Eight months pregnant, I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of my little one. We’d upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment, and I was eager to fill the new room with all the magic that his childhood would bring. Should I decorate with spaceships, so that he knows he can reach for the stars? Or should I use superheroes, so that he knows of his strength and courage? I folded and aligned each little onesie, sorted first by size, then color. I pulled out my dusty sewing machine and made an animal-print blanket so full of love I thought it would burst at the seams.

When my baby arrived, things didn’t go exactly as I had envisioned. I was induced because of pre-eclampsia, and his humongous head got stuck on my curved tailbone. My adorable baby had yellow, jaundiced skin to match his wispy blonde hair. He laid in a miniature tanning bed instead of the crib we had lovingly prepared for him. Still, we recovered, and I was determined to give him the perfect childhood.

When he was nine months old, we took Tanner to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I picked out the perfect Mickey Mouse shirt and matching ears for the big day. Subconsciously, I knew he was too young to appreciate the rides and characters, but I wanted him to start early on his magical childhood, so we headed to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Unfortunately, we got lost on the way and couldn’t find anywhere to park. Tanner was hungry and screaming, and I was frustrated that he couldn’t appreciate the joy I was so eager to provide.

Halloween went similarly. We had the perfect costumes, Curious George with the Man in the Yellow Hat and Professor Wiseman. We were sure to look great on social media, but more importantly, Tanner was going to love trick-or-treating. Except that he didn’t. He wanted to stay inside and play a game instead. After begging and pleading, I finally convinced him to knock on five doors before we called it quits for the night.

Then my husband got cancer.

This was not in the fairytale that I had planned for us. I wanted to shield our son from the heartaches and pains of the world, but instead they marched right through our front door. I tried to hide the problems from Tanner, saving (most of) my crying for behind closed doors.

Ken started chemo, and I worried how Tanner would respond to the hair loss. I expected tears, distress, or fear. Instead, Tanner was intrigued.

“Daddy’s hair all gone?” he asked matter-of-factly.

Then, one night, Ken and I hit our breaking point. The sickness and pain were relentless. We were swimming in piles of laundry, dishes, and medical bills. The trips to the hospital seemed never-ending. We were breaking physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I cried, saying, “I can’t do this anymore. We need more help.”

Ken agreed and asked sincerely, “Who can take care of us?”

Our little boy ran to our side. “I will take care of you,” he declared proudly, and our hearts melted.

We realized that no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t protect him from the struggles of life. From that moment on, we took a different approach. We taught him the word, “cancer,” and why it made his Daddy feel so sick. We explained that doctors were trying to help Daddy get better, and that’s why we go to the hospital. He learned about pain, sickness, medicine, and health as he observed and asked questions. We emphasized that it’s okay to be sad and scared sometimes, and that he can come to us when he had those feelings. We accepted that his childhood would never be picture-perfect, but it would be full of love, communication, and understanding.

With new insight, Tanner became happier, and we grew closer as a family. We helped him sort through his emotions and stood in amazement at his maturity and resiliency. In many ways, he did take care of us. He brought hugs and kisses in all the right moments. He made goofy faces and told silly jokes. He echoed our messages in the most profound ways.

“It’s okay to cry, Mommy.”

“I know cancer is scary, Daddy.”

“No matter what, I’ll always love you.”

My child’s life is far from flawless. His birthday lacked a bounce house or a pinterest-worthy cake. Instead, we celebrated in the hospital, with his dad in a wheelchair and nurses as guests instead of his friends. Other families may face different types of suffering, but no home is immune from heartache. Kids are more perceptive than we realize, and try as we might to protect them, they will learn about pain and sorrow.

The blissful, magical childhood I envisioned was shattered, and replaced. I can’t defeat cancer in an epic sword-fight battle, but I can help Tanner combat sadness with hope. I can’t blast cancer from under the bed with magic monster spray, but I can flood his fearful heart with love. His life may have less princesses and pirate ships than I intended, but it also has more understanding, compassion, and love than I ever knew possible.