You’re at the grocery store and you see what looks like a very young woman shopping with her also very young kids. You start counting and are amazed when the number keeps going up — two, three, four, five?! Kids tumble out of her grocery cart. And then your jaw just about drops when she turns around and you see she is very heavily pregnant. What goes through your mind?
Currently pregnant with her sixth baby, 28-year-old Jessica Roberts is used to the kind of mental gymnastics that goes on when people see how many children she has.
She is no stranger to the stares, whispers, and head-counting that she gets anytime she’s out and about with her brood. But Roberts also has a secret that nobody knows. A cancer survivor, Roberts was once told that she would never be able to have children at all. So those six children you are counting? Well, she counts them as enormous miracles in her own life.
Roberts, a stay-at-home mother and blogger from St. Louis, MO and her husband, Don, a musician, instructor, and gas station manager, currently have five children together: Liam (7), Kai (6), Kingston (4), Evangeline (3), and Desmond (11 months), and Roberts is due with their sixth child in October. At first glance, Roberts and her husband might look like one of “those” couples, with a gaggle of young kids and a picture-perfect Instagram account. But if anything, Roberts is proof that appearances can be deceiving.
“Sometimes I wish I could just tell people how much of a miracle it is that I could have any children, but especially to be blessed with 5 (almost 6!),” she says.
Diagnosed with stage-4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive childhood cancer, when she was only 14 years old, Roberts spent a year and a half undergoing chemotherapy, blood and platelet transfusions, and a total of 56 radiation treatments.
“At one point I was given an 8 percent chance of survival, and my family was told I didn’t have much longer to live,” Roberts says. “Oblivious to this news, I kept fighting, though I desperately begged for my parents to let the cancer take my life. I felt that I couldn’t take it anymore. But thankfully God had a better plan. A year and a half after my first chemo treatment, I was completing my last. In May of 2004, we got the call that the cancer was gone, never to come back!”
Despite her ordeal, Roberts had no idea that the chemotherapy drugs she had received should have destroyed her fertility until she called her family with the news that she and her husband were expecting their first child. It was only then that she learned that the drug she had been given not only destroys fertility, but that she had been given five times the dosage that would normally leave someone infertile.
But in a way, Roberts is glad she never knew about what should have been. “I am so thankful that I never knew the possibility of never having children as that would have caused unnecessary worry,” she explains.
And despite the fact that Roberts has actually been pregnant 10 times — having four losses between her pregnancies — she says that she feels extremely blessed.
“From my medical history, I know how close I was to not experiencing this life in this way,” Roberts notes. “So I think of them as the greatest gifts that I could ever be given. I feel so undeserving but this is what makes me so extremely grateful that I’m allowed to carry and raise all of these children.”
Roberts explains that her initial years after cancer were filled with check-ups and tests, but after officially being declared cancer-free, her doctors have assured her that the chances of her cancer returning are “not great.” She is, however, at a higher risk of other cancers now as well as long-term side effects, such as heart problems.
“I have had no issues until a couple months ago when I found another lump in my arm, near the original cancer site,” Roberts says. “At 11 weeks pregnant, I had never been so scared in my life. I had six children and a husband to think about. Thankfully, the MRI showed nothing to be concerned about. As long as nothing changes, we will wait until after this baby girl is born and then I will have a repeat MRI. Hearing the news that day was one of the happiest days of my life!”
Thankfully in good health these days, Roberts admits that cancer has forever changed her.
“I think the biggest change physically has just been the awareness I have with changes in my body. If something feels slightly off, my brain goes straight to the worst case scenario,” she explains. “But mentally, it made me realize how short life is and that anyone’s life could end at any minute. It makes me want to show love to my family and friends and really be present and enjoy life with them. But honestly, I fail every day. I wish I didn’t. It’s something that I think I’ll have to work on for the rest of my life, no matter how long or short it may be.”
Although Roberts says that she is grateful for the positive comments she often receives about her family, such as how well-behaved her kids are (why are people always surprised to see kids behaving in large families?), she is no stranger to the naysayers.
“I think I’ve just been surprised how many times people stare or stop us while we’re out,” she notes. “Everyone seems to want to say something to bring to our attention that we have a lot of little kids. Because of their tone, I think they assume we are miserable because the world often thinks of children as a burden. But sometimes I wish I could tell people how much of a miracle it is that I have any children. That we are exhausted, way exhausted, but so happy. That children are not a burden to us.
Yes, they are more work, but the joy they bring far outweighs any overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed feeling that comes with it. And honestly, I’m not asking other people to pay for or raise our children, so I don’t think it should matter to people how many we have. Family size and age spacing is a personal decision that outsiders have no business judging.”
Roberts is quick to point out that although she never wants to present an image of perfection to the world, she hopes her story can be a source of encouragement for cancer patients or survivors, who have their own bleak statistics thrown at them. “Obviously my story is not everyone’s story but I do find that for myself, it is always encouraging to find stories of hope,” she adds. “Stories of those who have beaten the odds. Sometimes people look at my life through those little Instagram squares and assume that our life is without struggle.”
But don’t go thinking that Roberts is a supermom — she assures us that she’s anything but.
“I won’t be posting a picture of the kids arguing in my messy house with my mom bun and yoga pants and yesterday’s makeup,” she laughs. “But I assure you that is part of my reality as well. So while you may feel like you ‘can’t even handle my one child,’ remember that I was at that place at one point. Having a lot of young children doesn’t make me a supermom. Motherhood is hard with one or 5+ but I will never regret having so many children, so close together.”
In the end, what struck me most about Roberts’ story is the simple fact that you never know, just from looking at the mother in the grocery store, or the park, or even in the perfectly lit Instagram square, just what has led her to that moment — and maybe, just maybe, we need to think twice before commenting on anyone’s family size.
“Your words could be cutting deep for someone who is waiting for a child, lost a child, or selflessly gave their baby to another mother through adoption,” Roberts says simply. “Everyone has a story.”