cancer ate my feminism (or did it?)

Last month, I had the good fortune to finally meet a remarkable fellow cancer fighter (and writer) with whom I’ve had a years-long virtual relationship.   As has happened many times before, when these virtual connections become “real,” I was struck with the sense that we’d met before, that we shared something inarticulable   This is how cancer binds us to one another.

As we exchanged messages in anticipation of our meeting, I made a passing comment about how it felt in some ways that cancer had eaten my feminism.  I heard the thought forming in my mind, and tossed the words off-handedly into an email that touched on some of my mixed feelings about being a stay-at-home mom, but as I saw them in front of me, I knew they had some weight.  My friend’s reply bore that out, and she said she was eager to hear more about what, exactly, that meant.

When we finally sat down for lunch, and talked for a breezy two and a half hours that positively flew by, we never did get to the deeper meaning behind my (not so) innocent remark.  But the sentiment has stuck with me, and I’m still trying to figure out why I said it, and what it means.

Despite having been a women’s studies minor in college (and writing my thesis in the discipline), I have never taken the time to create my own definition of “feminism.”  But once I made the decision to quit my job as an attorney and start working as a “full-time mother” (a term I despise, as if women who work outside the home are “part-time mothers”)  – I began to think a lot about how my life-long identification as a feminist now felt.  In truth, it felt quite awkward.  But why?


I’ve gravitated toward this notion of feminism as giving women the opportunity to CHOOSE what their life will look like – to have autonomy, and freedom, to do and be whatever they want.  Under this view, the “choice” to leave the paid work force is just as valid as the choice to continue working outside the home – as it should be.  (Setting aside, for the time being, that many women do not possess this choice in the first place, for any number of socio-economic reasons.)  So when I blithely say that “cancer ate my feminism,” I suppose what I mean is that my cancer, and what it did to my psyche – giving rise to this hyper-awareness of the fragility of life – AND my body – rendering me unable to bear my own child, and therefore have some measure of control of the “timing” of becoming a parent – deprived me of making a truly independent choice about what I wanted my life as a mother to look like.

My feminism, in a theoretical sense, remains firmly in tact.  But from a certain perspective, cancer painted me into a corner, and left me feeling like I had no option but to throw myself as fully as possible into my job as a mother.  Yes, it’s true that my professional life was an unfulfilling dead-end, but it’s also true that when the disease struck, I was hoping to change jobs, and if it hadn’t struck, I might have been able to change my professional situation in such a way that when I did finally become a parent, I might have been more inclined to continue working as an attorney.  (Might, might might…) Instead, cancer came along, and everything else – my professional development and my plans for becoming a parent included – was swept aside.  It all came down to the fight.

None of this means that I regret my decision to spend the last two years at home with my incredible son, or to leave a frustrating job.  From another angle, cancer, rather than eating my feminism, has given me the opportunity to do something fantastic for our family, to have time and space to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do if I was caught between full-time parenting and full-time paid work (which is the reality for “working parents,” let’s face it.)  Maybe then, I am just once again experiencing the long, shifting shadows which cancer continues to cast over the life I now inhabit.  At the outset of my cancer journey, it never occurred to me that my personal politics and identity would be impacted so profoundly.  The intervening years, however, have taught me that cancer leaves no facet of the self untouched.

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