The biggest difference between my first and second pregnancy was cancer. Just over a year ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35, in my third trimester. I began treatment while pregnant and within a month I had my second daughter. It is truly unbelievable to me that my cancer baby is almost a year old. It seems wrong to call her that, mostly because I am so grateful, at least, that it is me and not her facing disease. But I have a hard time separating her infancy from my cancer, not comparing my normal, relatively easy experience with my first baby to this dramatically different one. Both times it has been a blur, but add chemo brain to mama brain and a toddler, it is amazing I can remember anything at all. I am still working to let go of all the lessons I learned the first time around. All the things I was going to do differently or better the second time. And while it has been easier to be relieved of nighttime feedings and much of the primary caregiving, I wish that was different. I wish the reason was different.
It is hard not to feel like a spectacle when you stroll into the cancer center at 35 years old, super pregnant, with a toddler in tow. It seems surreal to coordinate care with your oncologist and midwife. Like many others, I had never considered the safety of chemotherapy during pregnancy. Or how to feed my baby if I couldn’t nurse her. Or how I would take care of my infant and toddler after a mastectomy. My reality shifted dramatically as the countdown to Daphne’s birth began, and I surrendered to having a completely different experience than the first time around, but not in a good way.
My baby and I started chemo together the day after my daughter’s 2nd birthday. The hardest part for me was the adjustment to becoming a cancer patient-all the time and attention, scheduling and logistics. I was skeptical and overwhelmed, traveling a long distance from our small-town island home for my care. We prepared our daughter to spend her first night(s) away from us and strategized the collection and transportation of frozen breastmilk, with the help of my mom, doula and dear friends.
At 38 weeks, over a few days time, I was induced naturally. Despite having a round of dose-dense chemotherapy weeks beforehand, I was able to labor naturally, mostly at a stand alone birth center with my midwife. After 12 hours of active labor, I ultimately delivered another normal, healthy baby at the hospital, within 45 minutes of transferring there. For the second time I labored through the night and pushed a baby out just at that moment when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore. For the second time I had a 7 pound baby girl. As she lay on my chest for the first time it was a bittersweet moment.
While the chemo doesn’t pass through the placenta and was safe for me to take in the second and third trimester of pregnancy, it would pass into my milk. And I was due another dose within a couple weeks. Before cancer (BC) I used to think a cup of coffee or a sweet treat was bad for me, and now I have to be infused with toxins to make me better. My mostly bald head was a strong reminder, but the moment my baby was born and I had to resist the urge to bring her to my breast, was my harshest reality check. I was sick with cancer and would become sicker with treatment, and I couldn’t take care of my baby. At least not like before.
She has spent her first year of life in and out of the oncologist’s office. All her milestones are connected to phases of my treatment. And while I am grateful she is healthy and thriving, I am not. It is still disappointing that I was never able to breastfeed her, and that I might not get to see her off to her first day of school. I try not to have regrets, but there are things I wish I had paid closer attention to with my first baby, mostly my nursing experience. While Daphne doesn’t know any different than the bottle and has enjoyed all the attention that regular trips to the city bring, it has been a doubly isolating and overwhelming experience for me. Babies are hard work, especially when they have 2 year old big sisters, and we need to support each other more through these experiences as parents. And having all this extra help with baby number two has made me realize how little I had with my first. How your life shouldn’t have to be completely terrible before you ask for help. And that it is normal to stumble through, whatever the circumstances.
There is so much more I have to say about baby Daphne’s first year. And I am doing a lot of reflecting as her birthday approaches, just before Thanksgiving. It was the hardest year of my life, but this story is about so many other people, especially my husband, who was her primary caretaker for the first 8 months. It was really hard for him too. Taking care of the girls and me. And he continues to do most of her night feedings, because although I am finally feeling close to normal physically, that is just our routine. Yeah, maybe this story should be more about him, husband and father of the year. About shifting expectations of what parenthood should and can look like. About how much there is to learn about yourself when you feel like you are failing as a mother, wife, sister, friend, but really you are just doing your best, and sometimes that is shitty. I want us to talk more about the shit. Sure, I embrace and share the shiny, happy moments, too. But there is not enough honesty about how hard raising tiny people can be, especially with cancer. I am grateful for all the support I have had in caring for baby Daphne, as she has truly been raised by a village out of necessity. I am still a bit surprised in moments that we have truly bonded. I have had to distance myself from her for my own sanity and self-care, since the moment I fed her the first of countless bottles. From the day I had to suppress my painful, partial, toxic milk supply. Luckily I still feel like her mama and she sees me that way, but it is so different from babyhood with her sister. And I am working on accepting that. I can mother two ways. I can mother them both at the same time, even with an often angry heart and limited patience. I birthed them and I am their mother, and not even cancer can take that away from me.