Carly Leahy went into 2020 with a plan: She’d get married to Charlie, her fiancé of nearly two years, and then down the line the two would try to have children. Instead, the 31-year-old co-founder of the reproductive health company Modern Fertility was met with a global pandemic, an unexpected pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis for her now-husband—and a completely different timeline for her life than the one she’d imagined.
Her experience was part of the inspiration for the 2021 Modern State of Fertility report, in which the company teamed up with Zola to survey how women have reoriented their thoughts about marriage and pregnancy after a year of a life-altering pandemic. (For instance, 46 percent of survey respondents said COVID changed their personal timelines for having kids.) “This might be dark,” Leahy told ELLE.com, “but [it’s] kind of funny and comforting to not be alone in all of that.” Below, in her own words, Leahy shares the full story of her pandemic year—and what’s she’s most looking forward to now.
Like many people, I went into 2020 thinking, this is our year. My husband and I had gotten engaged in April 2018 and had big plans to get married in 2019. But, what I don’t talk about a ton is, my dad was ill with cancer and ended up passing away. When he wasn’t doing very well, we moved the wedding to June 20, 2020. We thought the date had a great ring to it—now it’s just full of irony.
After the pandemic went down in March, I remember this phase where we all became amateur epidemiologists. We were trying to assess, thinking, Oh in June, we’ll totally be fine. Then two months out we realized there was no way it was going to happen, and we moved the wedding to August. Of course, August also wasn’t fine. In hindsight, it all seems so ridiculous. As things continued to evolve with the pandemic, worrying about a wedding felt so silly and frivolous. We ended up moving the wedding for a third time and decided to just do a small ceremony with our immediate family and host a party in 2022.
During this same time, Charlie and I were not actively trying to get pregnant, but I had taken out my IUD and we thought we’d see what happens. We planned to try for kids later, after we got married. But by August, I wasn’t getting my period and took one of our pregnancy tests, just in case it was positive. (It was.)
Then in September, a few weeks before our “elopement,” Charlie went to get a colonoscopy. He had been seeing blood in his poop for a year or two and had gone to his primary care doctor who told him it was probably just hemorrhoids. But as it became more consistent, he went to another doctor who told him to get the procedure. I do think he considered, we’re going to have a kid, so let’s just make sure everything is good.
He went in for the colonoscopy, and later I got a call from the hospital asking if I was Charlie’s fiancée. I said yes, and they said, “We need you to come.” I asked, “Why? Is he okay?” but they wouldn’t tell me anything. I kind of blacked out. That day in particular was also during wildfire season in San Francisco, and it was completely orange out. It was like we were living in the fiery depths of hell.
When I got to the hospital, they let me park right in front, which made me even more alarmed. I get inside, and Charlie’s a little loopy and drinking a juice box. The doctor sits down, and her first words were, “It’s not good news.” She said she was pretty sure she had found cancer, and while she couldn’t confirm it right then, she told us to mentally prepare. That kicked off the worst week of all time, because then you have to wait to get the CT scans to figure out if the cancer has spread. It turned out that the day we got the CT scan results reviewed was the same day I had my first ultrasound to see if the baby had a heartbeat. His appointment was at 8 a.m., mine was at 10 a.m. We thought, it’s either going to be the best day or the most devastating day. We were trying to get married, but now we’ve got this pregnancy and this cancer. How did this happen in this order? We were having conversations like, “Am I going to be there for my kid?” with him thinking about if he was going to leave us behind.
Thankfully, the CT scans were clean, and the cancer was pretty localized to Charlie’s colon, though until they did surgery, we couldn’t be sure how deep it was. We had our “elopement” with family on Sept. 30, and I tortured myself over whether to tell the people who were coming that I was pregnant. It was way too early, but I ended up doing it. We were at a winery, and there was no hiding it. We picked up two of our good friends at the airport and told them: “I’m pregnant, Charlie has cancer, and we need you to know.” They didn’t know how to react.
But even though it was my first trimester and I felt like shit, the wedding was lovely. One of my best friends was our officiant, and during the ceremony, she talked about my dad not being there and spoke about the baby and illness. It was the most intense moment of our lives. It was sort of this beautiful intimacy, being surrounded by people who knew what was going on.
The day after our wedding, I dropped my mom and my sister off at the airport, I got back home, and I was on the bathroom floor sick for 12 hours. We went on a “mini moon” in the San Juan Islands, and I remember being really muted and out of it. I slept the whole time. We were definitely trying to rest before whatever happened next.
Then we went home so Charlie could have surgery to get a foot of his colon removed. The surgery went well, and he recovered, but later, he ended up having to do three months of chemotherapy. He finished the chemo in March, and now we’re due with a baby girl in a few weeks.
It’s been a really intense few years, and this experience definitely changed the way that I think about things needing to be done “by the book.” It kind of demolished the thought that the marriage milestone is this identifier, because for us, it ended up being more peripheral.
Not to mention this whole time, we’ve been building this company focused on women’s health. It’s made me think about access to healthcare and information, and how if you don’t have that access, how alienating and scary pregnancy and fertility can be. Women should be able to have the information about their bodies to make the choices they want to make, whether they have a partner or not, whether they’re deciding to freeze their eggs or not, whether they’re deciding to not have kids. I hope that, with the pandemic blowing up some of these conventional timelines, more of us start seeking out the information to map out the lives we actually really want, not just the one we think we’re supposed to have.
Now, the thing I’m most excited about is Charlie being a dad. He was born for it. I remember tossing the pregnancy test on his lap, and he was just bug-eyed. I feel so grateful that he was proactive, and we’re in the best possible position there. Am I scared of giving birth? Yes. But we just both feel really, really lucky.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
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