the most unexpected year.

It’s dim in our bedroom, and I’m desperately trying to get her to latch one last time. I didn’t mean for today, of all days, to be the last time she nursed from me. She is distracted and annoyed, scanning for a bottle. The milk is not fast enough, and there isn’t much left. Of course she wants formula.

She has been using my nipples as a chew toy for almost a month, despite my yelps and cries and every other attempt to break the habit. My breasts hurt but my heart hurts more. I really thought we’d make it to the one-year mark. This is, well, unexpected.

It is not the first time I’ve been surprised during this year of new motherhood. The beauty of an epidural? Surprising. The amount of times babies have blowouts? Surprising. The rate at which they outgrow their clothes? Surprising. The way spit-up stains carpet? Surprising.

And my husband’s cancer diagnosis? Shocking, to say the least.

I’d planned everything perfectly— from charting my cycle so we could (hopefully) get pregnant easily, to buying a house in my first trimester, to taking on freelance work so I could have career options after her birth. The ducks were all in a neat and tidy row. Check, check, and check.

I didn’t see the whole cancer thing coming, because, who does? Your twenties are supposed to be about college and new careers, love and travel, and maaaaybe marriage and babies. For us, they were all of those things until his chest started hurting and an MRI lit up and the biopsies confirmed our worst fears. I realized that if your twenties are about becoming an adult, there’s nothing more adult than learning to care for your husband and a newborn at the same time. I thought I would spend the postpartum year tending to her every need. And I did. But I also tended to someone else’s every need. It’s hard to do both at the same time.

Every other Friday, for six months, I attended chemotherapy with my husband. We’d drop our daughter off with a friend and then drive to the hospital mostly in silence. The hospital parking lot was huge and always congested, but we never used the valet service because we were young, damn it, and he was perfectly fine besides the cancer. He carried his backpack with the blue Gatorade and my pink Nalgene, his Kindle, my magazine, his gum, and my candy rations.

I always carried the breast pump.

I would make sure my patient didn’t need anything before excusing myself to the tiny corner room. The recliner chair was a perfect spot to nurse but I always sat with one butt cheek on the edge, partially because the pump didn’t stretch very far, and partially because a small, subconscious part of my brain didn’t think I’d earned the right to get comfortable in a chair meant for cancer patients.

I was just the caregiver. The wife.

I’d check the lock twice, hook myself up to a bunch of tubes, and take a deep breath before turning on the machine. And then, while everyone outside the door watched toxic liquid pour into their veins, I’d pour life-giving nutrients into little bottles for a baby born three months before her daddy’s cancer diagnosis, asking myself, “How did this happen?” and telling myself, “This isn’t how it was supposed to go.”

And, it’s not how it was all supposed to go. If I could write our family’s story, cancer wouldn’t have been a chapter, or at the very least, it wouldn’t have coincided with my first year as a mother. And his last day of chemo wouldn’t have been the day I’d chosen to wean her. Some things simply don’t go according to plan. 

I don’t know what your unexpected looked like in the year following your baby’s arrival. A difficult c-section recovery? Breastfeeding problems? A parent’s divorce? Your divorce? Postpartum depression? An illness? A sudden death in the family? An unexpected move? Job loss? Another pregnancy? Maybe, quite simply, it was unrealistic expectations about how much babies cry and how often they eat and how you are never, ever alone anymore.

You may learn to pump breastmilk in odd places, like I did, and you may look longingly at a calendar and ask the days to speed up, and then ask them to slow down. At times you’ll let the house go, and then you let your body go, and then you’ll desperately ask others for help, and then you have trouble accepting the help. You may question why now, and why him, and why me, and why is it so hard?

And then, on a Friday morning in May your baby may decide that today is when she wants the formula, not your breasts, and you’ll cry both tears of joy and tears of pain because you all survived the best and the hardest and the most unexpected year.

Written by Lesley Miller. Photo by N'tima Preusser