Paula Fitzgibbons has rheumatoid arthritis. She is also the author of Mommy Means It, a blog about homeschooling, adoption, and chronic illness. Formerly a Lutheran pastor, she now calls herself a fierce mom on a mission. Paula lives and writes in Southern California, sharing life with her husband, Peter, and their three children, two of whom were adopted from Haiti. She believes strongly in letting her kids take the lead in terms of their internet presence, so they chose their own pseudonyms when they were younger. They are Rhubarb, Eggplant, and Blueberry.
HealthCentral (HC): Please tell us about yourself.
Paula Fitzgibbons: I am a former Lutheran pastor, now a writer, homeschooling mother of three teenagers, who is pushing 50 (and pushing it hard). I am located in Southern California.
HC: You have been blogging at Mommy Means It for some time. Tell us how you got started in blogging and some of your experiences.
Paula: I started my blog as a way to chronicle my family's foray into alternative education. I thought our version of homeschooling as a form of passion-driven alternative education was fairly unusual and that others might want to learn more about how to homeschool.
As time passed, the blog evolved to cover parenting issues in general, with a heavy emphasis on social issues that affect parenting and children (e.g. culture, health, sexism, racism — as two of my children are Haitian — ableism, ageism, adoption reform, chronic illness etc.).
Blogging gave me chops as a writer. I am forever grateful for that.
HC: You were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when your kids were quite small. Parents are often concerned about the impact chronic illness will have on their children. What has been your experience?
Paula: I think my illness was tougher on my family before I was diagnosed than after. My children weren't seeing the mom I wanted them to have — one with enthusiasm and energy. I spent a lot of time stressed out about the effects my RA might have on my children and feeling guilty about what they were missing. One time my son said, "Mamma, remember when you used to be able to chase after us? I miss that." It broke my heart.
Once I was diagnosed, we at least had answers and a course to take, which included a cross-country move to Southern California and included multiple lifestyle changes.
I have a wise older friend who has been sort of an informal life coach to me. He once told me that every person has a wall to climb and the trick to parenting is figuring out our role in helping our children over their walls. So it hit me: This is the wall my children are climbing. I can stand on one side of the wall feeling guilty about that or I can stand on the other side of the wall and guide them over. Either way, though, they still have to climb the wall.
Now that they are all teenagers, I can see that having a mom with a chronic illness has been both tough and a growing experience. They are remarkable people and I believe a lot of that is because of their journey traversing that wall.
HC: Two of the children also struggle with chronic illness and pain. How does your own RA enable you to help them cope with this?
Paula: My oldest daughter struggles with residual pain from a childhood illness and my youngest daughter has juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Sometimes we are all laid out on the couch with multiple ice packs and heating pads between us. We bond like that. We always believe each other when it comes to pain. Many people don't recognize the pain people with chronic illnesses experience unless they can see. There are also times when one or two of us are stronger than another so we often take turns giving and receiving care. Finally, because I have tried so many different methods to control my own pain and inflammation, I have strong ideas about what to try and what not to try on my girls. This has saved them the ups and downs of trial and error.
HC: Please share a challenge from your RA as well as a gift.
Paula: The challenge of RA is that is so unpredictable. I can walk into an event feeling ready to engage, move, etc. and then lose the full use of my knee in the middle of the event. Or I might go to bed feeling fantastic and wake up feeling lousy.
The gift of RA is that I REALLY appreciate the mobility I have and use it every chance I get. We are a hiking family and we get out there to hike as often as we can, even though it almost always hurts to hike. This thing is that it hurts more not to hike. I am very aware that I might lose the ability to hike completely someday so I make sure to get out there as much as possible while I can. It is a gift to see every moment of mobility as a special one, especially out there on the trails with my family.