“…So now we’re not sure if we’re ever going to have children.”
It’s January 2011, and I’m sitting at my dining room table across from my in-laws. On our plates are the remnants of a delicious meal cooked by my husband Nick, who is now holding my hand atop the table. A bottle of red wine, uncorked and nearly empty, sits next to a discarded cloth napkin. We’ve just finished telling my in-laws that according to a recent consult with my doctor, it will be difficult, if not downright dangerous, for us to have a baby. My thyroid cancer, though long in remission, has extended its greedy grip on my teenage years to snatch at my child-bearing years.
My husband’s parents listen with rounded eyes and shallow breaths as I explain what my doctor has told me. I have been taking thyroid replacement hormone since my thyroid was removed at 13 during the first of several surgeries. Since then, my doctors have kept my hormone levels- the magic “TSH” number- artificially high so as to prevent a relapse. If we want to try to conceive, I will need to dramatically lower my dosage. From previous adjustments, I know I will experience anxiety, depression, and weight gain at the very least. I will also be at increased risk for a recurrence of the cancer while trying to conceive, and if the cancer returns while I am pregnant, I will have to remain untreated until the baby is born. If I don’t lower my dose enough (and, the doctor tells me, it is often hard to know for sure) I will be at increased risk for fertility problems and miscarriage.
I finish speaking, and my in-laws sit silent for a moment. Then my father-in-law, who always seems to know the right thing to say in difficult situations, assures us that they’ll support us whatever we decide. My mother-in-law nods in agreement, though anguish stretches across her skin.
I look at Nick, who squeezes my hand. He wants children, but it will be several months before I understand how much and how soon. Later that night, while we are washing the dishes, he tells me that he loves me and is happy in our marriage, with or without children. He tells me that it’s my decision because of the risk involved to my body. Then he wraps his arms around me and I close my eyes against his shoulder, the smell of dish soap glazing the air between us.
For weeks afterward, I am floundering. I don’t know what I want, only that I need to make a decision. We hadn’t been in any particular hurry to have children before the doctor’s consult, but now I feel time’s hand pressing on my back. I’m more likely to conceive quickly, the younger I am; the faster I conceive, the less time I’ll be at risk; therefore, there’s merit in trying sooner rather than later.
But truthfully, I don’t even know if I want children. I’m happy in my marriage, and I have a good job and hobbies I enjoy. How much will I have to give up for a baby? Will the stress of parenting damage my happy marriage? Will I be able to cope with sleepless nights and diaper changes? Babies seem like so much stress, so much anxiety, so much work, that it’s an unsolvable mystery to my childless self why other people keep wanting and having them. And yet, I know that I once wanted children, too. I’m a teacher; I love the kids I teach. Our pet cats are beyond spoiled, so I know Nick and I have much love to give. Why do I feel so blocked off from wanting a baby?
I don’t truly understand the depth of my emotional impasse until one evening when Nick and I are watching a pre-recorded CBS Sunday Morning show. There is a piece on a group of terminally ill children making bead necklaces to memorialize their journey: a bead for each chemotherapy treatment, every blood transfusion, every missed day of school. Looking into these children’s faces, I see the shadow of being broken and desperate for hope. I remember that shadow. It engulfs me. I make a barely human choking sound and then I’m crying as I haven’t cried in years. My husband comes to kneel beside my chair.
“What if we have kids, and they get sick?” I point to the screen. “What if they’re like me?”
Nick takes my hand and says, “They won’t be. But if they are, we’ll get through it together.”
I know he believes this, but he also doesn’t really understand. Nick met me after my cancer was in remission. He doesn’t know how cancer can rip and tear at every member of a family, leaving them desperately clinging together against the torrent. He hasn’t looked into his parents’ eyes and seen the perpetual pain of living their worst nightmares. He doesn’t understand the truth buried in the heart of my family, of every family like ours: a child’s illness is never as hard on the child as it is on the parents. It leaves its mark on them more indelibly than the scars of surgery or the tattoos of radiation.
But even though my husband doesn’t know what I know, I trust him. I stop crying. I hold him tight. I finally recognize that my reluctance to have children has nothing to do with late nights and dirty diapers. It’s just fear, fear of something in my past reoccurring in my future, and somehow knowing that helps me to release the fear. Just a little bit.
It doesn’t happen that night, but over the next several months, I finally come to a place where I’m ready to face up to my demons. It’s not that I stop being afraid; it’s that I decide I don’t want the fear to hold me back. So I tell my husband I’m ready, and it’s in his relief that I see how badly he wants this.
I go off the pill, and immediately there are complications: my thyroid levels temporarily spike without the estrogen’s moderation, and I end up passing out in a restaurant while on vacation and riding in an ambulance to a beach-side emergency room. My thyroid dosage is lowered once, twice, three times. I manage my buzzing anxiety and depression with a therapist. A few short months after we start trying, I am pregnant. It is a miracle: my doctor tells me that I shouldn’t have been able to conceive with my TSH at that level. But then she tells me not to share my news because the risk of miscarriage is high.
I learn of the pregnancy at five weeks; for eight more weeks, we tell no one but our parents and my sister. I suffer through a horrible first trimester, full of nausea and food aversions and dizziness. I pass out yet again after a week’s bout with the flu, and I end up in our local emergency room, but the baby is fine. At last, we share our news with the world. I do not miscarry. I get every pregnancy symptom in the book, but the baby is healthy and growing. I have monthly blood tests and extra neck sonograms to make sure the cancer isn’t returning. Each time, I get good news.
And then, forty-two weeks and one induction later, our son is born. We name him Edwin Michael, for both of my grandfathers and Nick’s father. The first night, he chokes on the amniotic fluid he swallowed in the birth canal. I grip the sill of the nursery window as the nurses tend to him, and wonder how I could have called it fear, what I felt before. I didn’t know how powerful fear could be when inexorably twined with the overwhelming love for a child.
I knock on the window, and the nurse brings out my son. I take him in my arms, my tiny miracle, and think of the past I had to conquer in order to reach this present moment. But I no longer feel alone with my fears. I am connected to every mother on the first morning of her child’s life. We all experience the same love and the same fears, and I am surprised to find I am one of the lucky ones: my past may have left me scarred, but it has also prepared me for what may come.