Parenting Through Chronic Physical Pain

Studies say that when parents are in pain, children suffer. I push my body as hard as I can.

Scoliosis (Wikimedia)

I closed the door on my wailing toddler and left her standing in her crib, reaching out for me. Her cries intensified, like the siren of an ambulance getting closer and louder until its howl drowns out everything else. I walked away and broke down crying. My daughter was sick, and I desperately wanted to soothe her. But I just couldn’t stand and rock her for one more minute to help her get to sleep. My broken body had reached its limit.

I’ve had back pain for much of my life caused by scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. And that afternoon, I felt my back would break if I cradled my daughter’s squirming 25-pound body any longer. I had to give up. My miserable best was to leave the room.

Because of my pain, I was causing my daughter additional suffering—and if recent research is right, this may be only be a harbinger of what’s to come. Experts from Kent State University in Ohio recently did a review of scientific literature examining how children are affected when their parents are in chronic pain. The results, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, are, well, painful to read. It turns out that children whose parents experience chronic pain are at increased risk for adjustment problems and behavioral issues, and are more likely to complain of pain themselves. The whole family suffers.

A close look at some of the studies on this topic rocked me to my core. In one study published this month in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, researchers interviewed a group of 30 adolescents who grew up with parents experiencing chronic pain. In many cases, the children felt their parents were uninvolved physically and/or emotionally, and more likely to be irritable, hostile, and unpredictable. Because of this, the children often hid their true feelings and needs from their parents, lived in fear of stressing their parents out or causing their parents pain, took on a caretaking role before they were ready to do so, and questioned whether they were to blame for their parents’ suffering. The children and young adults dealt with these feelings in various ways—becoming perfectionists, retreating in silence, or turning to substance abuse. Reading these outcomes broke my heart.

Another study—this one published in the Journal of Pain in 2006—compared 39 mothers with chronic pain to 35 pain-free mothers. The mothers with chronic pain reported that they were more likely to be lax in their parenting and that the quality of their relationships with their children suffered compared to mothers without pain. A 2012 study published in Pain examined 3,227 teenagers whose parents had chronic pain. Researchers found that if both parents experienced chronic pain, girls were particularly at risk for anxiety and depression compared to girls whose parents were pain free. What’s more, if it was the mothers who were in pain, girls were also at a greater risk for conduct problems in school.

If that weren’t tough enough to take, two separate studies—one in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine published in 2012, and another in JAMA Pediatrics published in 2013—assessing 5,370 teens and 8,200 teens respectively, found that children whose parents have chronic pain are at greater risk for feeling chronic pain themselves. Researchers don’t know if this is due to genetics or a learned behavior pattern, but whatever the reason, the children are still in pain.

Before having children, I didn’t consider how my pain might affect my parenting. But one of the many things I couldn’t grasp until I lived it is that being a mother is demanding physical work, especially if you’re one of the 100 million Americans with chronic pain.

For me, the pain developed gradually. From ages eight to 16, I wore a brace under my clothes in an attempt to steady my S-shaped spine. Initially, the hard plastic brace kept my spine in line, like a stern headmaster forcing a malleable student to conform. But the curvature, like an unruly teenager, couldn’t be contained. As an adult, it continued its wayward path, which made pain a constant inhabitant in my body, taking up residence in my back, shoulders, neck, and head.

After a strenuous pregnancy with my older daughter (now five), the pain took on a new dimension. Within two years of hoisting my precious cargo into her stroller and high chair, and yes, standing and rocking her to sleep—my body buckled under the strain. Back spasms made it impossible for me to stand or walk for long stretches and sometimes put me out of commission all together. Neck stiffness stopped me from turning my head, shoulder pangs kept me from lifting my arm, and my fingers tingled. I got through my days by popping anti-inflammatory medication, and I spent nights laid up with a heating pad.

Yet whenever my daughter reached for me, I was there with open arms. When my husband was home, he’d often urge me to let him carry her, but all I could think was, “How does a mother suppress her instinct to hold her child when those little arms reach out?”

A scoliosis specialist recommended corrective spinal fusion surgery but after scheduling a surgery date, I learned that the risks of the invasive procedure may not be worth the potential benefits. The surgery would involve cutting open my back, inserting steel rods into my spine, taking a bone graft of my hip, and fusing the vertebrae together to straighten and stabilize the curve. Under the best of circumstances this surgery could lead to complications, cause pain in other areas, and may eventually necessitate a second surgery. Plus, after the operation, I’d barely be able to move for three months, or carry my daughter for a year. Who would dance with her in music class or tuck her into her crib? What if the surgery caused nerve damage, paralysis, or worse? Sure, the physical demands of parenting were backbreaking, but at least I was there to attempt them. I cancelled my surgery date and decided I’d deal with the pain.

Fast-forward a few years—to that afternoon when I couldn’t rock my younger daughter to sleep. My worst symptoms were flaring up, and I couldn’t see how I’d carry us through this time. I sat on the couch, muscles clenched, listening to my toddler cry, distraught that I was of no use to her and could even be causing her harm.

Then, mercifully, she stopped. I checked the baby monitor and saw she’d finally fallen asleep, her arms holding her pink baby doll. My muscles relaxed, and I thought of the pain-free moments I have with my daughters—talking, singing, laughing—moments that strengthen me. I envisioned our cozy weekend mornings, snuggled up, both girls on my lap, enveloped in the soft red blanket that’s big enough to cradle us all.

Science may say the odds are against parents with chronic pain. And I know there are days I’m sidelined and short-tempered. But I’m determined to raise children who feel supported, secure, and loved. I don’t know what my future holds—surgery, therapies, or a lifetime of pain. But I have to believe that despite a deteriorating body, it’s possible to be a successful mother.

I’m still the one my girls reach for—and I refuse to let the pain take that away from me. Motherhood may have weakened my body but my love for my daughters has strengthened my spirit. Per doctor’s orders, I monitor my curve, which has taken us all on a winding ride. And I’m acutely aware that as surely as my curve will grow, so will my children. In a flash, they’ll be older—no longer reaching for me, asking me to carry them, rock them, and hold them. So I push my body beyond its limits now, damn the curve, damn the pain. I carry my girls when I can, rock them for as long as I can, and hold them tight.