It all started with Instagram, which I found funny because I always put that in a “safer” category than Facebook. Scrolling through the News Feed on FB never, ever makes me feel better about myself, my life, my accomplishments, my anything (so why do I keep doing it?). On Instagram I follow more “inspirational” media like Chalkboard Mag, Deepak Chopra, El Camino Travel, Elizabeth Gilbert, Gabby Bernstein, Brene Brown and Kris Carr (of course). Seeing posts from Erin Stutland on the benefits of positive thinking during exercise, new yoga poses from Tara Stiles, and recipes of low-sugar brownies from Deliciously Ella (who seems to have a life of perfection but actually I think that she is refreshingly grounded and incredibly grateful for what she has) usually makes me feel happy, even if I don’t up exercising or meditating or baking or doing yoga that day (or the next).
I take full responsibility for the fact that not only am I on social media, but also understanding when people post their doings and/or pictures, they are not doing so with ill intent, and they are not doing it thinking of me. The world does not revolve around Sam! I get it. But we all can be a little self-absorbed sometimes and think that it does, right? When people post about their babies, kids, husbands, homes, jobs, vacations, and just day-to-day life, I can pretty much bet that they’re not thinking, “I wonder how Sam, who is living with cancer, will interpret this post or this picture?” It sounds ridiculous to even say.
But certainly, I can’t be the only one to see a post and construe it based on my own unique blueprint of my life, can I? We have all had life experiences that only we can truly understand. They have happened to us, and to nobody else. No two people feel the exact same thing. Even somebody else living with a Stage IV cancer does not know exactly what it is like to be in my shoes, nor do I know exactly what it is like to be in theirs.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life comparing myself to others, and I think about this a lot because it feels “normal” because that’s what we as human beings tend to do, but also like wasted time. Was I really not a Delta Gamma in college because I didn’t want to be associated with unkind women, or because I wasn’t thin or blonde enough? Should I have been “more Jewish” along the way? Could I have…? Should I have…? Why didn’t I…? Instead of spending the time loving and cherishing myself, I spent it wondering why I didn’t measure up. My grades were never perfect, I was never the most popular girl anywhere– though always had great friends– and did I get married “too late” in life? We bought a beautiful home, but was it as beautiful as somebody else’s? Social media has just compounded these insecurities.
It was only after I was diagnosed with the metastatic liver melanoma that I began looking at life in such a different way. Whether it’s true or not, when somebody starts a timer on your life and begins counting down (doctors who told me I may only have a certain amount of time to live, though I never asked) you begin to look at things in a brand new light. All of a sudden, it seemed the only things important were my health, my husband, family, friends, joy, love, and having fun. That was it. My job or career as a social worker gave me an altruistic outlet for my compassion, but I mainly stuck around for the money and the health insurance. Of course I am still human, but forgiveness became just a little bit easier. I wanted to have fun. I felt that if I had to live with cancer and could not have children, that I was “owed” anything else in the world that I wanted.
It doesn’t exactly work that way, I know. But it did shift things; it shook my world to the very core, turning it upside down like a shaken snow-globe except now down was up and it felt right, better, healthier. I found myself wishing that I had always cherished myself, always meditated, always played hooky from work to go to a water park in the summer with my husband, always tried to remind myself that I am doing the best that I can. What more can I ask of myself? It does not take away the days when I beat myself up for having a can of soda or not working out or being unkind to somebody or skipping a workout or feeling guilty when I can’t be at work. But those days occur just a little bit less often now. The less I obsess over food and how I measure up to other people, the happier I am. It’s taken me almost 40 years and cancer to figure this out and I’m grateful for how far I’ve come, and yet there are still plenty of days when I wonder if having more money or the opportunity to quit my job and become a full-time writer or being able to physically have children would mean that my life was more “meaningful.” (Truth be told, it’s really about the latter).
Which brings me to the recent Instagram post that rocked my world, and to which somebody else may have read the exact same thing and not had nearly the same thought that I did, which was this: Being married is nice, having a home is nice. Working is nice. Spending your career helping others is nice. Having a life with amazing friends and fun outings and seeing the world is… Well, nice. But it does not compare—could never compare—to having a baby. At least, that is how I interpreted this particular post.
And all of a sudden, my week turned from grumpy to downright cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat-everything-I’m-doing-will-never-be-enough.
Mother’s Day didn’t make things any easier (and I couldn’t help but think: How come there isn’t an “I fucking live with cancer” holiday?). I counted my lucky stars, blessings, thanked g-d and the universe that I have my Mom, and that not only do I have her, but that she is my rock and my best friend. I wrapped her gift (a keychain with a feather on it that inscribed on the back thanked her for always letting me fly) and SHL brought her flowers and we gave her cards and took her to lunch and it was wonderful. But it felt as though every single post on Facebook (and why was I on Facebook, anyway?) was a jab right in the heart when I thought about the fact that I’ll never get to have my own Mother’s Day. (I mentioned to Sean how insensitive it seemed both to those that can’t have children as well as those who no longer have their Mom’s, and he didn’t disagree, but he did say, “How far could that go?” And he’s right. Am I not going to post pictures of my summer vacation because others may not have the money to travel? See where I’m going with this?).
A few days after Mother’s Day my interpretation of this one post put me into a tail-spin. OMG am I just biding my time working and going to game night with friends and planning summer vacations until I die, and then G-d will say, “Well, her life was OK I guess, but she didn’t have kids.”
All of a sudden it occurred to me: If somebody feels like their life before a child was “nice” but not nearly as meaningful, what does that say about my life without children? And all of the other people in the world who don’t have children either? And even if this person believed that to be true, is that what I must believe as well? Was this my own insecurity, my own grief, or social media (or perhaps, all of the above?). It forced me to look in the mirror and think about all of the things that I try so hard never to think about, like the fact that I will never give my nephew a cousin to play with or see my daughter walk down the aisle or have grandchildren.
Traveling the world is great and a dream of mine (I get such a high from being interwoven with other cultures and experiencing first-hand just how much beauty there is in the world), and it’s what I aim to do with the freedom that I have and dare I say it a benefit of not having kids, but is it “enough?” And what if it isn’t? Who decides?
In social work there are very often times when you just help people sort through their issues; it’s not necessarily about giving them an “answer” per se. But other times when you sit with a client and there is a real concrete problem, you may want to have an answer. You feel their eyes on you, you’re the “expert” and what good is that social work degree, license, and years of clinical experience if you don’t know everything? But the truth is, very often you don’t know how to solve somebody else’s problem. You may simply sit with them, reflect back to them what you hear in a non-judgmental way, and offer empathy. You may say “I’m not sure that I have the answer yet,” when they look at you like “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Sometimes, your job is just to bear witness.
And this seems to be one of those times, when I simply do not have an answer and I am bearing witness to my own pain that it seems I must go through (so tired of “going through” things) in order to stop doubting myself. There is one part of me that knows that my life is full, brimming with happiness and joy because I happen to have the most amazing people in my life that make it so. That I am enough. With kids, without kids, I.am.enough. Maybe I didn’t feel this way or recognize it BC (before cancer), but I do now. Sometimes.
The other part of me, the part that is coping and learning to live with loss and grief, is also wondering if though my birthright is to be happy, maybe I’ll never really be as happy as I could have been if I had children of my own.
This is the guts of cancer, I suppose; it can make you feel like nothing is ever enough, or in turn it can make you feel like you have more than you’ll ever know what to do with. As I go through this journey, as I live and breathe with cancer and the good and the bad, I realize that is up to me and nobody else to decide which it will be. The bottom line? I am not willing to give up on my precious life or myself, no matter what.