Facing the (ec)topic

A little before Julia turned two I finally got comfortable with the idea of having a second child.  Although having two kids had always been my plan, the PPD and general difficulties adjusting to parenthood had left me with a big question mark on the topic.  Finally I crossed the bridge from fear into acceptance and was ready to try.  I think it had something to do with Julia being slightly more independent – she was walking, talking, understanding the things we were saying, and I was starting to have more fun.   Ready to take the leap, I stopped birth control. With Julia, it took me around a year from when I stopped taking birth control pills to get pregnant, so I wasn’t expecting anything quickly with my second.

A few months after we started trying, I passed out on the subway.  Brian was with me and managed to drag me off the train at the next stop and onto the platform before I collapsed into his arms.  It happened suddenly and dramatically, but after stopping into a cafe and drinking some apple juice, I felt much better and I even went to work that day. I thought I might have had something called vasovagal syncopy , a fainting episode that can happen for a variety of reasons including low blood sugar and is relatively harmless. I chose not to worry about it too much and didn’t got to the doctor.

Then the next week, it happened again, also on the subway (weird, right?).  This time I was alone and felt the same sensation that I was going to lose consciousness. I leaned forward to brace myself and ended up smashing my head into the pole in front of me, which happened to have the benefit of propping me up.  Someone quickly gave me their seat and after I put my head between my legs for a minute or two I felt fine.  But two times in a week seemed odd, so I made an appointment with my primary care physician for a quick check in.  She asked some questions, ran blood work and didn’t find anything out of the norm, so she told me to let her know if it happened again.

That weekend Brian and I were scheduled to go on our first solo trip since Julia was born.  It was just two nights in Philadelphia in October, not exactly a tropical vacation, but we had lined up a bunch of fun stuff to do, including the Mutter Museum, which I’ve always wanted to visit.  It’s a museum of medical oddities, something I am really into (don’t even get me started on conjoined twins). I remember one display there was of a fetus at every week of development during the first trimester.  This was not the most unusual thing (they had giant tumors, casts of medical anomalies and an enormous collection of skulls) but the tiny little fetuses stuck with me as a mom.

Within a day of being in Philly I got terrible heartburn and stomach pains.  We had to stop at a drugstore to pick up Tums and Zantac to try and alleviate my symptoms.  I have celiac disease and although I am vigilant about not eating gluten, I occasionally get cross contaminated or accidentally ingest traces which can lead to symptoms like this.  Not fun, but not worth cancelling a trip over. While we didn’t get much romantic time, we still went sight seeing, ate some great food and generally enjoyed being childless people for a few days.

The day after we returned I was due to get my period but I didn’t.  I thought maybe the heartburn and weird stomach aches while we were away could be early onset symptoms of pregnancy so I took a test which confirmed I was indeed expecting. This was pretty crazy news to process, as we hadn’t been trying for long and I was taking a really exciting work trip the next day.

I would be flying to San Francisco to go to a Facebook conference at their headquarters.  I would also get to drop in on the Twitter headquarters  and it was to be my first trip at both.  I was seriously jazzed about going, in particular because my company sending me was an indication of how seriously they were taking my role in growing our social practice.   The morning of the trip my stomach felt worse than it had before, and more than that, it felt weird.  I’ve had a lot of medical problems in my life, but this was a feeling I hadn’t experienced, both dull and sharp at the same time and in multiple locations.  But I just felt couldn’t very well pass up this super exciting opportunity.

I met up with my coworkers at the airport but we were all split up on the plane.  During the flight, I passed out four times.  I didn’t even know you could lose consciousness when you are sitting down, but apparently you can, because I did.  I’d get this wave really fast of knowing it would be about to happen, my head would drop, and then I would come to a few seconds later, feeling tingly and sweaty.  One of my co-workers stopped by my seat to say hi mid-flight, and I told him what happened, but played it off as if it was a weird, lighthearted thing and not at all a concerning development.  When we got off the plane, I didn’t even mention it to the other two.  I was traveling with all men, and in retrospect I think this affected a lot the way I handled the situation.  I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness, especially since they were all in more senior roles at the company than me.

I struggled to act normal on the way to the hotel  and immediately called Brian crying from my room.  “Something’s wrong, and I’m scared”.  I remember trying to convince myself that I didn’t need to go to the doctor, because then I might miss the dinner scheduled with our Facebook team (um, seriously?).  He insisted I go to the doctor, pointing out that being pregnant made it literally twice as important.

As luck would have it, there was an urgent care literally next door.  When I stopped at the concierge to get walking directions there, I must have looked like a hot mess because the hotel insisted on sending someone to walk me there.  I shot a super casual email to my co-workers. “Hey, I’m going to run over to the urgent care as I have a minor medical issue I just need to check out before dinner!”

At the urgent care, my pain was intensifying.  I thought maybe I had an ulcer, or the world’s worst case of heartburn.  Once I got into the exam room and the nurse realized I was pregnant and checked out my current state and symptoms, she looked at me like I was crazy. She refused to let the doctor see me and insisted I go to the hospital and called me a cab. I really thought she was overreacting (denial is not just a river in Egypt, folks). I called Brian with an update from the cab, and he was getting more worried, but I still figured it would turn out to be something minor.  I am the master of random but not serious medical maladies.

At the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to get out of a wheelchair because I was a “falling risk” due to the fainting.  They took some blood, and while waiting for the results, the decision was made that I needed an ultrasound. They had to give me IV saline to pump me up with enough fluid to take a look which is rough because I am someone that has to pee ALL THE TIME. The IV saline was killing my bladder, plus the pain was making the need to go to the bathroom worse somehow.  I begged them to let me pee, but was told that doing so would likely extend the time until the ultrasound because they’d have to fill me back up.  I held off as long as I could but eventually I just had to go.

Not too long after I peed, an ultrasound tech came over to get me.  I told her that I wasn’t sure if I was ready because I had just peed and she made it clear that they had to do the ultrasound NOW.  Nobody said anything during the exam but they spent more time on one side than another.   I wondered if maybe my appendix had burst or maybe I had a kidney stone.  Quickly after the exam I was brought into a private room and given the news.  I was in a more advanced state of pregnancy than I thought.  I wasn’t just a day or two passed a missed period, apparently I had been pregnant as of the previous month, but because I got a light period and my temps had gone back down I never tested.  But here was the triple whammy: I was eight weeks pregnant, the pregnancy was ectopic and it had ruptured.  I was bleeding internally and likely had been for a few days.  They were amazed that I wasn’t septic already.  They said I required surgery to remove the fetus.

This is how you’ll know I was in shock: My first thought was that I was going to miss the Facebook conference.  Next, I asked them if I could wait until I got home to have the surgery.  As in, fly back across the country.  The doctor looked at me like I had two heads.  “We have to do the surgery RIGHT NOW.  Immediately.  You are lucky that you came in when you did or you could have died.”  I had to call my husband and tell him that we were losing the pregnancy and that I would be having emergency surgery while he was across the country.  There was crying on both sides.  He assured me he’d find a way to get the first flight out there.

Here’s the third piece of proof I was in shock: My Facebook rep and my boss’s boss stopped by to check on me in the hospital on the way to dinner (I had sent them a follow up to my earlier email informing them that I was in the hospital and might be late to dinner) and I decided they should take a picture of me in my hospital gown giving the thumb’s up sign to post on Facebook in order to be meta.

lisa hospital

Let’s examine some layers here.  1) I posted a hospital photo of myself to Facebook.  2) I was giving a thumbs up.  3) I neglected to remember that despite my parents being on vacation in Australia, it was the modern era, which meant that they had internet sporadically and therefore the ability to check Facebook (they hadn’t been notified of my condition like the rest of my family had because we didn’t want to worry them on vacation)  4) I was losing my baby.  To my credit, if there is anything redeeming about this action at all, it’s that I didn’t actually tell Facebook that I was pregnant.  I just said I was bleeding internally and needed surgery. But still, but still, but still.  Have I ever mentioned I’m an oversharer?  Also, as it turns out, even though I am an obsessive thinker and can spend hours turning over a conversation or decision in mind, I literally turned my brain into a blank slate of denial and repression to deal with this situation.

My husband arrived the next morning after the surgery was over.  The surgery went well; they had to remove one of my Fallopian tubes because the damage was too severe, but otherwise everything went smoothly.  I was able to fly home the day after that, on the original flight I had planned to take home.  Amazingly, the seat next to me on the plane was free and we were able to book it without having to deal with it at the airport.  I cried some on the plane when Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s song “A Woman’s Work” popped up on my playlist (it’s a song that was written for the movie “She’s having a Baby” about the scariness of childbirth) until my husband made me stop listening to moody music. Then I mostly slept.

My company was kind and generous in paying for expenses as well as offering as much time off as I needed, but I went back to work quickly from home, because I couldn’t bear to be alone with my thoughts.  Surprisingly, I didn’t mourn the loss of the pregnancy much.  I had only known I was pregnant for 2 days when it happened, and hadn’t begun to attach myself to the idea of a baby in my mind.  In addition, because I knew it was not viable, it helped me feel that it could never have been my baby.  Mom tip: Just because I didn’t struggle much with the loss doesn’t mean that is the experience of other moms who have gone through something similar, or any other kind of pregnancy loss.  It hits every woman differently and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.

But a few months after the ectopic, during the time it began to sink in that I might not be able to have a baby, I struggled pretty hard with something similar to PTSD.  It was as if the realization that I almost died just smacked me in the face one day, and I became terrified.  I withdrew emotionally, I cried a lot, I had way more anxiety than usual.  Everything I had closed in my brain just opened up and started spilling out.  This seems to be a bit of a pattern for me – I handled my postpartum depression the same way, not actually recognizing it until after it had been going on for too long.  One thing that helped was my doctor explaining to me that having one tube doesn’t reduce your chances of pregnancy by half, as women don’t consistently ovulate.  Some women might only ovulate from one tube, some might alternate every month, and some can ovulate on one side for three months and then switch.  He said I should trust my body to do it’s job and that I was still young enough to have a good chance of a happy outcome.

luca bearMy story has a happy ending, as you likely know if you’ve read my blog and remember that I have two kids.  Despite having only one Fallopian tube left to work with, after getting permission to try again after three months, I was able to get pregnant within a year, and that’s our delicious Luca.  And every year I make a donation to the Stanford Hospital in California as a reminder of what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained.  It’s because of them that I’m alive and I have my boy.

The truth in parenting

Two days before the birth of my first child, a little before 36 weeks of pregnancy, I was put on modified bed rest due to suspected preeclampsia. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might go into labor early (Mom Tip: If you’ve never done the whole having a baby thing, there are a lot of things you just can’t picture, so I’m telling you now – pack your hospital bag early). I even polled my friends and family to determine whether or not since the bed rest was “modified” that I could sneak out to my last movie before I was stuck at home with the baby.

For the record, everyone voted no, which was a good thing because I might have gone into labor on the spot while watching Twilight (don’t judge, at least I didn’t go!).  After two days of laying down at home, I was brushing my teeth at 10pm on an unseasonably warm November night when my water broke.  By 9am the next morning I was someone’s mom: Julia Ruth Cucinotta, all 4 lbs. 14 oz of her.

I had thought that when they put the baby on your chest your heart exploded with love and you were bonded for life.  Not me.  My blood pressure spiked during the delivery and they rushed the skin to skin experience so they could get her tiny little self to the NICU and get me on magnesium, literally the worst medication I have ever experienced, to avoid me getting eclampsia. Mom Tip 2: Did you know preeclampsia is not an actual medical condition but a set of symptoms that are a warning you could get actual eclampsia?  Again, the magical world of things you don’t know until you have kids!

For the next 24 hours Julia couldn’t come to me because she was in the NICU, and I couldn’t go to her because I was in hell.  On the magnesium, my body felt floppy and heavy, almost like I was paralyzed. I had to be catheterized because they can’t risk me  even getting up to go to the bathroom.  I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink in case I choked.  I begged the nurses in tears until finally I got a nice one to give me one or two ice chips in secret.  I was so hot my husband had to wear his winter coat to keep warm in the hospital room since we turned down the temperature so much, and still I needed cold compresses.  I was also practically delirious.

The next day,  after more than 36 hours with no food or drink, as the poison slowly subsided from my body, I was handed what looked less like a cute cuddly baby and more like a tiny chicken. I was cautioned that I couldn’t even breastfeed her yet because I might transfer the magnesium to her.  What was I supposed to do with this tiny mewling thing?

I’d like to tell you that after the drugs wore off and we brought her home that things were great, but they weren’t at first.  I was in a fog: afraid, sad, detached.  I am a lifelong anxiety sufferer and had a depressive episode in my early twenties, so postpartum depression was not out of the question. But I couldn’t articulate how I felt. I’m an over-sharer, but I couldn’t share this somehow. I mean, how do you tell people that you’re worried that you might have made a mistake?  That maybe you weren’t meant to be a mom because clearly you suck so bad at it and don’t really like it?  Even my well meaning family, friends and truly excellent therapist wrote off what they saw as the standard struggles of new motherhood.  But it was more than that.  I literally couldn’t believe it was going to be this hard.  And when would it get better?

It wasn’t until almost a year later that I realized I had suffered Postpartum depression.  And it wasn’t until long after that when I finally started opening up to people about the challenges I was (and sometimes still am) experiencing as a mother. I didn’t take to parenting easily and occasionally still don’t, even though I absolutely adore my kids (I have a son now, Luca, who is almost two.) My goodness what a difference it was to go through this stuff a second time, but we’ll get to that another day, don’t you worry!

A while back I started tagging Facebook posts where I shared my honest thoughts with the hashtag #truthinparenting .  The relief in posting my truth instead of trying to pretend I knew what I was doing as a mom was palpable. There was another upside – I started getting comments on my posts from people sharing their experiences, and then I started getting private messages, texts, phone calls and even in person chats with people who had read the posts.  It turns out a lot of people think it’s hard.  I get that not everyone’s experiences are the same, and that some people live for motherhood in a way I never will (and that’s awesome for them!).  But I am taking inspiration from what I’ve done on Facebook and bringing it to the longer form of a blog in the hopes that it will make some mom (new, expecting, or even an experienced one) feel better.  Because, Mom tip 3: we’re all in this together.

Life after birth

To be able to embrace motherhood, you need to mourn the loss of the person you were before you had kids. This is what I say to every pregnant woman and new mom I talk to, because it is the single most important piece of advice I’ve ever come across about parenting.  I stumbled upon this wisdom through a blog post by Renegade Mama when my daughter Julia was a little over a year old and it changed my world.

No matter how much you talk to friends and family, read books or consume media on the subject of parenting, there is literally no way to truly know what it is actually like day in and day out.  There certainly must be those who are better prepared.  I’d imagine the oldest sibling in a large enough family to have been deeply involved in the taking care of a newborn might have some idea.  Or perhaps labor and delivery nurses who see weepy new moms on the daily.

I  wonder, and hear me out on this for a second, if women who have been to prison might actually be the best equipped of all.  I’m not trying to literally compare being a new mom with the terrible experience of being incarcerated.  But I remember thinking to myself a lot in the early days of motherhood that I was in “baby jail”. From the moment you become a parent, your life is no longer your own, which is what I imagine life is like in prison.

Women are having children later in life than ever before which in theory brings a greater maturity to the table but also a much longer time to have lived a life that they defined. Taking care of a newborn strips you of that freedom.  Sleeping is not under your control.  Nor is the crying (the baby’s or yours – the hormones are intense). Even going to the bathroom requires making decisions – do you carry the baby while you go?  If they are crying, is it OK to leave them in the swing or crib to go pee?  Brand new babies sleep a lot (for small increments of time), so there are points where you can make little decisions – watch a TV show, read a magazine, maybe make something to eat.  But you’re so damn tired, all those small acts can feel like moving mountains.

For me, this was kind of shocking – not the tiredness, which I was somehow able to manage, but the lack of autonomy.  Sure, I had anticipated that my life would change.  But I didn’t truly get it, and I didn’t truly get “into it” enough to make it feel worth it for a long time.  I had postpartum depression after I had my daughter Julia (my firstborn)  which left me feeling a little detached from the good parts of having a baby, the ones that make the challenges more manageable.  From speaking to friends who didn’t have PPD and from the wonderful experiences I had with Luca, my second child, I get that this makes the experience more palatable.  You’re exhausted and frightened, but your heart is also swelling to explosion with love for the this tiny, cuddly being you made.  But that delicious little tyrant has turned your world upside down.

As you move through the first year and began to establish routines there is some relief in regaining at least a small sense of order.  But it’s all still revolving around your child.  The you before you had kids is gone or at least it feels that way. I fought this and fought it hard.  I think that’s what made my PPD linger and made me feel trapped in what I called “baby jail”.  I would sit in the playroom trying to think of something halfway interesting to play with Julia. After like 3 straight hours of shaking toys at her or reading her books she didn’t understand or doing tummy time that made her cranky, I’d be wishing I could just read a magazine for ten minutes.  What made me feel worse what that I wasn’t even a stay at home mom.  I still had my adult identity five days a work at week, so my life was split between the old me and the new me.

Then one day I came across the Renegade Mama article and instead of making me feel more depressed it felt like an epiphany. It just made sense:  If I kept feeling sorry for myself that I could no longer go to the movies every weekend or have a relaxing meal, I’d just be miserable.  First thing I had to do was work on accepting what my life was like now. If I adapted to it, it would no longer feel like such a burden and I’d hopefully be able to enjoy the good times a bit more. I’ve done that work every day for the last few years.  Julia is five now, and Luca is almost two. It’s not unusual for me to get up from the table anywhere from 3-10 times during a meal these days – whether it’s to pick up a thrown fork of Luca’s, refill Julia’s water glass or grab paper towels to sop up a spill.  The difference is I barely even notice.  What once created such resentment now feels just like routine.

The second and equally crucial piece was to remind myself that the reason my life is different is because I am someone’s mom, which is a privilege and not a punishment. I dreamed my whole life about being a mom, and I have been lucky enough to become one.  So what if I don’t love it every day?  I still love my kids every day, and that’s enough.