Passing On Migraine
Three is an adorable age for kids — especially when they start copying their grown-ups. My fierce and feisty three-year old daughter loves to put a surgical mask over her face, insert a stethoscope into her ears, and order each of her “patients” to lie down to be poked and prodded. I once caught my son holding a magnifying mirror to his face, pretending to pluck hairs from his chin. No comment on who he was pretending to be.
But nothing prepared me for the first time my son ran into the bedroom with an icepack pressed to his head, pretending to complain about a “head duck.” Some parenting moments just hurt. In my mind's eye, I'm an active and engaged parent. But I knew, in that instant, that this was how he most often saw me — buried in my darkened bedroom, head under ice, asking for silence. His fantasy play reflected a reality that I despised and suggested a future for him that terrified me. How long until that “head duck” would be real?
Migraine is often inherited
Genetic studies that trace the prevalence of migraine in families don’t offer much solace. If one parent has migraine, each child has a 40% chance of developing migraine. Because my kids’ father occasionally gets migraine with aura — just like his own father — their chances of getting migraine is much higher. Either way, mothers are more likely than fathers to pass along a migraine gene. Likewise, daughters are more likely to inherit the disease than sons.
My own headaches began when I was five, so I know it is possible to live and even thrive with migraine as a child. But I also know the limitations that severe headache places on children. Some of my clearest memories include: listening to my own mother vomit, while she suffered from one of her three-day migraines; lying in a dark nurse’s office, waiting to be picked up; sitting in anxious anticipation at yet another doctor’s office, hoping that perhaps something might actually be found to be wrong with me… a faulty blood test that might indicate the need for a supplement or even a brain tumor that could be removed.
Can migraine build resilience in children?
I’m all too aware that migraine isn’t the worst thing that could happen to my kids. Migraine is painful and disabling, but often treatable and almost never fatal. It’s a disease that I understand well and I’m in the privileged position of knowing several prominent headache specialists well. More importantly, I know that migraine medicine is likely to get better and see improvement. I was a kid pre-triptans. The world is already a better place for kids with migraine. And, if nothing else, I can teach my children how living with migraine builds resilience, inspires compassion, and demands self-love and self-care.
So why does the prospect of migraine in my kids terrify me? Because like it or not, migraine’s existence runs through my family like a curse. My grandparents gave it to my parents. My parents gave it to me and my sister (my brother escaped). So, for now I wait…
What advice do you have?
I know that many of you have been through this. I welcome your wisdom and I’d love to open a space here for people to talk about how they think about migraine and parenting.
Have you taken our Migraine In America Survey yet?