Now is not a good time to get sick. If you don’t tackle all the stuff that needs to be done, things are just going to snowball. It would derail everything. Also, don’t think for one minute that people at work forgot about the day you took off last week when your kid had strep. Just push through.
We’re smart women. So why do we think we’re invincible?
Two young moms I know died of infectious diseases, both on the same day in late winter, five years apart. Each had two young children. And they were both the kind of capable people you’d want on your team—you knew they’d tackle even the most complex challenges with high energy and minimal fuss.
I’ve talked about their loss a lot. At first, it was to parse the shock and hear it echo back. If they’re not invincible, none of us is. Now when I tell their stories, I direct them at the caregivers in my life. Pay attention, and take your health seriously. I hope by doling out this advice often enough, I’ll start to follow it, too. Because when a hellish week hits, I know how surprisingly hard it is to prioritize self-care.
“You’re so busy caring for other people, it can be easy to lose track of your own health and well-being,” says Batya Grundland, maternity care lead at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “But you can’t care for your family effectively if you’re not caring for yourself.”
If you believe the stereotypes, men are the ones who drag their feet about going to the doctor, often at the insistence of women, saying “Didn’t your dad have high cholesterol at your age?” As moms, we’re often attuned to the tiniest signs of illness in our kids: the glassy eyes that indicate a fever, the particular brand of cranky that’s a precursor to vomit. But for us, pushing through pain is a badge of honour. Twenty-two hours of back labour without an epidural? High-five, sister! Exclusively breastfed despite recurrent mastitis? Short-term sacrifice, am I right? When we return to work, balancing the inevitable daycare gastro bugs on top of professional stresses, we keep pushing through. It’s what we do.
But we sometimes downplay our own health. Part of that macho stoicism may have to do with years of having our own discomfort waved off as an overstatement. A number of studies show that medical professionals take women’s pain less seriously than men. In hospitals, women are up to 25 percent less likely to receive pain medication (and we’re made to wait longer to receive it), despite research showing that women have a lower pain threshold than men (raise your hand if you read that low threshold as a personal indictment).
We’ve all got our war stories—someone in the system just didn’t take our symptoms seriously. “You probably have a low pain threshold,” said the delivery nurse when, after eight hours of induced labour, I began to feel serious pain break through the medicated numbness. Had I been less worried about being seen as weak, I would have directed her to check the epidural—which, incidentally, had fallen out. The nurse wasn’t heartless; she just didn’t know me or the fact that I once tried to walk off a broken bone because I didn’t want to be seen as a drama queen. But there I was, letting a stranger dismiss my condition and trying to rationalize immense pain because maybe I really was one of those overly sensitive people.
Supports and buffers What does your personal threshold look like? Your kids are young, and your parents are old. At work, there is a round of layoffs and suddenly you have to do the work of two people. Maybe your partner is out of town, so all the carpools, meals and doctors’ appointments are on you this week. At a certain point, perhaps you even step back and marvel at all the plates you’re spinning. And there’s a mantra in your head that goes something like “Push through, push through, because people get busy and that’s what busy people do.” You’ve got this.
But then you get sick, and you try to push through that, too.
It’s hard to gauge how sick you are if you don’t have time or space to just be...sick. That’s why you need to have your support system in place before you hit that wall.
“As soon as parents come home from the hospital with their new child, the question I ask at every visit for the first year of life is ‘Who are your supports, and what is your backup?’ because we all need a backup sometimes,” says Grundland. Whether it’s family, friends or babysitters, she recommends identifying those people before you hit a crisis point. “So when that week happens, you can say ‘I need someone to help take care of the kids for a couple of days so I can get better.’”
Once you’ve had 48 hours to rest, if you’re still not feeling better, you have an inkling that something isn’t right. “But it’s very hard when you’re always pushing through,” she tells me.
Check yourself There will always be things about our health that we can’t control. There are rare illnesses that, with little warning, can become quite dangerous. But there are also many things that we can prevent through self-care. To start with, we need to pay attention to what it feels like when we’re healthy so we know when our bodies are signalling that we’re sick.
This year, I took that day in late winter—the anniversary of my friends’ deaths—and announced that it was “National Check Yourself Day.” Check in with your body. Has anything changed? Make that appointment you’ve been putting off. Is this the year you get a mammogram? No excuses, I push, like a kvetchy, busybody mother from generations past. Do it today.
And while you’re making those calls, remember this: More than one person can be sick at the same time; we don’t have the luxury of taking turns. This is obvious, but never ignore your own health emergency, even if you’re the primary caregiver. You are not invincible, but you are absolutely irreplaceable. Honour your body’s signs to take a break. Call on your community to help. You are amazing, fierce, capable and strong. You’ve got this, we know. But your friends and all the people who love you? We’ve got you, too.