care of their health by having a parent with a chronic illness.
If you are a parent with a chronic illness, the tendency is to feel that it only takes away from what you have to offer your children. That is not true.
While according to popular ideas that a child should only have rainbows and butterflies along flower lined paths in life it may not match up, the truth is our kids need character which often times come from just the kind of diversity our chronic illness offers.
No, your chronic illness may not allow you to offer your children the idyllic life of pleasure you envisioned for them, but it offers them something far greater. It offers them the chance to develop real character and the stuff that makes greatness.
So stop feeling guilty. I for one, am grateful to have children that I can watch grow in a deeper understanding of empathy, show patience, behave responsibly and with self-discipline, be courageous when it’s called for, and who know how to take care of their health.
That, to me, is far greater a reward than being able to always carry the load I feel guilty about sharing.