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Your Guide to Preventing Migraines

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Parenting with Chronic Migraine: Learning It’s Okay If You’re Not Okay

I became a mother when I was very young. My husband and I married at the ages of 20 and 19, respectively. Almost immediately, I became pregnant with my first child. By the time I was 23, I was a mom to three kids. My children have only known a mom with migraine and learning how to be a parent with a chronic disease has not been easy.

Jaime Sanders_Parenting with Chronic Migraine_ Learning It's Okay If You're Not Okay

Migraine disease has been a part of my life since I was two years old. As a toddler, I had abdominal migraine, a type of migraine most often seen in children, in which I experienced no head pain but suffered from severe stomach pain, nausea with vomiting, no appetite, and extreme sensitivities to light, sounds, and smells. When I was in the third grade, I had my first migraine attack with head pain. The pain was excruciating and the nausea was overwhelming. My mother, who had migraine as a child and teenager, knew that this was not a normal headache. At eight years old, I was diagnosed with migraine and given a preventive medication to take daily.

For most of my adolescence and teen years, I had 3–5 migraine attacks per month and several days of headache. I never felt nervous or worried about migraine affecting my experience parenting. Migraine had never fully disabled me and I saw my mom raise three daughters without migraine getting in the way. However, when I became pregnant with my third child, my migraine disease drastically changed. During the first trimester, I experienced daily migraine episodes. My migraine attacks would last longer than 24 hours, something I’d never dealt with until then. Thankfully, once I moved into the second and third trimesters, the daily migraine episodes went away – but every time I did have an attack, the pain was more severe than ever and lasted at least two days.

My children grew, and so did my migraine

As my children grew and matured over the years, so did my disease, in a sense. My kids became smarter, stronger, and more tenacious, and my migraine attacks did the same. Before any of my children hit the double-digits, I was officially diagnosed with chronic migraine and chronic daily headache.

Being a mom with chronic migraine felt like navigating a maze; I was constantly trying to be the parent I wanted to be while also carefully assessing my capacity and avoiding migraine attacks. School projects, homework, Girl Scout meetings, sports, learning musical instruments, field trips, annual checkups, and bouts of sickness did not care that I was a mom in pain. I would often tell my children when they were younger that their mommy’s brain was different from other mommies’ brains, and that it was very sensitive to a lot of things, like food, bright lights, and strong smells. My brain would make my body hurt and that meant I had to rest and sometimes take medicine to feel better. They knew that I couldn’t always do things like play tag or chase them around because my brain didn’t like it when I did things like that. I also made sure that they understood they were never the reason why I was sick; they never contributed in any way to my illness. I was just born this way.

My kids needed an ever-present mother and I pushed through my pain, discomfort, nausea, and brain fog to show up for whatever they needed. Of course, there were numerous days when I couldn’t. As I was stuck in bed, unable to be there for them, the guilt would eat me alive. I spent a lot of time in therapy to deal with the guilt of not being the type of mother I dreamt of being. Nothing truly made me feel less guilty until my husband told me one day that it was okay if I wasn’t okay and that the kids were happy, healthy, and loved.

We modified our family time around my chronic migraine. Instead of going out to dinner or to the movies, we would order in, rent a movie, and all pile into my king-sized bed. We’d spread the food across the comforter and have a buffet-style dinner. We spent so much time as a family in our bedroom playing games, watching television, or just talking. Now that my kids are older, we don’t do those things as much and I miss it. Looking back, I cherish those moments. Remembering how much time I spent in bed does make me sad if I dwell on it long enough, but we all got to the other side of it and are an incredibly close-knit family, in part due to my chronic illness.

Of course, there were many days spent outside the house, such as road trips to visit family, vacations, going to the movies, trips to amusement parks, and going out to eat. There were never true pain-free days for me and I was always doing my best to simultaneously make sure my family had a good time and manage my pain, triggers, and symptoms. Nothing about being a mother and having chronic migraine was easy, but life was not going to stop just because I didn’t feel well. So, I slapped on my happy mask and made sure that my illness did not ruin the day for everyone.

Changing roles

Despite seeing their mom sick for their entire lives, all three of my children grew up to be amazing, empathetic, and caring adults. Although my role as their mother has changed now that they are all over 18, it has not changed the level of responsibility I feel toward them. Being the parent of adult children is more challenging and stressful than when they were younger. Before, they relied on me to make their life decisions. I had more control over their trajectory in life. Now, I find myself micromanaging my children to ensure that they stay on top of their responsibilities, like scheduling doctor’s appointments and oil changes. When they come to me for advice or if they are upset, my role requires more than just kissing their boo-boos and making it all better. Conversations are harder and sometimes more stressful. I’m still getting used to this change in our dynamic.

Our three kids are now 23, 21, and 20, and they still live at home with us. Whenever I am having a particularly bad migraine flare, I find myself relying on them a lot more than I would like. They lend a hand with cooking, walking the dog, helping with my laundry, making my bed, and picking up groceries. My husband works long hours and a lot of overtime, so he isn’t always home to be my caregiver. Instead, my kids pick up the slack, without any resentment or anger. Never did I imagine that I would be so dependent on them.

Internally, I still struggle with the pressure to “show up” and find myself making sure that they are okay with me not doing certain things. No matter how old they get, I will forever be their mother, so I doubt the guilt will ever truly go away.

As they continue to get older, I wonder how I will be able to get through my day once they leave the nest. So much of my identity is being a mom and I have been blessed to still be able to stay in that role even as they’ve reached adulthood. When that day comes I may feel a little lost without them, but I can find peace in knowing that they turned out to be pretty awesome human beings.

The biggest blessing of having chronic migraine and being a mom was that my family always spent time together and found happiness in the smaller things. It is my hope that they take those lessons into their own lives and future families.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 5
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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.