Raising Kids When You Have Rheumatoid Arthritisby Sarah Ellis Health Writer
Parenting is easy, said no one ever. And when you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it comes with an extra set of challenges. Tasks that many moms and dads take for granted, like dressing your kids or playing outside, require more thought and effort. If you’ve had RA for years, you’re probably accustomed to navigating a lot of situations on your own. But what about once you have kids? Short answer: It’s tough! Still, it’s doable, say these parents with RA who weighed in on strategies and hacks to make your life easier. You’ve got this.
Work With an Expert
If you’re not already in touch with a rheumatologist, this is your best bet for figuring out a treatment plan that works for you. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Marcy O’Koon, senior director of consumer health for the Arthritis Foundation. “Your doctor should evaluate your function and disease activity every few months and adjust the treatment plan as needed until the inflammation is well-controlled. That can take time, but it’s always worth it.” Your doctor may suggest certain medications, a splint to rest your joints, or in rarer cases, advanced treatment like surgery.
Unpack Your Day
As a parent, you know how hectic everyday life can get. The kids have school, doctors’ appointments, social obligations, and extracurricular activities—and you’re likely responsible for coordinating all of it. Sometimes, to help your kids get the most out of their activities, you need to take a step back with your own. Says O’Koon, “Parents with RA need to be able to say no to outside invitations and obligations. A light schedule that allows periods of rest between activities saves energy for priority tasks and quality time with your children.”
Do Your Homework
The more you can think through your challenges in advance, the better prepared you’ll be to tackle the tough parts of parenting. “Before my son was born, I sat down and wrote out all the limitations I thought I might have,” says Kristine Carandang, an RA mom in San Diego with a 10-month-old son. “Then I looked for equipment that could help me work around that.” Specialized items like diaper-bag backpacks (which free up your hands and balance the weight on your back), can come in handy.
Minimize Leaning and Lifting
Two of the trickiest movements for people with RA are bending over and lifting a weighted object up. Essentially, everything you’ll be doing for the first 3-4 years of your youngster’s life! For Carandang, the solution was finding a carrier she could safely lift her son in and out of. “We tried a bunch of different carriers that would best suit my body,” she says. She settled on a bassinet that folded over, so she could collapse onto it if needed without endangering herself or the baby. These little things can make a huge difference in your ability to get through the day with minimal pain.
Babywearing is a thing—even if you don’t have RA. But it’s especially useful if you do, since people with RA often lack strength in their arms and wrists. “Wearing” your baby in a sling or carrier close to your body fixes that. “Babywearing gave me the ability to keep my babies close, even when my hands and wrists were flaring so badly I had difficulty with everyday tasks,” says Mariah Leach, RA mom of kids ages 7, 5, and 2 in Louisville, CO. When you’re not walking, you can sit on the couch and rest your joints with your baby snuggled close to your chest.
Be Honest With Your Kids
Toddlers are too young to understand, but around age 4 or 5, it’s good to start introducing your child to the idea of RA. “Teaching your children about RA will be an ongoing discussion that develops as they do,” Leach says. “When my RA interferes with daily life, I use it as an opportunity to teach my kids a little more about what’s going on in my body.” On days when you can’t move much, ask your children to help with tasks around the house. You might be surprised by how excited they are to lend a hand—plus, they’ll be more accepting of why you can’t always play with them.
Ask Gradeschoolers for Assistance
As your kids grow older, they’re increasingly able to help you—and that’s something you shouldn’t shy away from. Sarah Canby sees her RA as a parenting tool for teaching her 12- and 14-year-old sons kindness. “My boys have learned to be empathetic and extremely helpful,” she says. “I may not be able to do buttons and snaps, carry heavy things, or physically keep up, but my boys are able to step in and offer a helping hand when they see me struggling.” You’re raising caring and empathetic humans, and that’s something to be proud of.
Keep Kids on a Schedule
When you have a disease that can flare at unexpected times, the best defense is controlling what you can control. “Keeping your kids on a consistent schedule will help decrease stress for everyone involved, and it will many times be the only way to make through some of those rough days,” says Laura Burco, an RA mom living in Iowa with kids ages 9 and 11. A regular routine means if Burco has a bad flare-up, her kids can go about their lives with a plan in place, or stop to help out if needed. No last-minute scrambling necessary.
Find a Support Group
It’s easy to feel alone when you’re dealing with a chronic illness, but there are so many other people sharing a similar experience. “I rely pretty heavily on the moms who I know have a chronic illness for support,” Carandang says. Facebook groups (like HealthCentral's RA page) or websites like Mamas Facing Forward can connect you with other parents for advice and day-to-day cheerleading (we could all use that!).
Make Time to Self-Appreciate
Like any parent, your body needs rest and your mind could use a break. “I try to remember that taking care of myself is taking care of my family,” Leach says. Rather than feeling frustrated about your physical limits, celebrate the things you can still do with your kids. “Parenting with a chronic illness, especially an ‘invisible illness,’ can be really hard,” says Alisa Libonn, an RA mom living in Nashville, TN. “It’s easy to get down about your limitations, but try not to let them define you as a parent—or a person.”