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TTC and Ill Parent

Goodbye, Hello

By Amalah

Dear Amy, 

Please, please feel free not to answer this question if it brings up too many sad (or too personal for the internet) memories.

So here’s the deal. I’ve been with my husband for coming-up to four years, we’ve lived together nearly all of that time and we’ve now been married for a few months. Babies have always been on the agenda at some point, and I always thought I’d like to get started before I was 30 (I’m 28). My husband is less driven to reproduce than I am, but he’s willing to dive into it with me and I think he’ll be an excellent father.

About two years ago my mum was diagnosed with cancer (is it ok if I’m not specific?). She’s had two rounds of chemo and a major operation, but small amounts have spread. She is being treated for that at the moment. We don’t know the exact prognosis (my mum doesn’t want to know and I respect that), but my understanding is that it’s likely terminal, but not imminently so.

My mother is my best friend. She is the one I call to tell my big things and my mundane things (along with my husband, obviously). We moved near to her around the same time she was diagnosed (a happy coincidence) and I see her more than I see most of my friends (who live in the next city over). We’ve always been incredibly close.

I’m sure you know all too well that having an ill parent seeps its way into every area of your life and decision making (Wedding planning was fun! Don’t ask me about whether we’re buying a house anytime soon).

Here’s the one I’m struggling with at the moment: Is starting to try for a baby while all of this is going on a terrible idea? 

On the side for starting to try now, I am aware that there are no guarantees with the human body (whether it’s pregnancy or cancer) and starting to try now doesn’t mean that my mum will get to meet my baby, but I know that we’d both be thrilled by however much we were able to share, even if that was just the beginning of a pregnancy. My sibling and I aren’t close and my parents are separated, so the idea of starting our own family is pretty appealing right now, because I know that everything with my family of origin will change once my mum dies (eg. the family home will be gone and Christmas will look very different). I know it’s stupid, but I think I’d feel lost if I didn’t have a mother and I wasn’t someone’s mother (or on the road to that).

There’s also the fact that I feel pretty ready to start trying for a baby now, regardless of anything else. I’ve been baby crazy my whole life and I feel my life has finally caught up with that wish. Because we don’t know how long my mum will be around, the idea of waiting until she’s gone might mean it’s years before we tried AND my mum could have met my baby.

On the downside, sometimes I think the idea of giving my mum somebody else to love and say goodbye to is just a terrible plan and I should leave well enough alone. The idea of losing my mum while being an incredibly emotional new mother sounds like a really bad thing. I also worry that if I was pregnant / a new mother, I might not be able to give my mother all the attention, love and care that she deserves, or I might be so wrapped up in losing my mother / grieving, that I couldn’t give the baby everything it would need. A part of me thinks I just want to rush to the next big life stage because then it would feel like my mum had been around longer.

I know that trying to conceive doesn’t always lead to conception, and I think that terrifies me more than anything – learning we’re infertile at the same time as grieving just sounds like an awful, awful situation to be in.

One huge thing for me on the side of starting now: My mum had me at 40 and I never got to meet her mother, and it looks like my children won’t meet their grandmother either. I want to start my family when I’m a lot younger than my mother was so that hopefully there will be a grandmother in this family at some point.

My now-husband has been an incredible rock throughout my mum’s illness thus far and the whole thing has only convinced me more solidly of the fact that he is an incredible partner and I am so lucky to have him. I have been discussing this with him a lot (as well as giving the decision some space). Our current plan is that we will assess the situation at Christmas and we might start trying then, but we might not.

I feel like I’ve just splurged words at you. I guess I just wanted to know how it was being pregnant when your dad was ill and how his death affected Ike’s babyhood, and what you’d do differently in retrospect? (I am so, so sorry if those questions are insensitive, and please, please don’t answer if it would be too sad for you.)

Yours,
Kate (not my real name, but I like it when posters have a name I can look for in the comments)

So this might be weird, but rather than immediately thinking back to some specific thing from my own experience, your question made me think of Steel Magnolias. (WHAT DOESN’T, AMIRITE?) In particular, the scene after Shelby’s funeral where the pregnant Annelle tells M’Lynn that she’d like to name her baby after Shelby. You can sense that (the perpetually awkward) Annelle is terrified that she’s saying something wrong here, that this gesture is inappropriate, but of course M’Lynn is gracious and brings up Shelby’s old refrain of “Life goes on.”

I know that bringing Steel Freaking Magnolias quotes into this conversation is mega-super cheesy with a side of tree sap, but that’s really been my big takeaway lesson. Life goes on. New lives join, old lives pass, we honor the old and celebrate the new, rinse and repeat.

I won’t bog us all down with a long rehash of my story, but for readers who aren’t familiar: My dad was diagnosed with leukemia right around the time I found out I was pregnant with my third baby. Like, the two bits of information hit me within a couple weeks of each other. The pregnancy was “planned” in the sense that we’d talked about having one more baby, but assumed it would take awhile to happen. BOOM. Already happening. I had eight months to go until my due date; my dad’s prognosis was three to six months.

He made it to six. Ike was born two months later.

Let me further add that my mom was fresh off a breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy when my first baby was born, and my dad was too ill from heart problems to be there for my second baby’s birth. The photos I have of him meeting Ezra for the first time take place in a hospital bed, the day before surgery. And then of course I have no photos of him and Ike. Oh.

I’m not pulling Pain Olympics moves here; just trying to convey that…well, this is all just life. Messy, imperfect life. If I’d waited for perfectly healthy parents before starting my own family — or tried to schedule a pregnancy during a guaranteed stretch of NO MAJOR LIFE STRESSORS, EVERYBODY JUST BE COOL — I would probably have zero babies right now. Your pro/con list is driving you bonkers, yes, but I sense that maybe even if your mom’s situation wasn’t what it is, you’d STILL be going around in mad mental circles over a completely different pro/con list. (We need a house/we don’t need a house, we should travel/who cares, should I wait for a promotion/should I just plan to stay home, etc. etc. etc. We all do it! It’s amazing anybody ever takes the plunge.)

I can’t help you with the ins and outs your current list — you know there are perfectly logical, practical reasons on both sides, and that you can’t also discount the emotional, less-tangible reasons either. I can’t promise you that the stress won’t make “trying” harder, or that the timing will all work out to a picture-perfect happy ending. I can answer your last question, however, and it’s a no, if I had to go through the whole thing again, I would absolutely positively not do anything differently, pregnancy-timing wise.

For me, the timing was what it was and there was no way through it but through, and I am glad that I had something else to throw my energy and thoughts into. A nursery to decorate and diapers to fuss over and little fetal kicks to feel at night instead of all the sad feelings. Yes, sometimes I felt like I wasn’t able to do “enough” and towards the very end I got very run down and Braxton-Hicks-ish and worried that the stress was harming the baby and that my pregnancy was a just constant reminder to my dad of what he’d miss and gaaaaaahhhhh crazy making. But then life went on. Life passed on, and life renewed. Sad and happy and ugly and beautiful, all at the same time, like always.

And no, the pain of my dad’s death before Ike’s birth did not cloud or diminish my joy over having him or haunt my early months of bonding. My father died and it was very sad. My baby was born and it was very happy. And both of those sentences are ridiculous understatements.

I don’t look back on my pregnancy with Ike and think “that was when my dad got sick and died,” if that makes sense. It has its own timeline. It was my final pregnancy and it was lovely and tiring and I threw up a lot but oh, the belly and the kicking and the anticipation. Pretty much the way I look back on all of my pregnancies, separate from whatever else was going on at the time.

And yet…when I think of my dad’s final illness and his passing, I DO immediately associate it with being pregnant and Ike’s birth.

In my mind, I jump right from this awful moment of saying goodbye at the hospice center to a memory I have of the day I brought Ike home from the hospital. My husband and kids and in-laws are all downstairs being loud and crazy, but Ike and I are in the nursery I obsessed over, alone. I’m rocking him, he’s nursing, he’s in this impossibly tiny onesie and he suddenly looks up at me with these impossibly big, slightly unfocused eyes. And my heart just explodes with every happy, joyful, blissful feeling imaginable— the polar opposite of how I felt out in that hospice hallway, sobbing uncontrollably.

These memories are linked forever, for some reason. It’s a weird, one-way street of colored experiences that I guess is some subconscious way of coping, but it works for me.

Anyway, I am hurling all sorts of disjointed words right back at you. Chuck the pro/con list. You’ve acknowledged and identified the potential cons, and that is enough. Push it all aside and reach into your gut for your answer. (I think you know what it is.) Stop hurling dice into the alternate timelines of infertility/pregnancy/illness/decline/death and live in the current timeline. The one where your mother is, still.  She might be terminal; she might not be, but regardless she is STILL HERE. So are you. So keep going, keep living, rinse and repeat.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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