A girlfriend gave birth last week to a healthy, 9-pound baby boy. In the process of getting an epidural to numb the pain of labor, she ended up with such excruciating spinal headaches that she was unable to rise from her bed to care for her newborn.
The chances of this happening -- namely, leakage of spinal fluid from the dura, resulting in severe headaches -- are only about 1 in 200. But when you are the one suffering, statistics are irrelevant.
She said she cried, she prayed, she bargained with God to relieve the blinding headaches. She had moments when she wondered if she would survive if the pain continued.
Certainly, pain is unavoidable in our lives. It comes in a rainbow of forms: emotional, like the anguish accompanying grief or the ache of loss and sadness; and physical, which can be latent and chronic, or acute and debilitating.
The worst pain can render us helpless and force us into submission. My pain is in my gut, and it comes in crashing waves. Fortunately, the pain does not appear very often; for the most part, I control it with diet and medication. But when it does hit, it can be paralyzing: keeping me up at night, making my hands shake. I focus on breathing until each tidal wave passes. It can be terrifying to have a part of your own body turn against you -- twisting and burning with such force.
Like my friend and me, millions of parents struggle to deal with serious pain while trying to care for their children. The immediate thought that crosses a mother's mind at the first signs of an illness? "I don't have time for this." How can you keep up with a toddler, preschooler or tween when you can't get out of bed?
There is competing advice on how parents should navigate these waters, but the most crucial thing a parent in pain can do is to reach out for help. Let someone else take over the parenting reins when necessary. For the times when pain is immobilizing, there's little choice.
Needing help does not make us bad parents. Being able to accept an outstretched hand helps us recognize the value of our relationships. Our loved ones can provide not only moral and logistical support, but also new perspectives and nudges toward treatment. In the case of the new mother with the throbbing headaches, a friend came to her house and persuaded her to go to an emergency room. A medical procedure helped eliminate her pain within a few days.
Some parents in pain wear a disguise. They manage to go through the necessary motions, without losing their temper, and the child may be clueless as to the lengths taken to create the artificial peace. A part of us whispers that we should keep our lonely sacrifice a secret.
Some pain management sites say that while our instinct is to shelter our children from our pain, we should instead talk about it as honestly as possible. Use simple language, and speak calmly and quietly. Reassure children that it isn't their fault. Relate it to something in their own experience, such as falling off a bike. Tell them you will get better, even if you're not sure when or how.
If there is one thing mothers know, it is our capacity for strength. But through pain, we learn our capacity for humility. And when the pain subsides, it leaves us with a renewed appreciation for health.
Our children will inevitably experience their own hurts. Watching us deal with ours shows them how to handle their own.
I vividly remember my mother's moments of pain. When she was bedridden with asthma, laboring for each breath, I felt an ache in my own lungs. She did not have to say anything for me to recognize her struggle. I could not offer much, except to lie next to her periodically, bring her medicines and ask her if she wanted soup.
It was enough.
Humans -- including parents -- need their pain to be recognized, ideally by someone who cares about the suffering.