When I think about what makes my life "hard," it's stuff like this: a frustrating commute. Young children who bicker a lot. Forever feeling rushed. Those extra pounds I'm always trying to ditch. Not getting enough sleep. In other words, nothing that hard.
If I find myself getting too caught up in all that, I remind myself of people whose lives are far more challenging than mine. One such person is a mom named Verena, whom I met last year when I was reporting a story about what it's like to be a young mom with a chronic illness. Verena has multiple sclerosis (MS), which drives the immune system to damage parts of the brain and spinal cord and interfere with nerve signals between the brain and different parts of the body. She also has two children, ages 5 and 6. (They're all pictured at right.) Verena has all of the same struggles as me, minus the commute. But on top of those, she has--to name a few symptoms--chronic pain, muscle spasms that make her feel like she's permanently cramping, anxiety due to a recent divorce, severe exhaustion, and a lot of trouble moving quickly. In fact, at times it's hard for her to walk at all. Can you imagine having active little kids and not being able to chase after them? Verena told me of the time her son, Stephen, climbed out their basement window as a toddler. She physically couldn't have caught him--but her au pair did, which is a large part of why she needs live-in childcare.
Verena resists the outward signs of her disease, such as using a cane or wheelchair. But she often can't function without them. I thought of this when I learned of a new national survey called "Women and MS: The Working Mother Report," a joint venture with the National MS Society and Working Mother Research Institute. The survey outlines the challenges of women living with MS. One of the most interesting stats: 60 percent of women have tried to hide their MS symptoms at work. And 80 percent of women are currently experiencing symptoms; the most common are fatigue, numbness, problems with vision and walking, and pain. Another jarring finding: 64 percent of moms said their symptoms prevent them from participating in activities with their children. I saw firsthand how Verena's physical comfort comes second to her children's happiness--she tries to put on a cheerful face even when she's in tremendous pain--but even so, she says her children will ask things like, "Mommy, when is your leg going to get better?"
This is National MS Awareness Week, and part of the mission is to recognize the tremendous progress that's been made in treating this disease. The folks at the National MS Society say that studies in the works will determine whether certain drugs can help repair myelin, the casing of the nerves that is damaged by MS. And within a few years, researchers should better understand which exercises and activities can best help rebuild nerve connections and improve cognitive function.
In the meantime, I'm going to continue trying to keep things in perspective and make sure I always respect what parents with MS go through all day long, every single day.
Photo by Amy Postle.
Kara Corridan is the Health Director at Parents magazine, and the mom of two daughters, ages 9 and 6.