What Parenting With Chronic Pain is Like

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

I am a parent with chronic pain.

The reality of those words strikes a nerve. Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and fibromyalgia can often be debilitating and draining.  The pain makes it hard to stand for long periods of time, be active, and spend quality time with my children. Sometimes, something as simple as cooking dinner takes everything I’ve got. 

It has been a long week, and at the moment I am struggling with low energy levels and pain so bad that I can barely stand. Dinner was delivered, as it seems to be most nights lately.  And I’m frustrated because there is overwhelming research that is not in favor of parents like me.

Most studies about parents with chronic pain suggest their children are adversely affected, including one published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. That study was painful to read, because it found that children whose parents live with chronic pain are more likely to have adjustment and behavioral problems.

They’re also more likely to have pain complaints of their own. A 2013 study in JAMA Pediatrics looked at 8,200 teens and found that those who had parents with chronic pain were at a greater risk of having chronic pain themselves.

The researchers do not know, however, if it is caused by genetics, learned behavior, sympathy or other factors. Whatever the reason, these children experience actual physical pain.

Another study, this one from the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, finds adolescents who grow up with parents who struggle with pain generally see their parents as physically and emotionally uninvolved, and more likely to be angry, irritable and unpredictable. As a result, the children hid their true feelings or needs from their parents for fear of stressing them or causing them more pain. Some blamed themselves for their parents’ suffering. Others turned to substance abuse.

Studies like these break my heart.  It is not my kids’ fault that I hurt. And they shouldn’t have to miss out on life because I am in too much pain to handle the simplest activities. It scares me that they may not speak up or have their needs met because of my struggles with pain.

Chronic pain also affects how I parent. The research in this area disappoints me, mostly because I think it is true for me. A 2006 study in the Journal of Pain compared mothers with chronic pain to mothers without pain. The mothers living with pain reported they were more lax in their parenting and had a reduced relationship quality with their children.

Our pain also effects are children emotionally, whether they speak up about it or not. A 2012 study published in the journal Pain found that teenagers, especially girls, whose parents were in pain were more likely to experience anxiety and depression.  Teenage girls were also at a greater risk for behavior problems in school if their mothers were pain.

Doing the Best I Can

Chronic pain is a torture I don’t deserve and there are days where I feel sorry for myself.  I was 32 when I was diagnosed and here I am, nine years later, with a purse full of pills. It hasn’t gotten better and I only see it getting worse.  My marriage ended because this was too much for my ex-husband. None of this is fair to my kids who have lost the most from my battle with RA and fibromyalgia pain.

Most days, I talk myself into sucking it up.  I look in the mirror tell myself while it was my choice to have children, it wasn’t their choice to have a mother who lives with pain.  So, I am taking my kids out for quality family time even if I have to limp around and pay for it later.  I will be the mother they deserve, even if it is for one day.

I know I shouldn’t compare myself to other parents because I am in no way like them, but I do. There are days where I can actually be Supermom. On a good day, I work my 9 to 5 job, come home, make a home-cooked meal, help with homework and even clean up my modest home before I go to bed. But when my head hits the pillow, my body has had it.  I know other parents can do this stuff every day without pain and extreme fatigue, and while that upsets me, I still choose to feel a sense of accomplishment. 

The studies about parents with chronic pain don’t seem to be in my favor, but I did find one that gave me hope.  A 2008 study published in the journal Qualitative Health Research found that when a mother has chronic pain her children actually develop life skills early on and are more successful in adverse situations. That was just what I needed to hear.

After all, I see my kids turning out just fine. Despite all of my worst fears, my boys – ages 8 and 17 – are turning out to be kind, caring, smart and responsible human beings, and I couldn’t be prouder.  I am also grateful they see me as a mother who, despite chronic pain, can still love them, be there for them, and who shows them daily that anything is possible even in the most adverse situations.

Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.