“So, how long have you been sick?”
I had been coughing for weeks, battling fevers as high as 104, and struggling to find enough energy to sufficiently care for two children, ages 5 and 1. It wasn’t until I was holding my 5-year-old son’s hand at 2 a.m. in the middle of the pediatric emergency room that someone noticed how sick I was — that someone being the attending pediatrician. After the doctor listened to my son’s lungs, and after he ordered a chest X-ray that would later confirm pneumonia, he turned his attention to me.
“You’re clearly very sick,” he said. “I know you don’t want to leave your son, so I’m going to have someone from the adult emergency room come over and examine you.”
After a quick examination by the “adult doctor” and a chest X-ray of my own, I was diagnosed with severe bronchitis and exhaustion. I felt embarrassed, especially because I was supposed to be focusing on my son, and self-conscious for allowing myself to become so ill. After all, what kind of mother can’t take care of herself?
The answer, of course, is most moms. In a country without mandated paid parental leave or affordable child care, where motherhood and martyrdom are often seen as synonyms, more often than not, moms are not taking care of themselves. We’re ignoring calls for us to put our oxygen masks on first, and tending to our children as we gasp for air.
As a result, it’s the people we trust to care for our children who end up noticing that we need to be cared for, too.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I end up noticing something is wrong with Mom,” says Sara Siddiqui, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor in the pediatrics department at NYU Langone’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital, who has treated children for more than 20 years. “First of all, we’re sometimes the first person to see them after they have a baby.” Siddiqui has diagnosed moms who have arrived in her office two or three days postpartum with swollen feet or difficulty breathing, who haven’t seen any doctor but the one tasked with examining their newborns.
“I even had a mom almost pass out in my office as I’m examining her baby because she just had a C-section and she didn’t realize that she was still very weak,” she continues.
As priorities shift after a mom has her baby — and as the people around the mom focus on the baby instead of her — she begins to care less for herself and more for her child. This mindset doesn’t change as the child grows, either. But parents — especially parents of young children — are more susceptible to illness. Scientists have found that children younger than 6 contract an average of six to eight colds in a calendar year, and because their immune systems are still developing, it takes them much longer to recover. And because parents — particularly moms, who are still doing the majority of the child rearing and are getting less sleep than their male partners — are tired and rundown, it’s more difficult for their immune systems to protect them from their children’s colds.
Failing to adequately care for oneself, whether in the postpartum period or, like me, five years after having your first child, can have serious consequences.
“Especially this time of year,” Siddiqui says. “Let’s say I’m examining a patient and the mom is also there and she’s coughing or she’s having difficulty. When they’re explaining what’s going on with the child and they’re having trouble even saying sentences, that means that they’re in some kind of respiratory distress or [have a] respiratory-related illness. So I’ll say, ‘I’m noticing that you’re also coughing,’ or, ‘I’m noticing you may need an inhaler,’ or, ‘I’m noticing that you may need some treatment, so I think it’s a good idea if you see your primary doctor, or if you don’t have one, I can refer you.’ “
But it’s not just a lack of sleep, the understandable shift in priorities, the intense physical changes in the postpartum period or the myriad germs children seem to attract that’s making and keeping moms sick; it’s our unwillingness to treat ourselves with the same care that we provide our children.
Moms are notoriously bad at asking for help, a byproduct of our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that has attached a person’s worthiness to their ability to act entirely independent of anyone else. Moms in particular are judged by their resourcefulness and capacity for self-sacrifice, regardless of the personal cost.
“Despite all the strides we have made for women’s equality since the 1950s, June Cleaver and the iconic mothers of that generation remain deeply embedded in our culture as the ideal image of motherhood in that they sacrificed themselves in totality for their families,” says Carly Snyder, a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist practicing in New York City. “Women in general grow up with the assumption that we are the caregivers and any additional help is gravy. This is regardless of whether we lived in progressive homes with parents who shared the duties of parenthood to whatever degree possible or not.”
Snyder says we embrace — even celebrate — our martyrdom because it allows us to hide the fact that we cannot live up to unrealistic expectations. “Perfection is the goal, and honestly saying, ‘I can’t do it,’ let alone, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ is too anxiety-inducing because it threatens to unmask our vulnerability. Saying these things means we aren’t what we imagined to be the ideal mother, and that’s scary.”
So us moms do what I did: ignore our needs in the name of perceived perfection, even if it literally makes us sick.
As I left the emergency room with my sleeping son in my arms, coughing every few steps and counting down the hours until I could walk the three blocks from my apartment to the nearest Walgreens to pick up prescribed medications for not one but two people, I mentally kicked myself. As a working mom of two who is often solo-parenting while her partner works 12-hour graveyard shifts 60 hours a week, I know better. As someone who has already overcome two bouts of postpartum depression, a trip to the pediatric ICU for a respiratory virus when my second child was only 3 weeks old, and countless colds and flus that are not uncommon when you’re caring for young children, I know better.
“Moms must realize that our children need us to be healthy, but we are human and sometimes we all get sick,” Snyder tells me. “We can’t heal quickly or effectively if we don’t give our bodies a chance to do so.”
But knowing that I need help doesn’t make asking for help any easier. Knowing that I need to remain healthy so I can adequately care for my children doesn’t make it any easier to prioritize my own health — mental and physical.
As moms, we are encouraged to prioritize our children’s health over and even to the detriment of our own. We are hailed as “great parents” if we race our children to their pediatrician’s office at the first sign of distress while “powering through” our own illnesses. We are applauded for our selflessness over and over again until caring less and less for the self is less of a choice and more of a default response. When our jobs as mothers are often thankless, any praise — even if it requires the deterioration of our mental and physical health — seems worth it.
But if we encouraged moms to help themselves as often as they help their children, if we believed moms when they said they are sick or in pain, perhaps we wouldn’t have the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Perhaps fewer moms would feel isolated, alone and overwhelmed. Perhaps motherhood, as Snyder says, could “becomes far less like a chore and far more joyful.”
And perhaps I wouldn’t have had to rely on the care and compassion of a pediatrician to feel seen, heard and worthy of adequate medical care.
“If you establish the same type of relationship with your doctor that you wind up establishing with your pediatrician, I think women’s health would go so much farther,” Siddiqui says. “If we did more preventative care for women, as we do for children, it would help” moms and children both.
Danielle Campoamor is a reproductive justice and abortion rights advocate and freelance writer.