This school year felt like a marathon. One I didn’t plan to run. Someone slapped a racing bib on my back and shot the starting pistol, jolting me away from my regular summer non-routine. Mid-August 2015 my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Together, we began a journey through surgeries, radiation therapy, rehabilitation and now recovery. I took on the role of caregiver; of my husband, of our children, and of our household.
I’ve been very lucky for years as my husband has been the primary parent. He got the kids to school, cleaned & managed the house, and supported me in anything I needed to do to further my teaching career. When presented with the regular questions from colleagues about how I could work full time with our large family, I was always able to brag about not having to worry about any of the usual “Mom” responsibilities. It was a shock to my system to suddenly take on everything and continue to work full time.
With amazing support from family, friends, colleagues, my childrens’ teachers and counsellor, my employer, and my Union I made it through. I also learned a lot!
1. We need to take care of ourselves before we can care for others.
This seems obvious. I’ve said it to others many times. People told me as well, but it took a while for me to understand. I thought I was fine and coping well. A colleague refered me to our wellness program, where I was assigned a “rehabilitation consultant”. She helped me see my own struggles (panic attacks, sleepwalking, ever-present feelings of guilt, etc), set wellness goals, and access resources & time to achieve those goals. Without this support, my abilities to help my family and my students would have suffered greatly.
I have to acknowledge my privilege in this. I am lucky to have a secure job, a union that can provide me with a personal consultant, and the means to continue to access resources even after being discharged from the rehabilitation program. All employees should be so well supported.
2. It really does take a village!
I had a lot of outside help. Family members and a good friend came to stay with us for 1-3 weeks at a time. Friends & colleagues provided many meals to get us through the 6 and a half weeks of daily radiation treatments. My school district provided many options for how to navigate all the specialist appointments and the people in HR were knowledgeable, helpful, and compassionate to my situation. My administrators were helpful and supportive throughout, always concerned about me and my family first.
Again I count myself incredibly lucky to have such a “village” to help us. I am reminded that not everyone has access to such such support. It would feel very lonely and hopeless if not for everyone around us.
During the most draining weeks (radiation therapy) our school board was having many of our special education files audited. As part of our school Resource Team (I’ll get to that in Part 2), I was involved in meticulously going through files and checking IEP’s in preparation. During the stress of the audit I was questioned by a new colleague as to how I could be so calm. I explained that while the audit was important, due to our current family experience I knew there were much bigger things to worry about in life.
I had a similar experience at report card time for our children. The daily radiation therapy took almost the entire 2nd term. During this time we were not able to check in with the kids in regards to homework and tests. They were in charge of watching each other every evening for the first 3 weeks, and under the care of friends and family the last 3. As a result, grades slipped on their term 2 report cards. I reassured the kids that we were very aware that the drop in grades was a result of high stress and lower parental support, and that I knew they would go back up (which they did).
This year has helped me to see the big picture and prioritize where to focus my energy.
Overall I feel a lot of gratitude for all the support and understanding we have received this year. We survived and I know we will thrive again.
I take these lessons with me as I help families of students. As teachers we need to approach parents with understanding and compassion. Find out if they have the supports they need to provide the support we ask of them. Approach parents with caring, not judgement. They might only be surviving too.