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A mother's mortality; how much do we tell our kids?

Today I went, with my three boys, to my obstetrician's office. We weren't there for fun. I was undergoing a LEEP procedure to shock off some shockingly bad cells from my cervix. After one bad pap smear prior to becoming pregnant with Everett, the more-common-than-I-ever-knew-at-22 cervical "pre-cancer" had returned.

Dr. Kehoe was reassuring and spirit-cheering. She'd told me that I had nothing to worry about, really; we'd get rid of the bad cells and I'd still have a mostly-intact cervix and an ability to birth babies. I said something to Everett, who's now 10, about the aim of the appointment several weeks ago when I went in for the biopsy procedure. This time, though I skimmed over it (I think I might have said exactly, "cut some bad cells out of me so I'll be healthy") I didn't give as much information.

"Why do you seem so worried?" asked Everett as we locked the door on our way out of the house.

"I don't think it's going to be very much fun," I said. "It's going to be very un-fun."

But at its core what I'm worried about is the very real exposure to my own mortality. As sole caregiver to my boys for the next year -- and, as I sometimes worry, the only one so equipped to love them in the particular way they seem to need -- the idea of them having to live without me is too stark to face, for me, or them.

When I went into the exam room, leaving the boys with plenty of devices to entertain them in the waiting room, I had to sign a form noting the chance of a recurrence of symptoms was 5-10%.

"Forever?" I asked Dr. Kehoe later, as she sat there with her tools and her mask and her gloves. "5-10% chance forever?"

She laughed. "I suppose, but it's hard to know what forever means," she said frankly.

That's it. I don't know. I biked home with the boys without any comment on the procedure -- they, concerned with the snack bar and the wild route to skirt Barack Obama's motorcade on the way home, had other things on their minds. I worried, and when Monroe (he's five) made a joke about people dying, I winced. I've corrected him before when he confidently asserted that I was going to live always. "No," I said. "Mothers die. But after a very, very long time."

It's not my time. But also I'm filled with the knowledge, right now, that it's not always true -- that many mothers die young. And I don't know how much I want my kids to know.

When you have had brushes, however glancing, with your own mortality, how have you described them to your kids? When is old enough to be frank and up-front: "these are cancer cells but it's really easy to take them out and you don't need to worry," or something? When do you think all should just be bared and you should share your worries with your kids?


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I've been thinking about the same thing, as I have 2 kids under 9 and a liver biopsy scheduled next month. I'm not prepared to share my worries with my kids at this age. Even my older one -- I know that he'll just dwell on it and dwell on it and stress himself out. Unless the doc tells me that I have roughly X amount of time to live or I have an incurable condition for which there is no treatment to prolong life (of a certain quality), I don't plan to say anything to the kids.

I have a similar problem although mine is colon based and I must have a colonoscopy every three years. I do not burden them with my worries and particulars since they are dependent on me and powerless to change anything. That just creates anxiety. It is my burden to endure and share with other adults. As for death, we are all going to die and all the worry in the world won't change that but dwelling on it and fretting can keep us from mindfulness in the moment and creates barriers to enjoying the life we do have. Let it go; it's beyond your control.

I wouldnt let on to my kids if i were in that situation. It sounds like it is under control, so why get the kids all worried and anxious when its really not necssary?its a little more info than they need. However,if it turned into a bigger deal where you might be facing death soon, i would tell my kids, but at the same time keeping a stiff upper lip about it. The last thing small kids need is to feel like their mama (their world) is falling apart.

I was my lonely mother's confidante and it was a huge, unfair burden.

Once things got serious I wish my parents had leveled more with me. I was kidding myself right to the bitter end. On a side note, I often think about this Portlander and her family, and wonder how they are doing now. Fight HPV.

Whether you tell them what's going on, they'll sense it for sure. As was noted when the child observed that mom was worried. I'm sure there's a way to share the concern or process that doesn't freak them out. Whenever we've talked about death with the kids, I always say nobody knows when they'll die, so we have to be as nice to each other and happy as we can every day. There have been too many young people die in our lives to tell them that I'll be around until I'm old.

Interesting topic...I've thought about it recently, as a friend was diagnosed early this year with breast cancer and has had to have some difficult conversations with her young children about why Mama goes to the doctor so much, and more recently, why Mama has no hair... Seems like, as with most things parenting related, there's a fine balance between addressing their questions/concerns and unnecessarily overloading them with information.

Many years ago, we had a cat die from kidney failure... A few weeks after I had our 3rd baby this Spring, I developed a kidney stone. It was a frenzied morning of trying to get myself and the new babe to urgent care and my bigger boys off to school...My oldest son came home from school later that day and asked how I was feeling. I was fine by that point and told him that, and he said, "Oh, good. I thought you might die today." My heart sank! I had no idea he would have heard the word "kidney" and made that connection and felt terrible that he carried that burden with him all day at school. Point being, kids are smart, and intuitive, and while I don't believe in going into too much detail, I don't believe complete silence is the answer either.

I've lost a father and I've nearly lost my mother twice in the past six years. I have to say, though, I haven't thought much about my own mortality. But I was diagnosed with HPV in college, had a cryo, and have had clear Pap smears ever since. But I'm overdue for an annual and your post reminded me of it. So thank you for that.

When I was 6 my mom almost died from some sort of uterine infection, which might have been toxic shock, which did not have a name in the early '70's. She was hospitalized for a long time and we knew she was sick, but I think I might have overheard my dad say to someone that he feared she might die (she tells me now that she thought so, too). A 6 year old has very magical thinking, and I suspect that I thought I had done something to bring this on (such as thinking mean thoughts about my mom when I was mad at her). I blocked it out over the years until it came up one day in conversation with my mom and we talked about it. She had no idea how all of the affected me. I have made a vow to always tell my child the truth, but only if it is helpful, and to always remember that their brains do not work the way ours do, with reason and abstract thought. I have always told her the truth when 3 (!) of our cats have died over the past few years, and when my dad and grandpa died within 4 months of each other. I know she has fears about my mortality, and I never make any promises that are out of my control to follow through on, like "mommy will always be with you." What a set up.

I wouldn't recommend sharing worries with kids of young age as they don't possess enough understanding yet.

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