A little over seven months ago, I was one month out from grieving the death of my mother, petrified that I’d never bond with my babies, hoping that over the next three weeks something would click and I’d suddenly feel connected to the lives inside of me. You see, the complicated way we had to conceive impacted my ability to attach to my unborn babies. I was perpetually afraid something would go wrong and awaiting the inevitable ultrasound where one or both little heartbeats were lost. Covid-19 complicated matters even further, as I feared contracting the illness and/or having to give birth without my husband.
As much of a planner as I am, I’ve never been one for birth plans. My only real goal for what would happen in the delivery room was that all three of us would get through safely and without complication. I’ll enter my disclaimer here and state that I truly don’t care what other women do, but coming from a line of many nurses, childbirth has always been a medical procedure for me. I didn’t care about the music playing or the lighting or having a positive energy. I had a preference for who delivered my babies, who was in the room, and who visited after the fact. Call that a birth plan if you like, but that’s as specific as I was willing to get over something I knew I ultimately could not control. Fertility treatments just strengthened that conviction, as did a high risk twin pregnancy.
When you’re going through IVF, a lot of people look at your vagina. I’ve always been a bodily private person, but I was forced to set that aside for a full year, starting with IVF monitoring appointments in July of 2020. By the time I found myself facing a second egg retrieval, I did not care about modesty. When asked if a resident could view the procedure, I answered that they could live stream it if they could get me pregnant. In the end, there were six people in the room when my children were conceived and my husband wasn’t one of them. God and science were in their conception. God and science would be in their birth. I didn’t need it to be magical. On the contrary, I knew it would be painful, gross, and awkward. When the doctor and I discussed arrangements, I jokingly informed her that I had 28 different birth plans, one for each phase of the lunar cycle.
This feeling was, of course, exacerbated by my status as “high risk.” After exhausting amounts of research and a refusal by my doctor to insist on one or the other, I ultimately decided to schedule a C-section, but keep my mind open to a vaginal delivery if things worked out perfectly for me to have one with twins. They… did not.
Here’s a trigger warning (ends with Fozzie Bear) for references to childbirth that require a trigger warning…
June 18, 2021 was a Friday. I had my standard bi-weekly doctor’s appointment, where the doctor talked to me about how I was feeling, verified that she thought I would be able to make it to the date of my scheduled C-section, July 14, and sent a nurse in to check my vitals. When the nurse informed me that my blood pressure was high and sent me to Labor and Delivery for monitoring, I was sure this was the moment when everything would go south, particularly since she told me I might need to stay over night. I was hooked to fetal monitors and blood pressure cuffs, given a steroid shot for the babies’ lung development, and had just started to worry, when the nurses told me I could go home. My blood pressure was a little high and we’d need to keep an eye on it. I was fine, though, and would just need to come back the next day for monitoring and the other shot in my steroid course. That appointment was far less scary, with Jake by my side. My blood pressure was briefly monitored, a shot was administered, and I was sent on my way with assurances that those babies would stay put for another three and half weeks.
I spent the weekend doing chores and felt good and strong… until Monday morning, when I headed to my high-risk ultrasound at a different hospital. I’d previously been out of breath, but had assumed it was a combination of twin pregnancy, asthma, and wearing a mask at work. Monday was different, though. I was short of breath, exhausted, and my heart was racing. I didn’t think I’d make it from my car into the doctor’s office. I assumed I was getting a cold or a sinus infection, but when the tech had trouble differentiating the babies’ heartbeats, I struggled to lie on my back, because I couldn’t stop coughing. The doctor arrived and asked how I felt, to which I responded I felt like I was coming down with a cold. He assured me that I could use over-the-counter medication, so I stopped by Wal-Mart and stocked up. I didn’t want to use sick leave for the rest of the day and was determined to return to work, but since I was scheduled to do a virtual program alone at one of the satellite branches after telework ended, I decided that just this one time, no one would be the wiser (nor would my managers have cared) if I worked from home for the day. So, I watched a couple of webinars and oversaw some teenagers as they played DnD, refusing to cancel, because I knew it might be one of the last times I got to play with them. I visited the chiropractor that evening, hoping to ease my back pain and took it easy.
The next day, I woke feeling utterly miserable and called in sick to work. My back still hurt and I felt like I hadn’t slept in weeks, both of which I blamed on being 14 months pregnant with what I could only assume were Godzilla and Kong, if their movements were any indication. I tried to sleep on the couch, but couldn’t stop coughing. I knew it wasn’t Covid-19, because it wasn’t a dry cough and I had no other related symptoms. My stars I felt awful, though, so I decided a hot shower might help… like ten times.
I now realize that I was growing delirious, as I took shower after shower, hoping to ease the tightness in my back along with my coughing. As my skin grew chapped, I doused my legs in baby powder, too foggy to clean up the mess. Had Jake been home, I’m certain he’d have noticed something wasn’t right and taken me to the hospital, but as it was, he only came home for lunch and wondered about the mess. When he got home for the day, however, I told him how poorly I felt and that my heart raced every time I stood up. I asked if he’d call the hospital and we were told to come to the emergency room, just to be safe. I remember telling Jake that we’d forgotten my hospital bag and asking him to turn around.
Jake: “We won’t need the bag.”
Me: “We’re gonna need the bag.”
Spoiler alert: we needed the bag.
When Jake and I arrived at the ER, where I told them I couldn’t breathe, the first thing they did was put a mask on my face. They wouldn’t test me for Covid-19, because I’d been vaccinated. Many of the nurses weren’t wearing masks, because they weren’t required to behind counters I can only assume were made of medical grade magic, but it was vitally important that the fully vaccinated massively pregnant woman who couldn’t breathe wear one “for the safety of everyone in this hospital.” I was immediately seated on an ER bed and told to lie back… a position I couldn’t maintain, because I would immediately start coughing. After a couple of hours of trying to be accommodating, I flat-out refused to lie back and sat with Jake in front of me, waving the nurse off and telling her he was there if I fell.
Much of the night following our 6:00 arrival at the ER has blurred in my memory. I was taken for a CT scan, after having an IV put in my arm, without warning that it would vibrate due to the magnets. I remember lying there, terrified because I was instructed to hold my breath and I thought I’d cough up a lung, but also because I feared the IV had been left in by mistake and would be pulled out. I wasn’t allowed water, in case I had to deliver that night and I have never been so thirsty in my life. I received an echocardiogram and was told my doctor was on her way, with reinforcements to deliver our babies in an emergency C-section.
Me: “I’m scared.”
Jake: “It’ll be okay.”
Me: “What if I don’t love them?”
In hindsight, the fact that I was most worried about properly loving my daughters, as opposed to my own health in this moment, was proof that I needn’t have worried about it as I was rushed to the delivery room. Another mask was put on my face, this time over an oxygen mask, so I thought I’d be okay, until I realized I still couldn’t breathe. I vaguely remember hearing the nurses say they’d forgotten to turn the oxygen on, so at least that mystery was solved.
I remember even less of what happened from there. I was briefly held in a labor and delivery room, where I was asked to change into a gown. Once again, all modesty was thrown out of the window as I stripped the XXXL Summer Reading t-shirt and maternity shorts from my massive body in a room full of nurses, who began to freely discuss whether or not I needed to be shaved. I was wheeled to an operating room, where a kind anesthesiologist did his best to calm me, as I panicked over having to lie on my back for the surgery. I have had a lot of surgeries in my life, y’all. A C-section was never really something I feared… until I thought I might drown while I was fully aware of everything that was happening. In fact, when the doctor warned me that he’d have to insert a breathing tube if I couldn’t calm down, I begged him to do just that. I only vaguely remember the spinal block as I coughed and coughed, with the anesthesiologist reassuring me that breathing would be easier once it had taken effect.
While I could breathe more easily than before, that wasn’t saying much. I lie on the table shaking from the adrenaline with an oxygen mask over my face as I coughed as best I could, numb from the waist down. I vaguely remember hearing a baby cry as my sweet Violet was brought into the world. A nurse brought Scarlett to me, so I could see her, but I was much too concerned with my own discomfort for much to register. If I’d known I wouldn’t see my girls for two more days, I might have cherished that moment a little more.
I was then rushed to the ICU, shocked that this was where they’d put me. It was only over the next few days that I would learn that I had been diagnosed with “substantial pneumonia” and perinatal cardiomyopathy, a pregnancy-induced heart condition that impacts .00001% of women in the U.S. My lungs were full of fluid. I was technically in heart failure. I’d lost over half the blood in my body, with only five units left. After two back-to-back rounds of IVF during a global pandemic, I almost died giving birth. Although I couldn’t have predicted how, the disaster I had so greatly feared had come to pass.
Over the next four days, I was given three blood transfusions and a mile long list of medications, as a team of doctors worked to regulate my heart, build up my blood supply, cure my pneumonia, and treat my surgical incision. Say what you want about the American healthcare system, but that hospital saved my life. It was the most terrifying and dehumanizing thing I’ve ever experienced, as nurses cleaned the blood from between my legs, rolled me over to give me sponge baths, and helped me use the bathroom, all while providing a constant infusion of medication and antibiotics.
I spent the first two days in darkness, since the pain medication gave me crippling headaches and caused me to relentlessly scratch my face due to the itching. While I’m not sure I was present enough to realize my girls weren’t with me that first day, the depression began to set in on day two, when I woke screaming that they’d taken my babies, that I hadn’t even gotten to hold them. Jake, who had not left my side, sleeping in the uncomfortable recliner, tried to soothe me and assure me they were alright. Still, I barely spoke, was uninterested in conversation, reading, listening to music or audiobooks, or any form of entertainment or socialization as I feared for my health and yearned to hold my girls. I finally my chance, when the nurses assembled a security team to bring them down for a visit and I was able to snuggle my precious babies for a few moments, before admitting that I was too sick to do so much longer.
On day four, I was released to labor and deliver, on the insistence of the ICU staff that they weren’t doing anything for me that couldn’t be done on another floor. One nurse adamantly insisted that I needed to be with my babies and I eagerly waited all day to be transferred, so I could have my girls in the room. The first thing I did when I arrived in the same room I’d briefly visited before my C-section, was to take a shower supervised and assisted by Jake. I desperately wanted to feel human again, but didn’t quite accomplish it over the next three days, constantly interrupted by a stream of nurses and doctors running tests and administering antibiotics… but I had my girls.
I’d love to report that all was well, once my family was united, but alas, it was not. The first night with our girls, we were plagued with absolutely useless nurses in a ward with no nursery, despite the fact that I was literally instructed not to get out of bed. We weren’t informed that the girls should be double-swaddled, when they were only brought to us in one, nor were we told that this was due to the fact that the thermostat was broken in our room and would suddenly drop to the low 60s. After being administered Benadryl via IV, I woke several hours later to Violet screeching and Jake exhaustedly snoring away. Not knowing if Jake was just sleeping through the crying or if he just didn’t understand that such small babies cannot be ignored when they cry, I left him alone and tended to her myself. The only reason a nurse came to assist was because my heart rate sky rocketed and the company that was monitoring it called to let them know that I was going to pass out.
When the nurse arrived, she scolded me for letting the babies get too cold, as I lay there crying and in pain, feeling like a failure of a mother when I couldn’t even get out of bed to care for my own children. She spent a good five minutes lecturing me on how hard all of this was on my husband and how we couldn’t do this by ourselves. Later, I reported her sexist diatribe and discouraging warnings that proved completely untrue, but in that moment, I was devastated. It was 3:00 a.m., after I’d finally gotten to be with my babies and I had failed them. They’d gotten so cold, they had to be put under the warmer. I had no mother and no idea what I was doing and now I was suffering from heart complications and was literally unable to do it by myself. In that moment, I felt so lost and alone and that nurse can go kick rocks.
The next day was better, with a competent nurse, who actually told us the girls were on a schedule… which no one had even mentioned… and stressed the importance of keeping it. She showed us how to feed and burp and swaddle our not-quite-five-pound babies, leaving us much better prepared for the night, since the girls would be officially discharged, even though I couldn’t leave yet. At this point, I desperately wanted to be home with my babies, but it would be another two days before we could leave. By the time I was discharged, I was on the verge of a mental breakdown for fear they’d make me stay. Jake was even prepared to tell the doctor he thought it would be worse for me if I had to stay another night. After one full week in the hospital, though, I finally got to go home with my baby girls and it was the greatest day of motherhood I’d experienced so far.
… end trigger warning.
I’d like to say that life was smooth sailing from this point forward, but my health issues persisted for some time. In fact, I spent the first few months of my girls’ lives fearing I wouldn’t get to see them grow up, as I waited to see how my heart was recovering. In November, I received the news that my heart was back to normal, but that if there was another pregnancy, it would be high-risk, with a 20% chance of similar troubles. My girls were six months old before I finally felt strong enough to walk around the neighborhood or put their double stroller in the hatchback, without struggling. Physically, I would say I’m 95% recovered and that I feel almost normal.
I don’t only keep this blog for my readers, as grateful as I am to have them, but for my own sense of nostalgia and record keeping, as well. It’s taken me a long time to share my “birth story.” As Valentine’s Day nears, though, Jake and I are closing in on two years since February 13, 2020, the day we received the news that we’d have to pursue IVF if we ever wanted a family. My girls just turned seven months old and I’m starting to realize that, while I have mostly recovered my physical strength, emotionally, I’m no longer the same person I was before Covid-19.
When Jake and I started infertility treatments, I remember telling him that I wasn’t sure if I had the emotional fortitude to go through something so heart wrenching as pandemic IVF and come out the same person. Well, I’m nothing if not self aware, because it seems I was right. I’m not as strong as I once was and I don’t think that’s just because I’m getting older and cry more over news stories or sad TV shows, as other women report after 30. I’m beginning to realize that before Covid-19, I was… tougher. I had mettle and grit and I didn’t give myself enough credit for that. I was more capable of rationalizing away illegitimate worries and trains of thought. I didn’t get as upset over the things other people thought and said. I took life more in stride and had a lot greater sense of emotional control.
I’m not a complete basket case, today, but I am generally a more anxious person. I struggle to be away from my girls, more than is normal, to the extent that being around extended family stresses me out as they pass them back and forth. I worry about them irrationally at times, having gone so far as to begin to hyperventilate because Scarlett had a fever one night. I’m sure this is one of the reasons I couldn’t adjust to being back at work, though the other was that work itself had fundamentally changed for the worse. I’m more sensitive, more easily frustrated, and just less emotionally stable than I used to be and that… ticks me off. I know, I know, I’ve been through a lot, but I was supposed to bounce back, as I did in my teens when my mother became abusive and again in my early twenties when I miscarried and lost a baby I loved and left a terrifying marriage.
I graduated college despite my terrible homelife after getting married at 19. I once got drunk on Christmas Eve and threw out everything I owned, because I wanted a fresh start after said horrific marriage. I lost 100 pounds and had an epic rom-com worthy glow-up in my early twenties. I met strangers online and attended Match.com meetups alone, hoping to have another chance at my happily ever after. I held two jobs through grad school and worked my way up in my library system. I lived alone for years and took care of everything on my own, with little help from anyone else. I was a manager for a year and moved to a new city to be a teen librarian. I kicked butt, y’all.
I also spent six weeks at home, at the beginning of the pandemic, thinking my career was gone, along with any hope of having a family. I lay in bed in a catatonic state for days. I drank too much and didn’t sleep at all. I started cutting myself again and finally applied for a medical card. My mother had taken me to several awful therapists and dosed me with 250 mg of Wellbutrin a day in high school, in an effort to make me more manageable. After that experience, marijuana was the only help I’d consider. I was suddenly able to sleep and my anxiety and depression eased. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped and I was no longer self-harming. I could see past the present state of my life and the rest of the world and have hope it would improve.
I spent a month taking massive amounts of drugs to get pregnant, only to realize that it had been a complete and utter failure. All those shots and all that money was for nothing. $15,000 was gone, but just days after the negative test, I called and put down a deposit on a second round of IVF. I spent the ice storm of 2020 praying we wouldn’t lose power, when a thousand dollars of medication had to be refrigerated. I spent election day in surgery alone, for the second time in just a few months. Throughout all of this, I knew that a single fever would cancel my cycle and forfeit our money, ending our chances to become parents any time soon and possibly at all.
Even after I got pregnant, it seemed like the hits just kept on coming. Just after the first of the year, I had to make the decision to put down my Jude, the dog who had seen me through every heartbreaking moment prior. He was my best friend for thirteen years and I had to kill him. Then, my mother was put on a ventilator after contracting Covid-19 and never fully recovered. She had several strokes and died of a heart attack the day after Mother’s Day, when I was seven months pregnant with my twins.
I hadn’t seen my mother in four and a half years and I will never forgive myself for not putting up with her psychotic behavior for just a few years longer, for ignoring the text message asking me to get lunch six months earlier, for throwing away the last birthday card she ever sent me. I said goodbye to her alone, massively pregnant, while Jake waited in the lobby due to Covid-19 restrictions. I forced the nurse to set aside all platitudes and attempts to comfort me and tell it to me straight, that she was going to die. I wrote her obituary myself, but never got to attend a funeral, since her sleezy husband refused to give her one, even though my grandmother offered to pay.
The word “trauma” has become grossly overused, but ‘m afraid the last two years have just been too much for me. I worry that I’ll never be the person I was prior to 2020. I wish I’d been prouder of her accomplishments and strength. I wish I’d been nicer to myself. Perhaps, as before, I’ll recover… slowly. I wasn’t exactly a bastion of mental health when I was sleeping with a .357 in my bed at 25. It’s entirely possible that I’m looking at my previous recoveries through rose-colored glasses. I’m sure there are posts on this nearly ten-year-old blog proving it. Maybe I’ll have that 2019 strength once again, but for now, I feel as if something inside of me has broken and I’m not entirely sure it will ever fully heal.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m hardly the person who’s struggled the most through the pandemic, but the last two years have been rough. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I’m not sure if that’s true. I don’t feel stronger, but perhaps in time, I will. I know that this struggle has taught me not to take my family for granted, to be patient and loving with my girls, to consider how I’ll look back on my decisions and how I spent my time one day… and maybe that is stronger in a way, but I really miss who I was in 2019.