When my younger daughter was born, she greeted me with her rigid body, as if the air had shocked her. This girl will not easy to raise, I thought. And, for a while, it was true. I was never a believer in old-souls, but Nadia appeared to have come to me with so many lessons already learned. I was never sure who was raising whom. What should my answer have been when, at age two, she said to me, “When I was your mommy, I used to give you your pacifiers”?
“You were a good mommy,” I answered, thinking this was an appropriate response.
Then, when she was eight years old, Nadia was diagnosed with a Ewing’s sarcoma. I had no doubts about what I needed to do now. I had to sit with Nadia in the hospital playing endless rounds of Spit and watching every episode of “S Club 7.” I had to administer medications and change bandages. I had to pulverize Nadia’s food and rub her tummy. One of Nadia’s doctors told me that he and his colleagues would do their best to cure my daughter. My job was to continue to raise her. I was reminded that Nadia would need more than my caregiving.
At first, my writing practice offered no illumination as to what kind of mother I needed to be for Nadia. I have a chapter in my latest book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness, in which I write, “Sometimes I just need to throw my words on a page. Splat! I…I…I…, No…No…No…, You…You…You…, How…How…How…, Can’t…Can’t…Can’t… No holding back, no reflection, no filter.” But howling at the page, however necessary, does not make room for reflection.
Over time, as I went back over my words, I began to get tired of myself. I had to get off my rant. The only way to do that was to stop making myself the center of all my thoughts. What became obvious as I wrote was that I had no lightness about me. Nadia—still a child who believed in fairies and dreamed of flying— began to shrink whenever I came near with my somber face. When I told her that her hair was going to fall out, she refused to engage with me and ran to join her brother and sister as soon as she could.
As I began to shape my rants into a book that would eventually become Motherhood Exaggerated, I could see that I was an unsympathetic character. I had to rewrite myself. I would think more like a child. I would laugh more. I would take my cues from Nadia rather than follow my old patterns.
I debuted my new character the day Nadia’s hair fell out. I was awake before her and saw hairs strewn over her pillow and on the sheet. As Nadia slept, I brushed my hand along the top of her head. The hair came off like dandelion fluff. If this weren’t happening to my daughter, I could think it was kind of cool. But maybe I could make it cool for Nadia. So when she opened her eyes, I told her the day had come. Her hair was falling out. “Here. Feel it,” I said. ‘You’ll never have a chance to pull your hair out like this again.” And so the hair pulling began and even brought Nadia’s siblings running to participate. At dinner that night, Nadia presented me with a bowl of “angel hair pasta.”
As I wrote, my character acquired other attributes. Having been raised with a strict moral code, I soon found myself in cahoots with Nadia’s twin brother, sneaking him into the hospital even though he was too young to visit. I had to write compassion into my character so I could see the role I played in keeping my husband out of our children’s lives and to recognize the full scope of his contribution to the family.
What I saw most clearly as I told my story was that I had spent the first eight years of Nadia’s life shrinking from what she needed me to be. When she challenged me, since age four, with her questions about death, when she sobbed over the pain of others, when her first words, “I do”, became her mantra, I was too impressed by her depth, her empathy, and her independence. But Nadia didn’t need answers; she needed a place to bring her fears, a shelter when her own power overwhelmed her. By the end of writing Motherhood Exaggerated I finally understood what I should have said to Nadia when she said she gave me my pacifiers when she was my mother. “You were a good mommy but it’s my turn to be the mother now.”
(Note: Nadia is now twenty-four and healthy and exchanged her dreams of flight for dance.)
Judith Hannan is the author of Motherhood Exaggerated (CavanKerry Press, 2012), her memoir of discovery and transformation during her daughter’s cancer treatment and her transition into survival. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Woman’s Day, Opera News, The Huffington Post, The Healing Muse, ZYZZYVA, Twins Magazine, and The Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. She teaches writing about personal experience to homeless mothers and at-risk adolescents as well as to medical students, and is a judge of the annual essay contest sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism-in-Medicine. She served as Director of Development of the 92nd Street Y and then for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. She now serves on the board of the Museum, Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects, as well as on three boards affiliated with the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York—the Adolescent Health Center (where she now serves as President of the Advisory Board), the Children’s Center Foundation, and Global Health. She lives in New York.