A Health Crisis Turned Me Into A Better Mom

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My stomach hadn’t been feeling quite right, but I was too busy to look into it. As a working parent of two with a husband who travels, life felt over-full and I couldn’t take on anything else. Then came a weekend of pain so bad it couldn’t be ignored. At first it had looked like a gallbladder attack but it soon escalated into bigger issues and curled me into a ball of hurt that continued for months.

Eating made my symptoms worse and I quickly withered into a weakened version of my former self. I dragged myself to various doctor’s offices, hoping they could fix me. It took so much effort simply to get to these appointments that I had no strength left to carry all those spinning plates I’d been balancing for so long. You know the plates. All moms do.

So I dropped them. All of them.

Nothing gives you focus like pain. You suddenly know what you can do. You absolutely know what you can’t. Saying “yes” or “no” becomes a whole lot easier—and more honest.

So I said no to the big holiday party we host every year. And no to volunteering to be class mom and chaperoning the fall social. No to work assignments that were uninspiring or underpaying. No to projects at home that I’d already fallen behind on, like organizing the basement playroom and pulling down seasonal decorations from the attic. I said no to participating in the book club I loved being in for the great gaggle of women, the conversation, and, of course, the wine. And no to all kinds of dinner invitations, parties, and work conferences. Getting my kids to their classes and sports meant asking for help from neighbors and fellow teammates’ parents.

Eventually, the doctors figured me out. My gallbladder needed to be removed, I had a stomach inflamed with gastritis, and I’d developed an allergy to dairy, all at the same time. I got my surgery, took my medicine, and altered my diet. I slowly recovered, gradually gaining back my strength.

As I did, I took a long, hard look at all the plates scattered around me on the floor, feeling the shadow of their weight in my empty palms.

How on earth had I been carrying that load for so long—and why? Just because I could do it all doesn’t mean I should have been. This is why, as awful as my health crisis was at times, I am grateful for the experience.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable when people gush that moms are “magic” because they’re capable of shouldering so much. Why do we praise this and in so doing, perpetuate it? Of course, what moms pull off is far from magic—it’s hard work. Exhausting work, honestly, that I often find myself doing with a smile that hides my relentless anxiety about whether I’m forgetting something important as I set color-coded reminders in my phone and write up family flow charts on a whiteboard in my kitchen so everyone knows where I’ll be hustling them off to next.

I realized I’d been on autopilot, so busy taking everything on that I forgot that there are people all around me who have free hands. My husband can make sure our kids’ school projects get made on time. My kids can do laundry, dishes, and more. My neighbors are happy to carpool. The visiting grandparents know how to make dinner and where I keep the spare bedding. I did not have to take on every facet of motherhood by myself.

As I recovered, I quietly picked up some of the plates again. My marriage and family plates went back up first. Instead of lying in the dark TV room by myself because engaging with anyone at all was too exhausting, I started hanging out with my crew again. Renting movies. Playing board games. Doing what I could just to be with them. As for friendships, I couldn’t lift every friendship plate right away, so I marked days on the calendar when I thought I’d be ready for a short outing that would truly be worth it, like meeting for breakfast, or a game night in. Of course my friends always understood—it’s why we are friends. One by one I re-sorted and re-prioritized what to pick back up and when – and with clearer eyes than ever before. This has made all the difference in the weight of those plates.

Best part was some plates stayed on the floor where they belonged. Like volunteering for school trips that ate into time I could have been using to write my dream novel, or doling out favors for free that should have been paid consulting work. I could now acknowledge that these things mentally drained me, making me resent agreeing to them in the first place. This is not a contest. The mom with the busiest schedule wins nothing.

I feel so much better now. Not just because of the doctors’ help, but because I am no longer so focused on keeping all of those precariously stacked plates upright. All the effort it required had lessened my enjoyment of motherhood, really, and prevented me from taking care of myself. Months of being physically incapable of doing much of anything gave me the practice I needed to politely turn down requests and to continue asking for help once I was healthy again.

Oh, and don’t get me wrong, plates do still hover above me. But now they are up there being held up by my hands, by my choice.

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Kim Bongiorno loves writing everything from tweets to full-length fantastical fiction. She lives in NJ with her husband and two kids, who are wonderfully tolerant of her book hoarding tendencies. Follow her on Twitter @letmestart or learn more at KimBongiornoWrites.