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A Good Mother and a Sick Child

I’ve already missed the deadline on this article, twice. I had to be coaxed into writing it, even though the idea was mine. My day job has suffered, too; suddenly my reputation for attention-to-detail, respect for deadlines and fast turnaround times turned into that of an excuse-spouting mom. The excuse, of course, is my son.

About two months ago, my son ended up in the hospital, hooked up to with drips and pumped full of antibiotics, owing to a congenital problem that makes him vulnerable to opportunistic infections. It also means on a regular basis he struggles to keep food down, has loose motions, little energy and needs to eat a special low-protein diet.

We were on holiday, when repeated bouts of nausea and vomiting over 24 hours made us rush him to the hospital, in a city relatively unfamiliar to me. While the doctors were related to me and my son received an extraordinary level of care, I had never felt so vulnerable as I did during those three days. I was Agastya’s mother, yet I couldn’t comprehend his condition without Googling frantically. I couldn’t take medical decisions, and – once home – couldn’t implement a recovery-regimen that I truly understood.

Having a child is hard and watching that child fall sick is harder still. All the warnings of doting parents before I decided to conceive rang in my ears: “You won’t understand until you have your own.” The helplessness felt nightmarish and almost physical, like an illness of my own, as I watched my son struggle to cope with the basic tasks of eating and moving.

Parenting changes your identity. But parenting a sick child morphs who you are – or who you feel you should be — a shade further. In my new role as “caregiver” I stayed at home for days at a time, adjusted my professional obligations to work-from-home, in order to help Agastya with everything – from going potty to eating a meal to giving him baths – activities that I had grown used to him, at age 3, doing himself. It felt like he was an infant again, and I, having tasted the freedom and ability to work again, started to feel a little like a prisoner.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t resent having to care for my son. But in my effort to be a good mother (or alternatively, not be a ‘bad’ one), I was trading in my professional goals. I was given the boot from three freelance jobs for “poor turnaround times.” I went a month without paid work. I rapidly lost shred after shred of self-respect.

I finally sat down and sobbed – this time, not for my son’s poor health, but for my own. I was out of work. I had gained about 8 kilos in what I like to call “stress-weight;” my dark circles stood out like pits against my once-flawless skin, and I had many more grey wisps in my once-black mane. Appearances, of course, don’t matter much, but self-care does.

I don’t think this experience is unique to raising a sick child. Indian women (if not, to varying degrees, mothers everywhere) are routinely told that a good mother is one who devotes her all to her child. And anyone and everyone feels free to comment on how good or bad a job she is doing. I’ve been lucky not to face much outright judgment, but I’ve imbibed the message: If you don’t spend enough hours, meet every request and cook up a storm alongside, you’ve failed to be a good mother.

Ironically, my son is the one who helped me realize there might be other ways of being a good mother. In his typically sensitive style, he asked me “Kya hua, Mummy?” (What happened, Mum?). I only managed a couple of sobs before incoherently muttering that “Mummy ko kaam karna hai.” (Mum needs to work.) “Toh karo, na?” (So go ahead and do work, no?) my son said. I looked at him and wondered how to (and if I should) explain to a sick toddler that the reason I wasn’t able to do any work was because I was exhausted every day – emotionally and physically – from taking care of him. Before I could form a response, though, he asked, “Main help karoon?” (Can I help?)

And so I realised – why couldn’t I enlist my son’s help in his recovery process? Why did I have to treat him like an invalid when it came to his own illness? Medical author Ivan Illich once wrote of the many rights of a patient has, one is to partake in his or her own cure. This whole ‘good mother’ thing had denied my son that right as well as driven me crazy. So, I made some changes at home.

For the last month, my son and I have been comrades on his journey to recovery. Agastya bathes on his own, again, while I supervise and limit water-play on account of his weak lungs. He spreads peanut butter and makes his own breakfast, and I am back to simply toasting the bread. I’ve given him the responsibility to remind me to give him medicine, and while I keep tabs on the schedule, he takes great pride in “bossing mummy around.” These are little things, maybe, but they have made a big difference.

In the end, I have still had to make compromises as far as work is concerned. I am a parent; that’s inevitable. But life with a sick toddler feels better than when I thought being a good mother meant doing everything for my son. And encouraging his independence hasn’t been positive only for me; I find that Agastya seems happier when allowed to entertain himself, help himself and even articulate his physical discomfort. So much so, that our doctor has declared he may make a full comeback a month earlier than expected.

A good mother may do everything for her children — but perhaps the best mothers we can be emerge when we encourage children to take care of themselves.

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