March 8, 2011

In Which SuperMommy Explains A Few Neuroses

DD the Dinosaur in Attack Mode
When my family is out and about, people tend to ask if my children are twins.  Of course, being a harried, busy, flustered person (aka: a mother of twins) I have to choke back the impulse to say something snarky like, “Wait- there’s two?  When did that happen?” or “I collect toddlers.  I’ve almost got the whole set.”  Instead I smile and nod, and grab for whichever one has just run off to create havoc out of sight.  One of the next questions people always ask, and it’s a frankly personal question, is if my husband and I used fertility treatments. 

The answer is yes, but I don’t like giving it.  I generally don’t like thinking about WHY we had our twins.  Isn’t it enough that they’re here, and healthy, and happy? But yes, we used in-vitro fertilization.  We did this because my husband spent a year on chemotherapy.

The day after we got engaged, my husband suffered a gran mal seizure at a company softball game.  Within 24 hours of saying, “Of course I’ll marry you,” I found myself holding his hand while a team of medical students and doctors told him that he had several masses in his brain.  A week later, he was through brain surgery, diagnosed with stage 2 and 4 astrocytoma tumors, given a dismal prognosis, and began preparing for chemotherapy and radiation.

SI the Musical Dinosaur
It was during the next few days that he started banking sperm.  It was a weird time for us.  Here we were- newly engaged- and suddenly in the position of trying to decide how much semen we might need, who would be our fertility doctors, what legal documents we had to sign to determine who, in the event of a catastrophe, would own the remaining samples.  We still hadn’t even talked about setting a date.

And that’s what comes to mind when people ask me if we used fertility treatments.  I don’t think about the unpleasantness of the daily injections, or the constant blood draws, or that one HORRIBLE saline ultrasound I thought was going to kill me.  I don’t think about the giddiness when we found out how many viable embryos we had, or the excitement after implantation, or the milestone of moving from our fertility center to a normal OB… no, it’s all about the brain cancer.

And I’m afraid to say, I think about it in regards to my twins all too often without strangers reminding me.  Through the whole of the banking and fertility preservation process, I kept asking different doctors, “Is brain cancer genetic?  Is this going to be passed along to our children?”  Everyone had the same answer.  “I really don’t think so.”  At that point, it was good enough for me.  It was good enough for my husband.  It seemed like a fine level of certainty just until the girls were born. 

We had rearranged our lives around our desire to have children.  When my husband’s experimental treatment saved his life (and I cannot express enough gratitude and reverence for the neuro-oncologists at Northwestern’s Lurie Cancer Center), we just went for it.  We started a family as soon as we felt we possibly could.  Suddenly I found myself in the role of the mother of twins, and as a mother I began to think a little differently.  After all, I had already learned that astrocytoma was usually a childhood brain cancer.  It’s the most common childhood brain cancer, and my husband had probably gotten it when he was a teenager.  Would my daughters get it?  What were the risks?  When I asked the pediatrician, her answer was the same.  “I wouldn’t worry about it.  I’m pretty sure it’s not genetic.”

That is not a firm enough answer for me any longer.

DD the Rambunctious Dinosaur
I know when they’re older I’ll want to insist that they have occasional just-in-case MRIs.  Maybe when they’re eight or ten. Something to make sure, before a tumor could grow to the size of their Daddy’s.  Before it could advance to a stage 3 or 4.  But would there really be any point in terrorizing them?  In scaring them that they might also get brain cancer, if the odds might truly be so low?

The fact of the matter is, no matter what we have in our genetic codes, we worry about passing it along.  We worry that our own flaws are going to somehow inflict themselves on our children, and that they will be as helpless and frightened in the face of these flaws as we were.  It probably isn’t brain cancer, for most parents.  Instead it might be diabetes, depression, hammer toes, arachnophobia… We are all flawed, and what greater hope does anyone ever have for their children than that they be an improvement upon themselves?  That they achieve potentials that we, their parents, never could?

I worry about passing on my nail biting, my insomnia, my childhood under-bite and strabismus.  I worry about the diabetes on my husband’s side of the family, but more than anything I worry about the big C.  Nothing I have seen in my life has ever frightened me more than the images from that first MRI- those terrifying white masses stretching through my new fianc√©’s brain.  But I believe if I ever saw those same images on an MRI from one of my daughters… I might genuinely lose my mind.

Whenever I see a set of multiples and their harried, busy, flustered parents, I too wonder if they were conceived with fertility assistance.  But I don’t ask, I never ask, because for so many people the reasons for using IVF are similarly painful.  A catastrophe that, on top of the initial levels of hurt, adds with it the weight of the difficulty of achieving that near universal dream of building a family with the one you love.  I always want to give those other parents of multiples a big hug, to tell them that they’re winners and heroes.

SI the Helpful Dinosaur
The doctors I’ve talked to all seem to think that the chances of my girls getting brain cancer are remote at best, and they are far too young to understand that their father was sick, let alone HOW sick, but it doesn’t stop me from worrying.  Because I’m a parent, and worrying seems to be the thing that we do best.

I suppose the moral of the story is that we can’t control some of what we pass along to our children, but we can control much more important shared traits.  We control the passing along of values, and attitudes.  And I know in my heart that without the ability to continually laugh and cry and believe that after all of it everything was going to be okay, that neither I nor my husband would have made it through.  And that is something that we CAN pass on.  And no matter what else happens in their lives, our daughters will be better people for it.

And maybe if we do a good enough job, better than us.


  1. I hate those questions. When people ask if their twins I like to look around frantically and say "damnit! where'd the 3rd one go?!" I can't imagine the sequence of events you both went through. Talk about emotional roller coaster. And people don't realize when they ask those personal questions how much internal strife it can bring up in people. If you did use treatment it's really none of their concern, and there's probably a really rough, sensative story behind it that is even LESS of their concern.

  2. I don't understand how people ask because of you have twins. Maybe it's because twins run in my family, I still think they are nature's reproductive quirks. Had I dropped off the planet after graduation and walked back into M's life right now, I would have thought "quirk" not "IVF". I would even think that of triplets. Now quads and above, yes, I would think IVF but would never ask - I have enough sense to realize that procreation outside of the bedroom is usually filled with emotions. I'm starting to think you're encountering way too many emotionally barren people.



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