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Chronic Illness - Chronic Pain Articles Available to Read and Reprint


[not available for reprint]

When Mommy Has a Chronic Illness and Can't Do it All

Copyright 1994, Kenneth Tittle, Mariposa Ministry. Used with permission

Jessica Marie, as I watch you teetering precariously between coffee table and armchair -- between fear and hope, between security and discovery -- engrossed totally in your moment, how could you ever understand what your first steps mean to me?

You will surely succeed in the end. I know that, but you don't. For you, this is a classic voyage into the unknown, but uncertainty doesn't stop you. Already you are finding that your arms are too short. It's one of life's basic truths:You cannot reach your dreams unless you are willing to let go of what you already hold. When do we learn to be afraid of failure? How do we learn it? If you are going to triumph, Jessica, I know you will have to fail repeatedly. There is no other way. If I could spare you the falls, I would deny you the growth.

You pull yourself to your feet by the table. Watching you stare longingly at the chair, when you could so easily and so securely crawl to it, is like watching some ancient drama. What drives you? I know the power of your longing to walk, but is it biologic destiny, such as calls the geese to the northern skyways, or is it more plainly and sinfully, human envy of all those people you see around you walking? I wish I knew.

Someone once wrote, "walking is simply a process of continually interrupted falling." Poor soul! He had lost his awe for the wonders of childhood. As you release the table, gravity stalks you like a circling jackal, ready to pull you down the moment you expose your unwary center of balance too far right or left or forward or back.

How incredible that without a thought for anything other than the beckoning armchair, you would, and could, trust your whole weight on one small, pudgy foot, fall toward your goal, and in the falling, catch yourself with the other foot, then transfer your whole weight and fall toward your goal again. Even when you crash into the waiting carpet, you quickly reject its solid security, pull yourself back to standing, and set out on your high wire again.

And there it is! One, two, three, four steps, each one more precipitous than the last, until you crash headlong into the chair, relieved and triumphant, surprised and gleeful, eager to try again. Call it clumsy and unstable, even for the moment useless --certainly no improvement on crawling--but it is anything but trivial. Dozens of muscles with exotic names responding to marvelously coordinated volleys of nerve discharges ... all that and much more in response to a single, infantile desire to reach the chair without crawling.

Has ever a mother watched her child's first steps with more tangled emotions than I? I was once just like you, Jessica. How I wish I could remember the intoxicating rush of those first steps. They say that I was soon running everywhere, legs churning, full of the excitement of it. And then one night a fever swept down my spinal cord. The nerves, mortally wounded, enraged their muscles into painful spasms before abandoning them forever. Only feeble strands remain of all those muscles with their exotic names.

Jessica Marie, still so dependent upon me, only ten months out of my womb, and yet you are already far more capable on those toddling feet than I will ever again be on mine. What feelings entangle my joy and pride at your new accomplishment! Will I be as envious of your walking, hopping, dancing, and running as I once was envious of my siblings and my classmates? Am I grieving all over again for what I lost? Am I hoping finally to live out my lost childhood through you? And could it ever be fair to place that burden on your tiny frame?

I am fearful, too. With your first steps, long suppressed vague adolescent fears and fantasies have suddenly become all too clear and present. How can I be adequate as a mother? If my child should run into the path of danger, what could I do? How could I bear it, if something should happen to her because of me, because of my paralysis?


What will my daughter think of her mother as she grows?
Will she some day reject me?



I have always cringed before the honest curiosity, the uninhibited stares, and the ingenuous cruelty of children. Remembering children I have known, am I fearful now of my own child, my own guileless and utterly dependent pre-toddler?

I am ashamed to be afraid, Jessica, but you have already given me so much, perhaps I am also afraid you will one day take it back. I would be embarrassed to tell you how much my self-esteem already depends upon you. I had hated my crippled body. I was ashamed of it. But Jessica, you came to me through this body. You affirmed my body as you swelled my belly. You affirmed my body as you burst lusty and strong --"normal"--into the light. You affirmed my body as you grew and flourished by drawing your sustenance and your security at my breast.

In you I have realized those hopes and dreams that so wounded my adolescence because they seemed so hopeless. You have brought me new self-acceptance. I cannot express my joy in knowing you have been dependent on me and I have been able to sustain you, when for so long as a child I had felt I was a burden to everyone around me. But the more I receive from you, the more I fear to lose.

Scarcely have you taken these first steps, and I am thinking you too will soon "be running everywhere." You will be able to run away from me, to elude my grasp, to dance beyond my protection. You will soon grow too heavy for me to lift you when you are tired or sick. You will become a willful two-year-old, to try me and to demonstrate my inadequacies in countless ways. How many things does a "normal" mother do with her growing child that you and I will never do, or be able to do?

And will you force me to remember my own childhood, which I have tried not to remember for fear that the cold, black waters of depression would swirl in around me again? You will grow older. Old enough to compare me to other mothers, to yourself, to your playmates, your teachers. You will see how they all can walk and skip, climb and play; and then perhaps you will be old enough to regret the mother you have—to be ashamed of her and to envy the others. I don't know if I could bear that.

Strange how I have built my life convincing myself that I was accustomed to my disability, that it didn't bother me. Convincing myself that all those painful things were behind me. Yet they are still there. Because you are so normal, and I love you so, it is as if you alone, in the entire world, could utterly destroy me if you should reject me.

It is one of life's basic truths: Our arms are too short. You cannot attain your dreams unless you are willing to risk what you already hold. There is no way to triumph except by failing repeatedly. If God would prevent the falls, we would lose the growth. This is the archetypal voyage of discovery for me, also, and I have to remind myself that I, too, will most likely succeed through repeated failures.

I am already comforted to know you will be unlike any child I ever knew in all my life—unlike those who cried, or who ran and hid at the sight of my braces and crutches, or those who laughed and mocked, or those who stayed so unattainably far away across the playgrounds and the ball fields and the hopscotch courts—who never got to know me. You will never be like those who still stare after me in the marketplaces. You will be unique, because before you ever realize that other mothers don't need to strap their legs into braces to stand, or lean on metal canes to walk, you already will have come to love me and trust me and know me as the most wonderful and powerful person in your world.

It will be a long time before you understand my "difference," and longer still before you realize that the rest of the world assumes it is "bad" and "unfortunate" and "sad" and a "problem" to be paralyzed. It has been the most normal and natural thing in the world for you. That is almost more than I can comprehend, something I never thought about before you were born. You will pretend at being "mommy" and want your own crutches and wonder when you will grow up and be paralyzed, and it will be good for you... and for me.

I believe we will play a game together. I will sit on your bed and take my braces off, and I will say, "Oh, I hope Jessica doesn't move my foot." Mischievously, you will push my foot to the side, and I will struggle and strain and twist to bring my feet back together, knowing I cannot. And I will say, "Well, I guess I will just leave it there. I hope Jessica doesn't cross my legs." And of course, you will. "Oh, please, Jessica! Don't cross my legs!" And you will gleefully take my foot and cross it over the other one, and squeal with delight at your power over me. I will struggle and twist and strain until the foot slips back across the other and flops to the bed, and say, "There, now it is uncrossed and it will stay there." Giggling, you will lift it back across, and make me try to uncross them again, as I plead with you in mock earnestness.

I will delight in your laughter and be healed by watching you play with my helplessness without a flicker of shock or pity or confusion or fear on your face, and I will not be ashamed. I will not. I will not be embarrassed, and something deep inside me will be healed.

I will let you help me. I have never like to be helped--hated it—but I will let you help me. I will let you feel proud and grown up and important to your mommy. You will do it without a trace of pity and I will not be ashamed. I will rejoice that my disability can give you so much self- esteem and boost your competence and your confidence, because in needing you, I can be a mother. You can learn give-and-take from a mother who will absolutely not be able to suffocate you with endless giving.

In the end, you will have learned lessons no one will have to teach you, from me and from my disability...

...about the true values of life and the true worth of people, about how all of us have our strengths and our weaknesses, about how useless and hurtful are stereotypes, about using what you have without worrying about what you have not, about patience and self-giving, about pushing on when things are tough, and about triumph through repeated failures.

One day, perhaps you will learn about all those muscles with their exotic names, as I finally did. Then you can come to me and say, "Mom, how did you ever do all those things you did? Balance on your braces, and walk and climb stairs and even get up from the ground without help? Carry your pregnancies and raise your children without any strength in your legs and hips, just with your canes and your arms and your sense of balance? How did you make it all look so sure and smooth? That's incredible, Mom! You were like a ballerina, a high-wire artist, a gymnast! You are Olympic class, Mom!"

And I would believe you. I would feel your wonder and your pride and know that at least one person in the world understood my accomplishments. Something deep down inside me would be healed. Step by step. It is never good to consider anything "useless" which God has made. Certainly not these crippled legs. Thank you, God, for Jessica Marie, for these first steps, and for all the steps to come.

Copyright 1994, Kenneth Tittle, Mariposa Ministry. Used with permission.


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