Cancer Made Me Feel Like a Failure To My Kids

Published May 14, 2019

I replied to my fiance, Marvin, last night when he said, ‘You haven’t written for a long time’, with, ‘I know I need to but I’ve been putting it off because I know I’m hard on myself as a parent and I’m not sure I can spin a positive note at the end of this article like I do for all the others’. I couldn’t even stop the tears from welling in my eyes as the words left my mouth. I knew in that moment that I was doing the best I could, despite a few trip and falls, and I felt like an utter disappointment and failure to my children at the same time. So, I promise to do the best I can getting through this objectively and with as little self-loathing as possible!

My parents were quite young when they were married and subsequently had my brother and I. My Mom was only 23 with two children under the age of 2. It’s very safe to say that life wasn’t easy for my parents. They barely knew themselves – I mean who really does at 23? – and therefore, couldn’t possibly really know each other, or at least who they would turn out to be.

As my brother and I got older, my parents started fighting more. Home was really tense at times. My Dad was stern. I didn’t agree with the rules he imposed in our home. I mean, what kid does? Similar to so many other 12 year olds who think they know everything, I fought for my right to watch rated R movies, stay out late…whatever the fight of the day was. Dad didn’t stray from his rules. I became an expert at manipulating my Mom at a very young age. Eventually she started fighting my fights for me. I know this put a lot of pressure on them and it definitely drove a wedge between my Dad and I.

It wasn’t long before my parents separated. I think regardless of my making things more challenging for them, it was inevitable. They were just very different people and just didn’t see eye to eye. I didn’t really understand that at the time and so I vilified him. In retrospect, I think my Dad was just trying to keep control of his household, raise decent kids the best way he knew how but I dug my heels in and resolved in myself that I would not be controlled. A resolution that stuck for many many years to come.

I spent the next 15 years pretty opposed to the idea of having kids. I mean, I had my moments over the years when I swooned over this guy or that, and thought about how our lives would be perfect and we would have perfect little people but when it boiled down to it, I can’t say it was ever what I really wanted. I spent some time over the years analyzing my feelings about this. What I discovered was I was terrified of being in the same position as my parents. I never wanted to risk being mean to my kids or risk putting them through the separation we watched my parents go through. I never wanted to force my kids to grow up quicker than they needed to because I couldn’t get my shit together. I never wanted to experience the struggle my Mom experienced as a single mom…and let’s be real, between my brother and I, we made her life hell for a number of years.

Jumping forward to my thirtieth year and one sickly feeling morning that included a rendez-vu with a home pregnancy test. Regardless of how I felt about being a Mom, on that fall morning – which felt like the middle of the blazing summer to me – confirmed it was going to happen. I was terrified. The questions and self-criticism swirled in my head until I thought I would go crazy.

I spent the next 9 months of my life preparing in the best way I knew how. I read feverishly – learned how to be the best mom possible. Should my baby have a soother or not? Breastmilk or formula? To swaddle or not to swaddle? How to discipline a child without turning them into a serial killer? How to maintain patience and not turn myself into a serial killer? At the end of the day, would any of the reading make a difference since I had spent my life struggling to be happy and self-loving? Good question! I sure hoped so.

I openly admit that I continue to fight with being self-loving even to this day. The most productive of my self-work came after my daughter, Victoria, was born. I vowed from long before she was born to make the best decisions I could to give her the best shot at life possible. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I wanted to pop a silver spoon in her mouth! My intention was to teach her to love herself unconditionally, to be confident, to love to learn, to be resilient and ambitious. I wanted to teach her about the world from a lens that would inspire compassion and caring but also teach her to be street smart and cautious. I wanted to teach her all of the things I had learned the hard way, or still hadn’t learned at all. By that point, I had learned to observe my mistakes but not in time to correct them yet. I wanted better for her.

I was scrolling feverishly though Instagram one day, as I still do too often, and came across a post that talked about healthy parenting, specifically as a career mom, which I had experienced a significant amount of guilt over. I wish I could remember who had posted it. I believe she may have been a child psychologist. The post said that career moms shouldn’t be so hard on themselves because of the time they spend out of the home. It said that by pursing dreams and goals for oneself, moms show their daughters that they themselves come first. Therefore, when their daughters grow up, they will do so knowing they must take care of themselves first.. It’s funny that the intent of the message is actually not what I took away from it. What I took away was this, I had set such high standards and expectations for my daughter and the environment I created for her, but not for myself. It had always been for her. And prior to her, I habitually put others first. None of whom were deserving. In effect, I spent my life doing the exact opposite of what the Insta post was encouraging women to do. I had once again put myself aside and expected better for someone else. Just to be clear, my children deserve the world – but so do I and it occurred to me then that I owed it to myself and to them to set my own goals, expectations and standards for MYSELF if they were going to learn to do the same.

As this evolving philosophy changed how I love myself, I also still fought with personal traits that made me feel like a horrible parent. I’ve never been a patient person, I had always been good at communicating exactly what I was thinking in the most blunt way possible which you just can’t do with kids, and I still work on dealing with my temper. These things have made me feel like a horrible parent – person – at times. Despite these feelings, by the time my girls turned 5 years old, it was clear they possessed qualities that few adults can claim for themselves, let alone kids. They are brilliant, mannerly, inquisitive, ambitious and we can take them anywhere, anytime, no problem. So, I (and then we) were clearly doing something right. My confidence continued to grow as a parent.

At the time my kids turned almost exactly 5 1/2 years old, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with a very aggressive form of leukemia and immediately admitted to hospital to begin treatment. In an instant it was like all of the hard work I had done was for nothing. I had failed them anyway. I may be leaving them. I couldn’t care for them. As a blended family, my step-daughter Isabelle was able to spend more time with her Mom and was fairly unaffected in the short term. My biological daughter, Victoria, who I had dropped off at school one morning, like any other normal day would not see my face for pick up at the end of the day. In fact, I didn’t know when she would see my face again. If ever, alive. I had failed them.

The 22 days I spent in the hospital fighting for my life, away from my family, my home, was the most treacherous days of my life. Not being able to do something simple like take my daughter to school and pick her up, ask her how her day was, read a book with her before bed was devastating. During that time, her Dad was frequently in communication with me, offering video calls with Victoria for both her and I were scared and missed each other. Much as I missed her, there were days I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. I would feel overcome with emotion just at the thought of talking to her. I didn’t want to scare her even more seeing me like that. I didn’t want her to see me weak. I didn’t want her to see me cry. Then I felt shame. How could I do that to her?

Over the next few months, my Mom helped my family a lot. She was my driver to and from the hospital almost daily and a drive it was – 160km per day. She did grocery shopping for us and cooked for us, put the kids to bed for us, played on the floor with them, did all the things I should have been doing. To be very clear, I was very grateful for the help as my fiancé, Marvin did what he could around the house while he continued to commute for work and remain available to his employer. In retrospect, I think he was overcome with fear of being the sole provider of our home. I think he felt overwhelming pressure and so he did everything he could to not rock the boat with an employer who was already highly demanding. I digress…

One day about 2 months after IV treatment finished. Victoria and Isabelle were playing in Victoria’s room. Victoria, a very gentle, playful and loving child, decided she didn’t want Isabelle in her room anymore and out of nowhere punched her sister in the stomach! When I asked her why she did it, she said she wanted Isabelle out of her room. Absolutely in shock, I demanded she stay in her room until she was called out. You see, it is not at all within Victoria’s character to do something like that. I was angry and flabbergasted!

Marvin took the lead on this one. As it turns out, through the process of my getting sick, Marvin experienced some pivotal shifts in his own behaviour. The once calm, until he wasn’t calm parent became compassionate, understanding, more calm than ever before. And most admirably, he learned to talk the kids through their own mistakes to help them self-realize. It was very impressive. Being someone who has spent the last 10 years learning how to cope with anger and impatience, usually winning but not on this particular day, I was grateful that I could rely on my partner for support.

I spoke with my therapist about the incident and what she said opened my eyes to how the people surrounding me may be coping with my health issues. She asked me if I had ever asked Victoria how my getting sick made her feel. My jaw snapped shut. I usually had a smart response when asked a question but not this time. I had definitely talked to both our girls about what was happening to me and what to expect. I had asked if they had any questions, but I can’t say I ever asked them how they felt about it. Later that day, I asked Victoria how she felt about me having cancer. She instantly burst into tears with such force. I let her get it out, comforted her and then asked her to tell me what was on her mind. What she said broke my heart. She told me I wasn’t a fun mom anymore. I knew exactly what she meant and exactly why she felt that way. I had thought the same thing on many many occasions. I had always been a fun mom. Prided myself on being a fun mom. I may not have been the most patient mom, or the most attentive. I may have spent many hours out of the house earning a living that would put her through university but I had always been a fun mom. And now I wasn’t and no matter the reason, it caused me profound sadness and feelings of failure all…over…again.

Protecting my children has always been the root of my fear as a parent. Protect them from the world, protect them from themselves, protect them from crazy people, protect them from me. The bottom line is they are going out into the world at some point whether we like it or not and we can’t control the world. We can’t control their choices, we can’t control the crazy people in the world and we can’t control that we are going to screw them up somehow. Like it or not. It’s what we do…because we are not perfect.

Like so many things in life we need to stop pointing fingers at the world around us. We need to stop judging others…or ourselves for being imperfect. I needed to stop pointing fingers at my Dad and appreciate that he did the best he could and that I too was doing the best I could. This in itself was so powerful for me because it released me from my need to be in control of all things (let’s be real, this is a work in progress). We need to stop having unreal expectations of others…ourselves especially when we are sick. We cope different, we are off our game, we aren’t as fun because we are in physical and emotional pain, drained, fighting, discouraged, afraid. And that’s ok.

What we can do is, teach them to be ready for the world when they go out into it. To be confident, vigilant and aware. We can teach them that life is unpredictable and things happen that we don’t like, things that are unfair but we have to move on because it’s not about things staying the same, it’s about how well you roll with the punches. We can teach them that our evolution lies within our own desire to grow.

When we get sick, we can talk to our kids. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them what they are afraid of. We can support and comfort them when they are sad and afraid. We can be honest with them. The world will throw ugly things at them, better it start with you than someone uncaring. We can find new ways of having fun. We can learn new ways to release stress…and we can be forgiving.

In addition to these things we can do, there are also many community resources across Canada that offer help to moms dealing with cancer. In Toronto and the surrounding areas there is the Nanny Angel Network which offers in-home nanny care. Their volunteers are bonded and specially trained to navigate the emotional and psychological challenges of working with families during such an unpleasant time, while they help manage the household too. Click here to find Community Support in your area.

The single most important lesson I’ve learned as a parent with cancer is to be humble. When I’m having a bad day and my family has taken the brunt of it, I apologize for it. I encourage them to talk to me about how they feel and what they expect from me. This teaches them boundaries. To be honest, I think it’s one thing the world is seriously lacking today. By having these conversations, I can do my level best to be better going forward and so can they.

Now when I find myself doubting my abilities or getting angry with myself for having a moment, I work on reminding myself that I too am human. And if I don’t remind myself, the amazing little humans my children are and continue to become will.

Victoria receiving a Friendship award in Grade 1 on April 26, 2019. Her teacher said, ‘Victoria is always ready to brighten someones day’.

And that as a parent dealing with cancer, I should be kinder to myself because I am doing a pretty damn good job.

Until next time…take good care.

Published by Michelle Burleigh

Michelle is a highly driven, ambitious woman who gratefully possesses a love of learning and a passion for personal growth which support her ongoing healing and career growth. As a mother of two incredible young girls, a wife, and a patient advocate, and most recently, an author, she has not allowed her December 2017 diagnosis of Acute Leukemia stop her from making and achieving goals. She felt compelled to start to help people and their loved ones feel more empowered and informed throughout their own healing journey.

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