What Not To Say To Your Friend Expecting a Baby (Or Babies!) After Cancer Via Surrogacy

So you have a friend who is expecting a baby via surrogacy. Probably she didn’t know how to tell you, because her belly isn’t ballooning. Probably she worried about what you would say, because what are you supposed to say? Probably you worried about what to say, because what are you supposed to say? Probably you are so used to a narrative that goes something like, “friend gets pregnant, friend’s belly grows, other friend throws shower for friend with basket ball belly, baby emerges from friend’s vagina and isn’t super cute at first but everyone coos anyway and eventually baby gets cute and so you kiss it and finally agree with friend that their baby is cute.”

Probably then, you’ve never been given a road map for my scenario, which is more like: “friend gets married and is about to go off birth control, friend gets cancer and wails about not being able to get pregnant and grills her oncologist who has no answers at every appointment, friend gets well and her hair grows back, friend finds a surrogate and the surrogate gets pregnant with friends’ embryos, and soon enough, friends’ babies will emerge from the surrogates’ vagina.” That is my reality. Though I know you didn’t mean to sound so insensitive, here’s a re-cap of your worst blunders, and your best saves, because you don’t know what to say. As the person expecting babies from a surrogate, I have a few ideas about what I wish you said, and about why it felt so horrendous when you said something else. And so, I’m sharing. Sharing as a window into what it feels like when you comment on my pregnancy via surrogacy, as a window unto what I wish you could say, as a window unto what I, the woman expecting babies via surrogacy, needs from you, my friends.   So, what not to say….

The “But You’re So Lucky” Comment

What Not To Say: “Oh but Chels, my pregnancy sucks/sucked. It was/is so terrible. You’re so lucky to get babies without having to go through this. I mean really, I hate feeling like this. You’re not missing out on anything.” 

Why not to say it: Please, please, please, narrate your own experience. When you begin to tell me how I should feel, I don’t feel the way you think I should- instead, I feel invisible. I will listen to the end of time about how totally sucky your pregnancy was and about how you hated every second and spent no seconds in that weird elusive glowey state, and I promise to correct myself if I start telling you what you should feel like. In return, please listen (preferably also to the end of time) about how totally sucky it is to have someone else (albeit an awesome someone else) have my pregnancy for me. I think we can all agree that, hating your pregnancy is quite a few steps away from giving your embryonic child to someone else to grow in their uterus, especially when you are doing it because you had CANCER and having your own offspring in your own body might leave your children motherless. Less comparing. More listening. After all, if I could wish one thing, I would wish I would not have ever had cancer, which would- in my mind-have a domino effect that would result in my being pregnant without worrying that the rising estrogen levels that accompany pregnancy could kill me. Seriously. We are talking life and death, not life with morning sickness and acne. Don’t compare. Period.

What to say instead: Less comparing. More listening. Comparing is, after all, useless. (Unless you are in the subset of women identified women who had breast cancer in their 20s or 30s and before they had all the babies they wanted, and then you can compare our experiences to your hearts’ desire and I will indulge your comparisons and cry and laugh with you). More asking about ultra sound pictures. More asking “So what is it like?” More asking “So how did you find the surrogate?” More asking “Do you have ultra sound pics?” The kink here, is that when you are willing to ask questions, you must be generously willing to listen. Listening with a wide open heart, with wide open ears, with wide open hope, with wide open not-knowing.

The “Is it responsible to have babies after cancer?” Comment 

What not to say: So, do you think this is really responsible, having babies when you’ve had a life-threatening disease? Having babies when doctors tell you there is a 70% chance you’ll be alive in five years? Having babies when you only have one tit? Having babies when you don’t have a magic 8 ball that can read the future?

Why not to say it: When you see a pregnant woman walking down the street, or ordering tea in a coffee shop, or attending graduate classes, do you quiz them about whether they were ready to have a baby? No. It’s not socially acceptable. If you do quiz them, your social skills are quite poor and definitely not advanced. Between me, my partner, and my surrogate, we are cared for by multiple physicians, oncologists, midwives, primary care docs, OBs, fertility specialists, naturopaths, and acupuncturists.When we discuss, with each other, what is appropriate, we draw on our many, many doctors. If you’re not on our care team, and you’re not married to us, and you’re not us, then get the fuck out of our decision making process. Didn’t, after all, women wage a war to have the right to decide about our reproductive futures oh….. decades ago? (Yes, I know we who think women should make their own decisions about their own bodies are under political siege in many places). Basically, unless you are one of the four people who have opinions that matter (including: me, my partner, our surrogate, her partner) or unless you are my oncologist who specializes in young women with breast cancer and fertility issues, then you clearly don’t have enough information about the whole situation to even weigh in. So get out.

What to say instead: This must have been a hard decision- wanna tell me about it? Wow, I never thought about cancer before I had kids- what’s that like? How did cancer change having babies for you? Basically, anything that doesn’t involve your judgement about my situation (unless you’ve been in my exact situation, in which case, let’s have a beer and talk all night long).

The “How much are you paying her?” Comment 

What Not To Say: Oh, so you must be paying her buckets of money. Is your surrogate getting rich off this? She’s doing it for the money, for sure.

Why Not To Say It: Lending your uterus to grow someone else’s babies is an act of utter selflessness. Yes, our surrogate receives what you might call “generous” reimbursement (and that would be your perception, not mine). No, it is not enough. It’s her body. Her body. HER. BODY. Sure, we’re paying her. Wouldn’t you, if you were commanding someone else’s body to grow two babies? Is it enough? No. How could we possibly put a value on her body, or our babies, or the way our babies need her body? And um, if being a surrogate were so  fiscally fruitful, why don’t you go be a surrogate? Do you see people lined up to offer their bodies to grow someone else’s baby? No. You have to be a really extraordinarily exceptional individual with a particular orientation to life, relationships, pregnancy, babies, and the world to even consider doing this. Also, dude, financial shit is personal. No, we are not filthy rich, and no, we don’t have trust funds. Yes, our families are pitching in. Yes, I feel like we are hemorrhaging money but I think it’s worth it (plus, kids last longer than most things you spend this much money on, like cars). Unless you are the kind of friend to whom I disclose my salary, how much my new pair of shoes cost, what I spent on the most recent vacation, and how many more thousands I owe in student loans, back the fuck off. If we don’t already talk financials, this situation seeming weird to you doesn’t give you a pass on being polite and respectful and staying out of my bank account.

What to say instead: I’m so impressed you made this work- is there anything I can do to help? I’d love to send your surrogate a card telling her how incredible it is to watch her doing this for you- can I have her address? I can imagine that this kind of thing would create totally undue financial stress on young(er) adults who have had cancer, and I think that its SO UNFAIR that you could survive cancer and then have to pay tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars just to have a baby. Can you suggest anywhere I can donate to help other young(er) adults create families through surrogacy, like you? (This would mean the most to me, out of anything you could possibly do or say.)

The “Is she going to steal your babies?” Comment

What Not To Say: But do you worry she’ll be attached to the baby more than you? But are you afraid she’ll steal your baby?

Why Not To Say It: Pray tell, do you actually think we would have chosen a surrogate who we thought who abscond with our babies? She has her own brood of beautiful children, and do you think she would have chosen to be a surrogate in order to steal a baby? There are much easier ways to kidnap a child. Of course I worry about attachment, and of course she and I talk about how to make sure the babies are attached to me as their mother, not her, and of course she has all kinds of ideas about how to facilitate my attachment. Also, like a whole mini forest of trees has died so that our legal teams could write down in totally dense language an agreement that we all signed about this whole scenario, months ago. And you know it must be really intense if you’ve got a (post) post structural feminist calling language dense. I mean, really. And finally, when you say this, you make me feel like I would have chosen just anyone to carry these babies- like I didn’t put in HOURS/DAYS/WEEKS/HELLA TIME thinking about who would do this, picking this one particular person, like I just picked some rando off the street. Do you think I would entrust my babies to just anyone? To some rando on the street? Is that really the kind of person you think I am? (If so, we probably shouldn’t be friends).

What to say instead: So do you feel close with your surrogate? (yes) Do you want to keep in touch with her after the babies are born? (gawd yes, plus she knows all the things about babies so I suspect I will be asking for advice) Why do you think she wanted to be a surrogate? Why did you pick her? What do you love about her? How do you stay in touch with her? And then shut up and listen

The “Because you don’t want to risk it” Comment 

What Not To Say: Ah, the all knowing comment. You are the one who thinks you “get it.” Trust me, unless you are one of those young/er adults meeting up for dinner and swapping stories of scans, MRIs, port scars, chemo constipation, whether your pubic hair fell out first or last, how many hot flashes make cancer-menopause actually menopause, and the like before the Young Adult Cancer Network (YACN) support group, you don’t get it. I get that you’ve heard me say how I decided to have a surrogate because I didn’t want to risk it, but you don’t get to appropriate that and say that you get that I don’t want to risk it, or even that you think it’s good that I’m not risking it. I don’t want you to say it, either, because I don’t want you to get a card that allows you into YACN, and I don’t want you to have cancer. And I did have cancer, and I need you to get that sometimes I need to say things you can’t get, and sometimes I need to be with people who get it like you can’t.

Why Not to Say It: To me, this comment is all about you trying to pretend like you get it. And you don’t. There’s no way you can grasp the kind of risk involved in waking up and breathing every day, after a doctor has given you any percent less than 100% of being alive at some point in the future. And I don’t want you to. And I feel silly for being so full of emotion when you pretend to get something from outside of the experience, which is dumb and not how you are trying to make me feel. You are trying to be supportive. So instead….

What To Say Instead: Gawd, this is fucked. It sounds like you’ve made some complicated decisions. Wanna tell me about it? Oh, and also, I’m so over the moon excited to eat you babies’ toes, regardless of what uterus they are born from.

But you know what? You might fuck it up anyway. You might say the wrong thing. Lots of people have. And you know, it doesn’t matter much- AS LONG AS THEY OWN IT. I have two friends in particular that I’ve learned so much from about this. Both of these friends are total rockstars at saying that a) they care b) they don’t know what to say and c) they might mess up. What makes them such rockstars is their fearlessness. They are totally fearless, even in the face of really crazy cancer shit, really pissed off cancer patients, and really hard cancer truths. And sometimes they fuck up, and then they say, “Oh man, I think it hurt when I said X, and I am sorry, and can we talk about it?” And we do, and it doesn’t matter what they said, because we’re friends and we love each other and we all fuck up sometimes.

So do that. Fuck up, own it, and keep loving.

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A Year Ago, Today

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A year ago today, they slashed my left tit. In fact, they threw it out with hospital trash. And then a cancer friend sent me an article about how California homes were being heated and air conditioned with energy from burning, smouldering, hospital trash. My left tit was hospital trash.

But today, you wouldn’t even know that in that spot where my left tit once was, there is a beautifully crafted fake tit. The scars are practically invisible. You might not know because my plastic surgeon is an artist. An artist who makes plastic tits that hide the cancer scars.

I feel good now. I can run and jump and lift my arms above my head. I can travel and sleep on my belly with one arm crooked to the side to relieve a tiny bit of pressure from the left side. I feel good, and I am healthy.

And yet, I am changed. I look into the eyes of my cancer friends, and I know they know, what its like in here, in this space of “I’m OK” that emerges sometimes from cancer, this space that is so coveted, and so confusing, and hopefully, forever.Mostly though, it doesn’t feel like much. Just another day, with a fake tit and the knowledge about how chemotherapy feels, tucked away in my brain next to information about how to make oatmeal pancakes and how to wrap the corners of a Christmas present. 

So today, I posted on Facebook. Before, I thought Facebook wasn’t the place for cancer, wasn’t the place for telling, wasn’t the place for amputated tits and bald heads and fertility catastrophes. Except I was wrong. Now I could care less what the people of facebook think, especially if they think it is “over sharing.” Because of Facebook, I connected with Devon and Jessica and Tiffany. Because of social networking, I know Catherine and Ashley and MaryAnne and Kristina. Though I would never ever call myself a survivor*, I survived because of, and with these other young people I found in cancer land. I repeat: I would not be able to survive without my cancer tribe. Because of cancer in these public spaces, I count myself part of what feels like an underground network of young people with cancer. An underground network built by lady muscles. An underground network, where Jessica says to me exactly what I said to Catherine, where I sat to Devon what MaryAnne said to me, where the stories are familiar and the ache known, the tentative celebration understood. So today, I posted on Facebook. If even one person sees that post, and knows they can come to me because it happened to them, that is enough. That alone, is reason enough to be public.

A year ago today, I started the day off with two tits, and I woke up from anaesthetic with only one tit left. A year ago today, someone scrawled across my chart, no evidence of disease. I haven’t a clue what the world holds, how the future will unfold, or what will come next. But I do know that me and my fake tit are out to live with all the life we got, with all the fire we feel, with all the love we know. And to me, that’s public and real and known. And it’s honest and true, and it feels good to say so. 

So. A year ago today, they slashed my left tit. I called it an amputation, they called it a mastectomy. I didn’t learn jack shit from having cancer. But I did learn from the people who showed up for the hard times again and again, how to love. They showed me how to love, by loving me. And so it goes. Cancer here, there, everywhere.

Stop saying I am a fighter. Stop saying I won a battle. Start a fight against toxins. Win a battle against capitalism. That is what I need.

A year ago today, they slashed my left tit. I can barely recognize the picture I took of myself that day, after I sent everyone home from the hospital. How odd, to know I have been to myself, so wildly unfamiliar. It is time now, to follow the heart. To know the world from a body that feels good, and healthy, and strong, and dare I say, hopeful. Hopeful, a sensation I forgot when I had cancer. Hopeful, it is back.

Onward.