Cancer taught me you don’t need to be a perfect mom

By Jenny Leon

It was only a dress. I reminded myself. I began fantasizing in the fall about the huge first birthday party I would throw in my daughter’s honor the spring after my treatment was over. I had seen the perfect dress in Anthropologie earlier in the summer. I didn’t know what size I’d be by next spring, but I knew I needed to have that dress. From my bed, where I couldn’t do much else besides online shop, I hunted endlessly until I finally found it on eBay. I estimated a size that was optimistic, but not unrealistic. Now all I needed was to get through cancer and find the right pair of shoes.

*

On May 3, 2019, my daughter was born following my breast cancer diagnosis four weeks earlier. As our labor and delivery nurse held back tears (and not the happy kind), I could feel the weight of the sadness in the atmosphere hanging over my daughter’s birth like an approaching storm. Like the perfect shirt purchased in the wrong season, I just wanted to return her for now and buy her again later when I would be able to enjoy her.

Whether it was a baby, a crush or a new pair of shoes, it had always been my tendency to fall in love hard and fast. Before my diagnosis, I had dreamed of an oxytocin rush so great that I would stare at her little face in a blissful state that whole first night, unable to fall asleep. Instead, I opted to let the nurses take her away to the nursery when she cried in the middle of night, a decision I never could have foreseen.

I couldn’t allow myself to fall in love with her. I was numb, focusing all my efforts on putting one step in front of the other to ensure we both survived. Or perhaps the truth was I feared that I was not going to survive. I made a pact with myself that I would not fall in love until I was done with breast cancer. Only 10 more months, I thought.

*

The day after I gave birth, the hospital deployed a social worker to my room, seemingly to check for signs of postpartum depression. She asked me if I felt sad.

“I was just diagnosed with cancer, so, yeah, I’m pretty sad.”

“Yes, but do you think you are experiencing sadness related to your ability to bond with your infant?”

“No, I think I feel sad because I have cancer.” 

*

Upon coming home, my sadness only increased. At night, I would lie awake listening to her cries, as someone else tended to her. It felt like my heart was a million miles away, as she called me with her siren song. When I fed her a bottle, I would pull her closer to my breast to try to replicate the intimacy of nursing, but it just made me feel worse.

Cancer treatment relentlessly compounded the distance between my baby and me. Undergoing a double mastectomy meant that I couldn’t carry my daughter while I recovered, even though she weighed less than seven pounds. My toddler repeatedly got the baby sick so, being immunocompromised, I often had to wear a mask around her. I was told to try not to kiss her and to refuse if she generously offered me some mushy slop from her high chair. I was warned against going to the pediatrician with her, but I didn’t listen.

Eventually, I could feel myself pulling away in order to guard myself from any further heartbreak. Having already had a child, I knew the transcendent thrill of falling in love with a baby and I knew it didn’t truly envelope you unless you let yourself give into the mess. The sweat and grunt work of sacrificing your body, your mind and your sanity to this tiny being gives you a corporeal knowledge of her every move. You recognize that you are the only person in the world who can truly meet her needs. Knowing I wasn’t up for this work, I hid from my baby, my shame and my guilt.

Some days I would find myself wishing for a “do-over” baby, compiling a list of names for this future baby that would exist in my perfect post-cancer future, while failing to see the beautiful baby I had right in front of me. I figured I had already blown it with her.

But other days it was too hard not to give into the feelings that I was developing for my baby. One night as I wearily climbed into bed, my husband burst out in a cheshire cat grin, “It was nice to see you so happy with Lyla today. I hadn’t seen you like that with her before.”

“What do you mean?” I said defensively. “Are you saying I don’t love Lyla as much as I love our son?”

“No, I just think that since she was born, you’ve had a lot on your mind and you’ve been very tired. I’d forgotten how enthralled you were with Miles when he was her age.”

Another evening, my husband once again pointed out (more carefully this time, so he wouldn’t get snapped at again) that I had started singing my daughter the lullaby that I used to hum to my pregnant belly before I found out about the cancer:

Baby mine, don’t you cry

Baby mine, dry your eyes

Rest your head close to my heart

Never to part

Baby of mine

Of course, this is the song that Dumbo’s mother sings to Dumbo when he comes to visit her after she has been locked away for trying to protect him. It is a song about visceral maternal love.

By the look on my husband’s face, it was clear that he saw something that I would not allow myself to see. That song revealed that I had already fallen in love with Lyla.

While I waited for the clock to run out on my treatment, my daughter transformed from a little lump who was content to let anyone hold her to an engaging infant with her own personality. It turns out she hadn’t written me off. I secretly rejoiced every time she protested when someone tried to take her out of my arms. One of her first words was ‘mama’ (after dada, of course) and she appears to have taken on my love of eating and my preference for a sedentary lifestyle.

The pandemic kiboshed the epic party I was planning for her first birthday and the dreams of our perfect future that my dress represented. But it turns out I didn’t need a dress or a party to show her how much I loved her. She had known all along, even if I didn’t.

Jenny Leon practiced corporate finance for six years at several major midtown Manhattan law firms. She has finished treatment for breast cancer and is now hiding out from the pandemic in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband and two babies. She can be found on instagram @jennyrosenyc.

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