This is Mary’s story
One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through, and it will become someone else’s survival guide.
Trigger warning: IVF BFP, medical birth trauma
This is Mary’s Story :: Part I
I didn’t always dream of becoming a mom.
(read: I once vehemently opposed the idea of procreation in any form)
I didn’t love being pregnant.
(actually it mostly entirely sucked)
I had the birthing experience from (my own personal) hell.
I had a difficult time bonding.
(actually, that sentence up there – the “difficult time bonding” – that’s the socially appropriate version. The truth is – I hated them. I could barely look at them. I didn’t want to nurse them. I cursed every second I spent hooked up to a breast pump (which would equal out to about five hours of every 24). I couldn’t go a single day without crying about the birthing experience of which we’d all been robbed. I was so sleep deprived my organs began shutting down and I started having some of the most frightening thoughts and ideas I’d ever observed cross my mind. I wanted to die. I wanted them to die. Or I wanted Mark to take them back to Canada and give them up for adoption. Or just leave and never come back. I spent one night elaborately devising how I could just walk into the old town market square of the medieval city we lived in, leave them somewhere, and walk away. Nobody would know they were mine, right? I wanted any version of reality that meant the nightmare would end.)
There. I said it.
So…. here’s my story…
“Mary, have you told your story?”
Her words hit me like a ton of bricks as I furiously scribbled them across the notepad tucked below the laptop from which her Zoom screen glowed. I mean, of course I’ve told my story… haven’t I?
When Linda shared her #MeetAMama experience on the Lella blog a few days ago there was a flutter of activity in response (and rightfully so!). On one end, Linda was being showered with love, praise, support, and admiration from her friends + followers – after all, she’d just brazenly shared such a dark and difficult moment in the hopes of offering a guiding light to someone else. And on the Lella side of things, we were getting the same flurry of feedback but from other Mamas wanting to share their story as well!
Sooo… what you’re saying is that there are so many of us mamas who experience these storms (that come out of nowhere and we’re knocked sideways so hard the breath leaves our lungs and we’re struggling to stay afloat) — but…. you’re saying that our stories have been silenced so effectively that we have no stage from which to share them? And there are so many of us that more than one mama reached out – because of this one mama – wanting to tell hers?
Well. The mama-silence stops here. Right now. With this stage.
When my coach / mentor asked me, point blank, “Have you told your story?” I realized I had some work to do.
If you’ve read the Lella Brand Story or our Why message, it’s always been in the forefront that this brand was born of my own tragic birth story. Spoiler (and non-trigger) alert: the only death in the story was my own.
I’ve never been good at silence. So here is my story… from beyond the postpartum grave.
A quick synopsis of Mary BT (before twins) :: I had spent years unlearning who I thought I was supposed to be: university-educated, an academic researcher, neuroscience et al., hot on the heels of a medical career, a C.V. as long as all 5’9 of me. On paper I was everything someone could want: cute condo, big Jeep, a few narrow misses of commitment to the wrong relationships. But underneath it all, I really didn’t like myself. And so I decided to change… just like that.
I stopped getting into the wrong relationships and started to fall in love with myself instead. I began traveling solo around the world, recording my (mis)adventures into a blog I launched on the day I departed for an eight-week whirlwind through Europe. From that fateful evening at a boarding gate to Heathrow I would visit nearly forty countries in the next few years, picking up pieces of who I was meant to become along the way.
I met Mark online when he was 8000km away. We chatted for a couple of weeks while I continued my timezone hopscotch but when it was time to return to Toronto and meet in person it seems the Universe had her own plans to my “I’m not looking for a serious relationship” disclaimer. Even though we both agreed we weren’t looking for something long term, our chemistry and connection was impossible to ignore. For two years we explored the world – both the globe and the world of consciously, ethically nonmonogamous relationships.
We decided to get hitched one afternoon, barefoot in the grass against the early evening sun.
Our adventures continued, both nearby and abroad. In Toronto, Mark quit a massive corporate gig in exchange for freedom and a life he loved. At this point I’d been self-employed for so long that a friend gave me the biggest compliment of my life: “You basically just turn everything you love into a paycheque”… and she was right. With a couple of hustles running side-by-side, Mark and I began conspiring on a tech startup. All my initiatives pointed to one powerful truth: my why was women. Nothing excited me more than watching women discover their same sense of self as I’d found, and I vowed to spend my days building something to make this happen over and over again.
While building that early-days idea, Mark and I went overseas and got lost / found ourselves in magical corners of the globe like Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, and Laos. We were living this meaningful, purposeful, self-actualized existence – arguably the deepest we’ve ever been connected and the most awake and aware we’d felt in this life….
…. and then, we decided to have a family.
What. The. Actual. Fuxk. were we thinking?!
Oh, wait. I know. It’s because we met handfuls of these amazing nonmonogamous couple role models who had children and continued to explore their own connections and goals. We became close friends with a couple of couples whose children were a beautiful part of their tapestry – but exactly that – only a part of it. We admired numerous full-time traveling families from afar (Instagram makes everything look easy, right?) and we (arrogantly) thought – “Well, if they can do it…”
After a relatively straightforward (albeit certainly not painless) IVF journey, we got pregnant.
Correction. *I* got pregnant. Because it only took a few weeks of artificial hormones to realize that this would be one crazy MF rollercoaster. I think the first telltale moment was when I told Mark from the passenger seat of the car, “You need to spit out your breathmint – the smell is going to make me puke.”
I was sick 10-15 times per day, EVERY day, from when I was seven weeks pregnant to the day I delivered the twins. Nobody told me about that. Yes, maybe it’s rare, but is it actually only Princess-Kate-rare?! Hyper-eme-something? Yes. It’s called Hyperemisus Gravidarum and it happens in up to 2% of normal pregnancies, with increased rates in fertility pregnancies, first time mums, twin+ pregnancies, etc. This Running In Triangles blog said it best:
This intense sickness is so life altering that it affects not only a pregnant woman, but also those closest to her.http://runningintriangles.com/tag/is-hyperemesis-gravidarum-a-sign-of-twins/
Sure, the blog as a whole is a 1-sided marketing ploy for cleaning products and vomit bags – but aren’t all mama-focused sites, these days? (until now, but… ya).
Anyways…. pregnancy was pretty catastrophic for me. I overcame any previously-held barriers for vomiting: in public, into park trash bins, on airplanes, out the window of a car (yes, it was moving… yes, it was as bad as it sounds). Diclectin and rice cakes were quite literally my only saving grace. McDonalds french fries and fountain pop were a close second.
So, all this “pregnancy was the most magical time of my life” bullshit – it wasn’t my story. AT ALL. But, I mean… from the outside looking in – the photos were pretty magical.
Yes, I told my honest story openly on social media – but that’s because I’ve refused to be silenced for as long as I can remember. What I didn’t do was tell it in its entirety, in its raw facts. I actively posted just enough to let those keen to know know that things weren’t great… and those keen to know were able to read between my lines and interpet my black and white photos as a sign that things weren’t all roses and rainbows in newborn-life-land.
Here’s how it all went down.
What I’d hoped for…
Around 20ish weeks I went down a totally insane Google rabbit hole of twin-birth horror stories. Why? I don’t know. Masochist, I guess. I would spend hours and hours reading about twin births where mama vaginally birthed Baby A and was whisked away into an emergency c-section for Baby B (ultimately needing to heal from two births). I read about spinal blocks that didn’t take and women who felt their caesarean incision being performed.
“Why is this what you’re researching?!” Mark asked, totally bewildered by my debilitating obsession to seek out everything that could go wrong. I had no idea, but I so much appreciated when he arranged for me to connect with Kelly Maslen, this amaaazing doula in Toronto, who breathed positivity and confidence into my story.
“Unfollow all your IVF accounts on Instagram. You’re not an IVFer anymore – now it’s just a regular pregnancy.”
“They won’t be preterm, Mary. There’s no reason for them to be.” – she spoke with such confidence and steadfast calm that it was impossible for me not to believe her.
“Positive birth stories only, Mary.” – she gave me the links to all kinds of empowering sites and accounts to follow instead.
Following our session I was armed with books by Ina May Gaskin, Marie Mongan, versions of birthing partner manuals, and spiritual mama reads. I did my homework, read the books, and managed to dissolve the crazy fears I’d had. I would birth the twins naturally, on my terms, like my body was built to do. The only thing I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that I would be birthing in a foreign country where twins just aren’t birthed that way. Period. I would end up being the laughing stock of 5+ doctors’ offices where I’d be told it was impossible for them to support a twin vaginal delivery and that I was irresponsible for even considering it.
I went so far as to research flying Kelly to Poland to support my birth, and researched bringing a midwife from Belize (the world’s leading expert on twin natural births) to birth with me at home. The logistics were wildly difficult to align and Mark was super anti-homebirth (though, if we knew then what we know now we would have absolutely made different choices). I was well into my 3rd trimester by the time I finally met an OB who said he’d support my wishes. We had to pay a pretty penny for his services (two-tiered private healthcare and all) but I felt things were finally falling into place.
I wish I had known then that unless somebody was actively voicing its importance throughout labour, my birth plan would be actively ignored. I wish I’d known that despite how beautifully designed and written it was, nobody on my birthing team would bother reading it (and, if anything, I should have opted for a graphic plan instead). I wish someone had spoken to me openly and honestly about the risks of a hospital birth rather than just socially-impacted fear of a home birth. We’re taught to fear birth in general, especially if it happens outside of a hospital – not realizing that the hospital’s dramatic ‘life-saving’ actions are to save you from the effects of the interventions they themselves introduce to your birth space. I read so many books. I spoke to so many Pros. I just wish, so much, that I’d known more.
At around 32-33 weeks, things as far as the HG were still tolerable. Diclectin kept the vomiting to single digits per day and I felt mostly okay. Mark and I traveled to Portugal for a babymoon and dreamy photo op on the coast of the Algarve. My cervix was starting to shorten – all things pointing to a healthy pregnancy – but I allowed my (well-meaning) doctor to scare me into putting in a cervical clamp ‘just in case’. I mean, the odds of going into labour on the one hour flight to Munich or the 2.5 hour flight to Faro were pretty small, but her incessant drone about ‘peace of mind’ made it seem a small compromise. I wish I’d known then that it would only be the beginning of the war I would wage on the Polish birthing system. The photos we flew to take turned out to totally be worth it though.
By 34ish weeks my feet began to swell pretty substantially and I had a hard time keeping my blood pressure normal. I wish someone had talked to me about mindfulness techniques instead of just defaulting to blood pressure meds. At 35+6 I was admitted to the hospital and monitored a half-dozen times daily for symptoms of pre-eclampsia. At 36+6 I’d had enough and asked to be induced. Here’s around when the beautiful photos stopped.
I wish someone had talked to me about what it meant to induce labour. I wish the doula I’d hired hadn’t been totally useless in providing precisely zero indication of how impossible it would be to navigate a Polish birthing team with my super-natural birth wishes. I wish I’d known more than I did by the time I came to our birthing day. A dear friend of mine back in Canada said to me, “And if things don’t go according to plan then you’ll just grieve the loss of the birth you didn’t have and all will be okay. They’ll still graduate high school. They’ll still go to college.” I knew she was right, but I was wildly envious of her two (soon to be three) super natural amazing birthing experiences. Alas, the only thing I was more afraid of than inducing was continuing to ‘ride it out’. I couldn’t have forgiven myself if a sudden surge in blood pressure caused problems with one of my two placentas. “They are safer out than in”, I told myself.
After one week in the hospital, failed stretch+sweep and foley bulb catheter induction attempts, it was time for pitocin. I’ll spare the gruelling details of 12 hours of unmedicated labour but looking back (of course), had I known – I never would have opted for it (hindsight, right….?)
I don’t remember much of my labour – including these photos being taken. I don’t remember anyone reminding me to relax, breathe, or telling me that I could do it. This isn’t to say that it didn’t happen – but I don’t remember it. As for most labouring women, the hours went by in a flash and I feel as though I left my body, but not in the beautiful “a labouring woman’s soul goes up to the stars to collect the soul of her baby”-quote way but in a “I can’t possibly stay present and associated to this experience” sort of way.
Twelve hours, pitocin up to as high as they could legally administer, contractions that lasted 3+ minutes just rolling into one another and I finally arrived at the 10cm ‘pushing part’. I was led from the labour space into the birthing space, and I knew it would be a full house – just the number of medical staff required for the birthing of two (mildly) premature babies…. but what I didn’t know was that everyone on shift and their student shadow would be in the room as well. In my naked, vulnerable, heavily contracting state I was led from my cool/dark/spa-music soaked “labour cave” next door to a brightly-lit and packed-to-the-rafters birthing room. One particular physician with whom I’d exchanged heated words just a few days prior (and demanded to the administration he never set foot in my room again) was sitting, pompously, on a chair in the corner – leaned back vindictively as if he’d come for the show.
I wish my doula had listened to me when I begged her to tell everyone to leave. I wish Mark spoke Polish and could have stepped in for her. I wish they hadn’t held me down and forcefully inserted a catheter without telling me what they were doing or why. I shouted at them that I didn’t give consent – in Polish – “I did not consent to this! I did not consent to this!”. On painful contractions they shouted at me from different directions to hold my breath and push. It was dramatic, frightening, exhausting. My adrenaline spiked and the contractions stopped. They couldn’t increase the oxytocin any higher and contractions were five minutes apart.
“I can’t birth like this.” my lead OB announced, dismissively. He threw his hands up in the air and walked away from me to pace the room. A few months prior, he had been the only OB in Krakow to agree to allow me to birth twins naturally (hilarious, right? allow me). But when I saw him lose faith in his ability I realized there was nobody left in this crowded theatre that actually believed I was capable (I mean, truth be told, most of them had probably never seen twins born naturally before – the stats in Poland for twin caesarean births tip the scales at 90+%). When I realized he’d given up, so did I. It wasn’t Baby A that I was concerned about…. it was tiny Baby B, breech behind her, that I thought – “She’ll come out okay.. but if something happens to him I’ll never forgive myself.” – my biggest fear all along was a vaginal birth for one and an emergency c-section for the second…. so, in my sobbing + dissociated state I locked eyes with my doctor and told him to prep his OR.
After 13ish hours at this point, of unmedicated synthetic labour, of being shouted at and dismissed, of sheer and utter physical and emotional exhaustion, I still had to “read” and sign consent papers. In a cold, hard wheelchair I sat in the hallway wearing nothing more than a sports bra, still contracting and trying to focus on the paragraphs of Polish words on these seemingly endless pages. I was in no state to consent to anything. I sprawled some semblance of my signature across the page and threw the clipboard at a midwife.
“Please just put me to sleep.” I begged them.
Nobody discussed a spinal block with me. Nobody suggested we try so that I could be present to witness my babies’ birth. Nobody cared that we were about to become a family. I was just a birthing patient who’d taken up 13 hours of their time. As I sat naked on the stainless steel OR bed the midwife I’d hired privately (I wish someone had told me how much she would suck) shook her head and rolled her eyes at me – “Why did you give up? You could’ve done this.” — NOW you have faith in me?!
The last thing I remember is the anesthesia mask being put over my face and shouting at the doctor in complete terror: “It’s not working! It’s not working”. And then it’s like someone just turned off the lights and that was it.
I woke up to Mark at my bedside in post-op about four hours later.
“Do you want to see photos of them?”
“Do you want your phone?”
That’s all I remember.
I woke up again twelve hours later to my doctor coming to see me. He told me I was still in post-op/recovery because I’d suffered a major hemorrhage because my uterus wouldn’t contract closed. He told me I needed a blood transfusion as my hemoglobin had gone from a 14 to a 3. In a morphine-induced panic I told him I don’t consent, so he upped my meds and I fell back asleep.
Just before noon I was wheeled into our recovery suite. I don’t remember seeing Mark or speaking to him. I remember Allegra being brought to us shortly after that and I’d totally forgotten there were supposed to be babies. I looked at her, looked at Mark. “She’s yours.” he said. She was beautiful. But I didn’t want to touch her. I didn’t want to hold her. I was so incoherent I didn’t even think to ask about the other baby or why he wasn’t there. At some point I learned he was having trouble thermoregulating and wouldn’t come to us for a few more hours. I didn’t care. I was so sure I was going to die that I was afraid to close my eyes and sleep. On two occasions I drifted off for 10ish minutes and woke up to two violent dreams of killing myself – one by smashing my head off the rocks on a jagged coastline, the other by jumping in front of a moving car in the underground Arrivals level of Pearson Airport in Toronto (it’s been two years and these two dreams are so vivid they could have been actual memories. My massage therapy friend says it was the morphine).
I was certain I would die in that hospital room until the moment my mom arrived and stood at the end of my bed. In my post-op haze, when I felt her touch my feet, I remember thinking, “She won’t let them let me die.”
It would be six more days and five more nights before I would be discharged. I wish someone had calmly, gently, discussed blood transfusion with me and explained why I needed it so desperately. But the only thing I couldn’t stomach more than being nearly-dead was the idea of having them pump blood out of my body (morphine plays some wild tricks on our psyche). I had lost so much blood I couldn’t stand up without losing consciousness and seeing stars at any sudden turning of my head (this isn’t ideal for having two newborns). Mark has a sleep condition that requires him to not wake up suddenly throughout the night, so somehow they expected me to get up every three hours to feed the twins. I couldn’t tell up from down and one night the midwife came into the room and scolded me because I’d put them both into the same bassinet and had fallen asleep sitting up while I held tiny baby bottles in their mouths.
“What would you have done if one had choked?! Have you lost your mind?! You need to get up and hold them to feed them!” – I remember feeling smaller than those 2.5kg newborns. Embarrassed. Still dissociated from any logical faculties. I cried as she spoke to me, I cried after she left. The next morning I asked the daytime midwife never to let that nighttime midwife come back to me ever again.
It would be day 2 before a midwife suggested that maybe we should take a picture of me holding them. If it wasn’t for her prompting I don’t think I would have considered this at all. It was the first time I held them both against my body and they were totally foreign objects to me. I felt nothing. (just writing that sentence makes me ache inside). We didn’t do any skin to skin. Not once. I didn’t want to nuzzle them. I didn’t speak to them. I refused to even name them until the midwives reminded me they couldn’t discharge us to go home until the twins were named.
Oh, and ya – I was so heavily medicated that my breastmilk didn’t come in for over four days. We had to supplement with hospital formula. I wish someone would have told me this might have happened and I could have come prepared with a higher-grade formula or better quality natural rubber bottle nipples. We had a terrible time getting Asher to feed. I couldn’t stomach the babies latching. The lactaction consultant taught me to use my breast pump and I would pump what I could in order to give them what little amounts of milk I produced.
I was afraid to touch them. I was afraid to move them. I could barely move around in my bed on my own let alone actually care for them or interact with them. Ally was at least a little fluffier and more solid, but Asher was just the tiniest little thing that I was positive I would break if I tried to maneuver. I wish someone had taken the time to prioritize these early moments for me at a time when I couldn’t do it myself. Maybe if someone had initiated skin-to-skin we would have bonded? Maybe if someone had taken off their cute little handmade Etsy beanies I would have released some oxytocin? The hospital staff just kept scaring me about Asher’s lack of eating, threatening me with feeding tubes if I couldn’t get him nourished.
The thought of hospital formula would have made conscious-me gag at the thought. Post-birth me could barely muster up the strength to hold a baby bottle in my hand. I wish, at the depths of my core, that this was a loving gaze as my daughter fed. Instead, I was fully dissociated – totally out of body and largely unaware of what had just transpired.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
I was supposed to have a gentle, spiritual, hippie orgasmic birth.
I was supposed to be able to breastfeed.
I was supposed to be in love with them.
I was supposed to leave the hospital and take Pinterest-inspired photos of Mark carrying two carseats while I happily trotted behind him in a meticulously-planned going-home outfit to match the outfits the twins were wearing.
I remember groggily walking out of that hospital and Mark asking, “Don’t you want that picture?” (I’d obviously gushed to him about it before) – “Nope. I don’t care.”
And there it was…. I was walking out of that place so broken, so bruised, so dissociated from my body, that I couldn’t even muster up the energy to care that I’d just given birth.
All I cared about was taking the next step, the next breath – just to get myself home. What I couldn’t have even begun to understand in that moment was how not-me I would ever be again.
To Be Continued…
Mary is the founder and CEO of Lella. Her birth story inspired this entire platform, but her struggles are still very real and deeply personal. She has created a MamaPro account on Lella, using her family’s brand “LoveTwinsAndTravel” where she’s open to connecting with other mamas about IVF, twin pregnancy, birth trauma, or parenting multiples (especially travel with twins).