Holding my new-born and delighting in her arrival, I had no idea that my coronary artery was about to threaten our ability to ever have a relationship.
Birth is such a time of newness, hope and promise, that the thoughts of death and ending are probably at their most alien. And for other good reasons too. When we hold our new-borns, motherly instinct usually has us feeling more like a tiger ready to kill for our baby’s protection, than to consider the prospect of them being alone and without us. In fact, the pain of thinking of a new-born being left without a mother brings horror to most people’s minds.
But moms are not invincible creatures. We may seem super-human at times, doing, organising, knowing, and delivering to our children’s needs, but we are flesh and bone and body parts and sometimes, those body parts do not work.
My case was complicated. My artery tore suddenly, five days after the birth, but no one, not even the medics identified it, despite symptoms of sweating, nausea, ripping chest pain, raised troponin, all the classic signs that I had had a heart attack (because the ripped wall of the artery had blocked blood flow through my heart). But I was also 38, female, slim (yes my body always returned to near nine stone only days after birthing) and had just delivered a baby. I didn’t ‘look’ sick, so I ended up being misdiagnosed with a ‘virus’, told to rest and sent home.
But how does a mother of a new baby and two energetic boys rest? I tried of course, but my instincts lay with being maternal and extra maternal in terms of having a new-born, so it was next to impossible to focus on just me.
But the sweating and nausea and ripping sensations in my chest continued. Yet all those had existed from the start, and I had been told it was a virus at the hospital, so I stayed at home, with my torn artery, three kids, husband and two further heart attacks.
When I got too weak to even have the baby lie on my arm when lying in bed, I felt so guilty that I was being such a bad mother to her, unable to tolerate her little head on my arm, for it being too heavy. How pathetic I was being over a virus I thought. What was wrong with me? I felt so guilty with my boys too, when they bounced on my bed with Easter eggs and wanted to show me their LEGO creations and me only able to offer them a watery smile, before asking my husband if he could bring them downstairs, so I could sleep.
I didn’t know at the time of course, but my body was fighting for its life. My heart muscle had been so badly damaged by the then, three heart attacks, that it wasn’t able to beat properly. I was lucky I was still alive. But as I lay in bed, I felt bad, not for me, but because I felt I was being a bad mother, letting my baby down, my boys down and a bad wife, because their father was now so over stretched with work, while I was just ‘lying in bed’.
After my GP came to see me at home and advised me that I was experiencing tachycardia and needed to get back into hospital, I felt guilty leaving my family and fearful now too as to what was in store for them with me being gone.
It was only after a cardiac arrest and resuscitation in the hospital that I was transferred to another hospital, where emergency open heart surgery became the only way to save my life. But even in that ambulance trip and in ICU and in the high dependency wards that came after, I felt guilty that I was not there for my children, guilty that my husband was in such a battle now between family and hospital, guilty that my aging parents were having to deal with all this, the only respite to guilt coming from feelings of fear or grief, from all that was to come and had happened.
After surgery they told me that though they had replaced the artery with a bypass, some of my heart was now dead and that what remained had a function the same as that of a seventy-year-old. I remember my first thought being, how will I raise my kids? My second, what if they are left motherless from here, terrified and guilty, yet again, that they didn’t have a more medically sound mother than me.
Mothers are programmed to nurture, but sometimes in all the nurturing, we forget our humanity, our limits, our own need for nurturing. Even when lying in ICU, under the influence of high levels of morphine, I was apparently asking what was going into the boys’ lunchboxes for school.
I tell this story not to reflect myself as some martyr to motherhood, but to highlight how real a difficulty it can be to treat ourselves as humane, once we are mothers and especially if we get ill. Even when life is screaming at us in an ICU to just focus on getting better, we can wrestle with, guilt, anxiety, and feelings of being pathetic, because we are not living up to our ideals for the role.
On the flip side, I have often said it was the very fact that I was a mother that I got through the tough recovery, because I wanted to be alive for my kids, and that encouraged me to take the steps, to eat the meals and to force myself to rest, even when I didn’t want to.
But yet, even in recovery, ‘for them’, I had to fight off the guilt and feelings of being pathetic too, when I had to lie on the couch at home, to accept myself as that flesh and bones mother, instead of that super-human one, I think I thought I should be.
So to all mom’s out there, I think we need to re-draw the image of moms in our minds, not as endless sources of everything a family needs, but as human creatures performing superhuman things most days, but sometimes just needing to down tools like everyone else.
But knowing our motherly instincts, our wiring for nurture, our societal norms, and our emotional connections, we may need lots and lots and lots and lots of reminding, encouraging and reassuring from those that love us, from other mom’s, from our society, that guilt-free, anxiety-free, judgement-free, self-nurture is vital for mom, both in times of illness and in order to stay well!
It is perhaps the love, support and encouragement not just for, but from, others in our lives, that could prove most crucial to a mother allowing herself some compassion when she gets ill and that guilt-free recovery time always.
Le grà, Pauline
© Pauline O’Shea
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