My son Max was born on April Fool’s Day, 7 weeks early and barely alive. Today is Max’s 9th birthday.
After attending the One Billion Rising rally with me a few weeks ago, Max told me it was his favorite time to watch me hoop. He took this “No Rape protest” (as he calls it) very seriously, and was very profoundly moved by the event and watching me speak about my own experience as a survivor. When I tucked him in to bed that night he asked me “Mommy, can we protest against rape again tomorrow?” so I gave him a kiss and a hug and told him he could protest against rape every day if he’d like. Break the Chain, the One Billion Rising theme song, is currently Max’s favorite song and he often asks us to play it for him as a lullaby. So this weekend, in honor of his 9th birthday, and because I was wearing a totally awesome dress and having fun hooping and felt inspired, I made him this video as a birthday present so he could remember it forever.
As I was spinning in circles contemplating what it means to be a mother, several thoughts about motherhood floated through my head.
When I was pregnant with Max, driving the long commute to work I used to think about how there was this baby growing inside me. Another life all of it’s own, but also completely dependent on me for its survival. In a way it kind of felt like a parasite (pregnancy can be incredibly physically draining), but not being much of a science student I was never sure if parasite or symbiotic relationship or some other scientific term I’ve long since forgotten was the right way to classify it. Needless to say it’s a little weird to have another living being growing inside you, but after a while you get used to it and it seems totally normal. Not at all like tape worms after all. After a while I found myself having conversations in my head with my baby while I drove and after he was born it took some getting used to before I really comprehended that he was now in the backseat and no longer in my stomach. And eventually he was even able to have conversations of his own too!
I’ve heard pregnancy and childbirth can drive women a little crazy, and while I don’t think “crazy” is quite the right way to describe it, it certainly has a profound mental effect on you. There’s this whole other life growing inside of you for several months, a part of your body but also a life of its own. Eventually it leaves your body but you will forever be connected physically and emotionally. It takes a while to adjust to losing part of you like this. And by “a while” I mean years. My son is now 9 and as he learns to become less dependent on me, I just barely feel like I’m starting to reintegrate myself. Becoming a mother changes you in ways I can’t even begin to describe and don’t completely understand, and I will never be the same again. And yet I am starting to remember that I’m also still the same person I always was. And then some.
I read an interesting blog post yesterday about how mothers and their children are linked on a cellular level. Apparently some of the child’s fetal cells pass into the mother’s body during pregnancy and can persist for decades, turning mothers into a chimera. So basically parts of my son (and therefore also my husband) are floating around inside of me. And parts of me are floating around in my mom, and parts of my older sister are also passed along into me (thanks Phoebe!) This is some seriously awesome science and really beautiful if you think about it. All these extra guys hanging out inside your body can take some getting used to though.
When I explained to my husband how part of him was floating around inside me, he was not nearly as in awe as I was and said “well it’s not uncommon for parts of me to be inside of you.” And this of course is where babies come from…
[Warning: the following contains graphic information they never tell you in the baby books about what it’s like to get and be pregnant. It’s also a worst case scenario and will probably never happen like this to you, so don’t worry.]
I never got around to writing my birth story after my son was born. Apparently this is something every mother is supposed to do, but I was lucky I could speak coherently from the sleep deprivation, so writing was really the last thing on my mind. So 9 years later, here’s how it happened, or as much as I can remember:
10 years ago I went to my OB/Gyn to discuss having a baby. I’ve always been a big proponent of planning parenthood, so after spending my entire reproductive years making sure I didn’t get pregnant, I honestly wasn’t sure exactly how to go about intentionally having a baby. Not the obvious details of course, but more of the nuances like how long to wait after stopping my birth control pills before having unprotected sex, what kind of birth control to use in the meantime, if I had a glass of wine when I conceived will my baby have 3 heads, when do I need to start taking those giant prenatal vitamins, what are we thinking, seriously, a baby? I have a tendency to over-think and over-plan everything so of course I had a million questions for my doctor. Her advice to me was the best way to get pregnant is to be 14 in the back of a pickup truck. Since I was 27 and couldn’t travel back in time, she suggested we wait a month or two for the pills to wear off and then have sex every other day for a month or two and chances are we’ll get lucky. This sounded like a plan we could manage.
A couple weeks later I got a call from the nurse that my pap smear results were abnormal and I needed to come back in for more tests. I asked her what abnormal meant, and she told me it could be caused by anything from AIDS, cancer, a yeast infection, or leftover sperm – that’s kind of a wide range so I was kinda freaking out. After a couple more weeks of “omg, wtf, I’m going to die” freak outs and some really awful biopsy procedures, it was confirmed. I had a rare and aggressive form of Stage 1 adenocarcinoma cervical cancer. This was really going to put a damper on our baby making.
Fortunately, my grandma had been volunteering with the American Cancer Society for decades after she had breast cancer so she sent me some nice pamphlets which talked about hilarious things like how you can’t use cancer to get what you want. My husband and I got a giant laugh out of this, which we really needed at the time. I tried several times to use cancer to get him to do the dishes and various other favors but sadly it never worked. So after several visits to the “world’s most depressing cancer center if you’re under the age of 85” to discuss how to treat this so I could still have babies, I had a cone biopsy (a surgery where they remove the cancer by taking out a cone like section of your cervix). And then a few weeks later it turned out there was still some cancer left so I had another cone biopsy.
Finally after two brief months of recovery and healing, we were all in the clear to make babies, with the caveat that we’d better get on it fast, it wasn’t going to be an easy pregnancy and would likely involve bedrest, a really bizarre surgery called a cerclage where they sew you shut so the baby doesn’t fall out, and I’d better hope this all worked because I only got one shot before they took all my baby making organs away for good. Turns out I’m extremely fertile (who knew! thank god for Planned Parenthood all those years!) and fortunately I got pregnant on the first try.
And then the fun began. The doctors failed to mention all the every day awful that goes along with pregnancy like months of severe morning sickness, cankles, and heartburn, but fortunately I got to skip out on having my cervix sewn shut in favor of hospital bedrest once my barely healed cervix started coming open. The technical term for this is “cervical incompetence” but we jokingly referred to it as “lazy cervix”. Apparently my cervix couldn’t do the dishes either! Hospital bedrest is what they do for people with Type A personality who would otherwise not follow the rules, and it basically means you’re confined to a hospital bed and monitored constantly to make sure you don’t get up at all, ever, except to pee.
After a month of laying around the hospital playing video games with the nurses, watching marathon episodes of The Office and Saved By the Bell, and trying to keep my baby inside me, on April Fool’s Day my water broke and Max was born. Delivery was probably the easiest part about being pregnant – 3 pushes and some vomiting and out popped a very tiny and barely breathing baby. After nearly 3 weeks in the NICU we finally got to bring Max home. The rest was a blur of many sleepless nights and lots of spit up and a beautiful, healthy, growing baby boy.
A few months after I recovered from all of that baby-making I had a hysterectomy since my cervix didn’t really work anymore anyways and I didn’t really want the cancer to return. I learned (and shared) so much information about female reproductive health through this whole experience that a friend of mine joked about getting me a t-shirt that said “Ask me about my cervix”. I like to think my crusade to teach every woman I know about the importance of annual vaginal exams might help save someone else’s life some day though. If you have cervix questions, I’ve got answers, and a bit of advice: new guidelines suggest that annual pap tests are no longer necessary if you are 21-29 years old and have a negative HPV test, based on the theory that the more common form of cervical cancer develops slowly and early detection is not necessary for effective treatment. This advice would have cost me my life. What the guidelines don’t mention are the other less common forms of cervical cancers that are more aggressive, harder to treat, not necessarily linked to HPV but more likely long-term oral contraceptive use and early age of first sexual intercourse, and rapidly increasing for women in their 20s. I was 27, had negative HPV tests, had been on birth control pills ever since I was raped at 14, and waited just a year and a half between exams and already had Stage 1 cancer. That “how to get pregnant” visit to my doctor saved my life.
I call pregnancy a once in a lifetime experience since clearly I’m not doing it again, but it was worth it all in the end. I’ve got a pretty awesome kid and have been cancer free for 10 years now. As Max grows older and gets closer to the dreaded teenage years, I often reflect on my own experience as a teenager and how I can guide my son to experience life and relationships differently than I did. Ultimately I have to accept that he has left the womb and will make his own decisions in life, but we will forever be bonded both in our cells and our shared experiences, and Max will carry this memory of our song and dance with him throughout his life. I see a lot of myself in my son, my little dragon warrior, but he has his own unique spirit to share with me as well. Our children are our future, and I know someday Max is going to change the world.
Happy Birthday my little April Fool!