By Abby Waller
We made the decision while standing in our kitchen. My wife, Jesse, leaning with one arm on the kitchen counter, while I was preparing dinner. After six years of managing people and the operation of a massage therapy business that had recently been bought out by new, tyrannical owners — she needed a change. We needed a change.
She worked ten, eleven, twelve hour days sometimes…and often would receive calls from employees when she was “off the clock.” The new owners seemed to have little concern for retaining employees that had been with the company for years – and quickly replaced those leaving with new hires that lacked experience. They overlooked concerns raised about some of their choices – even when my wife brought up concerns about a conversation had between their newly hired manager and another employee where my wife was referred to as a derogatory LGBT slur.
If there was ever a time to do so, we felt now was time to take the leap to grow our family and make a big change to Jesse’s career path. We decided she’d work thirty-three hours a week — enough to keep health insurance, go to massage therapy school three nights a week, and we’d try to get pregnant. We were nothing if not ambitious.
We started trying in February and Jesse started school in April. The months came and went without a positive pregnancy test. Then the sticky-hot days of summer came, and in July I had a work trip out of town for three days. It was a stressful trip with a great deal of pressure on my shoulders and very little personal downtime. When I got home I was so exhausted that I crumpled onto our couch and cried. Jesse rubbed my back and listened to me vent about my job. I worked for a small, hip start-up company that prided itself on its young, relaxed atmosphere. I was seeing more and more just how problematic an environment like this could be, and after a three-day trip where overdrinking and a level of touchy-feely friendliness that surpassed my comfort level was the norm…I was more than ready to be back home. After listening to my multitude of cringe-worthy stories about my work trip — Jesse suggested I take a nice hot shower, get into my pjs, and we could just relax. As I walked into our room I saw a tiny silver box on my pillow on our bed. I opened it to find an even tinier envelope, and inside the envelope was a small black speck. I looked to Jesse with confusion all over my face. “It’s a poppy seed” she said.
I looked down at the poppy seed and then back to her, still perplexed. “That’s your baby.”
For a few seconds, the news took my breath away. It was one of those moments where it seems as if time stands still. Then, I fell to my knees and cried, kissing my wife’s belly. Very few times in my life have I felt such intense joy – this decision to grow our family was so intentional, so wanted – and it was finally happening.
I returned to work after taking a much needed vacation following the stressful work trip I’d been on. It was difficult to interact with coworkers without blurting out the good news. But, it was me and my wife’s cherished secret. We spent our evenings talking about how we were going to decorate the baby’s room and trying to imagine what our little one would look or be like. Our merriment was cut short though — just a few days after being back at work I was called into a meeting with the company’s CEO and HR director and was told that my position had been eliminated.
And just like that, I was unemployed with a baby on the way.
During the months it took to revamp my resume, job hunt, and finally obtain a full-time job with comparable pay and benefits; my wife never once made me feel that I was to blame for the loss of my job, or like I was failing my family. However, because the job hunt took more time than either of anticipated – four long months – Jesse decided to go back to working full-time. On top of this she was going to school three nights a week, and sometimes putting in additional hours for school on the weekends…all while pregnant.
In order to prevent myself from falling into a self-loathing shame spiral, I did what I could to fuel and care for Jesse. As the real breadwinner for our family and the mother of my child, I performed daily rituals to try to help soothe the tremendous weight now squarely sitting on her shoulders. I made her special smoothies packed with tons of leafy greens, her prenatal vitamin, and other important nutrients for a healthy pregnancy. I prepared her work and school meals, tried to keep our home tidy, and I rubbed her belly with oils to prevent stretch marks. And since Jesse and I had talked a lot about a home birth — I called and set up a tour at a birth center and an initial meeting with the wildly popular midwife Nancy Giglio. While the birth center wasn’t right for us, Nancy immediately stole our hearts. She talked about how we all would work together to bring our baby into the world. She was sure to include me, always acknowledging that I too, was a mother – something the birth center fell short on doing. We chose Nancy as our midwife, and over the passing months, she became a light guiding us through our pregnancy and birth experience.
There were days where Jesse would leave for work at 8AM and not get home from school until past 10 at night. Through all of this though — she aced most of her tests on anatomy, got high marks on all her “clinicals,” and damn near aced her final.
I finally got a job in December and we were able to celebrate the holidays with a renewed sense of hope – and relief. After four months of unemployment I was anxious to get back to working full-time, especially with Jesse due in early April.
The weeks passed by and we allowed ourselves to relax into our new routine. But, just as we started to feel the stress from my stint without work melt away – we were plunged deep into one of the scariest times of our life together. In early March during a doctor’s visit, Jesse’s blood pressure was incredibly high. She was admitted into the hospital as docs feared it was preeclampsia, and I rushed from work to be with her. When I arrived, she was in a tiny ER room filled with wires and machines. The hospital ordered tests, had her hooked up to a machine that took her blood pressure every fifteen minutes, and gave her meds to lower her blood pressure as well as meds to ensure our baby’s brain and lung function would be okay outside of the womb. We were told that for the safety of both Mom and baby, they’d need to induce and get our baby out as not doing so could be fatal. We were literally told there was about a 1% chance it wasn’t preeclampsia due to her incredibly high blood pressure. I called our midwife Nancy and paced the hospital’s halls as she talked me through trying to keep calm and prepare to have our little one a month early. She told me I needed to be strong for Jesse, that if our little one was coming tonight, it would undoubtedly be a long, tough road with weeks in the NICU. I scooped up the shattered, trembling pieces of myself and walked back into our tiny ER room, determined to be strong for my wife and baby.
Even though we were told there was a 99% chance we’d have our baby that night; our hospital doctor came and told all of our nurses “we’d wait and see.” So, for the next few hours, Jesse and I did our best to create a peaceful and calm environment. We turned on soothing mediation music and I rubbed her feet and legs – hoping for a miracle. Then…against all odds, Jesse’s test came back negative for preeclampsia and her blood pressure leveled out. We didn’t have our baby that night, and they sent us home with a prescription to keep Jesse’s blood pressure in check.
We did have our baby early. By about a week. After the scare in the hospital in early March – things never really went back to “normal” with Jesse’s pregnancy. Our hopes for a home birth with our beloved midwife Nancy were snatched from us. Jesse had to constantly monitor her blood pressure and take medications. On top of this, we made sure she was eating all the “right” foods, and for the last few weeks of her pregnancy she was on bed rest. Every week we went to check in with our hospital doctor – who we barely knew because we’d hoped for a home birth and our hospital doctor was a “just in case” measure. Each time we were allowed to go home for a few more days felt like an enormous victory. We didn’t tell family and friends what we were going through. The last thing we felt would be good for Jesse was well-intentioned friends checking in and asking how she was all the time. So, we carried the heavy secret each day; that at any point – preeclampsia was a very real concern.
Little did we know, we had one last weekend before we’d head into the hospital for more hours than I can count. Luckily Jesse was able to finish massage therapy school, and on a Sunday in late March Jesse was able to go to her graduation. I beamed as teachers and students told me how smart and skilled my now thirty-seven-week pregnant wife was. It was such a wonderful day where we were able to celebrate this enormous achievement of hers.
The very next day, she was admitted to labor and delivery to induce.
After 36 grueling hours in labor and delivery, my courageous wife working with a small army of nurses and Nancy to try to get to active labor – and countless attempts to hold on to any shred of a birth without interventions – our hospital doctor told us a C-Section was our only option. I can’t begin to unpack the trauma of those many, many hours. Watching helplessly as my wife – hooked up to so many beeping, buzzing machines — was poked and prodded, very little of it with sufficient explanation and all of it without her explicit consent. As awful as a lot of our birth experience was, we are of course, eternally grateful for our amazing, healthy “JuneBug” as we call her.
Now, seven months later, Jesse spends her days working to heal pain. As someone who has faced an incredibly trying and traumatic birth experience, as well as the weight of numerous forms of oppression; she longs to help mothers and families through calming and soothing the body and in turn – the spirit. She possesses something few massage therapists I’ve encountered possess: an empathy built from her own lived experiences with pain and trauma that drives her to work towards healing, and a remarkable strength of spirit that buzzes in her veins as she works with each and every client.
There is so much more to this story, so many more details that I couldn’t fit into this single narrative. I look back on all that she went through – all that we went through together — and I am blown away that she overcame all that she did. She is so resilient, so full of purpose. She works so hard providing much needed massage therapy to dozens of people each week. Witnessing her journey – being a part of it – no matter how unbelievably hard it was, has redefined what resilience means to me.