Moms get cancer, too. It seems obvious, yet it wasn’t until Audrey Guth was undergoing breast cancer treatment that she saw first-hand what trying to parent through the disease really means. At one chemotherapy appointment, a young mom was in the treatment room with Guth — and the mom had no choice but to bring her child along. That moment prompted Guth, who had experience running a nanny agency, to start the Nanny Angel Network.
The charity, based in Toronto, provides free professional childcare to moms who have cancer — so that parents dealing with the disease can rest, go to treatment, or do anything else they need to. This year, there are 99 Nanny Angels caring for 250 children in 100 families. Alix Harte, 56, is a former teacher (and mom to a 26-year-old) who now helps two families as a volunteer nanny. Chatelaine spoke with Alix to find out what it’s like to help care for children whose moms are contending with both cancer and childcare.
I was working in a fairly high-stress, high-level job in education. I happened to catch a news piece about the Nanny Angel Network that showed young women with aggressive breast cancer needing to take their children to treatment appointments, because they didn’t have childcare. I found that shocking. I couldn’t believe that in this amazing, progressive society, with all our social supports, there was this huge gap. The picture of this young mom and her kid stayed with me for a couple of years until my schedule got a little less busy. In early 2016, I signed up and went through training.
The day I met my first family, I was terrified. I knew that Anika* had an infant, that she was in the middle of chemotherapy, and that she lived with her mom. That was all I knew. I went to Anika’s apartment, and I met this lovely four-month-old baby and these two amazing women who were looking after each other. It turns out Anika didn’t want me so that she could get relief — she wanted her mom to have a break. And Daisy* was the most beautiful baby ever. She’s so sweet. Now she’s 16 months, and she’s just a tiny bit cheeky, which is great — you want kids to be cheeky. And she’s so interested in everything.
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Anika has Stage 3 breast cancer. When Anika has chemotherapy, she needs someone to look after the baby for the whole day. And then for the next two days, she’s pretty sick. It’s hard for [other] people to find that time, even if they’re immediate family. Her mom passed away from uterine cancer at the end of January, so now, to add to all of this, Anika’s a grieving daughter.
I worry about her. There aren’t many social supports. Even with a large family, it’s just so demanding. Daisy can’t just go to a nursery school or go to a day care when Anika has chemo, or is sick. Anika is so immunocompromised that if Daisy brings stuff home to Anika and she gets sick, that could mean she’s in the hospital, and then who looks after the baby? It has been such an experience for me, all of these little things that I’ve never thought of.
Now, Daisy is going through all her developmental milestones, sitting and standing and walking. Paradoxically, it’s as her mom gets sicker: she had chemo, a mastectomy, more chemo, radiation, and she’s still having chemo. Here I am doing all these great things with Daisy that Anika can’t do. How would I feel as a mom, having someone come into my home and have fun with my kid because I was too sick to do it? That’s always on my mind.
Recently I started with a second family. This is a mom who is palliative. She has a three-year-old and an eight-year-old, and she has 30 to 60 days left. One of the great things about NAN is that we continue to support that family through that bereavement period, for another year if they need us. Most Nanny Angels have just one family, but I thought, I’m retired, I can at least provide a little bit of continuity for the kids.
Ideally volunteers go for about four hours every week. I typically do more, because I’m in a position where I can. When I start with a family, I try to melt into the background and get the lay of the land. I don’t like asking a lot of questions, because I think they already have enough stress.
With Daisy, mostly I play and sing to her, feed her, put her to sleep. She loves baths.
With my other family, the children are quite different in their response to their mom’s illness. When I knock on the door, the three-year-old will call, “Who’s there?” Then he’ll put his little hand out the mail slot. He knows it’s me and he’s waiting for me. He’s so cute. There have been unexpected challenges. The family had a dead fish. I was really wrestling with whether I should use that as a springboard to talk about what the children might be wondering about.
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I have had to reach out for help. As part of NAN’s focus on grief and bereavement, they’ve hired a child life specialist who’s been able to give me some great advice and concrete suggestions in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate. I know there’s someone at the end of the phone that I can call and say, “This is what’s happening — what do you think about that?” There’s lots of support.
One of the most important things is to find out what the children know about the illness. We want to respect whatever the parent has told the kid. Many of the moms do not share with their children the fact that they are so ill, and particularly not palliative.
Eventually, a mom I’m working with will pass away. I’m doing a lot of reading, particularly for the three-year-old; I want to make sure I’m as prepared as I can be. I know that other volunteers have taken the opportunity, either before the mom passes away or after, to make memory boxes or find different ways to make sure the mom is still present in [the children’s] lives. You can help them continue to remember their mom and keep her around.
I’ll keep volunteering for as long as I can — probably until Daisy is driving! It’s part of the fabric of my life now. At some point I’ll probably need to take a break, mentally.
I could never have guessed the impact it would have on me. I’ve done palliative care, but it isn’t the same. The three children I work with are lovely, lovely children. Then there’s this juxtaposition of this parent who is so ill.
My husband says he notices I’ve been more patient. I think, in many ways, it allows me to make better decisions. I think, “Would what Anika do?” If my husband puts out Cheezies as an appetizer, it’s maybe not the end of the world. I think it’s allowed me to see things in my own life that are important. I think it makes me a better person.
You’re with these families at their most vulnerable, over a long period of time. You’re giving their kids baths and you’re putting them to bed, and you’re doing all those things that create such a bond. These families who are struggling, they take you in, they put their arms around you and say, “Here, we’re going to give you our most precious things to look after.” It’s such important work, and there is such a need for it. Such a need.
*Names have been changed.