Today we are honored to bring you a very personal story of motherhood from our very own Postpartum and Infant Care doula, Sophie Grow.
It is no secret among my friends and, honestly, lots of strangers I come across that I had a beyond normal postpartum recovery. Over the years I have seriously outed my story because it felt like such a burden to hold it in. I was so alone. You see, I had a beyond normal postpartum recovery and my baby was beyond normal.
At first, it was hard to walk into rooms with friends and acquaintances who knew my story and the story of my daughter. It felt like my heart leaping into my throat like that time in high school before I performed on stage. My head was pounding. I felt hot. I went into full body sweats. It was hard to control my facial reactions. The tension in my body increased while my trust in others wavered.
Could they still like me if they knew my story? My story is their nightmare.
At the very least I knew they would all pity me. Feel sorry for me. And you know what? They did. Sometimes it felt awful. Sometimes I would somehow end up consoling them. I wanted to be strong and look strong too. All too often I felt like a puddle though. Someone needing a shoulder or someone looking like they were trying too hard to look strong. Did they see right through me? Did they judge me? What do they say about me?
After a year of my postpartum struggles both externally and internally, I finally saw a professional counselor. I’ve seen her almost every week for nearly 5 years. With her I realized I had a gift. My worst fears robbed me of the present moments. I started to realize I had been missing out. I did all the personal work. The mental health work that so many talk about and yet have not been raised with the tools to process. I knew that for me and my baby I had to heal my heart.
You see. My story was a nasty c-word that most people have a very difficult time talking about, especially with children.
My baby was born with cancer.
This past Sunday was National Cancer Survivors Day. We celebrated with a 5k and attending a giant celebration. I asked my daughter what she remembered. She said, “Nothing. I was just a little baby.” That sentence pretty much sums up the gut punch it is to hear that an infant is diagnosed with cancer. I told her I was so glad cancer did not take her away from me. She said cheerfully, “I guess I just had a lot more living to do.”
Me too, girl. Me too.
So my baby had cancer. She sailed through surgery and was monitored closely at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital for years. She never needed chemotherapy or radiation. It was a miracle, but my invisible emotional illnesses really prevented me from celebrating for many years out of fear. I agonized over every diaper and cough. Could her cancer be back? This went on for years. It waxed and waned, never leaving.
I had support from a Benton County Health Nurse who helped me with all my breastfeeding issues that meant pumping every two hours and supplementally feeding A LOT of formula for a baby that seemed to be turning all she got into her pharmacy to fight cancer. I frequently get asked if breastmilk saved my baby since she did not need chemo or radiation. Interestingly, no one asks if formula saved her life, yet it was equally important to her growth.
And after all that pumping stress I felt so inadequate. A failure. I did not feel bonded. I couldn’t love my baby fully for fear of her dying soon. I could barely function. I had a short fuse. I had anxiety attacks, though I didn’t know that’s what they were until later. I was isolated by the whole experience as I didn’t take my baby anywhere she could get sick. I hopped on down to the vaccination station because my baby was that baby that herd immunity would protect. I ate organically and fed her organic. I micromanaged everything so I could feel in control. Perfectionism and OCD stole lots of joy from that first year, but I know that my controlling nature helped me cope.
My anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, and OCD started to develop. I had feelings of Post Traumatic Stress Anxiety Disorder. You name it- I had it. Yet, at my counseling appointments I was in a safe place. Never labeled and always support non-judgmentally. Friends hailed me as brave for seeking mental health support. Little did they know the lifeline it was to me. I dragged my broken pieces behind me into treatment and dragged them back home again. Over time I built myself up out of kindness for myself and all my suffering. It took time and compassion (ie not perfectionism) to build myself into a stronger better version of myself. One with an attitude of gratitude and a heart with a passionate purpose for serving others.
So why share my story if it was so painful? Why dredge it up? I’ve healed. Over the years I have shared my story so much that now it doesn’t haunt me. Instead of hide, I overshared. I was raw vulnerability with my story.
The results? I made a lot of people sad at first. They squirm. They apologize. They gasp. They nod. But you know what? They always listen. And I started to notice that. Maybe I knew how to talk about cancer and could teach those that listened. People just don’t know how to talk about cancer sometimes.
I would speak plainly, while wondering if they thought I was attention seeking. But I knew better. My story is an inspiring one. One that is a parent’s nightmare that turned into a miracle. Today I shared the story of my daughter’s cancer out of celebration void of fear. I have done some healing from my fears of loss, inadequacy, and shame. I know that every person who listened helped me get to this day of true peace in myself. I’m still a work in progress but I’m stronger now.
Now it’s my turn to listen and witness stories.
Now I am a Postpartum and Infant Care Doula.
I recognize families who have beyond normal circumstances, who fear judgment, fear making mistakes, fear the unknown, and fear being a failure.
I hold their broken pieces in my hands and cradle them with support and nourishment.
I validate to them that, “HELL YES! This is so unfair. It’s so damn unfair.”
I comfort them when they wonder if they are making the right choices.
I soothe the moments of loss and suffering.
I bring them to the present to celebrate the wins, no matter how small.
I feed their bodies and provide help so they can rest their weary bodies to heal.
As a doula, I don’t fix the problem for them. I know it’s not my job to erase their experience, I cannot erase time.
Because I suffered, I am stronger, wiser, more compassionate, less judgmental, more fun-loving, more forgiving, and I am much, much kinder to myself because I suffered so.
Without saying as much, I communicate to a client that they too, with their broken pieces, can be rebuilt into the strongest version of themselves than they could dream of.
I remind parents that they are strong when they feel their weakest.
I do my job with my whole heart because I know from experience that it takes time and self compassion to heal.
I often get asked what does a doula do? Well I can tell you this:
I bear witness to the suffering and the stories people hold inside.
And I never ever judge them.
Because I am them.
I am a safe place because I too have suffered.
And all I want my clients to know is…
I see you and you are cared for.
You are beautiful and beyond normal like me.