India’s Birth Story

With Owen’s birth, I had the most amazing midwife on the planet, Sandhano Danison. He was born in our bed in our home in Missoula, and the care that I received in the months before the birth, during the labor and birth, and for the weeks after was phenomenal. I was very aware of the fact that the care that I received was not at all the norm. I trusted my midwife with my life and my baby’s life and learned things from her that I never would’ve learned otherwise. She was and still is an angel and one of the most important people in my life that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

So moving to Mexico while pregnant and imagining who might be helping me with my second birth was a little bit terrifying. The bar had been set so high. But on the other hand, my first experience had given me a lot of trust in the process of birth, so I didn’t feel like it was quite as mandatory to have the ‘perfect person’. Luckily, I did find a wonderful doctor who seemed to be able to offer me the chance to birth in a way that felt good to me even if it wasn’t in my home.

The only thing that bothered me was that I had to have an ultrasound at 38 weeks. It was mandatory. This might not sound like a big deal to most people, but it really bothered me that I had to do something that I didn’t feel was necessary. I’d had a basic ultrasound at 36 weeks (which I also didn’t want to have) and felt like that was sufficient. With Owen and my amazing Montana midwife, it’d been left up to me to decide if I wanted ultrasounds. I’d had one at 7 weeks to confirm the pregnancy and due date, and that was it.

But I didn’t want to ruin my best chance at a natural birth, so I had the ultrasound at 38 weeks. I should explain here that Mexico has an incredibly high rate of c-sections. It is way higher than in the U.S. I don’t have the stats, but during my pregnancy I asked a lot of moms about their births. 9 out of 10 women asked declared that they’d had a c-section, and there was always a reason: the doctor said that my pelvis was too small, the doctor said it was just time to have the baby, the doctor was worried about this, the doctor was worried about that. The more women I talked to, the more I felt like a warrior who would need to fight for a natural birth. So if that meant have an ultrasound that I didn’t want, then fine.

The woman who did my ultrasound met me in the hallway in super high heels. ‘We are not in Montana anymore,’ I thought. She was the ultrasound doctor and would give me my results that same day, right after the exam. We briefly discussed my first birth, and I enthusiastically described how my son had been born in our home. She was not impressed. I had this feeling that something wasn’t quite right. The exam took a lot longer than I’d expected. In the middle of it, she got a personal phone call. She continued to do the ultrasound with the wand in one hand and her phone in the other for about 5 minutes. Finally, it was finished, and she was all business and no smiles.

We went back to her desk and sat down. The first words out of her mouth were, “This baby is no good.” “What?!” I exclaimed, in disbelief. “What do you mean?” “Well, the cord is wrapped around her neck one time, and your placenta is old, and your amniotic fluid is low, and if you don’t have this baby in 1 week, well, you need to have this baby in 1 week.” My heart sank. I’d felt all along that everything was fine with my baby. I’d just lost a bit of my mucous plug the day before. I’d felt intensity and had experiences that made me feel sure that she was coming at any moment. This woman offered zero warmth, zero information, just reported her findings, like, take your natural birth and shove it. I really didn’t like her and had the feeling that she enjoyed her power in the situation a bit too much.

We left the office in a daze. I knew enough about birth that I knew that it was normal for these things to show up at the end of a pregnancy. I knew enough about technology and birth to know that the more technology is utilized, especially at the end, the less likely a woman is to have a natural birth. But still, it all really got under my skin, and I was incredibly worried. I would absolutely do whatever I needed to do if my baby’s life was in danger, but I would not be railroaded into a decision that didn’t seem necessary in a culture that doesn’t trust the birth process. I called my doctor right away. She was very reassuring, but I still worried that things would just suddenly slip out of my control. I called my midwife back in Montana, and she gave me great advice and reassured me as well.

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Around 8 months pregnant in Sayulita.

The next day, we went out for breakfast. I was feeling really down and worried and also still carrying a lot of stress with me from my sister’s near-death, when a woman approached me and asked about my due date. I half-heartedly answered her questions and didn’t really want to talk about my pregnancy. My gracious husband engaged with her, though, and through the course of conversation we discovered that this woman had the exact same thing happen to her in Seattle. She shared her story, and she shared how she’d had her baby within a few days without any problems. It truly felt like an angel had been sent to me to ease my mind and relax my body. It worked.

On Saturday, February 8th, 2014, I woke up and instantly thought, ‘Rollie’s. Pancakes.’ While still in bed, I announced those same words to my family. “Rollie’s! Pancakes!” I’d only had the pancakes at Rollie’s once, but there was no stopping the craving. While we were getting ready to go, I started having contractions. After realizing that they were 5 minutes apart and steady, we decided that we’d better pack for the birth center which was about an hour away in Puerto Vallarta.  It took around ½ an hour, and by that time my contractions had stopped from too much excitement. So we decided to go to Rollie’s anyway and get those pancakes. Instead of walking the few blocks, we drove just in case we needed to get going to Vallarta.

At Rollie’s, I ordered the magical, thin wonders with a side of cheesy potatoes. My body knew something that I didn’t. It knew that this would be my only meal for the day and that I needed carbs. They were so good! I could only fit about half of the food into my pregnant belly, so we got the rest to go. Still no contractions, so we decided to go on a little walk from the restaurant. We wandered up and over a hill and through the jungle to a little beach and then continued to the main beach of Sayulita. There, we ran into friends from Missoula who we’d been trying to connect with before their departure the next day. It was perfect timing. We chatted and told them that the baby was coming soon and settled into the sand. As a ‘cocos frios’ vendor wandered by, I snatched up a cold coconut and slurped it down. I fantasized out loud about taking a nap in the sand. That’s when Mark said that we should probably head home. We still needed to walk to the car and maybe drive to Vallarta.

Once we arrived back at our house, I took a shower and hopped into bed for a nap. When I awoke at around 3:30, I felt strange. I wondered why I wasn’t hungry and just had a feeling that we should get going. So we packed up again, this time rather easily. I quickly realized that I was feeling some urgency. Once in the car and pointing south, the contractions returned and stayed steady at five minutes apart for the entire drive. Winding through the jungle, we were stuck behind some slow-moving traffic, and I was relieved when we finally popped out onto the straight road for the second half of the drive. I called my mom, my sister and Mark’s parents and chatted in a very relaxed and excited way, even discussing baby names with Mark’s mom. I was relieved that the day had arrived and that our baby had cooperated with my wishes to arrive during the day and with plenty of time to spare.

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We’d just arrived at the birth center, and Doctora Tony is hurrying up the sidewalk.

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Things started to get intense once we were out of the car and waiting to go inside the birth center.

As we neared the birth center, I texted Doctora Tony to let her know that we were almost there. She said she’d be there in 5 minutes. I’m guessing that it was around 5:00 p.m. Something changed when I got out of the car. Things started to feel really intense, and I was overwhelmed with the urge to pee. Since the birth center was still locked, I had to just squat next to a tree in the boulevard. Luckily, the birth center wasn’t on a busy road, and I just hoped that any neighbors who might see me would forgive me for my transgression. Once my bladder was empty, things quickly became even more intense. Just as they did, I spotted Tony coming toward us and that allowed my body to relax even more. More intensity. But still jovial and in good spirits.

Once inside, we hurried to get our things ready. When asked, Owen had made it clear that he wanted to be with us for the birth but agreed that our friend, Chantel, would hang out with him during labor. For some crazy reason, we thought it necessary to also bring our dog. She’d been having serious separation anxiety issues from being a stray and had run away several times in the last few months. Given the chance to do it over, we would’ve left Rosie at home. Everyone was hustling to get ready, and I just knew that we didn’t have much time given that Owen had come in only 4 ½ hours. I asked Tony to fill the tub and spent a few contractions slow dancing with either her or Mark, whoever was free at the moment. At one point, I got onto the bed on all fours like I had with Owen, but it was just too intense. I got off the bed and asked if I could get into the water. It was ready, so Tony agreed. As soon as I stepped into the water and settled into position on my knees with my head on my arms on the side of the tub, I was instantly in a different world. It felt amazing.

While in the tub, I started moaning with each contraction. I remembered that with Owen’s birth I’d moaned, “Hohhhhhhh, hohhhhhh, hohhhhhhh” the entire time. Then at the very end, my midwife had said “Pahhhhh”, and as soon as I’d switched to that sound and changing the shape of my mouth from a tight ‘O’ to a loose ‘ah’, I’d had the urge to push. So this time, I didn’t fight the intense feelings and moaned “Pahhhhh” the entire time. I was very conscious of going with the power of labor instead of fighting it. With each contraction, the moaning got longer and stronger. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Let’s git ‘er done.’

With one of the last few moans, Tony exclaimed that she could see the head. I reached down and felt her head, and I was amazed by how small it felt and that it was actually there. I was also stoked that I felt so much more in touch with my body than I had during Owen’s birth. During his, my midwife had asked if I wanted to feel his head, and I said, “Nope!” A push or two more, and my most powerful moan yet was matched by the call of a peacock in the backyard. Then she was born. She slid out behind me, as I was still on one knee with one foot on the floor of the tub. She floated into Tony’s hands, and Tony graciously floated her back through my legs so that I could see her. I will never forget looking into her eyes, wide open and still under water, so calmly staring up at me. Our gaze was so powerful, and I took in her full head of hair floating in the water. Finally, I felt like it was time to lift her up into the ‘real world’, and I brought her up to my shoulder. She didn’t make a peep and was filled with so much peace and grace. Mark joined me in the pool along with Owen, and we spent a very long time just looking at our new baby and marveling at what a beautiful and peaceful birth it had been.

The relief and release that I felt during India’s birth was extraordinary. I’d had a lot of stress and anxiety on my plate during my pregnancy: first, making the decision to have the baby in Mexico and turn down Mark’s job offer, then physically moving to Mexico, then my sister’s terrible illness and lastly, the ultrasound from hell. I’ve never felt so much relief in a single moment as I did birthing my sweet baby, India. All of the crap was behind us now. We’d made it. All of us. My sister and her own baby included.

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Discomfortable

It is impossible to tell India’s birth story without first telling the story of my sister. They are and forever will be intertwined. They share a place on the shelf in the history of our lives: of India’s and my sister’s and her baby’s. Of all of our families and all of our friends and of acquaintances and strangers and hospital staff. And of mine.

But before telling this story, I need to explain that this is only my story. Given the circumstances, it feels selfish and self-centered to write about my own experience. But it’s all I have. Soooooo, here goes.

After Owen recovered from his staph infection and viral rash, we settled into our new routine: markets three days a week and making artwork to sell during the other work days. There were also doctor’s appointments, and it seemed like we were constantly driving the 45 minutes to Puerto Vallarta. We were busy as ever. Eventually, we dropped one of the markets that wasn’t working out for us to free up some precious time. Thanksgiving came and went without much notice, because American holidays can feel so damn weird in a foreign country. Next thing we knew it was almost Christmas.

Our little Christmas tree with shrinky dink ornaments.

Our little Christmas tree with shrinky dink ornaments.

As we put the finishing touches on our first Mexican Christmas, I got the message about my pregnant sister, Chris. She hadn’t been well for the last few weeks, and she’d gone to the ER for what she expected would be a breathing treatment for asthma. But instead of a breathing treatment, she was transferred in an ambulance to another hospital with a NICU and admitted to ICU with pneumonia. H1N1 was the culprit. There was talk about an emergency C-section. She was only 5 months pregnant, while I was 7 months along. My mom was flying down from Illinois to Oklahoma City to be with her. The news was sudden and crushing. I recalled that my sister had posted something on Facebook recently about being sick. I’d been scrolling through and hadn’t even said anything. No “Feel better, Sis!” I vowed to never make that mistake again.

Instantly and once again, I wondered what I was doing in Mexico. Our ‘adventure’ felt shallow, incredibly lonely and inconsequential. I longed to be with my family and to see my sister but knew that I didn’t belong in an ICU or on an airplane. “I don’t know what I’m DOING here,” I frantically told my mom, not thinking about how my own situation might add stress to everything else she had on her plate. Later, my other sister, Jenny, told me that she and my mom were worried about me. That was a huge wakeup call. Get it together, I thought. “I’m fine. Really. Please don’t worry about me. Tell Mom, please don’t worry about me. I’m not the one who anyone needs to worry about.” After that, I just accepted that I was going to feel incredibly uncomfortable but that Mexico was where I was supposed to be.

Making Peanut Butter Buckeyes with Owen.

Making Peanut Butter Buckeyes with Owen.

On Christmas Eve, I decided to make Peanut Butter Buckeyes with Owen. Chris had posted something about them recently, and they were always a family favorite. We’d had a few invitations for Christmas, but nothing had felt quite right. Then my friend Leia invited us over, and it immediately felt right. Her entire family was in town since the birth of her baby a month prior, and they were preparing a proper Christmas feast. We arrived with Buckeyes and wine and a need to be around some serious family love. The combination of Leia’s thoughtful and peaceful spirit, her ‘real’ Christmas decorations, her amazing family and her delightful, foodie husband was perfect. We really needed some Christmas cheer and found it that night. Later, her husband, Keith, would give me his amazing bone broth when I was battling a cold, and Leia would give me a giant bag of chamomile tea to help ease my anxiety.

Best purchase ever: fresh flowers. I've never stared so hard at flowers. It helped.

Best purchase ever: fresh flowers. I’ve never stared so hard at flowers. It helped.

The week of Christmas, our Internet was down. I couldn’t communicate without it—I’d been making calls using Wi-Fi but mostly used Facebook messaging to stay in touch with my family. So a few days after the initial message regarding my sister, I went to a coffee shop to check my messages and found out that she’d been put on a ventilator. She just couldn’t keep up with her breathing anymore. The staff had been holding off for as long as possible due to the complication of her being pregnant. I read the message over and over again with tears rolling down my cheeks and surrounded by tourists on Christmas vacation. Being put on a ventilator also meant being put on a paralytic, which meant that she was in a medically-induced coma. I think I might’ve muttered, “Fuck.” I kept reading the words, hoping that they’d rearrange themselves and change the outcome.

The rest is a blur of bad news and anxiety. Chris developed some blood clots. She also had an infection somewhere that was causing a fever. She then acquired ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) which can happen when people are hospitalized with pneumonia. As soon as I heard the news about the ARDS, I Googled it with a lump in my throat. High mortality rate. Odds not in her favor. Long recovery if she did survive. I asked my mom if she’d Googled it. She hadn’t. Did they know how scary this was? They did. They were there with her and witnessing it firsthand. The anxiety was overwhelming, and my sister occupied my every waking thought. There were nights that I’d wake up and start breathing very deliberately, in and out, praying simultaneously, ‘Sister, I’m here, you’ve got this, I’m breathing for you.’ Then I’d talk to family the next day and find out that she’d had a hard night the night before, that they’d thought they were going to lose her. This happened several times. Jenny said, “You two have always had a strong connection.”

I emailed my midwife back ‘home’ in Missoula and explained what was happening. She reassured me that it’s normal for pregnant women to feel vulnerable and anxious even without the added stress of my sister’s illness. And even without the added stress of preparing to give birth in a foreign country. Oh, yeah. Right. I was also battling my own demons, because I adored my midwife back home. She’d been there for me throughout my pregnancy with Owen and had attended his birth in our home. She was a wise and incredible woman who I fully trusted. No one could compare to her in my mind. While I was incredibly relieved and happy to have found Doctora Tony in Puerto Vallarta, I found myself very much longing for the familiar.

A sign in the grocery store parking lot.

A sign in the grocery store parking lot.

To treat the ARDS, they put Chris into a crazy contraption called a Rotoprone bed. She was now in a coma, paralyzed and strapped face-down into this thing that swayed her back and forth. It all just sounded so Frankenstein-like. I felt more and more like I was losing her. Where was she? How was her baby? How was her baby possibly going to be okay? I researched the drugs that she was on. ‘Grade D for pregnant women.’ After a bit, I asked Jenny, “Do I want to see the bed? I kind of do, but I also really don’t.” Eventually, she sent me a picture of it with my sister in it. It sort of helped and sort of made it worse.

I became addicted to staring at my Facebook messages, waiting for a reply from family and for some good news. I’d lurk on her home page, since extended family would tag her in updates. I noticed how utterly faithful her husband was throughout the entire ordeal and how his updates were often in stark contrast to my own families’ updates. I’m certain it wasn’t easy for him, but his faith never seemed to lag. I wondered what was wrong with us that we couldn’t be more faithful. I sought out and found immense comfort from friends and family who were all praying for my sister. While I was just beginning to establish my Mexican community, our online network rallied around all of us in an indescribable way. It was incredibly comforting. And since I couldn’t NOT talk about my sister’s sickness even in casual conversation, I found myself more and more surrounded by caring people in Mexico.

Throughout her hospital stay, there was a sort of tug-of-war happening. On the one hand, there was Chris and her medical team. On the other, there was the baby and the baby’s team. There were doctors who were caring for Chris and wanted what was best for her, and there were doctors who had to concern themselves with what was best for baby. This is awkward to admit, but my concern early on was primarily for my sister. My feelings toward her baby were incredibly complicated. I resented any doctor who might not opt for the very best care for my sister if it wasn’t in the interest of the baby. Tricky, right? It’s hard to even write about it, but it was how I felt—absolute concern for my sister and a sort of ambivalence toward the baby, who was quite possibly lowering her chances for survival. It’s not that I resented him. It was more that I resented the situation. Throughout her weeks in the ICU, there was always the possibility of an emergency c-section. I was often confused. Was the concern for the unborn baby who would be healthier on the outside? Or was it for my sister who would fare better without growing another being inside? Or was it best for both? It never felt like it was best for either. And so the baby stayed inside. But later on, when they’d leave the room for the night with a scalpel placed strategically next to my sister’s bed, just in case, I realized that there was another element. Just in case my sister coded, they would try to save the baby. The image of Chris in her room with an isolette warming in the corner and a scalpel nearby just in case was, well, horrifying.

A sign in Sayulita.

A sign in Sayulita.

I began to worry about how the stress was affecting my own pregnancy. I had to get a grip. I had to find a place of peace somehow. I had to come to this utterly helpless place of accepting that my sister might die, and that if she did it was meant to be. That if her husband and three children were left behind, and if my baby lived and hers died, and if our family suddenly had three siblings instead of four… it was all meant to be. And even though no one ever wants to find themselves in that place, it is ultimately where I found peace. I finally had, as I remembered from a nursery school song at church long ago, a ‘peace that passes understanding down in my heart’. I could not control the situation, and I needed to stop trying to control it. I had to let go of my sister in order to free myself.

Owen's countdown calendar. Lots of important dates: my sister's birthday, Mark's birthday, Owen's birthday and my due date.

Owen’s countdown calendar. Lots of important dates: my sister’s birthday, Mark’s birthday, Owen’s birthday and my due date.

And then slowly, very slowly, she began showing signs of improvement. Relief. A step forward and then a step back. They weaned her off of the ventilator. More relief. Then she was put back on it. We danced for a while between joy and sadness. And then, eventually, she was finally ‘out of the woods’—just in time for her birthday, January 22nd. HUGE RELIEF!!! And I got to talk to her on the phone. While it was the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had with my sister in her coming-out-of-a-coma-state, it was incredibly comforting to hear her speak. “I had a dream that you died,” she said. Once I truly believed that she was on the mend, I turned my attention more fully to my own baby’s arrival. She was due on February 16th.

Jenny, Chris and my mom.

Jenny, Chris and my mom. Out of the woods.

Sister, there are no words. You made it. I love you. You are a miracle.

Hanging On

After we made the decision to head back to Mexico and have our baby there, things fell into place as they usually do once intentions become clear. We found a great family to rent our house, and Mark had so much work thrown his direction that he was able to be choosy about what worked best for our family. As he packed up for one last job in Stanley, Idaho, he simultaneously packed our car like a sardine can. We kissed him goodbye and caught up with him a few days later in Stanley.

Our last day in Missoula--getting some road treats from one of our favorite bakeries.

Our last day in Missoula–getting some road treats from one of our favorite bakeries.

Finalizing the packing and cleaning the house was a huge chore for my 5-months-pregnant self, but it had to be done. It felt really BIG to drive away from Missoula, just Owen and I, knowing that when we returned we’d be a family of four. We made our way to Mark’s hotel and spent a couple of nights there waiting for him to finish. Mark’s schedule is always kind of insane when he’s working, and this was no different. Awake before dark and home after dark, he put in long hours doing hard labor with just enough time at the end of the day to eat, shower and go to bed. So by the time he’d finished his job, he was pretty tired. And I was raring to go.

The view from Mark's hotel room in Stanley, ID.

The view from Mark’s hotel room in Stanley, ID.

Before we’d left Mexico in April, I’d been told by the head of the ‘artesanos’ that if I didn’t return in time for the first market of the season, my spot would go to someone else. “And everyone wants your spot,” he said cryptically in his thick, Chilean accent. I’d nodded back at him, wide-eyed.

I. Would. Not. Lose. My. Spot.

So that meant that we had to book it down to the border to make it back in time. Mark’s project had gone over by a day or two, and there was no time to spare. He was tired with no desire to rush, while I was a wound up pregnant woman about to move to Mexico. We clanged against each other for the first day or two on the road. Actually, I just clanged against him.

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Nevada. Love driving through Nevada!

When we finally crossed the border into Mexico and arrived at the visa office, we were right on track to make it back in time for the first market. But then it all went to hell when we realized that we didn’t have our car registration. Who doesn’t have their car registration in their car, like, all the time? Us, apparently. Our nomadic lifestyle had caught up with us, and neither of us could recall what we’d done with the registration. I had a vague, dim memory of possibly throwing it in the trash after peeling off the sticker and putting it on our license plates. The visa office didn’t care about our sticker—no registration, no car permit. Adios, amigos.

At this point, all of my exhaustion, anxiety and freakishness came to a head, and I burst into tears in the parking lot. Then Owen started crying. It was no bueno. Some locals saw the commotion and asked if they could help. They offered to make it happen for us. We just needed to give them some pesos, and they’d meet us at the OXXO convenience store right down the road with our paperwork. We hesitated for a second, thinking that maybe this would be the quick fix that we needed. Then a police truck rolled into the parking lot, and our helpers all scattered. One of them chatted with the police and returned to our car to ask if we wanted to do it. “No, gracias,” was our reply. Seemed just a tad too sketchy. So back across the border we went. We got a hotel room and arranged to have our registration overnighted from the fine people at the Missoula County Courthouse. We rested. It was glorious to be forced to slow down.

Entering the oasis of San Carlos on our first night back in Mexico.

Entering the oasis of San Carlos on our first night back in Mexico.

Once we had the registration in hand, things went more smoothly in every way. Except we’d had our car A/C fixed right before leaving Missoula, and it wasn’t working. As we headed into southern Sinaloa with our windows down and sun beating in on my side of the car, I wondered if I might die of heat stroke. All of the sudden, the heat became too much, and I begged Mark to pull over ASAP. He pulled over under an overpass, and I jumped out and dumped water on my head as if my hair were on fire. Since the sun was only beating down on my side of the car, I took over driving for a bit to get a break from it. Thankfully, the sun hid behind the clouds for the rest of our trip to Sayulita.

Owen making the most of a hot and windy car ride. Such a trooper.

Owen making the most of a hot and windy car ride. Such a trooper.

We arrived in the dark after our longest and hottest day of driving and pulled up to Tacos on the Street to eat. We called my new friend, Leia, who I’d only met online, to get the keys to our place. I’d met her on a Facebook group called Sayulita People when I was asking around about having a baby in Sayulita. She’d responded with great info, and we’d developed an email friendship. I brought her some things down from the States, and she’d checked out our house in Sayulita to make sure it was okay to rent. She was hugely pregnant and due in 2 weeks when I met her for the first time on that hot and humid night.

Leia, the most lovely surprise of a friend, with baby Evelyn.

Leia, the most lovely surprise of a friend, with baby Evelyn.

We found our place in the dark and opened the gate. It immediately felt amazing and like we’d hit the jackpot. We peeked inside and all let out huge sighs of relief. Yes, we could live here. It would be just fine. It was laid out like a studio, with a half wall separating the living area from the bedroom and one king-sized bed for all of us. But it would work.

Baby on board.

Baby on board.

During the first week, the mosquitos found Owen and were well-fed. The ticks found Rosie, too. It became the norm to pick up to 40 ticks off of her per night. Owen’s scratching led to the common (here) and annoying staph infection on his legs. It is a pain the butt to deal with, and all the tea tree oil in the world won’t beat it. Believe me, we tried everything. As the staph infection peaked, so did a fever and crazy rash. It came on in the middle of the night and had us worried, so we took him to his new pediatrician the next day.

The rash. Yikes.

The rash. Yikes.

It ended up being just a common (to here) virus, but the whole welcome-back-to-sayulita-here’s-a-staph-infection-and-scary-rash experience had me seriously questioning what I’d gotten my pregnant self into. To say that I felt vulnerable is an understatement. And if I’d known in that moment what was coming down the pipe, I’m fairly certain I would’ve packed my bags and headed home.

 

Limbo

 

Last summer, we were living in a month-to-month rental in Missoula with every intention of returning to Mexico for the winter when we found out that I was pregnant. Suddenly, everything was up in the air. Should we have the baby in Mexico? Should we stay in Missoula, ‘settle down’ and live a ‘normal’ life? What would it be like to give birth in Mexico? Would we be able to keep working south of the border with a newborn? How would we feel if we gave up on our dreams?

Mark, Owen and Rosie at Rattlesnake Creek shortly after returning to Montana.

Mark, Owen and Rosie at Rattlesnake Creek shortly after returning to Montana.

Before finding out that I was pregnant, I’d made a little list of goals for the summer. Number one on the list was ‘Apply for Mexican temporary resident visas.’ This would allow us to stay south of the border for a full year instead of just 6 months on a tourist visa. After moving back to Montana for the summer, we were all realizing just how stressful it was to find housing and make a living in two different places. Acquiring the resident visas would also be the first step toward working legally in Mexico. While researching how to do this, I quickly realized that our family didn’t qualify. Mexico had just changed the requirements, so as a family of three we would have to show around $3000/month coming into our account in the States even while in Mexico. We have rental income from renting our house, but it sure isn’t $3000! I asked two different attorneys—one in Mexico and one in the States—and both confirmed it. I really didn’t want to return to Mexico again and work with just a tourist visa and have to cross a border after six months with a 2-month-old baby, a 6-year-old and a dog. So that decided it. We were staying. It was heartbreaking, but it seemed to make sense.

Owen and Rosie on Waterworks Hill in Missoula.

Owen and Rosie on Waterworks Hill in Missoula.

In the midst of all of this, we started putting out feelers to find a full-time, year-round job for Mark. He hadn’t had a ‘real’ job since 2010 when he’d quit as General Manager of the Western Montana Grower’s Cooperative to build our house. Since then, he’d been piecing things together, working seasonally doing ecological restoration to allow for our winter escapes south of the border. On one particularly fear-filled day, I approached someone to inquire about work with their business. Talk turned to meetings, and meetings turned to a sweet job offer. After much hand-wringing and discussion, we decided that he should take the job.

When I think back on last summer, I remember lots of stress. But there was also lots of this.

When I think back on last summer, I remember lots of stress. But there was also lots of this.

Before leaving Mexico, I had applied to be a permanent vendor at a market in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. At the time, I considered it to be The Best Market in the Bay of Banderas. While we were trying to make the decision about the job offer, I kept saying, “I wish I could find out about the market before we decide anything.” Well, two days after Mark accepted the job, I heard that I’d been given a spot in the market. This alone was amazing news. But on the exact same day, I shot an email to my attorney contact in Mexico asking if having our baby in Mexico would change anything regarding the visa situation. “Absolutely” was the answer. She would be a dual citizen, and we could apply for residency without any problems. Unbelievable. I. Was. Giddy. But shit! Now what?! I knew what it all meant. It was crystal clear to me what it all meant. We should go to Mexico. But we didn’t decide to go for it overnight. Because staying in Montana seemed like the safe choice, the responsible choice. Maybe even the best choice.

Owen at Holland Lake with his boogie board.

Owen at Holland Lake with his boogie board.

Mark’s job wasn’t to begin for a few weeks, and this turned out to be a blessing and a curse. It meant that we had time to waffle back and forth and drive ourselves crazy trying to make a decision. It was one helluva summer and fall. Owen started Kindergarten to ‘see how it felt.’ (It felt okay.) We put our house on the market to ‘see how it felt.’ (It felt bad.) We decided to move back into our house to ‘see how it felt’. Well, on the night that we moved back in, I stared at the walls of the house that we’d planned for and built and painted and at the concrete floors that I’d stained and sealed and thought, ‘This isn’t enough.’ It wasn’t the bright colors of Mexico. Or the endless sunshine. Or the amazing street tacos. Or the smiles of Mexican strangers. Or the ocean waves or the beach or my son boogie boarding or the locals touching his ‘recitos de oro’ (golden curls). It wasn’t exciting or exotic or interesting. It was nice and comfortable but not right.

The house.

The house.

Mark was simultaneously having a very different experience. After living in other houses and apartments for two summers, he was falling back in love with the solid, near-perfect house that he’d built with his own two hands. And who could blame him? He started talking about how the new job would allow us to _______________________ (fill in the blank) while I was wondering if the new job might get us stuck. There is nothing wrong with living that way: working 9-5, kids in school, etc. Unless you don’t want it. But I was also appreciating how we could have a nice little routine in Missoula for the first time in years. For the 8 years that we’d lived at 428 and 434 N. 1st St. W., we’d worked our tails off renovating the old house and building the new one while juggling jobs, a baby and all of the rest that life brings. Now, if we stayed, we could live more freely with just a job and no house projects. That sounded pretty sweet.

Owen and Rosie on Waterworks Hill in Missoula.

Owen and Rosie on Waterworks Hill in Missoula.

But then I started really taking stock. I imagined my days: Mark would go off to work all day. Owen would go to school all day. I would spend my days home alone with a new baby and maybe try to fit it my art. That didn’t sound like the worst thing in the world by a longshot, but it sounded damn lonely. We’d just spent a couple of years being together as a family like never before, living the life that we wanted and I wasn’t ready for that to change. Not yet anyway. One night it just all came together. I said to Mark, “You can go to work all day every day building someone else’s business and being away from your family. Or you can work with me growing OUR business, have whatever schedule you like and be with your family whenever you want.” That made things pretty darn crystal clear. We both knew then that we had to go for it. So he turned down the job. It felt exhilarating and scary and crazy. And really, really good.

And so we started packing.

The Hardest Days

Wednesday: I’m hanging my four-and-a-half-month-old Owen’s cloth diapers on the line to dry and vaguely notice that there aren’t as many stained with that signature yellow, ‘breast milk poop’ stain. I chalk it up as changes. He must be getting older and pooping less. It’s a tiny blip in my day.

Thursday: I am suddenly engorged with milk, and I can’t figure out why. Nothing seems to have changed. Owen is still nursing. I call my oldest sister, but she isn’t home. I ask my niece to leave a message on their giant erase board: “Auntie Mel is engorged. Why now?!”

Friday: I’m holding Owen on my lap and then lifting him to the standing position. This is his latest thing that he loves to do. He stands for a second or two and then slumps down into a ball on my lap. Confused, I lift him to his feet again. This time, he slumps immediately. I’m curious but not alarmed.

Saturday: We wake up Saturday morning and find Owen’s cloth diaper from the night before is bone dry. This realization immediately sends a chill down my spine. His morning diapers are usually drenched. We change our plans to go to the Farmer’s Market and walk to Now Care instead.

I tell the doctor what I know: That I’ve been engorged. That his diaper was bone dry when he woke up. That there is something weird going on with his swallowing, like it hurts or bothers him. The doctor isn’t worried about his dry diaper and tells me that sometimes babies will go on a hunger strike when they’re teething. Maybe he’s just teething so not wanting to nurse as much. I believe in my heart that there is something really wrong, but I can’t pinpoint what it is. I ask him to test him for something. What is up with his swallowing? Please test him for Strep. The doctor clearly thinks this is ridiculous but does the test. It’s negative. He tells me to take him to Community Hospital if things are worrisome over the next few days.

As I check out at the front desk, the nurse jokes that no baby has ever died from a hunger strike. No baby has ever died from teething. I nervously laugh along with her but think it’s a really strange thing to say.

Saturday afternoon: I treat Owen for teething, because I want to help him in any way that I can. I give him teething tablets and continue to wonder and worry.

Sunday: I go for a walk with a friend. It’s a really hot day, and I’m carrying Owen in the Ergo. He seems more slumped down inside of it than normal. He just seems so not right, but it’s subtle. I’m sure I chatter on the entire time about my concerns to my friend, who offers teething advice. We stop at Bernice’s Bakery for a second and then head back home. The heat has me worried about Owen staying hydrated. We’re halfway across the Higgins bridge when Leigh realizes that we’ve left my beloved dog, Barley, tied up at Bernice’s. I can’t believe I’m this distracted, and I’m also really annoyed to have to backtrack when all I want to do is be home in my cool house with my baby.

Sunday late afternoon: I’m getting more and more worried about Owen. I need to get some things from the store, and I leave Owen home with Mark. I run into people we know, and I’m a mess. I tell them that there’s something wrong with Owen but we don’t know what, and that I’m really worried. I rush through the store and hurry home.

Sunday night: I stay up on the couch with Owen all night. I make it my duty to try and nurse him throughout the night. I slip off to sleep and dream that Mark has fallen into an icy pond. I’m just feet away from him but can’t reach him. I have to choose between helping him and risking my own life or staying safe on the edge of the pond. I wake with a start.

Monday morning: As Mark readies for work, I ask him if he really needs to go. It’s Monday, his busiest day of the week during his busiest time of the year managing a farm cooperative. He doesn’t have a back-up person. It’s just him. I cry as he leaves. It’s obvious that I’m more worried than he is. I’m a mom.

I call a friend to reach out. She asks what she can do, and I ask her to pick up some baby Motrin. She brings it by, checks in on us, isn’t alarmed. Another friend stops by. I look into her face to see if she’s worried after seeing him. She is concerned for us but doesn’t seem overly worried. Nothing is obvious or alarming.

We have friends working on our house. They’re hanging sheet rock in our mud room. I tell them that I’m really worried. I’m dying for someone to look at my baby, be alarmed and tell me what to do. Owen can’t hold up his head anymore. I put him down on the bed for a nap and do the dishes. I check on him a few times and realize that I’m checking on his breathing. I call my mom. “Just don’t let him get too weak,” she says. I go back into the bedroom, look at my baby and panic. I start calling everyone we know, asking for a ride to Now Care. I’m too stressed to drive us there alone. My friend Lindsay, who came earlier with the Motrin, comes to pick us up. She has two small kids, and I feel bad for putting her out. I leave a note for Mark. We mess with car seats and get Owen’s in the back seat. I sit on top of one of her kid’s seats, right beside Owen. I’m not leaving his side.

Monday evening: We get to Now Care, and they look inside his mouth. They see all of this white stuff on his tongue, which I know is the teething tablets that have built up, and they send us straight to the ER. I’ve been worried for days, but suddenly it feels like a true emergency.

We get to the ER. There are other people in the waiting room. The nurse who checks us in is blasé. She weighs Owen, and I am startled that he weighs a pound less. I mention this, and she says, “All scales are different. Why are you here?” I tell her that I’m worried that my baby is dehydrated. I wait my turn in the waiting room. Owen starts to whimper and cry in this really quiet, sad, pathetic way. It is heart-breaking, and I stare at everyone else in the waiting room with annoyance. They do not have emergencies. I vow that if I ever have an emergency again, I will call an ambulance. I’m sure that would get us seen right away.

Mark shows up and relieves Lindsay. We get called back to a room and wait for a doctor. Owen is still whimpering, and it sounds just awful. Finally, someone pokes in their head and says, “How old is he? Someone will be right in.”

Once the nurses come in, it feels like we’re getting somewhere. They set right to putting in an IV. It’s really hard for them, because he’s so dehydrated. It seems like it takes forever. I bow my head and pray over and over again that they can get it in. They get it. I feel amazingly relieved. I naively think (or hope) that this is all he needs. A bit of IV fluid, then we’ll find out what’s wrong, then we’ll go home. They check his diaper after a bit. No crystals in his pee. “Good,” they say.

The doctor on call arrives. She asks a ton of questions and is reaching to find an answer. She sees a canning jar sticking out of my diaper bag. “Did he have that?” “No,” I reply. “That’s just my juice.” She looks over the teething tablets with Belladonna in the ingredients and chastises me for giving them to my baby. She wonders about diphtheria due to the whiteness on his tongue and his lack of immunizations. I explain that I’m pretty sure it’s from the teething tablets. Owen is admitted to the hospital at midnight. Coincidentally, and quite remarkably, his insurance goes into effect at midnight. He had to be uninsured for one month in order to qualify. That month was June. Now it’s July.

Once in a hospital room, I realize how relieved I am to have handed my baby over to professionals. I don’t have to carry this burden alone anymore. I’m too emotionally exhausted to hover around them much. I disappear to the sidelines for a bit and wait for an answer. Because the doctor is wondering about diphtheria, everyone has to gown and mask up before entering the room and then throw it all in the trash before exiting. Every time. It is dramatic, to say the least. I know my baby doesn’t have diphtheria. I’m annoyed but whatever. At 2:30 in the morning, the doctor takes Mark and I aside and lectures us on the importance of immunizations. “Babies die at this age.” She leaves it at that. I hate her.

We wander out to the kid play area and lie down on the rug, bleary-eyed and helpless. There is nothing for us to do except stay out of the way. The silver lining to Owen’s sad condition is that he can’t cry. He is being poked and prodded by strangers, and he is not screaming bloody murder. Thank goodness. That would be so hard.

The night turns to morning, and there are still no answers. The hospitalist, Dr. Carter, comes on at 7 or so. She reviews his symptoms, talks to us and tells us right away that she thinks Owen has Infant Botulism from ingesting a dirt or dust particle containing the spore. She shows us a print-out of the signs and symptoms. I nod my head enthusiastically, “Yes, YES, this is what he has!!” We also find out that there won’t be any lasting effects. Utter relief fills the room. I want to hug her and kiss her.

Mark’s parents arrive, and they are crushed by the scene. Their sorrow and my joy are a strange mix, and I don’t really know how to deal with it. I’ve been there, and now I’m here. I want them to be here and hopeful with me. It takes time. I tell his mom how awful I feel that I didn’t get him help sooner. She is very encouraging, and tries to make me feel better. I’m very aware of how badly I now stink from the stress. The whole room must smell terrible.

The doctor is optimistic but also needs to rule out other possibilities. She orders a CT scan, some other things I don’t remember and a spinal tap. I have to sign the waiver for the tap. I don’t want to. Why do this, when I feel so certain that he has botulism? Dr. Carter seems like a smart and reasonable doctor. I sign it. I stay by Owen’s side during the other tests, but when it’s time for the spinal tap, I defer to Mark. They all head off to another room down the hall. I’m in the hallway, anxiously waiting for them to return, when they all come racing back into his room like a little pack. In the middle of the pack is Owen, and they are racing to stabilize him. I lose it. A mess of tears. It turns out that he is fine, but he turned ghostly white during the tap and looked like he was going to pass out.

From here on and for the next few days, he is in ICU. They take a stool sample, send it off to Utah. They order an Infant Botulism anti-toxin from California. It costs $45,000 and will be overnighted. The stool sample will be spun down and then injected into a mouse. If the mouse dies, it’s Infant Botulism. It is made clear to me that while he most likely has a diagnosis, ‘he’s not out of the woods yet.’ He might need to be ventilated if things go downhill before the anti-toxin arrives from California.

I sit upright in a chair with him that second night, holding him upright all night. He needs to be as upright as possible, since he’s lost the ability to swallow. “Infant botulism is a novel form of human botulism in which ingested spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum colonize and grow in the infant’s large intestine and produce botulinum neurotoxin in it. The action of the toxin in the body produces constipation, weakness  (notably of gag, cry, suck and swallow), loss of muscle tone, and ultimately, flaccid (“limp”) paralysis. Affected infants have difficulty feeding and often, breathing. However, in the absence of complications, patients recover completely from the disease.” (www.infantbotulism.org)

The days blend into themselves. There is round-the-clock pumping. Owen slowly improves. When the nurse brings the anti-toxin into the room in the palm of her hand, we all make a mental note that it’s as if she’s carrying a Mercedes. I wonder how she feels, carrying something so expensive and important. My mom, my sister and my brother-in-law have all flown in from Illinois. My mom stays with me. My sister and her husband busy themselves by cleaning our house and washing everything inside of it. Our house has been undergoing renovations, and just days prior to Owen getting sick, we gutted our dining room. My mama instinct is certain that this is how he got sick.

In the eight days that Owen is hospitalized, I go outside one time. I don’t sleep. I’m so relieved that my baby is going to be alright, but I am tired down to my bones. We excitedly take him home (although he still has a feeding tube). I step inside our house, and my excitement instantly fades. I pump while workers walk through the house. Even with the cleaning, it is not homey. It is still getting renovated. There aren’t any nurses helping. We’re on our own. My family gives me permission to cry. I do.

For who knows how long, I walk around as a shell of a person. I engage with friends, but in my heart I feel utterly alone. No one can carry this exhaustion–this trauma–for me. It is just mine. I take Owen in for a check-up a week later. His doctor asks how I’m doing. I look at her. No one has asked me that. Why would they? I tell her I’m not well. I’m exhausted and a mess, and Mark and I have been fighting from the stress. She tells me that we should try to treat each other with grace and writes a ‘prescription’ for fish oil and vitamins. I feel a little bit better.

It will be a long time before I get over this. Babies are hard, sleep deprivation is hard and this has pushed it all to the limit. I don’t really move forward very well until I finally get some good sleep. It seems like that takes about two years.

Now, it’s been five years. I thought I was well past the emotions of that time. Until Owen got sick again. It wasn’t even remotely the same–he was mildly sick for 6 or 7 weeks with mycoplasma (walking pneumonia)–but when we finally realized what was wrong with him and sought treatment, it brought back some intense feelings and emotions. Why didn’t I get him help earlier? Hindsight really is 20/20. Thankfully, he is healthy and vibrant once again.

Parenting is by far the hardest thing that I will ever do. But it is also the luckiest thing, a thing that I will never take for granted.

 

New York’s Not My Home

In the fall of 1997, I quit my first ‘real’ job at Planned Parenthood of Missoula, sold or gave away most of my belongings and hopped on a train bound for Chicago. I was going to meet up with one of my best college girlfriends, and we were going to drive to New York City to start fresh and live with her boyfriend. As I made my way from Missoula to the train station in Whitefish, I looked at the low-hanging, ominous, dark clouds shrouding the Mission Mountains and thought, “Thank, God.” I’d spent a little over a year in Montana, and I’d loved it. But it had also been really hard and really lonely. I jumped at the chance to reunite with my friend who’d spent the last year teaching English in Korea.

Our reunion was lovely, and we quickly got down to the business of driving to NYC. After a quick visit to my Mom’s in central Illinois, we were on our way. The plan was to drive straight through in one day, and that’s exactly what we did.

About midway through our drive, my friend started confiding in me that there was maybe another guy that she was interested in. I don’t remember if I hid my shock or just laid it all out, but I was horrified. I’d just quit a job and sold everything to go live with her boyfriend while we found jobs and eventually found a place of our own. The Boyfriend was the key piece to this move happening sanely. Things got a little tense. As we approached the city, I asked if she could take over the wheel as she’d promised, and she froze. So I drove us over that giant bridge and into Manhattan at something like 12:30 in the morning. The skyline was incredible and overwhelming in our bleary-eyed state.

About 2 days into our stay, the boyfriend announced that I could stay, but that my friend needed to move out. They were breaking up. My worst nightmare was coming true. We both stayed on while we sorted things out, and I knew immediately that for me, this was a deal-breaker. This was not what I’d signed up for. I frantically ran through a list of possibilities in my head, all of which led me back to Montana with my tail between my legs. “I just had a going-away party,” I thought. “How can I go back so soon?”

With my favorite cousin in town with his new wife, I did have some fun during those 1 ½ weeks. I called it my ‘1 ½ week-long really stressful vacation’. Somewhere in there, I remembered a woman I’d met at my job at Planned Parenthood. She’d written ‘Montana Conservation Corps’ as her employer on her intake form, and I’d asked her about it. She spoke of building trails in the wilderness, working outside and working with her body. It sounded pretty awesome from inside that windowless clinic. And a heck of a lot less stressful.

So there I was in NYC, dialing the number for the Missoula MCC office. When Keith, my future boss, answered the phone with his gravelly, laid-back, hippie/mountain man voice—the polar opposite of what I was experiencing in downtown Manhattan— I knew that my future was sealed. I couldn’t have been happier. I ran to the nearest Kinko’s and faxed him my resume. Within days, I was back on the train, tail tucked in my back pocket.

This story is on my mind right now, because my niece is on her way to NYC to attend school at the AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts. My niece who just yesterday was five and holding hands with me on Rock Creek, asking me how mosquitos can see in the dark. My niece who grew up in my small hometown and went to the same schools that I did and has virtually the same background is moving to the big city. And she’s never been there! And I am so proud of her. To the moon proud. It’s painful to not be with her as she sets her eyes on that skyline for the first time.

Her story will be different. Yes, it will. And I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

PS—The Boyfriend and my friend did in fact break up that fall. They parted ways for a good 4 years or so. Then they reunited, got married, had two kids and moved to Copenhagen. And yes, we’re still friends. 😉

I’m Serious

I’m preoccupied these days. A major shift has occurred that, while not taking us completely by surprise, has made us surprisingly confused about the future. I’m pregnant. I was going to try to write a post about something else, because you’re not supposed to tell people that you’re pregnant when you’re early in your pregnancy. Right? But I couldn’t keep it a secret with #1, and I can’t with #2. It’s a really big deal, and I can’t pretend that nothing major is happening in my body right now. It kind of consumes my every waking thought.

baby owen

Minutes after Owen was born in our bedroom.

It is consuming my every thought, because The Plan was to return to Mexico in early November. And now, if all goes well, The Plan is to give birth in February in either Mexico or Montana. So here we are, trying to sort out our feelings and goals and concerns and dreams and see what shakes out in the end. I wish it were an easy decision. I really do. And maybe it will become an easy decision soon. But right now, I’m thrilled to be expanding our little family and utterly conflicted about what that means as far as Pursuing An Art Business In Mexico goes. It’s kind of a win-win situation, right? Mexico vs. Montana. Except that we were on this trajectory…

My fear is that all of this momentum that we created last winter will disappear if we don’t return. What if that’s it? What if we don’t make it back? On the other hand, I fear that I’ll underestimate what a Big Deal it is to give birth and care for a newborn and be sleep-deprived and that I’ll end up feeling overwhelmed in a foreign country with no family in sight. But then I think about the fish tacos at Bicho’s, and it’s like, who cares?! And I’m being totally serious! They’re that good.

salsas

This is making me drool!

I’ve already begun doing research on birthing down there: options, pricing, what to expect. Mark and I had an all-day discussion on Father’s Day as we drove a long loop from Missoula up Rock Creek, over to Philipsburg and back to Missoula, with some fishing and picnicking mixed in. It was perfect for talking it out. He’s torn, too.

owen with bubbles

Owen and his friend on Owen’s birthday in 2012.

So this is the very unexpected and exciting next chapter in our story. We’d been trying for another baby off and on since we first went to Mexico in the summer of 2011. The fact that it worked–finally–is a bit of a surprise! We told Owen recently, and he kept asking, “Are you serious?” over and over and over again. He was stunned, to say the least. I can’t even imagine what is going on in that sweet brain of his, but my guess is that he’s excited and confused, too.

Yes, honey, I’m serious.