How I Beat Cancer, Showed Infertility the Door, and Became a Mom

Reflections on my journey with surrogacy and finding my own Mushy Mom Gene - in the eyes of my son

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Illustration by Claire Ward (@clairewardillustration)
Illustration by Claire Ward (@clairewardillustration)

I believe some women are born with something called the Mushy Mom Gene.

This special gene shows itself early in little girls who are motherly from a young age. They play with dolls, start babysitting at nine years old, and take care of their siblings. As they get older they smile and wave at babies in the grocery store, and feel pangs of jealousy when a friend announces she’s pregnant.

I was not born with the Mushy Mom Gene.

This became immediately apparent when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, about 8 months shy of my wedding. I was 30 years old, living in a cute row house in South Boston with my fiancé, and had recently been promoted at my ad agency.

When my doctor called to tell me my diagnosis, I heard words like “prognosis”, “carcinoma in situ” and “stages 1 and 2”. My immediate thoughts (and those of my now-husband) were to do whatever it takes to remove the cancer. “Just get it out of me,” I told Dr. Feltmate. Preserving my fertility never crossed my mind. I was only 30 after all, not even married, and I just wanted to live to see my wedding day. No Mushy Mom Gene here!

My gynecological oncologist, however, was thinking about my future fertility. My ovaries were not affected by the cancer, so she was able to move them and “pin them up”, out of reach of any area that would ever be affected by radiology, should I need it. (Thankfully, I didn’t.)

My surgery was rather invasive, and rendered me out of work and couch-bound on short-term disability for 2 months. But I came out on the other end cancer-free, and ready to marry the man who stood by his future wife, knowing that having kids – should we decide to – would not only not be easy, but might not be possible.

Four years into our wonderful marriage, we started talking about becoming parents to more than our dog. Being only children, my husband and I are both very close with our own parents. We shared our thoughts on starting a family, telling them we were looking into surrogacy, and that the road would not be easy (or cheap), but we were willing to try, and that we may need their help financially. Their eyes glazed over a bit, and we’re pretty sure all they heard was, “Grandchildren! Grandchildren! Grandchildren!”

We didn’t tell anyone besides our immediate family and very close friends that we were thinking about becoming parents. We were nervous of “jinxing” our chances at success if people knew what we were doing. Also, if things didn’t work out for us, there would be fewer people with whom we had to share our failures.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, we lived and worked in Boston; we were now at new jobs in Connecticut, and no one knew I was a cancer survivor, or what I had gone through.

No one knew I was facing infertility.

I was working in a fast-paced, high-stress marketing agency. I went to work every day after attending my early morning doctor appointments at the fertility clinic, bandaids from my blood draws hidden under long sleeves. I quietly removed myself from meetings to take phone calls from the clinic about my next medication protocol.

One afternoon at work, I was leading a presentation to our clients over the phone. I was halfway through our first campaign when my phone silently lit up in my lap, the caller ID announcing the fertility clinic. We were waiting to hear if our surrogate was pregnant, after having endured multiple failed transfers. I held up my phone to my coworker and mouthed, “I have to take this” and just walked out of the room, mid-presentation, her wide eyes staring at me as the door closed behind me. I couldn’t believe I did that – just up and left in the middle of a presentation. But I needed to take this call. At that moment, answering that phone was the only thing I needed to do.

The call lasted less than a minute. I knew by the nurse’s dejected tone when she said, “Hi, Kristin,” that our transfer had failed. I was emotionally gutted. But, I was at work, in the middle of a big presentation. So I took a deep breath, pocketed my phone, and re-entered the conference room, fake smile in place. “Sorry about that, where was I?” I asked, picking up right where I had left off, as if the news I received on the phone was anything but devastating.

For over five years, my husband and I endured challenges growing our family. Even when we didn’t think we had anything left – emotionally and financially – we kept on going. In a last ditch effort we switched fertility clinics and were matched with a new surrogate. We were pregnant within 5 months.

There are no words to describe the day we finally became parents to our little boy. As I looked at his squishy little face and held him tightly against my chest, all of the disappointments of the last 5 years just melted away. I knew we had endured all of that so that we could get to THIS moment, with THIS boy, who was meant to be ours.

Illustration by Claire Ward (@clairewardillustration)

One of the biggest revelations of our surrogacy journey was how people reacted when they heard the news. Because no one knew I had been diagnosed with cancer years earlier (and we hadn’t shared our surrogacy journey outside of family and friends) when we announced we were having a baby in a few short months – it came as a shock to most people.

“I thought you never wanted to have kids,” one coworker said to me when I told her that we were expecting a baby. “You never really talked about kids and babies.”

Another said, “You’re going to have a baby? But you guys have such a great life! You can go out all the time and go on vacation whenever you want!”

I’m willing to bet if you ask anyone who is trying to grow her family if she’d rather have a baby or 10 days in an overwater bungalow in Bali, she’d choose the baby.

When someone said something to me that was hurtful or insensitive – whether or not they meant it – I tried to make a joke or shrug it off. But the damage had been done. I didn’t talk about babies because I wasn’t able to have one, not because I didn’t want one.

Having gone through infertility and surrogacy, and now that I am lucky enough to work for Circle Surrogacy, the agency who helped us have our beautiful son, I am more sensitive than ever to other people’s situations. Infertility is sneaky, and invisible. You never know who is going through tough times starting or growing their families.

If I could go back and give advice to anyone who said something hurtful without even realizing it, this is what I’d tell them:

  1. Never assume. Just because someone doesn’t have kids by a certain age, doesn’t mean they don’t want them. Also, people who don’t gush over toddlers in public (read: Mushy Mom Gene!) do not necessarily prefer Bali over babies.
  2. Try on a pair of infertility shoes. Imagine you were struggling to have a family. With that in mind, think before you speak. Don’t pose questions you wouldn’t want to be asked. Or make statements you wouldn’t want to be aimed at you.
  3. Be a silent superhero. If you’re ever in a situation where someone is being asked questions, or is receiving comments about why they haven’t had kids, come to their rescue – even if you don’t know their story. Jump into the conversation. Change the subject. Redirect the topic to yourself. Without even knowing it, you may make someone’s day a little brighter with this small act.

The birth of our son meant so much more than starting a family. His arrival proved that we could survive and endure anything together. And, as someone who was not born with the Mushy Mom Gene, I can confidently say that it uncovered itself in me the day our son was born.

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