psychic whiplash (or, “what is life?”)

A few weeks ago, I learned that one of my friends is pregnant with her second child.  This friend went through years of heartache before having her first child, and the road to her second pregnancy hasn’t been without its trials.  Her daughter is close in age to my son, and the four of us have achieved the rare dynamic of both adults and kids being well matched.  I am so thankful that she has come in to my life.

Before l learned of her pregnancy, I’d quietly come to the decision that I did not want to have any more children.  My husband and I have had many conversations about the idea of expanding our family, and have usually ended with the question remaining open.  Earl is still very young (though we, perhaps, are not) and most of the time it’s felt like there’s no rush to make a final decision about what we want to do.

But on days when I find myself feeling intellectually (and sometimes spiritually) restless, or when my son and I are butting heads, I tend to come back to a recurring theme:  I don’t want to put my own life on hold again, as I feel I would be with the addition of another child.  As we begin shopping for pre-schools, I’m finally able to begin contemplating a daily routine that allows more space for my own self and work (even if I don’t end up back at a “straight job.”)  When I think about taking care of a new baby, I imagine the clock being reset, starting the whole, all-consuming process of parenting all over again.  And in those imaginings, I see my own self disappearing.  There may be a strain of selfishness to my thought process, but I also know that my ability to maintain a strong and fulfilled sense of my own identity is essential to my continuing to be a joyful (and effective) parent, and it’s difficult to imagine doing that with the added burdens and responsibilities of raising another child.

In classic, Life After Cancer fashion, though, the news of my friend’s pregnancy stirred up all kinds of anger and sadness, taking me right back to the moment when I lost my fertility in the first instance.  It took almost two years after finishing cancer treatment and processing the loss of being unable to bear my own child before I was ready to approach the reality of adoption.  It was a slow and painful road to get to a place of acceptance.  Now, six and a half years since I lost my fertility, I am the mother of the most amazing little boy in the world, and I’m happy and secure in my decision to raise him as an only child.

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But cancer’s psychic whiplash can be a bewildering thing.  A few days after learning of my friend’s pregnancy, I found myself in tears while struggling to get my toddler to eat lunch.  But the tears weren’t out of frustration, as they sometimes are.  They were of renewed sadness for what I have lost.  Never mind that I don’t actually want to have another child.  Never mind that if I did, we could hunker down and go through the motions with our amazing adoption agency.  The unfortunate fact is that, just as was the case during all those years I was surrounded by pregnant coworkers, the news of my friend’s pregnancy brought up the long-dormant trauma which cancer wrought.  This is the seemingly endless, recurring curse of young adult cancer.  You must continually face the long-term effects of the disease, and constantly be reminded of how it robbed you of the life you’d once thought you would have.  For me, this has related particularly to decisions and choices about career and family.  But whatever form the lasting impact takes, it’s a painful echo that can reverberate with renewed force at unexpected moments.

Still, forces in the universe often have a way of balancing each other out, and last weekend I found myself on a five-mile run across the Ben Franklin Bridge, along side a delightful and spirited sixteen-year-old girl.  We were chatting easily, and at one point I asked if she had any brothers and sisters.  She said she had a 40-year-old half-brother from her father’s earlier relationship, but that she was, for all intents and purposes, an “only child.”  It was a perfect, clear morning, with light breeze at our backs as we crossed the bridge high above the Delaware, the city stretched out before us.  We talked about the benefits of being an only child, all of the extra love and attention she’s received.  We laughed about the challenges of having siblings.  This young woman, this proud and curious old soul, allowed me to hook into something very essential about my decisions, even my world-view.  Listening to her unexpected wisdom, I felt strong and shored up, and cancer felt far away.  “Every day,” she offered, almost off-hand, “I wake up and say, ‘What is life?’”  I laughed, and told her that question would probably never stop asserting itself.  For some of us, the answer may have a lot to do with reconciling the hurt and trauma of the past with the reality of Now.  But for all of us, it persists.

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