Even though I ignored it, the first sign that something was wrong appeared on Mother’s Day, 2014. The day before, I had come home from the hospital with my third child, an 8lb, 3 oz baby boy, after a problem-free pregnancy and delivery. I felt good after delivery and was excited to get home with my baby and start the process of dropping the baby weight I had gained. I had been fortunate in the past to lose it fairly quickly, so I hoped that by the end of the summer, I would be back at my pre-baby size.
That day, as I sat on the couch watching movies with my husband, I looked down at my feet.
“Look at how swollen my feet are!” I said. My ankles and feet looked like pig’s feet. I hadn’t had much foot swelling during pregnancy, so it was strange that they were swollen afterward, but at the same time, I was told in the hospital that some swelling was common after delivery. I dismissed it as one of those post-pregnancy things that would just go away.
But instead of going away, the next day the swelling got worse, and I developed a new problem: painful heartburn. Again, I dismissed it as just a side effect from my organs shifting back into their normal place. But by the time the next morning rolled around, I couldn’t lie down at all without feeling like I was suffocating. In the morning I went in to see my OB GYN, fully expecting to be told that I had heartburn and to go home and take some TUMS.
She sent me to the hospital immediately. Do not Pass Go. My blood pressure was high, my heart was not pumping as it should, and my oxygen levels were dangerously low. The doctors at the hospital knew one thing: I was in the midst of congestive heart failure. But no one knew why.
Within 48 hours, I had gone from being an excited mother, welcoming home her new baby, to being in the hospital with my legs strapped into the bed, an oxygen mask on my face, and fluid building in my lungs, limbs and chest. Doctors were fairly certain that I had developed postpartum eclampsia, a rare condition in which mothers develop high blood pressure after childbirth. But that still didn’t account for what was going on with my heart. And after rounds and rounds of tests performed by a team of physicians, the doctors remained perplexed.
I spent the next four days in the hospital. Because I was unable to move from the bed, my baby could not be in the room with me without someone else in the room 24/7. He stayed at home with my husband, who had to tend to our other child. My heart ached every time I had to pump overnight with the knowledge that I was away from my baby boy. Every time I fell asleep, I was awakened by the clang of the oxygen monitor, signaling that my oxygen levels had dropped. After a while I just stayed awake, trying to force myself to breathe harder in the hopes that my stronger breaths would help get me home.
At one point my doctor came in and told me the worst case scenario: they were investigating the possibility that I had developed a disorder called peripartum cardiomyopathy: a rare condition in which pregnancy causes irreversible damage to the heart. An estimated 25 to 50 percent of women who develop this condition die from it. What should have been one of the happiest times in my life was now the most terrifying.
Fortunately, my final prognosis was not terminal. Instead, doctors believed that I had a leaky heart valve that had weakened more during pregnancy, causing it to struggle to pump hard enough to supply my body with oxygen. I was released from the hospital, but had to begin a follow up plan immediately with a cardiologist, one of the tenets of that plan being no strenuous activity until they were confident that my heart was strong enough, which took about six months.
Today, other than having to add the cardiologist to my list of regular doctor’s visits, my heart valve issues are behind me. But as scary as the experience was, it was also one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
In our culture’s obsession with getting the perfect post-baby body look, we have lost sight of the fact that no matter how your body looks on the outside, a post baby body has to heal. Yes, losing the weight can be a big part of feeling like we’ve returned to “ourselves.” But making sure your uterus shrinks down to its normal size, or having stitches that heal properly, or managing postpartum depression, are realities that we’ve completely lost sight of.
Instead of viewing the postpartum period as a recovery process, we talk about it like a fat phase that women need to bounce back from as quickly as possible. The focus is entirely on how a post-baby body should look, instead of how physically and emotionally, a post baby body should feel.
Being thrust into the position of worrying about whether or not I would be around to celebrate my son’s first birthday forced me to understand my body beyond what it looks like to the outside world. Nothing made clear for me the amazing work that our bodies need to do to carry and birth children than having every concern about my body be stripped down to wondering whether or not my heart would take another beat.
One year later, I am just returning to my pre-baby weight. But I love my post-baby body, not because I have or haven’t bounced back, but because I still have one. In spite of what could have been, I am here to to raise my children, hopefully for a very long time, and I’m still here to tell my story. For me, my body has never been more beautiful.
BMWK, Did having a baby ever affect your life in a negative way? How did you deal with it?