When a suspicious lump started growing on my daughter’s eyelid, we immediately consulted Dr. Google. In our professional expertise, we diagnosed her with “probably just a stye or something” and treated it like the internet told us to: with hot packs and gentle eyelid cleaning. Months later, it had only gotten bigger. And let me tell you, a welt the size of a chocolate chip on a four-year old’s eyelid draws some attention. We should not have been surprised when subsequent appointments revealed that she required “excision of chalazion from left upper eyelid,” which is to say, she needed surgery.
Back in my pre-parenthood days, I had a few non-negotiables. Everyone has a thing that just breaks them, whether it’s blood or joints or whatever. I didn’t do phlegm and I didn’t do eyeballs. I couldn’t handle the idea of snotty noses or drooling jowls, and I couldn’t handle anything that involved eyeballs. Navigating a newborn quickly cured me of my phlegm phobia. I mean, you can only change your clothes so many times a day before you decide that maybe spit-up on your shoulder is a fashion statement. Eyeballs, however, remained blissfully uncontested.
So of course, obviously, my eldest daughter’s first major health issue involved her eyeball.
Not only did she have a slow-growing knot on her eyelid, eventually swelling to the point where a doctor matter-of-factly declared “that thing is juicy and ready to burst,” but she would have to have surgery that involved clamping off her eyelid, inverting the lid, slicing it open from the inside, scooping out thick matter, and days of treatment with drops and salve. In other words: gross, gross, horrifying eyeball stuff would now be my daily work. While my baby always consumed my full attention, I found myself learning and changing a bit as well. Through the terror of anesthesia and infection risk, I learned what I know many mothers before me have learned through their own child’s medical situation. I learned that I am strong, and that my girl is still stronger. But that’s just the beginning. Here’s what I learned when my kid’s medical need came right up against my personal phobia.
Not talking about it doesn’t help. When we first suspected surgery, we started casually bringing it up around the house. Mostly, my husband and I tried to process what might be going on. Our perceptive kid didn’t take long to put the pieces together. “Mom, are we gonna do surgery on my eye?”
I had a choice. I could deny or I could tell the truth. Generally, our family policy has been to tell the truth. So I explained to her as best I could about the procedure she would face. She cried. I immediately regretted it. But then she wanted to talk about it again. And again. And again. And those times she asked good questions and didn’t cry. And then I realized: it was gonna be hard one way or the other. If I give her a chance to think about it and process it, especially before the stress and unfamiliarity of a doctor’s office, maybe we’ll all be better. Maybe it’s good to talk about it no matter what happens. Especially when it involves your greatest gross-out weakness.
It can always be worse. In my daily work, I support a lot of people in a variety of health challenges. Injury, illness, hospice, and more. Somehow, no matter how miserable people find themselves, they are compelled to say, “It could always be worse.” Honestly, yes, it could be. It could always be worse. It doesn’t change that things are hard for you now. As my kiddo and I came in and out of numerous doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and medical centers, we always saw other kids having a much harder time than her. Fortunately, it’s not a competition. I can feel compassion and concern for others struggling with much weightier things and still give myself space to mourn and rage against what my kid endures. It doesn’t have to be worse to be tough.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Because of a bit of a comedy of errors when it came to our willingness to personally diagnose our kid, a doctor who left for maternity leave, my own misunderstanding about treatment, and so much more, my daughter’s condition rapidly escalated. We went from having a routine procedure scheduled out to having to scramble with schedules and surgery centers to get her cared for as soon as possible. I kicked myself for this. What could I have done to make her treatment easier and cleaner? Ultimately, I had to let myself off the hook. I’m not a professional. For that matter, even the professionals affording her excellent care couldn’t know everything. Sometimes you just don’t know, and you have to rely on responding quickly rather than preparing completely.
Just feel your feels, okay? I am a crier, and oh man, I hate to cry. Because my strong emotions always result in tears, it always makes me feel ashamed. I’ve constantly tried to stomp out the tears in my eyes. I knew I would be in trouble when the nurse who called me before my kid’s surgery explained the anesthesia procedure. They would allow me to stay in the operating room with her until she fell asleep, at which point I would be escorted out. “There are usually a few tears at that point, mostly from the parents,” she warned me. Great, I thought. They’ll all know what a wuss I am.
Imagine my surprise when that moment came. My beautiful girl had just drifted off, and the nurses eagerly directed me to the door. The surgeon greeted me and offered to walk me back to the waiting room. “She’s doing great,” he assured me, and then he paused. “So are you,” he smiled.
I prepared myself for the tears, but was met with only confusion. I didn’t need to cry. I was okay. And honestly, I would have been okay if I had cried, too. Whatever emotion I felt at that moment was alright. It’s okay to feel what you feel. As I remind my own child with her big feels, the problem isn’t the emotion, the problem is what you do with it. I allowed myself to feel whatever I felt, which inexplicably felt a bit like numbness and permitted myself to do what needed to be done. In this case, it involved a big cup of coffee, a celebrity gossip magazine, and the brief delusion that I wasn’t in a waiting room while my daughter had eye surgery.
You’re pretty strong. I’m not all about this deification of toughness. We all need some grit, some endurance, some ability to march on. But we also need some vulnerability, some porousness, some willingness to fall apart when necessary. Being tough and rugged and whatever probably gets hyped up a little more than is healthy. Still, imagine my surprise when I found out I’m actually pretty strong. Me, with all my weeping at greeting card commercials and squeamishness about eyes! I could persevere! As it turns out, I’ve always had it in me. I could call on those reserves of steel and strength when doctors appointments could barely be juggled, when medications had unexpected side effects, when my girl needed me most. When those reserves felt depleted, I didn’t apologize for taking a break or calling in help. It’s what strong women do.
She’s pretty strong, too. My brave girl held my hand and walked right into her operating room. She climbed up on the table and calmly let the nurses put the “sleepy mask” over her face. When the surgeon invited me into her recovery room, she sipped apple juice and held an ice pack to her own face. This girl. This brave, wise, peaceful girl. She inspires me. It’s my job, my mother’s duty, to comfort and protect my baby, and here she is showing me such readiness and hope.
I wonder where she got that?