The Mental Load of Mothers

The kind of tired that sleep can’t fix.

Being a mom is tiring; there is no question about that. At any age and stage during infancy to adulthood there is always a reason that being a mom is exhausting: as a newborn it’s the constant waking to feed, as a toddler it’s the constant energy, as a child it’s the constant activities. Past that I can’t really say first hand but I have some ideas.  But being a mother comes with more than just lack of sleep and energy, it comes with the type of tired that sleep alone can’t fix.

Hailey, Charlotte, and Timothy at 6 weeks. Hailey and Charlotte are smiling. Timothy is crying.
It’s tough to be a baby.

The main reason that being a mother is so exhausting is because of something called the mental load. I like to think of the mental load like a giant backpack filled with miscellaneous items that are inside my brain. It is a weight that mothers carry every single day, and being a mother to a special needs child adds a significantly longer list of items to the backpack.

This backpack is filled with big and little things, but the weight of each adds up to be quite heavy for one person to carry alone. Especially when just as quickly as something gets taken out of the backpack six more items are placed inside it.

This mental load aspect of parenting is something that usually falls onto the mother (not always) and therefore can cause some strain in the parenting relationship because it is a lot to ask of one person. Men and women are just different and as much as everyone knows that it can be really frustrating to deal with those differences in daily life.

This morning my husband got up and decided he had enough time to make himself some eggs and toast for breakfast before work. So he did that, and he went to work.

This morning I came downstairs to get Hailey ready for school and all of us out the door in time for the school bus. But I saw there was no bread left to make her a sandwich and so I had to go get some from the deep freeze in the garage. On my way over there I noticed James’ boots tracked mud all over the front entry way so when I got back inside I swept. Then when I went to throw out the mud I noticed the garbage never made it out last night and so I changed that. And then I cursed under my breath and got all the kids ready and out the door.

Charlotte laying on the ground throwing a tantrum beside a teddy bear.
Toddler Tantrums.

As I sat at the bus stop waiting I sent off a quick snippy text to my husband “Thanks for leaving me no bread to make Hailey’s lunch”. I was furious. Yes I know it’s just bread and at least we did have some in the freezer but I’m tired.

I am tired of being the only one to remember that: Hailey’s lunch needs made, the agenda needs signed, the pediatrician needs called, the physiotherapy needs scheduled, Timothy’s on his last pair of clean pants, Charlotte only has 2 diapers left ,next week’s appointment conflicts with school pick up, did we use the last of the frozen vegetables last night? I better pick some up.

The to-do list that continues for eternity in my head is overwhelming. As I think myself into a spiral I heard my phone. “Sorry babe I didn’t think of it.” That was my husband’s reply and as much as I was still seething, I also wanted to laugh. Unfortunately that was just the truth of the situation, he didn’t think of it. There was no master plan to make my morning more difficult although it felt like it at the time.

Remember how I said the mental load is like a backpack full of miscellaneous items in your brain? Well continuing with that analogy… think of when you go away as a family, even for a night. What does your husband pack? Probably his own bag which consists of a new shirt, underwear, deodorant, and if you’re lucky a toothbrush. What do you pack? What do you pack for the kids? Chances are a lot more than what he packed. As women we tend to want to be prepared for anything, and are generally more organized then men. So if you pack more in your physical backpack than your husband, what makes you think it would work any different mentally?

James sitting in the car with Timothy at 6 months sitting in the passenger seat. We are parked.
Road trips.

Now I’m not saying this means that it should all be on you and that he is off the hook. Not at all. But I think the first step of sharing that mental load is for you both to understand how the other sees it and why. And then to try and find a common ground and compromise on what you each can realistically take care of.

For my husband, he doesn’t have a great memory so if I want him to take out the garbage for me, or switch over the dishes while I’m out late at girl guides with the kids, I just need to ask. And for myself even though I know realistically I need to handle all the scheduling of appointments, I just need a listening ear from him to vent to about my stresses with it.

There will always be differences between my husband and I in how we deal with things and that is just a part of joining your life with another person. The way we communicate about it and work together is the most important aspect.

I don’t ever expect to not carry the majority of the mental load simply because of who I am as a person (I like to be organized and I’m a worrier). What I do expect is that my husband is there to hold the backpack for me for awhile when I just can’t carry it anymore or that he is there to help catch it when it starts to slip off.

James and Melissa sitting together smiling
Partners.

Thank you for patiently waiting for a new post, the backpack has been a little extra heavy these days <3.

The Year of Acceptance

Every New Year’s Eve brings on a feeling of anticipation for the future and a hope for a better year ahead. People usually spend the week leading up to the New Year thinking of all the things they can change in their lives, including but not limited to their bodies, minds, jobs, family situations, financial situations, etc. Since we entered a new decade this year it seems that the wish for change was amplified. I found a lot of the resolutions I was reading to be inspiring and for a minute I let my mind think of all the things I would like to see change for my life in the New Year but then I decided to have a different goal for 2020. So instead of my wishes for what I can change this year, I will tell you my wishes for what I can learn to fully accept this year.  

This year I hope to accept my body and all the changes that came with having three children, I hope to not worry about the number on the tag of my jeans, or the scale. This year I hope to accept that relationships change over time. I hope to accept these changes as they come and try to remember my number one focus is to build and nourish healthy and caring relationships and not to hold on to ones that are no longer serving my intended family in a good way.  

This year I hope to accept dirty looks, stupid questions, and inaccessibility. That one might sound weird but it is true. I hope that the dirty looks I get from strangers do not have me feeling down all afternoon, I hope that I can answer the stupid questions with compassion (at least they are trying to learn), and I hope I can acknowledge that the lack of accessibility is really just a lack of knowledge and information not a personal attack towards people with disabilities (including my son).  And the most important thing I want to accept this year is Timothy having Leber Congenital Amaurosis CRB1.

Now this one I have already put quite a bit of work into before having an official diagnosis but since getting one it seems the conversations around me have changed. A lot of focus is put onto if there is a treatment (there is not) and if there will be a treatment in his lifetime (no one could answer this one). This year I hope to accept CRB1 for what it is currently (a lifelong condition). This does not mean I have given up hope for a treatment or that I will not continue to stay up to date on what is going on in the world of LCA research. What it does mean is that I am okay if Timothy remains blind for the entirety of his life. This year my goal is to really accept this condition and place more focus on Timothy and who he is  growing up to be and being blind is a part of that. Timothy was born this way and how he interacts with the world around him including with me is all partly shaped by him being blind. I have people every day telling me that they hope for a cure or a treatment to “fix” Timothy, and I have come to the conclusion that he is not broken and therefore is not in need of being fixed.  LCA might have taken Timothy’s vision, but it will not take away his ability to succeed, feel loved, experience joy, or anything else he desires out of life. This year I hope to feel overwhelmed by acceptance for my life and for my family how they are because I have so much to be grateful for and I do not want to waste another year worried about changing things to be “better” and missing out on all the beautiful things I already have.

Timothy laying on the couch with his soother holding a stuffed kangaroo
Timothy and his Kangaroo

Wishing everyone a Happy and Peaceful 2020.

The Results are in: Timothy and CRB1

If you have not had a chance to read Timothy’s Story yet I have linked it here so you can catch up to where we left off on diagnosing his condition.

Timothy at 4 months old laying wrapped in a hospital blanket sleeping with an IV in.
Getting a preliminary Diagnosis.

Back in August we saw an ophthalmologist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary where we live. Within a few seconds of doing the dilated eye exam he told us that Timothy had a problem with his retina and would be required to see a specialist out of Edmonton (about 3 hours away). He wrote down the words Leber Congenital Amaurosis on a piece of paper and told me this is likely what is affecting Timothy but we will need to undergo further testing to find out.

I started doing research the second I stepped out of his office and felt like there was not one thing about Leber Congenital Amaurosis or LCA I had not already read about (or so I thought). The only thing I needed to know was if my son truly had it. We waited three months for our appointment and it was a long hard day as my husband and I decided we would just drive down for the appointment and then come back home that night (6 hours of driving total).

When we first arrived Timothy had to go for a test called an Electroretinogram or an ERG. For this test he had electrodes placed underneath each eye and then a small camera like device was placed over his eyes and flashed different lights into them with both the lights on and then in the dark. The ERG reads the response of the retina to the light signals in both the light and dark settings. This test is used to help confirm a diagnosis of LCA if the response from the retina comes back severely abnormal or almost nonexistent. After receiving that test we got to speak with the specialist. He told us that the ERG showed little to no response from Timothy’s retina in both the light and the dark, he also examined Timothy and agreed he has little or no useable vision (especially central vision).  Although he said it is clear Timothy does not focus or react to visual stimulation, he also said that we won’t know exactly what he can or cannot see until Timothy is able to express that himself.  With these findings he said that we are looking at the diagnosis of LCA and the next step would be genetic testing to confirm 100% and tell us the gene type. We were luckily able to complete the blood work before we even left the hospital and began our 4 to 6 week wait on results.

Timothy at 6 months old. He has blonde hair and blue eyes. He is laying naked in a bassinet with his hands together holding his soother.
Sweet Timothy.

As soon as 4 weeks had hit I was anxious to hear back, I was confident that they would find something but I still had that nagging feeling  of what if they cannot figure out what is going on with my baby.  At 4.5 weeks I caved and called them to check in but there was nothing yet. As we got closer to Christmas I knew that if I didn’t hear back by the 6 week mark I likely would not have a result until the New Year. So because I am one of those moms I called again a couple times and on the 6 week mark exactly I finally got the call back. First she told me it confirmed the diagnosis of LCA and then she said the gene is called CRB1.

CRB1…okay. I recognized the name from a few families I had started following on social media.  The genetic counsellor went into details on how it is recessive and what that means in terms of future pregnancies with my husband (25% chance each child) and the chances of my children being carriers. She told me how this gene is only linked to vision problems and nowhere else in the body would be affected (thankfully). She told me they would have James and I complete genetic testing as well to show the whole picture of how the “non working copies” of the gene were passed down to Timothy. She wished me a Merry Christmas and that was it. CRB1 was now the final diagnosis.

This whole time we were awaiting the results I had promised myself I would not get my hopes up for a specific gene.  There is only one that has an FDA approved treatment in the USA and then only a couple more undergoing clinical trials. See after we got this diagnosis I had emerged myself in a community of parents going through LCA diagnosis’ and I was seeing some really awe inspiring kids regaining their vision from the one treatment. For me, wanting Timothy to receive the treatment had nothing to do with making life easier or simpler but had everything to do with those waves of grief that come with the loss of his vision. Even though I had told myself not to do it I let my mind wander into the thoughts of Timothy seeing me smile at him for the first time, or seeing the snowfall outside, or maybe a waterfall, a sunset, a flower. Yeah I let myself fall too far into those what ifs. So when I heard her say CRB1 the first thought I had was not very positive.

Fortunately we have been working through this diagnosis of LCA for months and I was quickly able to bounce back into my “how can I best help Timothy succeed” mode.  Within the day I was in touch with several great families whose children also have LCA CRB1 and they were so comforting and encouraging. Then I was able to connect with Kristin Smedley who not only has two sons with LCA CRB1 but has also started the curing retinal blindness foundation for CRB1, wrote a book called Thriving Blind, and has a TED talk about her story which really resonated with me.  Connecting with these amazing families who have all been where I am now has meant more to me than I can put into words.

Writing this blog and sharing our story and continuing to share our journey has been so therapeutic for me. I have made so many connections and not only with other LCA parents but parents whose children are blind or visually impaired from other conditions. I have also gained so much support from family, friends, and even complete strangers.  I hope that through this blog one day I can help a family who is just starting their journey into LCA and that I can be an advocate for not only my son but the blind and visually impaired community. 

Timothy a blonde haired blue eyed 8 month old. He is smiling. His blue shirt says best brother in the world.
My Happy Boy.

Thank you so much for everyone who takes the time to read my posts. I can’t wait to continue on this journey together to show the world that Happiness is Blind.

A letter to the mom who’s child just received a diagnosis:

It’s okay to grieve.

Dear Mama,

I know it has been a long and tough road and yet you are only at the beginning. There has been sleepless nights, never ending days, endless google searches, and too many tears. Ever since the first thought of there being something “different” about your child, you have not been at peace. You have wondered what, why, and how. You have blamed yourself for not remembering your prenatal vitamin everyday, or for that one time you caved and ate unpasteurized cheese during your pregnancy. You have scolded yourself for not recognizing what was going on sooner, or not pushing the Doctors to look harder. And then all at once you have quickly forced yourself into acceptance and bravery. You know your husband does not understand half of the medical terms being tossed around, and your mother is beside herself with worry for your child so you have to be there to support them. Speaking of your child, how can you show them anything but bravery and acceptance? This is their life after all and they are so young and innocent. This diagnosis changes things, possibly everything. You have to keep it all together, the dishes, laundry, making meals, signing field trip forms, blood tests, specialist appointments, the list only gets longer. You make all the calls, telling family and friends the same information over and over, always answering “I’m fine” if they ask how you are handling things.

But Mama, you are not fine and that’s okay. You are allowed to feel the roller coaster of emotions this diagnosis came with. You are allowed to be angry and blame the universe if that gets you through the day. You are allowed to be afraid for every single worst case scenario that could come your way. You are allowed to laugh at things that are completely inappropriate at the time. You are allowed to eat every piece of chocolate you can get your hands on. You are allowed to ugly cry into a pillow. Your life just changed in a big way too. And tomorrow or two weeks from now you will get up and continue on with the bravery and acceptance because you are a great mom. But until then feel all the feelings, let yourself go through the healing process. It’s okay to grieve.

Sincerely,

A mama who’s been there.