To a child, a parent is their entire world. Children don’t think of the logistics of what it takes to put a roof over their head, to feed them, to get them to school, all under regular circumstances. To them, parents are invincible – at least most of the time. Parents are largely just the people who say no to extra treats or to sleepovers on school nights, they are the people who make us wash up before meals and make us bathe before bed. But they are also our safety net – cuddling us to sleep and checking under the bed for monsters and assuring us that everything will be fine. For a child, a parent showing their vulnerability especially at a young age is a very scary thing.
As parents we feel a need to shield our children from the bad things in this world, which, however good the intention, can sometimes backfire. I have stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer and when my cancer returned, my daughter Avery was 3 years old. I didn’t want to tell a 3 year old that her mother was sick, let alone that she had cancer but kids are very perceptive; they often catch on quickly that something is wrong and it can throw your child a curve ball. I’m not saying you need to tell your kids all the ins and outs of the cancer world, kids handle information in different ways depending on where they are in life. But it’s important to be honest with them and to ask them questions about how they feel and answer any questions they ask. Sometimes leaving them in the dark can be the scariest thing for them; as adults, we know what ‘cancer’ in the general sense is, but kids don’t.
My husband and I thought there was a ‘right way’ to parent through cancer and at first we thought that over the short term we could easily manage everything on our own. But it was only a matter of months before we had to sell our house and move in with my parents. Over the course of the last few years, we have learned that there really isn’t a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’ to parent through cancer, its just finding a way that works for your unique situation. We had to find alternate ways to balance our changing lifestyle needs. For us, it was helpful to establish new routines we could hold on to, especially when life was unpredictable. When I was really sick and couldn’t manage to get out of bed much, Avery and I would share a special bedtime routine every night, just the two of us. It was the perfect way for me to keep feeling involved by having her still connected to me. As things progressed and our situation changed, so have our routines. Luckily we have always managed to hold on to our bedtime routine.
My family recently started attending a family cancer support group. Even though we have been dealing with the cancer game for more than 4 years, we have learned so much from this group about how to deal with cancer as a family. The facilitators who meet with the children start with the basics – what cancer is, that it isn’t contagious, that it can be anywhere in the body (they discuss specifically where it is in relation to the parents in the support group) – and they teach all about cells and how cancer cells go crazy. The children also learn some general facts about side effects and treatment. They put on little plays and they act it out in dramatic and funny ways but you can tell that they understand what they are learning. In all these years, I have never thought of explaining things to my daughter the way these wonderful facilitators have. If you have a local cancer agency that has a parent-child workshop or support group I would highly recommend scoping it out!
Avery started kindergarten when I was in treatment and has only ever been in school while I have been sick. We have always kept her school teachers, principals and extra curricular instructors informed about our life situation so they can keep an eye on her. We wondered if she needed the added attention of a professional (a counselor or psychologist) but our school’s administration suggested that they would let us know how things were progressing at school – and so far things have gone well. The school has been very co-operative in trying to maintain some cohesion in Avery’s life by keeping some of her classmates the same every year and updating us regularly. I think it’s important to keep people who are involved in your child’s life ‘in the loop’ (as my mother would say) because it’s easier to notice if something’s amiss. We’ve found this to be quite helpful over the last few years.
It really is all about making things work for you and your life. For a child, meaning can be found in even the smallest things. For me, it wasn’t about the quantity of time I spent with my daughter (although I craved it), it was about the quality of time. We never wanted our daughter to feel like she was all alone in this. We gave her all the answers we could to the questions she asked and we wanted her to know it’s okay to ask anything she wants. I felt it was important for her to feel included in important decisions within our little family even if they had already been made. I won’t pretend to have all the answers because I don’t, no one does. In our experience, it was all about flexibility and finding the routines that worked for us. No one is perfect, and part of parenting is all about learning. I think cancer just speeds up the process.
Amy Aubin is a two-time cancer fighter, law student (soon to be lawyer), blogger and mother who lives with her husband and daughter just outside of Toronto. Her story has been featured in the docuseries Valleys on local and national television, radio, print and internet publications and her blog. Bobloblaw’s Medical Blog has been featured on the Strombo Show, and the social networks of Young Adult Cancer Canada and the Pink Pearl Foundation. To follow her journey, visit http://aubgall.blogspot.ca.