how i got this baby

The Mom Who Thought She Was Finally Pregnant

Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

Barbara and her husband spent a lot of time discussing the idea of having a baby — whether parenthood would encroach on her work, what might be difficult, how they could be the kinds of parents they wanted to be. She felt relieved, in a sense, once they started trying; finally, all the back-and-forth had ended. After the couple had tried for some time, they went on vacation, only for Barbara to return feeling ill. What she thought must be pregnancy turned out to be something else entirely. She discusses her cancer diagnosis, her fertility concerns, what she learned about adoption, and how it felt to hold her son for the first time.

On discussion giving way to hope.
I always pictured having a family. When I was in my 20s, I was less dead-set on it — I was focused on my own career, my own life. I was concerned that writing and motherhood wouldn’t always go hand-in-hand. But once I was in my 30s, I wanted to have a child.

My husband and I started talking about it, trying to imagine all the things that could go wrong and how to prepare for them. But of course, that’s not really possible; we’re both just a little neurotic, so that’s the way we think. We also felt very committed to figuring out what kinds of parents we wanted to be, to perhaps avoid some of the mistakes of previous generations.

When I was around 32, and my husband was about 39, we decided, Okay. We’re going to give this a try. We’d spent so much time hemming and hawing and discussing — it was nice to give all that up and be hopeful about becoming parents.

On thinking she must be pregnant.
We tried for a while, assuming that it would happen eventually. Every month, I’d think, I’m pregnant! And I wouldn’t be. As time went on, I did become increasingly anxious. But I don’t remember thinking it wouldn’t happen. I just assumed it would.

We’d gone on vacation, and I came back not feeling very well at all, but I figured it was some kind of virus. I was teaching at the time, high-school English, and I really had a hard time at work. I couldn’t think. I was dizzy. I thought, This is it — I must be pregnant.

I went to the school nurse, and she took my temperature. I had a fever and felt so strange. My friend took me to the doctor and they did a pregnancy test, which came back negative. I just didn’t believe them.

The next morning, the doctor called and said my platelet count was extremely high, that I needed to go to the emergency room right then. I could be having an aneurysm; I could have had meningitis.

In the emergency room, they tested for what seemed like a million things, which all turned out to be negative. Then, several doctors surrounded me, and they all agreed: They thought I had a form of leukemia. Which I was totally shocked by, of course. Part of me was still like, No, that can’t be true. I must be pregnant.

On a big change of plans.
I was admitted to the hospital, which is a time I don’t remember very well. I slept for most of it. I had a bone-marrow biopsy, which I do remember because it was so painful. They told me it would be like going to the dentist. It was nothing like going to the dentist.

We were told I’d need to be in treatment, on medication, for a few years. And then, if my doctor thought it was safe, I could go off the medication and have a baby. If the leukemia came back while I was pregnant, it most likely wouldn’t spiral out of control and I could just go back on after I had the baby. So I assumed, if I survived, that’s what I would do.

I just couldn’t believe that I was sick, that I was growing excess cells instead of a baby. It’s strange to grow death when you think you’re growing life.

On a new set of stakes.
The drug I was on is a miracle drug; before this, your chances of surviving this kind of cancer were very low. I had some side effects: terrible headaches and stomach pains, and I had to be checked every week. Eventually, the drug began to work, and my platelet count went down. About six months after, I had to decide whether to return to work — I could be on leave for a year, my job would be secure and I’d still have health insurance. I decided to stay on leave. I thought, You know, maybe this is the time to just heal. I’d been working on a book, and I figured that I could do that, when I felt up to it.

We knew that until I was in molecular remission, and that I’d been in it for a while, there was no way we could talk about children. That happened about one year in. Molecular remission means that, even with the most sensitive tests, the cancer is undetectable. About half the people who go off the drug after molecular remission relapse.

We were trying to decide whether we should try to get pregnant once I could go off the drug, or whether we should adopt. The drug is a danger to a fetus; you absolutely cannot be pregnant while taking it. My husband was already in his 40s, so we felt a little bit of time pressure. We eventually decided we needed to wait — it just felt too scary, to potentially have to make a decision about my health or a baby’s health, if the cancer did come back. After everything we’d been through, I couldn’t stand to think about that.

On pursuing adoption.
A friend of mine, who I met through Imerman Angels, an organization who pairs people with the same kind of cancer, had decided to adopt. She couldn’t speak highly enough of the agency she used. I did some research and thought, Yes. Let’s do this.

I think I move a little faster on things than my husband does. He wanted to be very cautious, to not make a decision too quickly. But after about two and a half years of me being in remission, his feelings started to shift a bit, and he was like, Yes, it’s time.

We joke that when we clicked “send” on the initial deposit to the agency, it was like the moment of conception — there was no going back, we were going to have a child at some point.

I did have to wrestle with the idea of not conceiving biologically and mourn that loss. It’s hard to imagine what adoption will be like — I mean, it’s hard enough to imagine having a biological child. What would he or she be like? What would the birth family be like?

For me, I never really had a great desire to be pregnant. I know some people really enjoy pregnancy, but it was something I knew my body wouldn’t be able to handle very well. Especially after I got sick.

On learning about adoption.
Once we went down that path, we needed learn about the adoption process and how best to speak about our experience. For example, you don’t say “real parent,” you say, “biological parent.” You don’t say a woman “gave up her child”; you say, “She made an adoption plan.” Because she does. She makes this plan out of love and incredible strength.

We went up to the agency and participated in two days’ worth of classes with other families, who were in all different situations — couples with fertility issues, gay couples, couples who were older. We talked a lot about open adoption and how to prepare. We learned that there are different levels of open, and that so much would depend on the family we were matched with.

In choosing open adoption, I had really tried to put myself in the mind of a baby who’d come from a birth family and is adopted. I really thought of what that child might want to know when he got older — and what the research says. The research clearly shows that open adoption is better, psychologically.

Our next step was to make a book telling the story of our lives. We didn’t have to include anything about cancer in the book — as long as you have a note from your doctor, you don’t have to disclose that. I spent forever making this book. We handed it over to the agency, who sends the book over to a birth mother whenever there’s a potential match. We were prepared to wait for a long time, or to get our hopes up and be disappointed.

On making decisions.
Around Christmas that year, we went on a long vacation. When we were returned, we finally checked our messages: The agency wanted to know if they could give our book to an interested birth mother. We didn’t have to think twice about it; we said yes. They told us we’d find out in a few weeks. I was out of my mind with excitement and nerves.

Shortly after New Year’s, we found out that the birth mother had chosen us.

We didn’t know very much about her at all. We knew that she had three children, one of whom had leukemia and was very sick, which was one reason she made an adoption plan.

After we were matched, it was time to decide how open the adoption would be. The birth mother decided she wanted to talk to us on the phone. Unwittingly, we made the decision to have a very open adoption — we called her up without blocking our phone number, which is something that most adoptive parents do. The conversation went well, really well. We felt immediately connected to her; we could tell she had a very kind spirit. She explained the reasons she chose us from our book — she writes poetry, and so do I. She thought that we seemed down-to-earth and liked that we came from a family of teachers.

I had gone back to work by then, so I had to decide what to do about my job. I decided I couldn’t wait until the due date to go on leave, which was also hard — because there was still a chance it might not work out. I had about a month at home beforehand — I set up the nursery, I read every single book I could about babies and adoption. It seemed like many of my friends had babies who didn’t sleep well, and that was a concern for me — I still need a lot of sleep to maintain my health. I was worried that as soon as I was a mom, I’d get sick again from not having enough rest. So I became pretty hyperfocused on researching infant sleep.

On meeting her son.
We met the birth mother for the first time after she’d been induced and given an epidural. She said we could come on in, and there she was, in the stirrups. Talk about being in the most vulnerable position — I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine doing that. She’s just an amazing person.

That’s when I did tell her that about leukemia, in the context of her son also having leukemia. It was just so bizarre that she chose us without knowing. She didn’t seem concerned at all. I think she knew that I was fine. Or maybe she was thinking about how she was about to give birth. It was kind of a non-event, especially after I’d built it up in my head so much.

We left the room when she went into labor, and 15 minutes later, our son was born.

I didn’t know how I would feel. I was worried I’d feel like I was taking away someone else’s baby. But as soon as I held him, I thought, This is my baby. I couldn’t believe how instantaneous it was — we knew that he was meant to be our son.

He had to stay in the hospital for two days. His birth mother was wonderful — she introduced us to the nurses as his parents and insisted we know what was going on. We met her kids, her partner, even some of her extended family. It was miraculous, really, how well everyone got along.

On settling into parenthood.
When our son was a week old, we took him home. We were so excited. We just couldn’t believe we were his parents — it was such a happy time. Everything he did, we just sat in awe, watching.

We’ve thought about having another child, but we’re pretty sure we won’t. I see women with two kids and I think, How do they do it? It seems so hard. Plus, we got very lucky with the adoption process this time — that might not happen for us again. Adopting a child also means starting a lifelong relationship with another birth family, which is something else to consider.

Our friends joke that we would never have been able to make a baby this cute — my husband and I have dark hair and dark eyes, and our son is blond with blue eyes. He looks like a cherub. We feel so lucky to have this particular child. He’s just such a gift, such a blessing.

The Mom Who Thought She Was Finally Pregnant