Parenting With Cancer Taught Me How to Stop Feeling Guilty For Things I Can't Do

I didn't think I could survive being diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant (not to mention the 13-month-old son I had at home), but getting through that year left me with an invaluable perspective on parenting during such a difficult time.

Jenny Leon and family.
The author and her family. Photo: Tara McMullen

I was 33 weeks pregnant with my second child when I got the call. I had a 13-month-old son at home.

"I'm so sorry, Jenny. It is cancer."

The numbness took over and made me forget about everything my life of privilege had previously told me was important. Screen time, organic baby food, and infant music classes were replaced by a single mantra: survival.

I could not hold both my new reality and my existing anxieties together, so I let go of the old—at least temporarily. I did not know it at the time, but I was gaining an invaluable perspective on parenting under duress—something we can all relate to a little more now given what parents have experienced during the pandemic.

This is what I learned from going through a year of having two children under 2 while being treated for breast cancer.

Don't Stress the Little Things

When my first baby was born, I suffered from postpartum anxiety. I worried about everything: SIDS, choking, understimulation, socialization, fragrance-free cleaning products. I constantly felt a paralyzing heaviness; one wrong move and the whole thing would fall apart.

But mortality, entropy, and physical weakness left no room for the mundane worries of obsessing over sterilizing bottles. So I just sterilized them and moved on. Things that used to keep me up at night didn't even occur to me. Occasionally, I would briefly emerge from my stupor just long enough to be grateful that my babies were still OK.

I remember watching my daughter at 6 months old almost poke her eye out with a coat hanger. I seized the hanger from her tiny fist just in time. A near miss. Instead of my usual reaction of heading face first into a tailspin of blame for what could have happened, I just got over it. My reality had been taken over by a completely random, unexpected nightmare. There was no energy left for what ifs. Cancer had me acutely aware that I couldn't babyproof my whole world. But, you know what, we both survived.

Parent Without Shame

Before cancer, I was constantly comparing myself to other mothers. Was she better than me because she liked breastfeeding? How about her, the woman in postnatal yoga who exclusively wore her baby? I couldn't stand baby-wearing. Did that make me a less fit mother? Or my friend who told me she couldn't imagine going back to work and leaving her baby? Why was I OK going back to work?

While other mothers were fretting over nursing bras, I was purchasing a post-mastectomy recovery bra. As other mothers complained about sleepless nights, I was just tired no matter how much I slept. I yearned for the energy to wake up with my baby at night. I wished that I could change diapers. I was too scared of being exposed to germs that might further compromise my already weakened immune system.

Cancer definitely took me off the bell curve of new mothers. The problems of my mom friends were entirely unrelatable. And that gave me the freedom to begin to run my own race.

Love Can be Both Selfish and Selfless

I needed my kids to get through cancer treatment. They were my reason for fighting.

I often felt guilty because I didn't have the energy to do a lot of the grunt work of parenting. I had to rely on others to clean macaroni off high chairs, wrestle children into car seats, and clean up the various bodily waste products.

On the other hand, it was wonderful to just be able to enjoy my children. Being on "sick leave" from many of the responsibilities of parenting enabled me to bask in the unfettered love of my children without the guilt of feeling like I should constantly be performing selfless acts.

Letting go of the self-sacrifice allowed me to appreciate the amazing people that make parenting so hard.

Kids Are Very Forgiving

When my doctor told me that I would have to undergo a double mastectomy three weeks after my daughter was born, I figured she just didn't get it. I tried to explain to her that this was impossible for the parent of a newborn and we'd have to postpone. But she assured me that my life couldn't wait.

I spent a lot of time obsessing over the fact that my daughter wouldn't form a secure attachment to me. What if she hated me because she thought I abandoned her? Even worse, what if I messed her up for life? I hadn't left my son's side for the first six months of his life and even then I felt guilty. How could I possibly do this?

But at age 2, my daughter is securely attached. Mommy is the person whose leg she holds when she goes somewhere new. And when she wakes up from her nap, she screams, "Mommy, I want Mommy."

It was hard to forgive myself for the time I spent away from my kids—no matter how justified or necessary it was. But it was much easier for them to forgive me.

Truth is, I am still recovering from the emotional and physical scars of what up to this point was the hardest year of my life (hopefully, it will stay the hardest year of my life forever). If anyone had told me that I would have to deliver a baby three weeks after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I would have told them I couldn't survive. And that was just the beginning.

But my children seem to have come through this period relatively unscathed. They are happy and healthy. And, so, what more could I ask for?

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