I’m part of several mom groups, because finding support from other moms is seriously helpful. Not all mom groups are a good fit for everyone, but when you find one where the other women share your values, it’s pretty empowering.
I hadn’t talked about my cancer in one of those groups until recently. I find that when I disclose that I have cancer, and that it’s terminal, people react in predictable ways. There is a lot of “oh, I’m so sorry, how can I help, I wish I could hug you” kind of stuff, because most people are incredibly kind. Just, seriously, amazingly, beautifully kind. I suppose if I was in a group and they didn’t react that way, I’d know I was in the wrong group and I should run away from them.
After the initial outpouring of kindness, the secondary reaction is usually “You put my silly problems in perspective, I feel bad complaining about my challenges because they seem so minor in comparison.” And that’s when I wish I had kept on passing as a regular mom, one who doesn’t have a terminal illness. Because, I don’t want them to feel like they can’t talk about their struggles in front of me.
Folks who are different in a way that makes them “the other” often pass in our society, especially if their difference is one that will lead to oppression. It’s why gay folks sometimes live in the closet, and light skinned black folks sometimes hid their African ancestry in the era of slavery and Jim Crow. If lynching is something that could happen to a group you’re a member of, hiding that identity from the world makes a hell of a lot of sense. But there is danger in passing, too. If one is found out, the lynching can be even swifter.
Obviously being someone with cancer is nothing like that. Nobody lynches people for having cancer, or for pretending they don’t have it. Instead, my cancer merely makes people look at me differently than they did before they knew I had it. I feel like once they know, they don’t see me anymore; they just see the cancer. It’s written all over their faces. It’s incredibly isolating, actually, and sometimes I just don’t want to be “that mom,” the one the other moms pity, the one who makes their problems seem petty in comparison. I just want to be part of the gang.
I used to feel the same about The Boy’s prematurity. When people would ask me how old he was, and I knew the actual answer would mean I’d have to explain that he was born 3 months early, I’d sometimes just tell them his corrected age (that’s how old he’d be if he’d been born on his due date) instead of his actual age. Sometimes I wasn’t up for having that conversation, telling that story; it was just easier to pass as a regular mom, and hide my preemie mom identity. It was a relief when he was caught up developmentally and growth-wise with his actual age peers and the “how old is he” question didn’t lead to uncomfortable questions anymore.
I wish we lived in a world where being different wasn’t so isolating, where our differences didn’t separate us. I also wish I could win the lottery and buy a bungalow in French Polynesia, but I’m not gonna hold my breath that either will happen. So, I’ve learned that coming out as someone with a terminal illness, rather than passing as a regular mom, means that I need to know how to re-establish the sense of community that my difference can destroy.
I do that by reminding the other moms of what we have in common: a mutual hatred of doing the laundry; children whose tantrums make us want to pull our hair out; sleep deprivation. And I also specifically say, every time, that it’s OK for them to bitch about what’s bothering them. Parenting is fucking hard, for everyone, and everyone should have a space to complain about it when they’re struggling, a space where they can ask for support, even if others in the group are struggling in different ways than I am. If my illness helps them feel like their lives aren’t so hard, I mean, that’s fine too. But I sure as shit don’t want to add “I feel guilty for complaining” to their list of stressors, and I don’t want to feel like The Other.
I still pass as non-disabled sometimes–at the grocery store, at parties with people I don’t know that well, that sort of thing. But where I am part of a community, I try to be as open about who I am as possible, and encourage the rest of the community to do the same. Coming together to celebrate our sameness, in spite of our differences, makes us all stronger, and makes all our lives richer.