My Kids Have Learned Compassion and Empathy

Jenna is outside, smiling and looking directly at the camera. Black and white photo.

by Jenna Pashley Smith

Im a mom to two kids aged six and eight. My disability is largely invisible: Ive had rheumatoid arthritis for twenty years and racked up various joint damages. My limitations change by the day: some days I feel relatively able, others I can barely walk. The unpredictability of this disease has been a challenge for my parenting from the very beginning. But as a result, this is also the only mom theyve ever known, a mom who winces  when they reach for my hand, but also one who can sometimes turn crooked cartwheels with them. Other days, Im the mom who limps around the house with a cherry red walker.

Being asked to stay home during the COVID-19 crisis has not been the horror I thought it would be. This disease flares up for me more under certain conditions. The normal suburban lifestyle in our area-overextended and extremely active-kept me on a constant rollercoaster of energy drains and physical strain. The permanent damage in my wrists, fingers, and an elbow mean that even driving is uncomfortable on my best days. And a good day could turn bad in a hurry. My children havent visited the zoo more than a handful of times, even though our city has a fantastic one. The 45 minute drive, plus miles of walking, means that Im completely trashed before weve finished visiting the elephants! So they miss out on things because of me. I try not to feel guilty about that. But when everything is closed, I dont have to feel guilty at all!

At home, I dont have to push to keep up with the myriad activities of school and friendships and activities that used to make up our daily grind. Ive always managed by juggling the days symptoms and adjusting on the fly. When I pushed too hard, Id cancel all plans and spend a few days in bed, recovering. Our friends never really saw me on bad days, so I dont know how many people actually really understand the degree to which this disease impacts my life. The pressure to participate or go out was always high in our social circles. Its a relief to not have any of that now. I dont have to worry about hurting anyones feelings by declining invitations. Instead, we garden. We take our books outside and read in the gorgeous spring weather. The kids have been kicking soccer balls around and practicing their handstands. I offer encouragement from the sidelines and nap when I need to.

My kids are pretty aware of when I need help, especially my daughter. Shell give me a shoulder massage or rub my hands. Ive been the recipient of many naptime facials” complete with abstract makeup and intriguing hairstyles! My son has become a voracious reader, and he likes nothing better than to cuddle up with a fat book. Thats an activity I can always participate in!

At the beginning, I couldnt rest at all. My anxiety was hammering away at any shred of calm I found. I didnt know if I could trust my kids to stay home, so I was on high alert all the time. We live in a close-knit neighborhood surrounded by families with kids all the same age. The children have a 1980s sort of existence, bouncing from house to house as they play all afternoon, sometimes all day on the weekends. Isolation was extra necessary as the neighbor affectionately known as Everybodys Grandma” and I were both high-risk individuals.

My inflammation got really bad during those first weeks. I was having difficulty using my hands and I was fearful of using some of the medication options at my disposal because my husband was (at the time), still having to go into the office every day. Halfway through our quarantine” he was furloughed to half-time. Its not ideal from a financial sense, but at least we still have health insurance, and the week off is a welcome relief for the whole family.

Once we found a rhythm for our weeks, my symptoms got better. I took care of myself in the small ways I could. And letting go of anxiety through breathing exercises, diving into my writing, and limiting social media really helped. In our old” life, we realized between school and activities, we only really spent time together as a family for a few hours every day. The quality time with my family has been amazing. Its allowed my husband and I to get to know our children in a new way.

One thing Ive noticed during quarantine is that my physical limitations have forced my kids to grow up differently than their peers. Other parents Ive talked to are carefully curating what their kids hear and learn about the pandemic (and life in general). Not my kids. I keep it age-appropriate, but we havent ever tried to shield them from the realities of pain and suffering. I dont actually want them to have a rosy, innocent outlook. I want them to recognize that pain is part of life. Not ideal, but real. They need to see that pain isnt to be avoided, but to be faced, whether its a scraped elbow, a knee swollen like a cauliflower, or grief. Pain is a signal, but until its faced, youll have no idea if the signal means stop!” or keep going!”

When we talk about staying home, even my extremely extroverted daughter understands that its to keep people safe. People like mama. And even if theyre sad about missing their friends, the sacrifice is worth it. Theyre not complaining about fairness, because the world isnt fair. Instead, they pray for the germs to die” and for all the people working tirelessly in hospitals and grocery stores. Living with me and my disease, theyve learned a compassion and empathy that gives me hope for the world theyll be part of rebuilding.  They keep going. And so do I.

3 Replies to “My Kids Have Learned Compassion and Empathy”

  1. I loved reading this story. As a disabled mom myself (I blog about it at, I also somewhat enjoy quarantine. For the first time in a while, I haven’t had to worry about navigating life outside of my home. It’s a relief to spend so much time with my family inside of a place where everything is assessable to me. I also liked reading about how you’re teaching your kids life perspective. My son is only 7-months-old, but I think about his future often and how having a disabled mother will shape him.

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