Family life can be tough when chronic illness is involved. Ciara O’Rourke describes the reality of bringing up children with migraine.
I have always prided myself as being a great mum. After all, this is the job that I have longed for, the job I’ve spent a lifetime preparing for. I am the mother of three boys who I absolutely adore. Even though I work full time, I always try to ensure to carve out special family time so that downtime and weekends are generally kept for just us.
Being a mum of boys is very special to me. Boys can be especially affectionate to their mum and I have three very affectionate boys. I was quietly confident that as a parent I was knocking it out of the park.
A big surprise
That was until my eldest son came home from school one day and showed me a picture that he had drawn in class. The teacher had asked the children to draw a picture of a time that they’d shown love or kindness towards someone.
My son Cillian’s picture was of me lying in bed, holding my head in my hands as he stood over me caring for me. He said, all excited with himself, “Look mummy! I showed my teacher how I always look after you when you are sick.”
I couldn’t believe it. Is this how he saw me? The sick mum that needed to be cared for?
As a mother my main goal is to care for my children, and here I was, in a complete role reversal.
I have lived with migraine since my early twenties, which I can’t believe is almost 20 years of my life. For the first 10 of those years I was young, single and carefree. I was a newly qualified nurse working on a busy ward in a hospital and trying to manage my illness as best I could.
This could be difficult at times, and of course it impacted on my life. I had to call in sick at times, I missed nights out, and sometimes I spent days in bed as I tried to recover from a migraine attack.
At that stage in my life, migraine only affected me, and for the most part that was OK. But then my life changed and all of a sudden, migraines started to have an adverse effect on the people closest to me.
Juggling migraine and motherhood
I have always wanted children and I was very fortunate to have been able to have three little boys in the space of four years. I was also very lucky to have had a reprieve from migraine while I was pregnant and breastfeeding (as I’ve written about previously), so there was a good four years of my life when I was free from migraine.
It is amazing how quickly I adapted to being migraine-free. I almost forgot what an impact my migraine attacks had on daily life. I think the reprieve was helped by the fact that I was on maternity leave from work, so my stress levels were definitely reduced.
As a result, I allowed myself to create a routine for caring for the boys and really enjoyed these early days. Of course I was tired, as three boys are always going to be hard work, but without the added stress and pain of chronic migraine, daily life felt much more manageable.
This began to change as my youngest boy, Cathal, weaned from feeding and I returned to work. At this stage my eldest, Cillian, had started primary school and had also started some extra-curricular activities after school.
All of a sudden our daily lives became very busy. My migraine attacks are hormone-related and this, with the added stresses of life, definitely had an impact on my health.
Migraine came back with greater intensity than ever before. I live with chronic migraine so I experience daily headaches, coupled with severe migraine attacks two to four times per month.
The busy routine took its toll on all of us
A typical day sees us hastily getting the boys washed, dressed, fed and ready for crèche, before we head off to work.
I tell you, there are days when I feel that I have already put in a day’s work, before I even manage to walk through the hospital doors!
At the end of the working day, I rush back to collect the boys from crèche or after-school club, then I come home and get dinner on. We then tackle homework (which is always a struggle) and get ready for whatever class or group they are attending that evening. In our house, the boys do a mixture of swimming, stage school, football, maths club, and tin whistle.
Finally, when activities are done I get the boys dressed and ready for bed. By 9pm I am exhausted and ready for the bed myself!
Mum guilt and migraine
I am very fortunate that I am not alone in any of this and that my husband, Shaun, is a great support to me. He is also great at getting stuck into our busy routine and I have to say, he often does more than his fair share of the work. This is especially true on migraine days, where I am absolutely unable to carry out any of the usual duties.
Those days I have to be tucked up in my bed, in a dark room with very little noise.
This is difficult to manage with small children. It’s also difficult for the boys to understand what is wrong with mummy and why she can’t be disturbed. I am very grateful for Shaun’s help during these days, but I also have that dreaded mum guilt.
I think that it’s impossible to be a mum and feel like you’re doing everything perfectly. I feel like all mums experience some degree of guilt, however living with migraine and knowing there are chunks of time that I am unavailable to my children, makes the guilt skyrocket.
Most days I suffer from daily headaches and I can get through the day, but by the time the kids go to bed, I am completely exhausted and usually end up going to bed early myself. But it’s the days when I experience an intense migraine attack that leaves me unable to do anything that are the problem days.
What I wasn’t aware of, was how much this was impacting the boys. Even at this young age they can pick up that mummy is sick and that there are times when she simply cannot partake in the activities of the day.
I remember when Cillian showed me his drawing from school. I was so shocked that I started to cry over the thought that this is how my son saw me. It was so disheartening to hear as a mum.
He was very kind, saying how he liked to look after me. And of course, on reflection this wasn’t the only way he saw me – it was just a picture from school.
But in that moment, I really felt like I was letting him down.
Opening up to my boys about migraine
This experience led to us having a conversation about my illness and how it can affect me. My eldest was six at the time, so the conversation was guided by his age. We talked about how I get headaches and that I sometimes I need to rest when I’m not feeling so well, but that they are not dangerous.
It was such an important conversation to have with him, as he told me that he sometimes worried about me not being well. Now he understands why.
On a lighter note – he also told me that he’d secretly thought I was a vampire because I was always in the dark and didn’t like when somebody opened the curtains or turned on the lights in my room!
We made sure to talk about all the fun things that we like to do – the days out spent enjoying ourselves, and I reassured him that these wouldn’t stop.
I think that this was such an important lesson for me. You can think that you can do it all and shield your children from the negative parts of yourself, but ultimately living with migraine is part of me and what makes me who I am.
Migraine is not going anywhere, so I found that it was important to be honest and truthful with my children on how the condition affects me.
NPS-IE-NP-00634 November 2022