If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and you're a parent of little kids, you'll know all about the joys -- and challenges -- of raising a family. There are simple strategies that let you keep up with your parenting tasks while you manage the painful joints and fatigue that can go along with RA.
Know Your Limits
All moms and dads -- whether they've got RA or not -- have to be careful not to push themselves too hard.
"Parents today feel a tremendous need to attend to all their child's needs, and they can burn out because of it," says Mark Lumley PhD, professor and director of clinical training in the clinical psychology program at Wayne State University.
If you have RA, taking on too much is a special concern. It's not only a source of stress, Lumley says, but it can also trigger a flare.
"The trick is to learn what your own timetable is so you can pace yourself," he says. "You need to take a break before you start feeling pain, because by the time you feel it, it's too late."
Rather than relying on your body's signals, Lumley suggests you analyze your past experiences to figure out how long you can stay active before pain hits. Cut that time by half an hour or an hour, and schedule in a break so you can avoid a flare.
Make Your Health a Priority
Kelly O'Bannon, a 42-year-old mom in San Francisco, has been managing the pain and stiffness of RA since she was diagnosed a few months before her college graduation. She's learned that to be a good parent of her two daughters, ages 9 and 7, she sometimes needs to take care of her health first.
"I often hear that part in the airline safety lecture: 'Put your mask on yourself before helping others,' " she says. "As a mother, I'm not wired to put myself first, but I've learned over and over that if my health collapses, the life of my family goes totally sideways."
You may find you'll need to explain to your children that you can't be with them now, or ask your spouse to pitch in.
"One of the healthiest things you can do is balance others' needs with your own," Lumley says. "Sometimes that might mean telling the kids, 'No,' or saying, 'Honey, you take them now,' to a spouse. It can be hard for parents to do this, but there's good evidence that kids will learn to manage and may even thrive better."
O'Bannon says she's learned to make her own health a priority in order to better care for her family.
"When I get sick, often the best thing I can do is rest and sleep. Both are luxury items as parents," she says. "Thankfully, I have the most understanding and awesome husband ever. Having been together for 17 years, he knows me as well as -- or sometimes better than -- I know myself. When he sees I'm getting sick, he often tells me, 'You need to go to bed,' knowing that if I don't, it'll only be worse."
Remember, you don't have to be in top shape to be a good, involved, or dedicated parent. While you may not be able to participate in some activities with your kids, there are plenty of ways you can support and teach them. You can find bonding opportunities that are less physically demanding but still allow you to spend time together, like watching a movie or playing a board game.
Be Honest With Your Kids, and Ask for Their Help
It's important to be open with your family about what you're going through. "The process of hiding a disease can be stressful," Lumley says. "And we know this to be true of a lot of diseases. Hiding the fact that you have it can take a toll psychologically and physically."
While you may need to tailor how you talk about your RA depending on your child's age, Lumley says it's generally a good idea to tell kids who are elementary school-age and older that you have health concerns and that you need their support sometimes.
"That may seem like a role reversal, but it's a good skill for kids to learn to support their parents," he says. "That can include, 'I need you to clean up those things for me,' or 'I need you to take care of yourself right now.' "