My bald head was covered with a baseball cap. I was out with no makeup to cover my chemo-grayed complexion as I pushed my baby girl on the swing.
She giggled and squealed, catching the attention of a young man passing by.
“She has a beautiful laugh,” he said. “Are you her grand… parent?” He stumbled over grandparent as we both realized that, not only had he grossly overestimated my age, he had no idea whether I was a man or a woman.
That wasn’t my low point.
The real punch to the gut came a few years later when I was getting my little girl ready for a bath and she casually asked me how old she will be when they cut off her nipples. No tears, no fear, just matter-of-fact assumption that somewhere along the line, her breasts get hacked off.
I felt like my body betrayed me
Cancer didn’t just take my health, it also made off with my breasts, hair, femininity, strength, and a good deal of my confidence. I felt like my body betrayed me. And now, in this hypothetical but not unlikely scenario, my daughter’s body would someday betray her as well.
I helped her into the tub and watched her pretend to be a mermaid. Her movements are fluid and unfettered by notions of shame or inadequacy. Her future is wide open – she can be and do anything, but at this early age, my life is her template.
I knew, sitting there on that bathroom floor, that I needed to wrap my head around this cancer and my body image before my issues became her issues. But first, I had to answer this big question from the little girl in the water.
“Not everyone gets cancer,” I told her. “I hope you don’t, but you might. It will be 34 years before you are the age I was when I got cancer, and that’s lots of time for someone to invent a cure or even a way to prevent it.”
By the time I finished those three sentences, the tub was full of toys and Poseidon was mediating a battle between a narwhal and a walrus. She had moved on and wasn’t listening, but I was stuck in my head trying to define what a healthy body image means, how to make that a reality in my life, how to convey that to my daughter, and how cancer complicates everything.
My body image issues started long before cancer.
At seventeen I was touring Washington D.C. with a group of 200 high school students from around the country. As we walked through the Mall, I overheard two of the other students discussing my appearance. “Judy’s legs are so ugly,” one of the guys said.
“Give her a break, she just got out of the hospital,” the other replied. (No, my health issues did not start with cancer.)
A small part of my brain acknowledged that the second student had jumped to my defense. Thank you, by the way. A much larger part of my brain registered that HE DID NOT DISAGREE with the first student’s assessment of my legs.
In the court of high school social politics, the issue of the ugliness of my legs was raised, and swiftly seconded. That was all I needed. The verdict stuck with me, and I kept my legs covered with tights or long pants for nearly two decades.
Even today, in my mid-forties, each time I leave the house in shorts or a skirt without tights, it is an act of courage that requires a deep breath before stepping through the door.
Why do they have so much impact?
I can’t remember their names. I would not be able to pick them out from a police lineup. I have not seen those boys (men, now) since 1987, and I bear them no ill will. Why do they have so much impact over the way I prepare to leave the house most sunny summer mornings?
It’s not even about them. It’s about me, and my willingness to cling to the derogatory comments and ignore the many more flattering comments I’ve received over the years. A large part of this is about me devaluing my own needs and comfort, and assuming that I owe the world something that I don’t.
After my first mastectomy, I agonized each time before going to the gym.
Sweat made the prosthetic breast slip around, and even fall out of my clothes. Yeah, that was embarrassing. I could stuff my bra with socks and they’d stay a little better, but as I pumped my arms on the treadmill, they’d pile up in the middle of my chest, making me look more Picasso than if I’d just shown up single-breasted.
It was all so inconvenient and awkward, and I contemplated not returning to the gym.
To what extent am I obliged to present myself as a double breasted woman?
Is it offensive to the other people if I show up with one breast?
I struggled with this question. I lost sleep over it. I imagined people who’d had arms or limbs amputated; I wouldn’t expect them to wear a prosthesis if they didn’t want to. Why did I apply a different standard to myself with an amputated breast? And then, I worked up the courage and took a deep breath before stepping through the door single-breasted.
I noticed a motivational poster hanging in the gym showing a woman drenched in sweat with the words, “If you look good working out, you’re doing it wrong.” Ha! Despite the fact that I know women who do kick ass while looking amazing, there is a great deal of truth to that poster.
Why had I not seen that before?
My body is a work in progress.
I don’t need a perfect body to have a healthy body image. My thoughts on body image are evolving, even as I write this. I am learning to accept and embrace both my vulnerability and my resilience – both integral parts of what it means to be alive.
I don’t lecture my little girl on these issues, although we talk about them as they come up.
I hope that she will see that ideas can evolve as people learn and grow just as our bodies do – that is also part of what it means to be alive.
Mostly, I put on shorts or a skirt with bare legs and go out side to play with her when it’s sunny. Sometimes, I even go through the door without noticing, and I’m out in the sun before I realize that I didn’t have to stop and brave up first.
I know that one of my jobs as a parent is to teach her how to deal with disappointment – but not like this; this isn’t what I had in mind.
We should be working on learning how to gracefully accept that she gets what she gets for dinner, and not necessarily a doughnut.
We should be working on accepting the fact that she’s not getting a pony for her birthday.
We should be working on understanding that all fun activities end eventually, and when the playdate is over, we need to gracefully go home.
Instead, we had to cancel our vacation last minute because I came down with influenza. She was so excited about our trip to Alaska, but I was far too sick to take her anywhere.
I sat down in her kid-sized green and white polka-dot easy chair and pulled her into my lap. “I have some bad news,” I said, “we can’t go to Alaska tomorrow because Mommy is sick.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” she repeated several times, and then she stopped. “It’s okay, Mommy. I know sometimes we can’t do things when you get sick.” She rested her head on my shoulder a bit, then ran out to the living room to play as if nothing had happened.
It hurts the way she has normalized my illnesses, Mommy being sick is just part of her life. Stupid cancer keeps messing with me, even when it’s not cancer.
To the mom who brings her child their own cup cake to a kid’s birthday party:
I know you get looks from the other parents, but I understand.
Food sensitivities are nothing to mess with.
I know you stayed up late working on that cupcake. You made it extra pretty.
You brought it, not because you were trying to make your child feel excluded, but just the opposite, you wanted her to be a part of this party, and you wanted her to have a treat, just like all the other kids. But you had to make it safe for her.
It’s not easy to see your kid on the outside, and I promise you, I will not take your kid’s special diet lightly.
To the mom who’s wondering when she will start to feel like a grownup and have all the answers:
I’m sorry, but we only have all the answers about how other people should parent their kids.
The moments of feeling like a grownup are rare, but most of the time you have the bills, the responsibilities, the mouths to feed, the guilt about your own shortcomings, and conflicting advice from all the usual suspects, but not so much with the answers.
You feel like you haven’t quite arrived at being a grownup, until one day you wake up and realize you’re old.
Of course, feeling old is no guarantee you’ll have the answers. Same old questions, new arthritis.
To the mom of the toddler throwing a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store:
I’m sorry I was staring. I promise I wasn’t judging you; I’ve been there, and I was reliving it. The world is full of people who think the wailing and kicking are because the parents always cave, but I know that that little fit was because you didn’t cave.
Or maybe it was just because the store was out of Spiderman toothbrushes and the Incredible Hulk just wouldn’t do.
I’ve encountered so many people who believe children should be seen and not heard, and for that matter almost never seen except for when they’re being perfect and adorable. They would never admit they believe this, but they give themselves away… “why don’t they just take the kids home when they fuss?” people wonder.
But I know.
I know you and your children would starve if you took the kids home every time they threw a fit.
To the mom who is tired:
The mom who will go to bed soon, but first she has to make sure the clothes make it from the washer to the dryer before they sour, load the dishwasher, and get the kid up for a midnight potty so she doesn’t wet the bed…
I know you’ve been told before that you need to take care of yourself first, so you have the strength to take care of the kids.
I also know you’re just going to keep doing what you feel like you need to do.
I hope, sometimes, you get the rest you need.
The kids will grow, and soon they’ll be able to pour their own bowl of Cheerios. They’ll destroy the kitchen in the process, but at least you’ll get to sleep in for 20 minutes or so.
To the mom who is living with cancer or another life threatening or chronic condition:
I’m right there with you.
I know what it’s like to wonder how much time you have with your kids.
I’ve listened to my baby cry, unable to pick her up and waiting for someone to come bring her to me, feeling helpless and maybe a bit useless.
I’ve had those dreams that ended with someone else raising my child.
I’ve wondered if I was enough.
I’ve wondered if I could hang on long enough that she would be old enough to have memories of me. I’ve wondered if it would be easier for her if I didn’t.
I worried that I was letting her watch too much TV, but let me tell you something, TV is awesome. Besides, SuperWhy taught my daughter how to read.
Now I worry about my relationship with my own patchwork body, and how I can help my daughter develop a healthy body image when I still feel like my body betrayed me. My husband and I joke about my million dollar body, but I still miss those missing parts, I’m still anticipating the next body part failure.
To the mom who apologizes to her kid after losing it:
Thank you for showing your child that adults make mistakes too, that making mistakes and learning from them is part of being human.
Thank you for teaching your child that what you do after a mistake is often as important, if not more important than the mistake itself.
Thank you for modeling that behavior. It’s so awesome for kids to have a real live example, so they know what a meaningful apology is supposed to look like.
To the mom who is lonely:
I’m lonely too.
We’ve got the kids, but there’s only so far I can follow a conversation about My Little Pony or Minecraft before I really need to talk to another adult, and my husband doesn’t get home till late.
How do you connect with the parents of the other kids at the playground? Even when your kids hit it off and you have a nice conversation, there’s that awkward moment where you work up the nerve to ask about a playdate.
Sometimes you’re just not able to work up the nerve at all, but when you do, It feels like you’re asking the mom out on a date. You give her your number and wonder, will she call?
And they don’t always call.
Sometimes you meet up and it’s awesome, up until it’s time to go home and then your kid is the one who throws the epic tantrum that can be heard from 3 blocks away.
But every once in a while, you make a friend.
To all these moms, and to all the other moms out there:
Let’s stick together, lets have each other’s backs. Raising humans is hard, it’s exhausting, and it’s often a thankless job so let me just take this moment to say thank you.
There have been times, oh so many times, when the thought of compiling a list of things for which to be grateful was a little more than I could bear. Those are moments when gratitude is difficult.
Life can be difficult. Excruciating, even.
Sometimes, getting through one hour after another, means holding your breath till you remember that you are supposed to inhale and exhale. Then, those repeated steps become your occupation until you think of something else to get you through the next block of time. I’ll just hold on till the end of this show, or till Mom gets here, or till Aaron gets home, or till the baby wakes up. Then you make another deal to get through the next time span.
What is your touchpoint?
I remember those days during chemotherapy, when my stomach churned and my head spun, but the worst part was the unbelievable pain from the bone marrow stimulating shots that I had to give myself the day after each chemo. My shins ached and burned; they felt like the bone would split open, and no pain reliever would touch it.
My husband would place one of his palms on each shin and somehow found just the right amount of pressure. The combination of the heat of his hand and the pressure lifted the pain just enough. The first time he did that, I let out a sob. He stopped and quickly pulled his hands away, afraid that he had hurt me. I struggled to find the words to tell him that the sob was relief. Please, please, put your hands back.
As long as he held his hands there, the pain was held at bay, but it returned when he pulled them away. So we sat like that; his hands on my shins, my hands holding them there. Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we just sat there holding each other. These were the moments I could let my guard down.
Start with just one thing
Even in those worst moments, you can look around and find that one thing that is getting you through to the next moment. What is your touchstone right now? Find something, anything, that you can focus on, that you can appreciate. Is it the chair you’re sitting in? Your favorite pillow? The grain pattern running through your wood floor? A quiet moment? A distraction? A cup of coffee?
Now, really appreciate it.
Focus on it.
Allow yourself to lean on it.
Vulnerability isn’t easy
I felt so guilty about not having the strength to take care of my baby, unassisted. I’d just had a mastectomy and was going through chemotherapy, and later, radiation, yet I managed to heap guilt on myself for being an inadequate mother to my 1-year-old daughter.
It took me a while to see how blessed I was to have my mother and my friends there to help me care for my daughter. I could not bring myself to ask for help, but they showed up anyway. They sat with me and the baby, keeping us both company, just there to help with the heavy lifting, especially in those days when I was not even allowed to pick her up.
My baby was happy, and healthy, and well cared for, whether it was me lifting her out of the crib, or one of my helpers. I felt relief immediately, but it took a bit to fully embrace the feelings of gratitude. It took an attitude shift to appreciate the fact accepting that help was not a signal that I was failing as a mother, but just the opposite. I was doing what my child needed most for her own safety. With my helpers there, I was free to nap as needed and regain my strength, so I could stay awake to watch her another day.
Sometimes gratitude requires an attitude shift
That change from thinking I am supposed to be super-mom, to acknowledging that I’m only human was difficult.
I had to redefine for myself what it meant to be a mom. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and I had to accept my own hypocrisy, and then allow my village to participate in raising my child.
Ultimately, I also had a learn to have a little compassion for myself. By asking what I would want my daughter to do in this situation, the answer became easy. It was easier to be compassionate with myself, after experiencing a little compassion for my daughter in a hypothetically similar situation.
The process of shifting my attitude towards gratitude allowed me to have a little more compassion for myself and ultimately, it made me a better mother, because I was able to fully embrace putting my daughter’s well-being ahead of any feelings of guilt.
I also understand, even more as she gets older, that I don’t need to be, nor should I be, her everything.
Sometimes, gratitude is difficult because it means accepting that we have weaknesses.
Sometimes, gratitude is difficult simply because we lack the creativity, or the will, to think up a list.
It’s easier to hold on to what’s wrong, because there’s more energy in that.
There are times, especially when I’m really enjoying wallowing in a good funk, that I don’t want to do the whole gratitude thing because I know it will mess up my funk, and I’m quite comfortable there.
The power of repetition
This emotional morass we experience through life doesn’t always adhere to logic.
It does, however, respond to repetition.
Thought patterns become habitual.
Emotional patterns become habitual.
So, whether the habit is wallowing in a funk or in gratitude, that becomes the default. But, that default is pretty easy to change, in either direction.
I’ve maintained a gratitude journal for a little while now. It’s nothing complicated, I just try to think of 5 specific and timely things for which I am grateful and write them down at the end of the day. It takes less than 5 minutes.
One day, a particularly bad day, I opened my journal with the intent of unloading everything that was wrong with the world. But while I was thinking through my plans of everything I was going to whine about, my hand, completely out of habit, wrote the word “Gratitude” at the top of the page. So, I decided to go ahead and do the gratitude list first, and whine later. By the time I finished the short list of five items, my mood had completely changed and I lost the desire to whine.
It’s not always that simple and easy and straightforward, but it usually is.
Over time, I have come to realize that gratitude is not just a means of cheering myself up, or engaging in the socially acceptable practice of being thankful.
Gratitude is a coping mechanism, and on those bad days, it’s one of the things that helps me get from one time span to the next.