When back pain becomes part of your life as a parent

dandelion blowing in the wind

By Megan Jean Sovern

When my daughter asks what I wish for on dandelions, eyelashes or birthday candles, I always answer the same, “I want to get old.” 

I want to watch my hair get wiry, weird and white. I want to go to concerts and do that offbeat sway old people do when you can only raise your arms up to your waist. I want to clean closets and text my grown children pictures of their old dolls and retainers and ask, “Do you want this?” And when they reply, “Gross, no!” I will reply, “Well, I’m going to keep it. You might change your mind.”  

My father died at 54 with a full head of hair and barely a wrinkle. He wasn’t old. I want to get OLD old. 

In the early days of the pandemic, I bent over to pick up a toy dump truck and something snapped. A very angry muscle grabbed my back, held on tight and wouldn’t let go. I barely made it to bath time but eventually I hobbled onto the heating pad and tried to relax. Which is hard when you haven’t relaxed in the long but beautiful years since becoming a mother.  

I heard my daughter, Evelyn, jump out of the bath and from my side, I saw wet foot prints coming at high speed as she leaned in and kissed my cheek, “Mom, your dream is coming true! You’re getting old!” 

I felt the knot in my back twist tighter. This isn’t how I wanted to get old. 

That wasn’t the first time my body gave in and out either. When Evelyn was a newborn, my shoulder froze mid lullaby as I winced through, “please don’t take my sunshine away.” At first the knots would come and go as I carried wily toddlers upstairs or wrestled them into car seats but, seven years later, my body feels like a constant stream of aches and pains. 

Like any American woman raised in the age of low cut jeans and five minute abs, I started by blaming my size. If I could just get the baby weight off then nothing would ever hurt and my body would be 25 again even though I was 32. If I could just lose the new hips I hated but that came in handy for carrying children and groceries at the same time, life would be easier. If I could just get my thighs to return to the size they were when I only ate saltines and Yoplait, then everything would be okay. The spiral into body shame is a deep dark one postpartum. Especially when everything hurts. It’s like even your body hates your body.  

The baby weight is gone now, but the weight of the weight remains. My figure is not as big but the pain of it is constant. So much that I find myself wondering if it’s not simply muscle and bone fighting it out. I wonder instead if it’s mental anguish hidden below and fighting with all its might to be seen. 

What if my sciatica is the trauma of Mom catching me carrying a plate of Christmas fudge back to my room in the middle of the night? What if the knot in my shoulder is the loneliness of young motherhood or the memory of that boy in the eighth grade who told me I was pretty, but just in the face? Maybe the sins of the country are wrapped around my aching knees. Maybe it’s all the beautiful memories of my father holding on for dear life around my SI joint. What if the pain of this pain cannot be massaged away? Although a massage sounds really nice too.

As the mental pain of being a woman collides with the physical pain of motherhood, I search for relief everywhere. My oldest sister shares my pain and we constantly consult each other on remedies. Tiger Balm. Biofreeze. Ice Packs. What will numb the pain long enough so we can do the dishes? We Google and Google until Google says we might have cancer and then we stop Googling and go back to taking Epsom salt baths. I have taken so many Epsom salt baths that it’s eaten all the brass off the tub drain.  

The worst days are when I can see the pain on my face. My brow will furrow like my father’s did when a MS tremor earthquaked his body. It’s almost like he pulled all focus into his face to slow the shaking. And even though I know my kind of pain isn’t anywhere close to his kind of pain, I still catch myself in the mirror with that same furrow. The pain isn’t excruciating but it is constant and I find myself reflexively squeezing my hip as I try to release happiness back into it.

Recently, a very well meaning chiropractor urged me to stop carrying my almost four-year-old son, Teddy. To which I very politely declined. He is my last baby. I will carry him as long as he will let me even if it means wincing every time I stand up. He then recommended I try Sleepytime Tea, which made me laugh like a crazy person. I’m so far past Sleepytime Tea. Instead I will just pour money into having my bones put back into place weekly, multiple mattress toppers and whatever potions promise to CBDeliver results. 

It’s hard to reckon with how the pain is now part of my identity. When my children think of me, they think about how I am terrified of cats, that I keep chocolate hidden in the kitchen drawer and that my back hurts all the time. When I remember what I knew about my mother as a child it was that she made excellent nachos, was so strong she could lift my dad sky high from his wheelchair and she knew all the words to that Blind Faith song about being wasted and not finding your way home. I want to be more like her in all the ways. 

I am doing my best though to get the good of myself back. I really am. I put miles on my treadmill trying to create as much distance possible between me and whatever pain lies ahead. I do all the burpees and downward facing dogs but not jumping jacks because I don’t have time to pee all over myself and change before school starts. But I try. I try to hold onto the strength I have left. But I can’t deny that it’s painful to age. 

Getting old sounds so romantic. “Getting old” feels like rocking chairs on porches and sipping sweet tea and watching grandchildren chase lightning bugs. But “aging” feels like lying awake at 3am scrolling through Sephora trying to figure out what wrinkle cream will reverse the damage all the furrowing has done to my brow. 

I hold on to the hope that as my children grow the demand on my body will lessen and I will gracefully turn into my forties and retire my heating pad to the closet shelf next to their old dolls and retainers. And I’ll look back on this time when I saw myself as weak and carried so much shame that I couldn’t do more than absolutely everything and I will realize I was actually incredibly strong. Just like my mom. 

Megan Jean Sovern lives in Decatur, GA with her two lovely and sweet young children and one husband in a very old house that is kind of haunted. She writes at night with a heating pad behind her after long days of pushing swings and repeating, “You just had a snack” over and over again.  

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