Describe myself before kids? I wanted to see the world. I had just finished a masters program in Oregon. I had always wanted children. It was also a time that was unsure for us. We had just finished graduate school. Mathew had just been accepted to a PhD program. It was a scary time to start a family, but it also seemed the right time. Luckily I was able to find some work, even though I was pregnant. The beginning of our lives as parents was unconventional. It was not like we had the nice house and a baby’s room to decorate.
Part of growing into adulthood was wanting to do some things that were unconventional. We had opted to do a home birth. Clara was born in a barn that was a shared space with my mother-in-law’s ceramics studio and hens and chickens and barn owls and luckily that was a wonderful experience. From day one, we spoke to Clara only in Spanish. Over the course of my adulthood I began to realize how important it was that I knew Spanish. That it opened up other worlds to me, being bilingual, and certainly that connection to my family in Mexico, where I was raised until five, was indisputably important to me. I wanted to instill in her a sense of pride in knowing another language.
Clara was two and half when Ella came along. It was remarkable to me that both girls could grow up in the US and be fluent in Spanish.
My aspirations? Yes, professionally, they shifted. We were trying to piece together a livelihood, living off a graduate student stipend. I knew that I needed to work. I’ve always had that. I reinvented myself, not using my professional training, so I could pull in some income. I remember when Clara was six, I was offered a job in my area of training, but I had to reject it, because childcare was so expensive and I would miss my daughters’ childhood. I felt conflicted, but had to be flexible.
We raised the girls at Stanford in family housing. I had always wanted my own home. I was always reflecting on my childhood, in very modest situations and not having space of my own. It was very difficult. It wasn’t the idea I had for a young family life. Then we were fortunate to get work here. It wasn’t a choice. I would have loved to stay near family, but the idea of having a space of our own and embracing something new brought us here.
When we were living in California and soon after Ella was born, I was struggling with being a parent of two kids and it was overwhelming and exhausting. I was trying to do all the right things, prepare homemade food and look for work. We didn’t have many resources. I started to lose a lot of weight and have night sweats. I was very on edge. I started to think something was not right, but I attributed it to postpartum hormones. I went to my doctor and said this is unusual for me. My doctor had me do testing immediately. I didn’t think there was anything major wrong. The next day she called me at work and said, “I think you have leukemia.” I just remember not comprehending what she was saying. I thought, “There must be some mistake. I’m invincible. I’m healthy.”
Here I had these two kids. One was nine months old and I was still breast-feeding her. I needed to get on a chemotherapy treatment immediately and wean my daughter at the same time. I still—looking back at that—I don’t know how I got through that time. I was so lucky… there was a drug that had just come on the market. It’s a pill that I take daily, still. It was kind of miraculous. Physically, I regained my health in about six months.
It was difficult explaining my condition because people weren’t seeing things like hair loss. The toll for me was emotional.
We’ve now told my daughters… I said, “Girls, I really need to tell you this about me and my life and what happened a few years ago when you were little.” I’ve been reading about parents living with chronic and life-threatening diseases. Basically, living with not knowing is worse than knowing. They were frightened. They didn’t know how long I was going to be around and I didn’t know. I still don’t know. That’s something I have to carry with me.
When you come up with such a challenging medical issue that really puts death into focus like nothing else can, it’s a loss of innocence. Something is taken from you. When my doctor first said, “go get your blood counts,” I didn’t think twice about it. There was this feeling of invincibility… I’m young. I can do anything. The illness for me brought on this loss of that innocence.
I was so grateful that I had the two girls. Without them, I don’t know how I would have gone on. But having to continue to change diapers and take care of them, that kept me going. It gave me such a purpose, to keep hopeful. But emotionally at the same time, I felt such a heavy weight. It’s something that’s always on your mind. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t go into meditation and clean that out. It’s always there. The day to day—learning how to be present. “Let’s learn how to tie your shoes, take the first steps…” that got me through that time.
I used to do a lot of calculations… if I can live to be forty, then the girls will at least be in elementary school… Sometimes I am so grateful for the smallest things. And I don’t think I would have had that if I hadn’t had the illness. Some people say, “oh, that’s such a great thing to have,” but if I had the choice, I would still say, NO. I would be very happy not to have the leukemia. But it’s not a choice. I think with the girls, I do have this kind of foreboding. I assume that at some point, some complication will come up. I’m taking this one medication and that’s all I’ve got. I’ve aged out of the bone marrow transplant option.
It was so draining to tell people. People react so strongly… The other complicating fact was I had been going to some cancer support groups, but they weren’t going through the same things as me. There weren’t other young mothers in the group. The groups were more for tumor-based cancers with physical manifestations of going through treatment. I did get some counseling help in that first year. And it was difficult because here I was with other mothers who were young and healthy. Anything that was about growing old with your children was so hard for me. One of the ways I got through it was to read these horrifying stories. I was reading about Liberia and mothers and children being taken from them and being hacked to death. Horrible stories, so that I could say, at least I’ve got this. That psychologically somehow was helpful.
I do worry about the toll of my disease on my daughters. I haven’t really asked them, how does this affect you? I guess I’ve been more concerned about having life flow normally. I suspect they might be keeping that from me as a way to protect me. Because it forces them to have a little of a different relationship with a mother who might die, they might be keeping things from me. I know my youngest daughter is always very good about making sure I take my pill. It’s real for her.
How has motherhood changed me? I think I’m so much more tolerant. Tolerance comes from giving up some of your wishes and opportunities. Realizing how complex relationships are by watching your children go through life. I’m also more forgiving. We aspire to be the perfect parents. Forgive yourself that you can’t be perfect.
The main difference I notice between being a mother here versus in Mexico is how independent families are here. I can do this myself. It creates this isolation. In other countries, there are at least three generations living close by if not under the same roof. You are just able to unload a lot more. Here, we hold onto everything. I’ve seen, in myself included, you want to have this outside persona, that you are invincible. You can work and do all of it. It can be really harmful, because there’s so much to share—how to cope, how to do things efficiently and get the sleep you need.