This is the long story of how John and I decided to have children, knowing that he was going to die and that I was going to end up a single mother.
I was never sure I wanted to have kids. I never liked babysitting. I always felt uncomfortable around infants, unsure of what to do and how to handle them. I never felt that maternal longing, that deep desire to procreate. For me—ever practical—the idea of having kids hinged entirely on who I married. My pragmatic philosophy was that if I ended up with someone who really wanted kids, who was really committed to the idea of being an involved, invested, and devoted father, then I'd be ready to jump into the big unknown of parenting.
My ambivalence around becoming a mother was most certainly grounded in fear. I feared what I'd have to give up: the spontenaety, the sleep, the freedom. Ultimately, I feared that I was too selfish to be a good parent.
Then I met John, one of the most selfless people I have ever known. He wanted to have kids for sure; we talked about it during the heady days when we were quickly realizing that we wanted to spend our lives together. I don't know that I ever mentioned my ambivalence as, faced with his clear longing, my ambivalence faded away. If ever there was a man who would be an involved, invested, loving father, it was John. Knowing I would have that support, I felt that I could face my own fears.
When John got his cancer diagnosis, we had been married for less than a month. At his diagnosis, the doctor gave us a lot of information about prognosis and treatment, but no information about fertility. Frankly, I'm sure no one thought that John would live long enough for the question of fertility to be worth discussing, and John and I were too shell-shocked to ask that day. But when we went in for his first round of chemo, we asked about the drugs' impact on babymaking. No one had any answers for us. To be fair, John's oncologist did everything she could to find the answers we needed. She looked up research and called drug companies, but she came up empty-handed. Pancreatic cancer most often strikes older men who are not likely concerned about their ability to procreate. The long-term effects of the drugs was simply not known, although given their extreme toxicity, the reasonable conclusion was that it was not good.
I remember that day with utter clarity. We waited in an exam room while John's doctor made calls and did research, crying together between updates. The end result was that we decided to delay John's treatment for a week so that he could make some deposits at the sperm bank. A week was not going to change John's prognosis. We knew that John might live only weeks, perhaps months, but we also knew that it could be longer. We had a couple of banks to choose from; I made the calls to get the details about appointments and procedures, and from that, we made our decision as to which bank would get our business.
John went to the bank twice. Clients are actually referred to as "bankers" who conduct "transactions" such as making "deposits" and "withdrawals." The staff member I talked to when I made the appointments told me that I was welcome to come in with John if that would, um . . . help. Both John and I found that creepy, and so he went alone. He told me that it's just like you'd imagine it would be: a small, sterile room, porn available (print and video) if needed or desired, stern warnings that the sample cannot be obtained via blow job or intercourse: jacking off ONLY (I'm sure they had a more delicate way of phrasing it). So the deposit was made, the fee was paid, and off to chemo we went.
We had no idea what to expect from chemo, of course. For all we knew, we'd seen John's best days and it was all going to be downhill. But John was a responder, as they are known, these people who have a quick, positive response to treatment. Not that the treatment was without side effects, but within a month or so, John's tumor marker numbers were down and overall he was feeling better.
We started to talk about the kid option. We wanted to move forward, but it was not as simple as calling the bank and making a withdrawal—as if that in an of itself would have been simple. No, no, I had fibroids. Big ones. Ones that needed to be surgically removed before my OB would clear me to get pregnant. And so in March of 2005, I had a myomectomy. Perhaps oddly, I have fond memories of that time. The surgery went off without a hitch, and my mom came out to Boston to nurse me through my recovery. That's when I became addicted to 24, and acutely aware of how much John hates hospitals. He could not stand to see me in a hospital bed, could not wait to get me home.
My OB recommended waiting at least six months after the fibroid surgery to try to get pregnant. During that time, I focused on getting myself in the best shape I could. I had always been an avid exerciser; once I was able after the surgery, I got back in that routine. I had started doing acupuncture before the surgery; I kept up with that. I ate extremely well. I got a lot of sleep. During this time, John continued to do amazingly well overall, with ups and downs to be sure, but steady improvement.
I made an appointment to see an RE five months after my surgery. (If you are curious about which specific doctor I saw, you'll be able to figure it out from the name. One of my children is named for our RE. I loved him that much.) After undergoing all of the requisite testing and such, we did our first IVF cycle in October, and it was successful.
It's at this point that I started blogging. When I look back on those initial posts, I'm surprised at times by the lack of detail. No mention of the numbers in my beta. No mention of the fact that in our initial ultrasound, one of the twins had a very slow heartbeat and our doc thought that it would fall prey to vanishing twin syndrome. Clearly that did not happen, but it looked like a real possibility. Odd that I didn't mention it, but a testament to how deeply I believed that nothing would go wrong in my pregnancy, that the universe owed us, and owed us big time.
I'm well aware that things don't work that way. Life is not some card game of fairness where a bad hand get karmically balanced out by a good one. O! Were it so simple. But for whatever reason, from our first meeting with our RE, I knew with utter certainty that my pregnancy was going to be OK. Call me crazy, call it denial, call it whatever you want: I knew. I knew I would feel good throughout, go full term, and have an uncomplicated delivery. This was a feeling utterly different than the "power of positive thinking" bullshit that John and I battled during his whole illness. I harbor no illusion that I willed my easy pregnancy and delivery into happening via positive thoughts. I took good care of myself, but so do plenty of people who have difficult gestations and births. I was lucky, and I'm telling you: I knew I would be.
Our families knew that we had done IVF, and we told them the results of my beta, shared with them what we saw in the ultrasounds during those early weeks. I also shared some of that with the Internet, not that many people were reading at that time. We waited the standard twelve weeks before we started sharing our news with friends, coworkers, and the like. Most people were thrilled for us, an unmitigated joy and excitement that helped me feel less terrified about the fact that I was going to have two babies and that their dad was going to die sooner rather than later. Some people expressed joy and concern both, their feelings an empathetic reflection of my own.
And then there were the brave few who said what I'm sure a number of people were thinking behind that joy: How could you? How could you make the decision to bring two children into this world who will functionally never know their dad?
There are a lot of issues to respond to when you get into this line of questioning. I found that people who expressed their doubts fell into two broad categories: (1) In your situation I would not have done the same thing, and (2) Kids need two parents.
I can totally understand the people in category (1). I had my doubts along the way, from my initial doubts about wanting kids at all to my doubts about my ability to raise kids as a single parent (those are ongoing). Most of those doubts, if not all of them, are ruled—as always—by fear. And I do not like to be ruled by fear. And I respect that what we did is not what everyone would have done. For some people, the fear that single parenting while grieving would be too overwhelming would have kept them from going ahead. Totally legitimate. For others, they fall into a combo category where they would not have made the decision because they think kids need two parents. I (obviously) disagree, but expressed as "you did what you did, I'd do what I'd do," I respect that. And that's just it. It's largely semantics. We made our decision. It was our decision, no one else's, and not a decision that everyone else would make. I get that.
The people who seem to think that kids need two parents—a mother and a father, to be precise—baffle me. I can see a lot of reasons that having two parents (mom, dad, two moms, two dads . . . whatever, in my book) is good for all parties. I know there are times I'd be a better parent if I had someone to share the ups and downs with, and it's good for the kids to have more than one adult role model in their lives.
But here's the thing: they do. Maddie and Riley—and the children of single parents everywhere—have a huge community of people looking out for them, honorary aunts and uncles and grandparents galore. They are loved by countless multitudes. And they were loved by their dad for as long as he was able to love them.
Which brings me to another point. Some say it's unfair to Maddie and Riley that John and I brought them into this world knowing that they would barely know their father. Unfair? Unfair? I don't see it. Would it have been fair to deprive John of the experience of being a father, an experience he'd always wanted? While we're at it, what about cancer is fair? What about life is fair?
I would love nothing more than for John to be here, with me and Maddie and Riley. I wish that Maddie and Riley could know their father and benefit from his infinite patience, dry wit, and kind heart. But I also know that Maddie and Riley are not doomed to a life of failure for being raised by a single mom, even with all the faults that this single mom has. And I know that being a father brought a purpose and love to John's life that he would not have traded for anything, even as he got sicker and sicker and became so consumed by that love that it started to hurt, and he had to pull away a bit because he had so much love for me and the kids that the idea of losing that love was what was killing him.
I also know that Maddie and Riley know their dad on some level. Last night, as I was making dinner, the kids were in their high chairs, chatting happily. As I rinsed a dish in the sink, my back to them, I heard Maddie say, "Maddie miss Daddy."
"What was that, Love?"
"Maddie miss Daddy."
"Oh, honey, I do too. I miss Daddy a lot. What do you miss about Daddy?"
[pause; gaze out window]
"Birdie eat that corn."
And so works the toddler mind. But it's not the first time she's done something like that. And both kids are often calmed by seeing pictures of John. We talk about him a lot, and some—most, maybe all, eventually—of their memories of their dad will be ones that I've helped them create. Hardly ideal. But worse than not being born? I don't think so.