Months into the global pandemic, and we have acclimated, but it has definitely made us all more vulnerable in some way or another. The stress of parenting combined with the nation-wide lockdown has touched everyone’s lives such that new crises have emerged; or existing ones have worsened. I call this the Covid Stress Trifecta: every family has a third stressor, beyond just parenting and Covid, to manage. Some have had financial strain or ruin. My pregnant friends have had to manage expectations and uncertainty around delivery, pre and post-natal care. People’s mental health has eroded. Working parents have had to work around the clock. The list goes on. Our family’s third stressor came well into the beginning of Covid, and though it was, for us, unbelievably shocking and unimaginable, it has forced us to deal with the stress head-on, and in (mostly) healthy ways.
I got my cancer diagnosis on April Fool’s Day, but it was no sick joke. When I got home from the hospital my husband, who was watching our 3-year-old and 10 month-old, asked how the ultrasound had gone. It was an ultrasound that was supposed to confirm that the benign cyst from 2017 was still benign. I had almost canceled the appointment because of Covid.
“Put Eli in front of the TV,” I told him. Thank goodness Mavi was still napping. I had to repeat myself as I watched the colour drain from his face. Paw Patrol played in the other room as Mark and I sat in the kitchen, and I described the ultrasound, mammogram and unanticipated biopsy, followed by the radiologist’s insistence that what she was seeing was most probably “cancer that had already spread into my lymph nodes and hopefully no further.”I handed Mark the book they’d given me when I’d begun to cry about my babies: What About My Kids? A Guide for Parents Living with Breast Cancer.The book was a well-intentioned gesture, but it was the most haunting experience of the day. The book meant this was real and that it was going to affect my family.
When my mom flew in from across the country a few days later, we looked at each other with tear-soaked faces but we stood 6 feet apart, unable to hug. She stayed at an Airbnb for 2 weeks in case she’d picked up something on the way over, for I was now considered immune-compromised and contracting anything would delay treatment. We worried about her contracting Covid for her sake and for mine.
My husband and I and Paw Patrol parented during the first half of April through utter emotional depletion and distraction. Our increasingly out-of-control toddler was often met with the dismissive “Oh… that’s nice” response – when we weren’t out-of-control ourselves. We could not get a moment’s reprieve. From morning to night, the kids needed us, and we found ourselves planning nap times and TV time around the surgeon’s Zoom calls. I had to plan my cry-fests around the kids’ downtime. Eli had dropped his nap. Mavi was always teething. No one could take the kids off our hands, even for a couple of hours. In the evenings, we would be on Zoom calls with family or friends, updating them on the latest tests (all of which I attended alone) and the uncertainty of the future.
I remember, at one point, sitting on the kitchen floor and crying to Mark who was chopping vegetables for dinner while Eli was running rampant around the room, obviously dysregulated by our energy. In that moment, I told Mark: : “I’m crying because I am so, so tired of the way stress feels in my body. Like, my arms always feel like lead, and I can taste metal.”
What we didn’t know was that we had been living the most stressful period of our Covid/Cancer experience. Surprisingly, once I started chemotherapy, we were so relieved to be doing something to treat the cancer that it felt like a victory. Mom moved in after her 14-day quarantine and we finally got to hug. We also got a much-needed third set of hands in the house and with the kids.With three adults to try and wrangle two kids, it was almost (but not quite) a fair fight.
We gradually crawled out of rock bottom and appreciated that things could be worse. We also learned that extreme stress – even under extreme circumstances- begins to dissipate once we learn to live with our new normal. Just as we’d had to adjust to the new norms of Covid, we continued to adjust to Cancer, and with our new set of expectations came the satisfaction of meeting them. Once our own stress abated, so did that of our kids, and a chain reaction ensued. Every day became easier than the days that followed April Fool’s Day.
Finally, I have learned to find solace in gratitude, of all things. I am learning to find the silver lining in all the negatives:
· Covid sucks, but it is creating the bubble I require as someone who is immune-compromised. I don’t have to ask people to stay at least 6 feet away. No one comes over. Even plumbers, who’ve come to the house for leaky sinks and flooding basements (because of course these things continue despite Covid and cancer) wear masks.
· Because of chemo, Eli would have had to leave daycare. The risk of infection would have been too great, but the subsequent guilt would have worn me down, because Eli thrives at daycare. But Covid made the decision for us. Eli’s already home. He’s adjusted. There’s no guilt.
· Having cancer during a global pandemic means I’m not sitting in my house watching the world go on without me. Nothing is happening. I’m not missing out.
· I’m always tired - but all moms are always tired. Chemotherapy gives me carte blanche to have as many naps as I require. I haven’t had this many naps in years.
· No one can visit, but they sure do send food, love, and other Covid-friendly means of support.
· With cancer, I’ve lost all control, but Covid has helped me see that I never had it to begin with. None of us did. Now it’s obvious.
· Cancer and Covid have complicated my life in many ways, but they have also forced me to uncomplicate it in so many others. I am on a zero-tolerance for toxicity diet. No sugar, no parabens and no mom-guilt. I have absolutely no spare energy to devote to self-deprecation, momparisons or small stuff. I like the decluttered mind, and I will take it with me beyond this era.
· Ultimately, I have cancer during a global pandemic, but it could always be worse. I’ll take cancer any day over one of my children having it. I am grateful for their health, for the time I spend with them, their all-consuming, distracting neediness and their laughter-inducing antics during all of my waking hours.
Our own Covid Stress Trifecta - parenting, Covid and cancer - has turned our world upside down; but I’ve discovered that we are still breathing. When I think back to two months ago, a time that feels like 2 years ago, I marvel at what we have endured and I feel accomplished. We’ve had to alter our expectations and set new goals, and we have found satisfaction in meeting them. I still have a really hard road ahead, but I’m emboldened by our family’s resilience, and I will continue to find the silver lining in every shaky step we take. I’m living miles and miles away from the normal I once knew or wanted, and I still let myself mourn that, but I’ve learned that every time one of my babies laughs, I am home.