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It seemed almost a cruel trick, that I, the slowest parent at every park or play space, would be raising such a daredevil child.

My pain has been many things to me. Since the age of 17, it’s been an almost constant companion, a burden, a sparring partner.

It’s been the fight I was sure I could win, and the greatest lesson in acceptance, too. While I didn’t lose the fight (which is to say, I haven’t given up), I’ve had to settle into the deep knowledge that physical pain will accompany me wherever I go. 

This is my body. I’ve learned to love it, learned to live in it. The harmony isn’t always perfect, but each day I try. I can still experience joy and pleasure and grace while I feel my bones grinding, my muscles spasming, my nerves shooting signals, rapidly at times, down from my lower spine to the back of my knees to my heels. 

I’ve learned my limitations, how many stairs I can take per day, which shoes I must wear, how many scoops of Epsom salt I need in my bath to feel like I’m floating in the Dead Sea, to be free-floating enough that I can take a deep breath.

I’ve learned to ask my husband for help; I’ve learned I’m not a burden in his life. In sickness and in health, we said, and he meant it. 

But what about a child? Before I was pregnant, I worried how my pain would affect them, what limitations it would put on their life, what burdens.

The first person I told I was pregnant, other than my husband, was my physiatrist. There were medications to be discussed, ones I’d need to stop taking and others I’d begin. This had been planned since my husband and I first started trying to conceive. 

And this wasn’t different from any other part of my life. My doctor’s input carries much weight in our family’s decisions. As much as I wanted to think only of my daughter while she grew inside me, my own healthcare often took center stage.

I stayed on my pain medications, with the supervision of multiple physicians, and wound up on bed rest when my pain pushed my blood pressure to toe the line between medium high and just plain too high. 

Would my daughter be better if I were walking on the treadmill daily? I often thought. Would there be long-term effects to her developing body because I’d continued my medication?

I wanted to do everything I could to keep my daughter from holding the weight of my pain, and yet, she hadn’t even been born when I realized there was no way to keep it from her. 

Just as she was a part of me, so was my pain. It couldn’t be hidden in the attic, so how could I best minimize the effect it would have on her? 

Would having a mother who couldn’t play soccer with her weaken our relationship? What if I couldn’t build blocks on the floor. Would she stop asking me to play?

My daughter was born perfect and healthy and peachy pink. The love I felt for her was so all-encompassing, it seemed even a stranger walking by would be able to see the depths of it.

I had never in my life felt such a sense of belonging, me to her, in any way she needed, for as long as she needed, and beyond.

The early days of parenthood were almost easy for me. I’d had two previous hip surgeries, so my C-section recovery didn’t faze me much, and I’d already been spending much of my adult life working from home and was often confined to my apartment due to my disability.

Early parenthood didn’t feel lonely, as I’d been warned it would. It felt like a beautiful bubble of warmth and bonding, where I was able to meet my growing daughter’s needs. 

But as her round, pliable form began to take shape, her muscles getting stronger, her bones harder, and she began to move, my limitations became more apparent. My daughter went from walking to running within 1 week, and all the fears I had about keeping up were coming true in front of my eyes. 

I’d cry at night, after she was asleep, so saddened that I might not have been all she needed that day. Would it always be like this? I wondered.

Before long, she was scaling bookshelves and leaping off the slide platform at the park, as if she were practicing to appear on “American Ninja Warrior.”

I watched my friends’ children as they moved with some amount of trepidation though the big world they now inhabited, but my daughter flung her body through space every chance she got.

It seemed almost a cruel trick, that I, the slowest parent at every park or play space, would be raising such a daredevil child. 

But I’ve never once wished for a different kid, never wished that my child was different than she is. I’ve only wished that I might be different, that I might be able to be more of what she needed. 

For the first few years of her life, these thoughts regularly occupied my brain. I could only see what my daughter might be missing, not what she was gaining. 

And then I went in for my third hip surgery. My daughter was 2 1/2 when my family moved to Colorado for a month so I could have a difficult and quite long (8 hour) procedure on my left hip, where my IT band would be harvested and built into my joint to help provide stability. 

I’d be leaving her overnight for the first time, and would also have to stop breastfeeding her, something I’d wanted to happen on her timeline, certainly not because of my pain or injuries. 

It all felt so selfish, and I was full of fear: fear that we’d lose our bond, fear of what uprooting her from her home might do, an overwhelming fear of dying during such an intense surgery, a fear that the treatment might ultimately take me from her. 

Mothers are told we must be selfless to be good, must always put our children before ourselves (mother equals martyr), and though I don’t believe this tired trope and strongly feel it only hurts mothers in the end, I tried to remind myself that this surgery wasn’t only going to benefit me, it would benefit my daughter’s life as well. 

I’d begun falling regularly. Every time I looked up at her from the ground where I’d suddenly find myself lying, I’d see such terror in her eyes. 

I wanted to hold her hand, not a cane. I wanted, more than anything, to feel as though I could run after her safely, without the sense of panic that she was always beyond me, that I was always one step from crumpling to the earth. This surgery promised to give me that. 

My daughter was born with a big heart — kind and giving is simply a natural state for her — but even knowing that, knowing her, the empathy she showed during my recovery came as a true surprise. 

I had underestimated what my daughter could handle. She wanted to help, every day; she wanted to be a part of “Mom feeling better.” 

She helped push my wheelchair whenever given the chance. She wanted to cuddle with me as I lay in bed, stroke my hair, rub my arms. She joined for physical therapy as often as possible, turned the dials on the ice machine.

Instead of hiding my pain from her, as I’d been doing for so long, or at least attempting to, I welcomed her into my experience, and she responded by wanting to learn more. 

There was such true consideration in all her actions, even the smallest of gestures. Our bond wasn’t broken, it was strengthened. 

We began to have conversations about how “Mommy’s body” was different and needed special care, and as some of the guilt I felt for what she might be missing out on drifted away, an unexpected pride showed up.

I was teaching my daughter compassion, and I watched as that thoughtfulness spread throughout her life. (The first time she saw the large scars on my leg from the surgery, she asked if she could touch them, and then told me how beautiful they were, how beautiful I was.) 

My daughter, now 5, is always the first to ask how she can help if I’m having a bad pain day. It’s a sense of pride for her that she can help take care of me. 

And though I remind her often that taking care of me isn’t her job — “It’s my job to take care of you,” I tell her — she tells me she likes to do it, because that’s what people who love one another do. 

She’s no longer helpless when I can’t get out of bed. I watch her spring into action, gently moving my legs for me, asking me to give her my hands. I’ve seen her confidence grow in these moments. These tasks have helped her to feel strong, to feel like she can make a difference, and to see that different bodies, and our unique challenges, are not something to hide. 

She understands that bodies aren’t all the same, that some of us need more help than others. When we spend time with friends and others who are disabled, whether physically, developmentally, or intellectually, there’s a visible maturity and acceptance in her, something wanting in many of her peers.

Last summer I had my fourth surgery, this one on my right hip. My daughter and I wrote poetry and played games together in bed, watched so very many movies about dogs and penguins and more dogs, and colored side by side, a pillow propped under both our legs. She brought me yogurt to eat with my medicine and told me stories from camp each day when she returned home.

We’ve found a rhythm that will continue to serve us in the future — I’ll have at least two more surgeries in the next 10 years — and we’re constantly finding new ways to be together that don’t involve high-leveled physical activity.

I let her dad handle that type of fun.

When I ask my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, most often she’ll say a doctor.

It’s the same answer she’s given since we went to Colorado for my surgery. 

Sometimes she’ll say she wants to be an artist, or a writer like me. Sometimes she wants to be an engineer for robots or a scientist. 

But no matter which job she imagines herself having, she’s always sure to point out to me that whatever her future looks like, whatever career path she ultimately takes, there’s one thing she absolutely knows she wants to keep doing: helping people. 

“Because that’s when I feel my best,” she says, and I know that it’s true.


Thalia Mostow Bruehl is an essayist, fiction and freelance writer. She’s published essays in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, TalkSpace, Babble and more, and has also worked for Playgirl and Esquire. Her fiction has been published in 12th Street and 6S, and she has been featured on NPR’s The Takeaway. She lives in Chicago with her husband, daughter, and forever-puppy, Henry.