With Mother’s Day having just passed, we want to honor the many different forms of motherhood, whether it involves giving birth, trusting someone else to carry your baby, adopting a child, or mothering a friend or family member. All of them matter. All of them are valid. And all of them are hard. On this Mother’s Day, we pay tribute to everyone who has been a mother, or a mother figure, in someone else’s life.
“You may never have kids.” “The chemo will probably zap your fertility.” “You need to start treatment now… there’s no time to talk about the rest.” I was 21 and had just been diagnosed with bone cancer. At 23, I was diagnosed with secondary Myelodysplastic Syndrome and no further conversations about family planning were had.
After my first diagnosis, I remember asking whether I should freeze my eggs (without having any idea what was actually involved in that) and being told that it was experimental, that it might not work, and that I didn’t have time. All I heard was that last piece. And when a doctor tells you that you have to start chemo *rightnow* to have your best shot at survival, you do it. Especially if you’re 21 and single, and starting a family is nowhere on your radar screen.
I don’t blame my doctors or myself for not having more thorough conversations at the time. In everyone’s defense, it was back in 1999 which, in the field of fertility preservation, was basically the Dark Ages. Thankfully, now the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has developed recommendations for fertility preservation for people with cancer, updated in 2013 to reflect new research and highlight the importance of fertility preservation discussions between doctor and patient. Sadly, though, these conversations still are not happening nearly enough.
In the years after my treatment ended, I attended lots of conferences and workshops around the country and, once I started dating more and ultimately met my husband, started to learn what I could about family building after cancer. What became crystal clear, pretty quickly, was that there was an “accepted” road map we were to follow. We were supposed to try to get pregnant (if that had happened I would have bought a lottery ticket that same day), and if that failed we could try IUI/IVF. And if that failed, we could look to donor eggs as I probably would have been able to carry the pregnancy. If that didn’t work, we could try to find a gestational carrier. And if all else failed… we could adopt. That was presented as a last resort.
There are so many things wrong with these messages. First and foremost, it’s incredibly disempowering to a cancer patient– to anyone, for that matter– to feel like their choices are not actually theirs. Secondly, not all of these options are possible for all people, due to cost or physical limitations or other reasons, but that doesn’t make their process “less than.” And finally, it’s damaging and hurtful to a) kids who are adopted, b) birth parents who make the selfless decision to have someone else parent their kids, and c) adoptive parents to feel like their family is billed as the worst case scenario. My “mama bear” claws come out when I think of anyone ever telling, or hinting to, my kids that any of this is true.
If I’m being totally honest, then yes, I wish more conversations about preserving my fertility — really, preserving my future choices — had taken place. It was so frustrating to be told for so many years that I “wouldn’t be able to have kids.” It took me many years to realize that giving birth to biological children and being a mother are sometimes two different things. In hindsight, what they should have said was that although my fertility might have been impacted, I could still become a mom.
In the young adult cancer community, infertility is one of the remaining proverbial elephants in the room. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, definitely, but it affects the majority of us. It’s so important to recognize, though, that while (as in my case) it might be about losing one option to start a family, it doesn’t mean that parenthood is impossible.
For anyone who is struggling with the concept of what makes a parent, I firmly believe that it has nothing to do with whether or not you share DNA. There are many paths to parenthood, none more or less equal than any other. In the end, parenting is about love, plain and simple. I am every bit a “real” mom to my two kids, both of whom I adopted at birth. I can read their expressions and know what they’re thinking. I know their habits and their favorites and their mannerisms, and I know what makes them turn up their noses and what hurts their feelings. They come running to me for a hug when they get hurt and if I could take away any pain or insecurity from them I would do it in a heartbeat. I am infinitely proud of the kind, funny, insightful little people they’re becoming. And we don’t share one single gene.
With Mother’s Day yesterday, I can’t end this piece without acknowledging my own mom, who has taught me so much about what it means to be one. I love you to the moon and back (and your grandkids do, too).