By Linda Blachman (Seal Press, 2006)
The story of motherhood has holes in it, the holes of unanswered questions: How do mothers go on living and loving with shattered illusions? How do they help their children feel protected when their own security is threatened? How do they “get back to normal” when they no longer know what normal is? Can mothers ever be seen as both strong and fallible, as whole human beings? Why do we ask so much of mothers and so little about them?
The mothers you will meet in this book have lived with these questions. They have grappled with two of life’s greatest challenges—mothering and mortality—and have done so in a culture that avoids talking about death or acknowledging the underside of motherhood. They are ordinary women who have had to respond to every mother’s nightmare: a cancer diagnosis while raising children. As one mother said, “To raise a child while living with cancer is to have your heart break. We have to learn how to live with broken hearts.”
Sooner or later, all parents have to learn how to live with broken hearts and teach their children to do so too. Mothers with cancer have wisdom to offer those coping with turbulent times from any cause. Their experiences are equally valuable for those who love or support a mother who is going through a life-altering illness, and for those whose mothers died early in their lives.
Why cancer? Because it seems that we all know someone who’s been diagnosed with it. Because cancer still carries greater fear and stigma than most diseases. Because people driven to the edge of existence can be our best teachers, giving us new perspective. These are the women who have inspired this book—mothers living with cancer while raising children. Each one has a story, a voice larger than her embattled body, and an important message to deliver. But often, it is difficult for others to listen.
For the past decade, stopping to listen deeply has been the task of the Mothers’ Living Stories Project, a nonprofit group that I founded and direct. Mothers’ Living Stories brings attention, compassion, and support to ill mothers by helping them record their life stories as a healing process for themselves, and as a way to open communication within families and to create cherished legacies for their children. For many of the women, speaking to a listener in the presence of a tape recorder is a freeing and helpful, though sometimes challenging, experience.
While the stories were recorded, all of the women were living with cancer, the majority with breast cancer. Although many of them would survive for years, they were all facing the possibility of death at an early age: twenty-four to fifty-five. And each of them was raising children under eighteen. They were Asian American, African American, Caucasian, Hispanic/Latina, Native American, Near Eastern, citizen and immigrant, low, middle, and high income, well-educated and not, religious and not, single parent and partnered, adoptive and biological parents, heterosexual and lesbian. They were mothers of infants and toddlers, elementary school children, adolescents. They differed in parenting styles, personal styles, political beliefs, and attitudes toward illness.
Some of them were newly diagnosed and had just completed treatment. Some believed that they were cured and would only need periodic check-ups. Some were holding on tight through the roller coaster ride of each new treatment for aggressive cancers or for metastatic disease—cancer that had left its original site and migrated elsewhere in the body. Some knew that they had only a short time to live. A common desire led them to the Mothers’ Living Stories Project. More than anything, they wanted to live long enough to fulfill the parental contract and see their children grow to self-sufficiency. They chose to review their lives and record their stories, as one mother said, “to tell my children how I feel and the things that are in my heart, all the things that I wanted to teach them.”
Each wanted to be sure that her children would know who their mother was and how she felt about them. They wanted to create a tangible gift that might help their children in the future. They wanted to be remembered.
The mothers’ voices are sometimes filled with anguish, but there is far more than that. They have found ways to live with courage, dignity, humor, and joy and have taught their children to do the same. Now, through this book, they can teach all of us.
Copyright 2006 by Linda Blachman from Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc., distributed by Publishers Group West. All rights reserved.