Jessica Fischer Manuel (40), James (5), Cooper (4), Hadley (23 months)
North Shore, Mass | Photographed in Portland, ME
Jessica shares -
"I was diagnosed with PCOS in my twenties so I knew it was possible that I would have trouble getting pregnant. I married my husband at 31 years old and we started trying to have a baby right away. We went through four years of infertility tests, hormone replacements, and treatments before I finally conceived in March of 2010. At my 8 week ultrasound we discovered it was a twin pregnancy. We decided not to tell anyone because we wanted to reveal it to our mothers first, at our 12 week ultrasound.
Because I was considered a high risk pregnancy we went to see a specialist for the 12 week scan. As soon as the wand touched my belly, I knew something was wrong. My mother was there, my husband's mother was there, neither of them knew that it was twins and they were both so excited that they didn't notice. But Corey and I both knew. One of the twins had stopped developing shortly after my 8 week scan. The technician was very quiet, I could see the difference in the two embryos' size and she excused herself to get the doctor. When he came back in he asked our mothers to leave. He told us that yes, we had already lost one of the babies but that he was concerned for the other baby as well. The second baby had a rare neural tube defect called Anencephaly. It is a condition in which the babies body grows but it never develops a brain or skull. It is 100% fatal.
They told me I might miscarry on my own at any time during the pregnancy, I might give birth to a stillborn baby, or I might give birth to a baby that could live for a few moments. The only other option was to have a D&C. This was on a Friday and I would have to wait until Monday for the procedure. This was the only option as far as I was concerned. So I spent the weekend with the shades drawn. On Monday my husband and I went to the operating room and I had to sign paperwork that stated that I was consciously terminating my pregnancy. It seemed like a sick joke. All I had wanted was these babies, but because the baby with no brain still had a heartbeat, it was an abortion. It took another six months for me to feel like I could try again.
I got pregnant pretty quickly because we had figured out what combination of fertility treatments had worked for the first pregnancy. At the first ultrasound (this time at 10 weeks), I could hardly breathe because as soon as the wand touched my belly again, my husband and I saw two sacs and only one developing fetus. The technician couldn't say anything but we both knew we had lost another twin. After the scan we met with a doctor from the practice that I was using who walked in and said, "You have a demised fetus that probably stopped developing at about 8 weeks, and you should feel grateful that the other fetus seems to be developing normally." I'll never forget the words "demised fetus" or the notion that I should feel grateful after having lost three babies.
In my early twenties, I weighed well over 300 pounds. I had a gastric bypass surgery and lost about 175 pounds and had a tummy tuck and breast lift to remove twelve pounds of skin from my chest and abdomen. I wasn't comfortable with my body - fat, thin, pregnant, or postpartum. I have come close, a few times, to feeling confident with my size and shape, but only when I'm fully clothed. Having my babies has certainly given me a chance to be in awe over the strength, capabilities, and resilience of my body, and I definitely don't feel worse about myself postpartum, but I don't feel better either.
I have spent forty years dieting, eating, having surgical and laser procedures, and electrolysis, (to name a few things), all in an attempt to look beautiful. I will always have skin that sags on my arms and thighs, I will always have PCOS and fight hair removal, I am covered in stretch marks, and scars, and my belly button (which was created after my tummy tuck) is totally off center. I realized after my babies that I will never look exactly how I picture a beautiful person to look. And I had to stop chasing it, because if I didn't, the diets and surgeries and insanity would never end. And even though they would never end...I would still never be totally happy with how I looked.
Because of my first experiences I was a nervous wreck through both of my son's pregnancies. I didn't enjoy them and I had really hoped to. I wanted to be pregnant, to feel the baby kick, to feel my milk come in, to embrace each strange occurrence as I grew someone inside of me. But all I felt was fear. And every time there was a spot of blood in my pants, or a movement that took too long to feel, or I accidentally drank caffeinated instead of decaf, I would run to my doctor in a blind panic. Fortunately, both were very typical pregnancies even though I was high-risk and it was mostly my own irrational concerns that kept me up at night.
I didn't expect to get pregnant with my daughter. We thought because I had done fertility treatments to have the boys that I would need to do the same when we wanted to try for a third but I had to change a fertility appointment to a prenatal when I got pregnant on my own. I was far more relaxed with my third pregnancy even though it was the most physically difficult and the first time I experienced sciatica. Sciatica is no joke.
All three of my labors and deliveries were different. My water broke with James at 3 AM and I labored naturally for 18 hours and felt amazing. I couldn't figure out why women thought labor was painful. Then I hit transition and was begging, not only for an epidural, but for someone to knock me out cold so that I might have a shot at not remembering the rest. They started my epidural but had a difficult time with it and by the time I started to feel even a small amount of relief they told me to start pushing. I pushed six times and James was born.
When I started feeling contractions with Cooper, I told them to give me an epidural as soon as I walked into labor and delivery (hardly even dilated). They did and I progressed comfortably and quickly and after eight pushes, out came Cooper. I had false labor with Hadley twice so by the time it was the real deal I hardly made it to the hospital in time because I didn't want to be sent home again. I labored for a very short time with her and pushed about four times before she was born. I guess my easy births were a trade off for a terrible beginning to pregnancy.
I nursed all three babies. James had a weak latch because he was three weeks early and I used a nipple shield for about a month before we got a good rhythm. Cooper and Hadley latched immediately and Hadley was my most demanding nurser. Both boys weened around 10 months even though I wanted to try to go a full year. I had gone back to work when they were about three months old and they preferred the bottle so I pumped for the whole year and supplemented when I started to lose my supply.
The nursing was hard. The sleeplessness was hard. Each of my babies has been very different in their nursing, their sleeping habits, and their personalities. James talked before he turned one but didn't walk until he was 15 months old and needed PT for a year. Cooper started RUNNING at 10 months but hardly spoke until he was almost two. And Hadley. She's the boss. But they all turned out okay. Not just okay. Amazing. Every time I thought I ruined them, they bounced back. Every time I thought a screaming phase wouldn't end, it did. Every time I think it can't possibly get any better than this - that they couldn't possibly get any cuter, or funnier, or smarter, or more polite, ...it does, and they do.
I tried for a long time to create a perfect body, or what I thought a perfect body should look like. I had surgeries, I gained and lost hundreds of pounds, I grew, birthed, and fed, three complete beings. And I still never liked my vessel. This is the only body I get. I am trying so hard to love and appreciate it. I'm not there, but I'm getting closer. These photos are a step in that direction for me."