Questions for Mama - Part III (Conclusion)

by Helene Louise  

“Do you know what makes a good mother?”

 Just as my daughter’s question about why my face always looked so sad opened my eyes to the need for some self-reflection, so did a chance meeting with a well-travelled friend one lunch hour many years ago.  I was back to work after six years out of the workforce and in the first year of living on my own with my young daughters. He asked me how things were going and I launched into an long update, loaded with anecdotes and details. In retrospect, I was probably feeling sensitive about being a single-mother and wanted to be sure to convince everyone of how well I was managing everything on my own.

 When I paused, he asked, “Do you know what makes a good mother?” I felt uncomfortable because I thought a criticism might be on its way. “A good mother,” he said, “ one that doesn’t give everything”. This comment was as unexpected as my daughter’s questions that I wrote about earlier (Questions for Mama Part I and II) and equally thought-provoking. He was right. Just like I wrote in the posting about what to do “in the unlikely event of a decompression,” in the same way that it’s critical to put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your child, if you want to be a good parent, you have to make sure that you yourself are thriving. That’s not easy to do when you’re already overwhelmed with everything else that has to get done. 

 In my case, it took time before I managed to carve out some time for myself. For years, I was fuelled by the sense of purpose that came from being a mother and the feeling that I had to make up for the fact that there was only one parent in the house—combined with managing my daughter’s rehabilitation and my long to-do list, this took up every waking minute that I had. 

 Eventually though, I found time to think beyond my responsibilities. In the same way that I try to appreciate the tiny things that are beautiful in each day, the things that I did for myself were equally tiny. Leafing through my favourite magazine after a long day even though I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open, making an especially good cup of coffee for myself as I helped my girls with their homework and, as the they got older, taking half an hour to go for a run. All of the little things that I did for myself—even though thinking of myself sometimes seemed contrary to my goal of being a good mama—made me feel like a happier mama, and as a result, I probably was a better mama. 

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Questions for Mama - Part II

by Helene Louise  

“Do you know why you’re a good mama?” 

As I wrote in Part I of Questions for Mama, when my oldest daughter was two years old, she asked me why my face always looked so sad. Not long after that, I was to go through some major upheavals in my life, including the unravelling of my marriage. Although it seemed that this difficult time would never end, eventually it did and five or so years later, my life was relatively stable again. I working full-time and raising my two daughters on my own. 

One day, as we were walking home from school, my daughter looked at me and asked, “Do you know what makes you a good mama?”

- “Is it because I love you so much?” I asked.

- “No,” she said.  

- “Is it because I pack nice lunches for you?” 

- “No.”

- “Why am I a good mama then?” I asked her. 

- “You’re a good mama because you find something beautiful in every day.”

I was sincerely surprised by what she said because that’s not necessarily how I saw myself—my mind was usually busy processing and reprocessing all of the items on my to-do list, trying to figure out how I could best manage it all...appointments at the rehabilitation centre, deadlines at work, what to make for dinner, homework, occupational therapy exercises to be fit into the evening's activities and all that. 

Still, after everything that I had been through, I was indeed conscious of how much the little things in life now meant to me.  Like the tiny triumphs of my younger daughter’s progress as I wrote about in my book, like the very fact that I had children to take care of along with the means to do so, were all among the positive things that I appreciated every day.

At the age of two, my daughter had noticed that my face “always looked so sad” and, five years later, with many changes behind me I was much better—good enough so that she noticed that instead of looking sad, I was consistently pointing out something good in each day. 

My daughter’s first question, opened my eyes to the need for some serious self-reflection. Her second question, years later, opened my eyes to the extent to which I had moved forward since then. So, I say again, we should definitely be careful not to underestimate people—small, big or different in whatever way.

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Striking Out Kids Strokes

by Helene Louise  


Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in this year’s “Strike Out Kids Strokes” fundraising event in Toronto, Ontario. Started ten years ago by a caring and dynamic mother, Elizabeth Paddon, and her three close friends, this annual event raises money for the Paddon Family Paediatric Stroke Fund, in support of the SickKids Foundation. 

 In dealing with her son’s rehabilitation after a childhood stroke, Elizabeth recognized the need for support and information for those impacted by childhood stroke and set out to make a difference. Now, a decade later, this initiative has raised close to $500,000—a significant amount under any circumstances but in this case, also enough to have made a difference in the establishment of the new Stroke Imaging Laboratory for Children (SILC) at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. 

As individuals, we sometimes feel powerless to effect meaningful change, let alone deal with the kinds of difficult and potentially isolating situations that life can bring us. However, the Strike Out Kids Stroke event is an inspiring example of what is possible when one passionate individual brings together many caring people from different backgrounds to work towards something positive—in this case, a very real and tangible contribution to helping children and families affected by pediatric strokes. 

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Questions for Mama - Part I

by Helene Louise  

“Mama, why does your face always look so sad?”

 My older daughter started speaking at a very young age. While others babies were sitting in their high chairs babbling away, she was pointing at bananas and saying, “Mama, nana.” to let me know what she wanted to eat. By the time she was two years old, she was very aware of the world around her and able to comment on it. One time, she sat on the floor, reached around to her back and said, “I have a very beautiful spine.” I’m not sure where she had learned the word spine but she had, she knew where it was even though she couldn’t see it and, she knew how to use the word in a sentence. 

 One evening, we were sitting on the floor playing and she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and asked, “Mama, why does your face always look so sad?” I didn’t know what to answer. I had no idea that my face “always looked so sad”. Overall, I thought that I was actually rather happy. I thought that I had everything I had ever wanted—a family, a house, a little garden. Every day, her father went off to work and I took her to the park, on long walks along the river near our house and on play dates with other children. We spent mornings baking and doing crafts and late afternoons puttering together in my garden. What about all of that could possibly be making my face look so sad?

 But, one of the things that I have learned from the process of rehabilitating my youngest daughter after a childhood stroke, is the importance of not underestimating someone.  Just because a person has something that makes them different, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re less capable or don’t have a valuable contribution to make. The same can be said for young children—we may think that they are just kids, too busy playing to notice much of anything but they too can have valuable insights to contribute. 

 In this case, although I was giving my daughter all of my love and as happy a childhood as I possibly could, she was able to look at me every day, with her two years of life experience, and register that something was inconsistent with everything else that I was messaging. And, she was able to formulate a question around what she was noticing. As it turns out, she was right—deep down, there was a sadness.

 As I described in my book, I was ultimately to go through significant challenges and upheavals in my life stemming, in part, from the realization that I was in a situation that was not sustainable. I had been able to convince myself for years that I was fine, but my little two year-old daughter saw me as I actually was. 

 I've learned a lot from my daughters and in particular, I've learned that we need to be very careful not to underestimate people—young, old or different in whatever way.

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In the Unlikely Event of a Decompression

by Helene Louise  

In my early twenties, I worked as a flight attendant and as I wrote in my book, this experience was surprisingly relevant later in life when I found myself as a single-mother, working hard to rehabilitate my daughter after a childhood stroke. One of my tasks as a flight attendant, of course, was the safety briefing at the beginning of each flight. 

 Along with showing passengers how to buckle and unbuckle a seat belt (which I don't think anyone needed to be shown), we tucked the long tube that was attached to a spare oxygen mask into one hand and then simulated it dropping down from the overhead bins. At that point, the announcements said, "...In the unlikely event of a decompression, place the mask firmly over your nose and mouth and breathe normally." Then, the announcements said  that if you were traveling with a child, you should "put your own mask on first and then help your child".

 As a mother, that seems counter-intuitive at first glance. I can certainly picture myself holding my breath and gasping for air in an emergency, as I frantically try to save my children above all else. But, if I take a step back and think analytically, it makes perfect sense. If I'm not doing well, or if I pass out from a lack of oxygen, then how can I make sure that my children are thriving?

 When I found out that my daughter had suffered a stroke, I threw myself into doing everything that I could to help her. It was years later that I realized that I had basically been existing on adrenaline and caffeine and, that I should have taken some time now and again to make sure that I too was getting enough oxygen, so to speak. Just like it is with the oxygen masks "in the unlikely event of a decompression”, my daughter would still have been as fine as she is today, but I wouldn't have been gasping for air as long as I was. And, maybe I would even have been in a better position to help her along the way.

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