Elizabeth Dunlevy (33), Owen (4), and Maeve (1)
Elizabeth shares -
"In 2006, when I was 22, I was diagnosed with MS. It started with my right wrist going numb and then the fingers in my hand and then all the way up my arm and then the whole right side of my body was numb. Steroids, injections, infusions and all sorts of medicines later it went away only to come back on the left side and then both legs and then both arms and then it was in my equilibrium system giving me vertigo. The attacks were different every time but always intense. In addition to the numbness there was confusion, brain fog, exhaustion, dizziness and short term memory problems. I went from straight As to straight Cs in one semester because I couldn't remember anything. It was like I stopped being able to learn. I was constantly in and out of the hospital and the doctors in the beginning told me that I shouldn't focus on going back to school and I may never graduate (I was a bio-chem major to go premed).
They made comments about the potential for me to be in a wheelchair soon. They had me talk to all sorts of other really sick MS patients to hear their "success stories" but they all sounded miserable. And only a few of them had been able to have children and they all seemed to have gotten even worse after having had kids. I didn't want to be like that. I tried a few different injectable treatments but I was still so sick. I also tried to go off of all the medicine to see if I could handle without it and only ever lasted 4-6 months before another attack or being hospitalized again. The last medicine was an infusion every 28 days but was told I had to be off of it for at least 6 months to clear my system before I could even start trying to get pregnant.
I knew their had to be another way but I just didn't know where to start looking. In 2008 my grossly overgrown appendix perforated, caused infections all throughout my abdominal cavity exploded. The surgery started out with them trying to go in laparoscopically but when they went in the appendix burst and they had to open me up from my belly button to my pubic bone. After the surgery I had so many problems healing and with internal scar tissue. For months I had to see a physical therapist and a pelvic pain specialist for therapy to try to help me heal. Things got slightly better but I still am bothered by the scar tissue even 9 years later. Both of my Fallopian tubes had been flagged for scar tissue and I was told that I would be a high risk for ectopic pregnancies.
When we finally were ready to start our family we had a fertility consult and given that risk and the MS meds and the whole timing to clear my system the fertility center recommended we go straight to IVF and bypass the Fallopian tubes tp give us a better chance if we only had a 1-2 month window off meds based on my history. Owen is an IVF baby and was one of three embryos transferred. Initially the OB (in Miami-where we lived) who took over after the transfer (in San Diego-our home base for most healthcare since we move around) told us that we had lost all 3 babies. We didn't even find out that I was actually still pregnant until I was almost 10 weeks during a visit to the ER. After so many weeks of bleeding I didn't believe it would even be possible to have a life still thriving inside of me.
Later the midwives who we ended up working with (after moving to St Petersburg, FL) explained that I'd most likely suffered two partial miscarriages and that this one baby was our little miracle, a fighting survivor. Just a few days after we found out that we had a survivor, the nausea kicked into full gear and I felt sick 24/7 until I was almost 19 weeks. Feeling sick like that was so debilitating but I found a tiny bit of comfort in it. I kept telling myself that if I was still sick I was still pregnant. Then at our midpoint ultrasound we were told that we had a very healthy baby girl. After the initial shock of having a girl set in (I always said that I wanted 4 boys) we started getting really excited. We talked about girl names and even went shopping and picked out the cutest little outfits. Four weeks later we had to go back for another ultrasound and saw very clearly that our baby was in fact a boy.
Right around the same time the baby's movement patterns changed and I began to feel very disconnected to the pregnancy. I left everything in the room that was going to be the baby's and shut the door for a while. It took me a few weeks to start reconnecting with our baby boy. After that passed, things went pretty smoothly. We we transferred to St Petersburg, FL when I was around 25 weeks and found a midwife practice that was like a breath of fresh air compared to the different OBs that we had tried out in Miami. Owen was due Nov 3 but that day came and went without any changes. Finally, on the night of the 13th, my waters released around 10:30. Contractions/surges soon started and we got to the hospital around midnight. I was only 2cm but they wanted me to stay since my waters had already released and said to lay down and get some sleep. Around 6:30 the next morning they said I was still at 2cm maybe 2.5cm.
Because of my MS, I had been advised not to have an epidural if at all possible. We took a hypnobirth class and planned to try for a natural, drug free water birth. After laboring all night and not making progress I had a moment of doubt and felt like I wasn't going to be able to make it though till the end. Then something in me became very determined to keep with our hypnobirth plan. I got in the zone and became very focused. Two hours later I felt like I had waves pushing through my body as the baby started to work his way out. I told the nurse that I felt like I needed to push. She probably thought I was delirious, until I rolled over and there was blood everywhere and sure enough I was fully dilated and ready to go.
Immediately chaos and panic surrounded me. The tub wasn't set up yet, the midwife wasn't there yet. No one was ready for me, even though I was ready. It must have triggered something in me and it was like everything just stopped. It took another 3 hours until Owen actually came earthside. By that time I had lost my hypnobirth concentration and when they said to push I did instead of breathing the baby down like we had practiced. We had our baby boy and we were in love but I think I was always a little sad that I wasn't able to stay focused all the way to the end for our hypnobirth.
Owen was breathing a little funny so they didn't want me to nurse right away but encouraged skin to skin. After a few hours it hadn't changed so they moved him to the NICU. After they had his breathing calmed down I was finally able to give nursing a try. Luckily it all went pretty well for us and Owen continued nursing until he was 20 months.
We wanted to try for another baby then and I had to stop nursing before we could continue with fertility treatments. We did a frozen transfer with the three remaining embryos we had chosen to save. Five days later I had a positive pregnancy test and at 10 days the levels were high enough that they told me to expect multiples. But when I finally went to have an ultrasound there were no heartbeats. It was devastating and on top of loosing these babies I had so much guilt for having stopped nursing Owen to do this transfer that didn't result in a sibling for him. When we had our follow up fertility meeting I talked to the doctor about any other possible options. He said I could have my Fallopian tubes tested to see how severe the noted scar tissue from my appendix explosion aftermath surgery was. I had the test done a few months later and everything seemed completely clear and fine so they gave us the green light to try to get pregnant on our own.
We had a positive home pregnancy test in January but then I started a period almost on schedule. The same thing happened in February. We decided to take a break from trying for a few months and June we got pregnant with Maeve on our own. Right away I just knew I was pregnant. I remember waking up thinking I was pregnant and it was a girl. It was so weird but I just knew. Sure enough a few weeks later I went to see a midwife and had a confirmed pregnancy due in mid March. Thankfully this pregnancy was pretty uneventful besides some mild nausea and feeling exhausted for the first trimester.
We found a doula who also did a hypnobirth refresher for us and I was determined to have the peaceful hypnobirth didn't get in Owen's birth. I woke up around 3:30am thinking I was feeling surges so I downloaded an app to help track it. Sure enough the surges started coming pretty regularly so I quietly went downstairs sat on my birthing ball and started watching the movie What to Expect When You're Expecting. I wanted a funny distraction to help me laugh my way through the surges. After reading a birth story that talked about how everyone participating in the birth feeds off the laboring woman's energy and emotional state had decided that I wanted to be as happy and positive as I could be to help everyone around me feel the same. It worked. Each surge got me feeling so excited that I was one step closer to meeting my daughter.
Through hypnobirthing I learned so much about what my body was doing in labor and why which made it so much easier for me to embrace the surges. I stayed very relaxed and before I knew it we were heading out the door to the hospital listening to the birthing affirmations the whole way to help set the mood and keep us focused. We had planned on having another water birth but that didn't happen. My waters released a few minutes after 6am with 10 blocks still to go. Those were 10 very intense blocks. We left the car in valet, found a wheel chair and headed up to the labor and delivery floor. Before they could even get a room ready for me I was wheeled out of the lobby and through triage where I could see an open bed. I asked Andrew to wheel me over to the bed and said that's where I was having this baby. I didn't care about the water birth anymore I just wanted to be able to stay calm and stay focused in a hypnobirth mindset. Andrew was such a great birth partner and helped me stay right where I wanted to be. When they said push he reminded me to breathe the baby down. I kept staring at him and it was like we were in our own little world, just surrounded by nurses, midwives and hospital staff. Two breaths and they said her head was out. Not thinking it would be that fast I thought maybe I misheard and they had said they could see her head. Nope. Next breath her shoulders were out but her cord was wrapped around her back and shoulders like a vest. They untangled her and laid Maeve onto my belly. 6:42am, just over three hours from when I woke up with my first surge.
I was in disbelief that it had happened so fast. I think we all were. Especially the random people on the bed right next to mine in the triage area with just a thin curtain separating us. I was so proud of Andrew for being the exact birth partner that I needed and of myself for having the calm and positive birth environment I wanted to be able to create even in the chaos of a fast labor this time. Maeve nursed right away as they wheeled us over to a room in the postpartum area.
Somewhere along the way of the fast birth and skipping a few of the normal steps no one (myself included) realized that I hadn't gone to the bathroom until much later that day. By that time I had an incredibly full bladder that they could see on ultrasound but I couldn't get the pee to come out. We tried all sorts of tricks but nothing worked. So they put in a catheter to drain my bladder which they said had more than a wine bottles worth of fluid. This kept on for another day until they finally decided to leave the catheter in for a few days and just keep a bag strapped to my leg. 5 days after Maeve was born we were finally able to go home but I still had a catheter.
Walking around with a bag or urine strapped to my leg felt so demoralizing. All I wanted to do was be home enjoying my new family arrangement and this put such a dark cloud over it all for me. I couldn't ever get comfortable without the tubes bothering or irritating me. It was horrible. When it was finally time to get the catheter out and see if I could finally pee on my own the nurse accidentally filled up the catheter balloon with fluids while meaning to fill up my bladder and actually exploded the balloon while the catheter was still inside of me. The sound it made, the pain from the burst, the shock of it all, the internal trauma all added to the already uneasy postpartum feelings I was having. It was horrific. But I was finally able to pee on my own a little bit when they had me try. It was a slow road to recovery and I definitely experienced a little bit of postpartum depression but a few months later and everything seemed normal again.
Nursing on the other hand began to pose all sorts of challenges that I had never experienced with Owen. Clogged ducts, thrush and more clogged ducts. I was bruised from all of the massaging to try to help loosen things up. I wanted really badly to give up with nursing but I kept remembering how wonderful of a nursing journey I had with Owen and knew that it would be worth it to just keep pushing through whatever came up. Now 15 months postpartum I'm glad that I didn't give up on nursing Maeve and also so thankful that I'd had such a positive first experience so I knew how good it could be. I plan to continue nursing Maeve until she decides to ween herself and hopefully we will be able to have a few more children to add to our family someday.
I've always been sort of so-so on my body image but I'm trying to get better. Maybe I should apply just fake it till you make it here also. Even though having babies has definitely changed my body and rearranged a few things for me and I may not like everything about my body every day, I've never been more in awe of my body and what it is capable of. Being pregnant is such a mind blowing experience. It's so amazing when you really think of all that our bodies are capable of. There are days when I look in the mirror and think ugh why did I skip yoga yesterday or that I wish I was a runner or I should eat more salads and less chocolate. But then I also see the body of a mother who grew children and that makes me smile.
Now having a daughter of my own I feel like it's important for me to have a positive self image and to help her grow up feeling the same way. I want to teach all of my children the importance of taking care of her body but also that they will always be beautiful no matter what. I'm still working on it, but for the most part I'm comfortable with my perfectly imperfect self. And that may mean wearing a one piece instead of my old bikinis but who cares. I'm going to put my swimsuit on and have fun with my kids at the beach and the pool all summer. My husband and I are high school sweethearts and first started dating in 1999. I know he thinks I'm more sexy now as the mother of his children.
Parenting is the craziest journey I've been on yet. It is more challenging and more rewarding and more amazing and sometimes very frustrating but also full of more love than I ever knew possible. It is such a mix of feels and emotions every single day.
I don't know exactly what my truth is. The best advice I think I ever got when I was pregnant was just to fake it till you make it. It's true though. I always say about traveling with my kids that kids can smell fear so I have none. Maybe something about having confidence in the decisions you make, or just being able to go with the flow, or I don't know... Maybe to have as much fun as possible with your kids while they're still kids (and they still want to have fun with you) because it all goes way too quickly.