A week ago, I was getting ready to send my son into his eighth surgery. Although it was outpatient, and planned, it still made me anxious to put him under general anesthesia. We’ve gone through this enough times that I’ve developed a routine to handle the stress and take care of myself and my son through it all. I pack a bag with anything and everything we could need at the hospital. I take anti-viral medication a few days before the surgery because I tend to break out in fever blisters or shingles when I walk into a hospital now (the psychosomatic stress is real, y’all). I get to bed really early, because I’ll need my rest. Not only do you have to arrive at 6am to register, but you also have to fill out a mountain of paperwork and confer with the nurses, the anesthesiologist, and the surgeons and doctors running the procedures—all while your child is getting prepped for surgery. You have to be “on.”
The morning of the procedure, I get myself ready and let my son sleep as long as possible. Nervous that he’ll get anxiety around all these white coats, I grab his favorite blanket and stuffed animal, and mentally prepare to cuddle this boy until my arms fall off. In the past, he’s woken up super groggy from the anesthesia, in a lot of discomfort, and tends to need post-op care in the ICU or a step down unit. He would only rest while in my arms, so I figured today would be no different.
I was wrong. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, or the fact that he’s been through it before, or what, but I might as well have been chopped liver. Here I am, preparing for him to be in pain and discomfort, scared by his surroundings, and sad when I have to hand him off to surgery. None of that happened. He was chatting our ears off as soon as we got there, making circles in his crib, not wanting to be held. When the staff came in, he laughed and babbled away at them, stealing everyone’s hearts in the process. When I walked him down the hallway to hand him off, he laughed and went with his nurse with no problem. I was kind of taken aback—I didn’t know whether to be proud or sad. Mostly, I stood there a little confused. Do I officially have a “big boy” now? Or did we just happen to have a good day? Maybe it was a little bit of both, but here’s what I learned.
My child is the one having the surgery, and while I am allowed to be anxious and nervous, I really should be following his lead. After all, this won’t be his last one, and I don’t want him to associate hospitals with negativity. He needs to feel comfortable in clinical spaces, he needs to feel safe, and know that these places are good and are full of people who are going to help him and make him better. If I act and look scared around him, he’ll pick up on that energy and feel like he’s supposed to be scared. If I treat him like he’s “sick” all the time, he’s going to act “sick” all the time. And chronic illness does not have to equal chronic sadness or inactivity. You can be chronically ill and live a very happy and full life, peppered with necessary, albeit unpleasant, medical experiences.
Chronic illness does not have to equal chronic sadness.
When my son was wheeled back into the room after recovery, his nurse said he hadn’t stopped talking since he woke up. He was laughing and chatting, and just straight up “chilling” in his bed. I had two options: climb in there with him and cuddle him, and make it seem like he just went through something that should constitute excessive nurturing; or follow his lead, and climb in his bed and just play, cuddling as needed. As a mom, you can take one glance at your child and know what he or she needs, whether it’s a hug, a kiss, a certain toy, cuddles, or Tylenol—you just know. You would take this approach in everyday life—so when your everyday life includes lots of hospital stays and procedures, it’s really not so different. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, “don’t over-nurture your kid, he needs to be tough.” I’m saying, let your kid take the lead in how you approach him or her at any given point in time. You might be surprised how resilient they are, and we could all learn from that.