On a cool April day, a close friend fielded my questions about motherhood as her toddler leapt from stone to stone nearby. I gazed up at cottonwood trees, stroked my pregnant belly and told her my plan.
“I’m going to strap my baby to my chest and hike into the woods right away,” I announced, “Like hours after birth. I mean women do it all over the world, right?”
“Yeah, but your vagina might hurt for a few weeks,” she said.
Somehow, I hadn’t ever considered that possibility. As a girl, I had hung upside down from tree branches and run faster than the boys. I grew into a woman of physical endurance—long bike races, long hikes, and long manual labor building projects. After birth, I would simply pull on my old jeans and get on with it. But my pregnancy had been rough. Nausea didn’t go away after the first trimester. I became a pro at vomiting into a mason jar every day while driving to/from anywhere. It was, at times, demoralizing. I complained, and yet told myself the intensity had prepared me for birth. Labor, well, labor I would do a thousand times over. I touched into my wisest animal self—all breath and moan. No fear surfaced, even in pain, even when my home-water-birth turned into a van ride to the hospital as my midwife straddled me, held an oxygen mask to my face and requested that I don’t push yet, even though the urge was strong. I ended up pushing for five hours until my umbilical-wrapped daughter came out. She wasn’t the blue breathless baby they expected. We were okay. I could have dropped to the floor and done 100 push-ups on the adrenaline of my empowerment. One of the nurses lifted her arms and said, “You were amazing! Look, I sweated through my scrubs. That was awesome.”
Pregnancy may have knocked me over, but I had labored like Wonder Woman. If the upswing trajectory followed, postpartum would be manageable, maybe even a breeze.
Within a week, it was clear that the liquid coming out of me was no longer the standard lochia but urine. And not just when I sneezed. When I walked to the mailbox. When I squatted to pick up an errant sock. When I bounced to sooth my daughter to sleep. I was officially incontinent. I bought a Costco-size box of Always extra-long pads with wings and pasted one in my underwear at all times.
Maybe this problem would go away.
But it didn’t.
I went hiking anyway.
I strapped my daughter to my chest and peed all over myself, through my pad, onto my shorts, onto the trail. My car seat smelled of urine, no matter how hard I scrubbed it. I learned to wear a skirt so other hikers wouldn’t notice. When my new mama friends couldn’t believe this was my new normal, I learned to make it normal.
“Oop, peed on myself again,” I would laugh.
But the grief pressed against my face, my mouth, my neck. I refused to acknowledge it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that and everything else. There was so much everything else in new motherhood.
One afternoon, at a museum, my birth class friend had to carry both our children up the stairs because being pee-soaked in a museum isn’t as acceptable as on the trail. I watched her strong arms and strong back and the sorrow of this comparison dug a groove through my heart. If I hadn’t been in a public place, I would have collapsed. Would I never be able to carry my daughter up stairs? Where was I? Why couldn’t I pull it together? Where was the woman who had labored without fear, almost without effort?
This went on for six months, for a year.
I saw some pelvic physical therapists. They looked at me with kind doe-eyes and gave me elaborated Kegel exercises. I did them solidly for a week or so. Maybe they were actually helping. At my cousin’s wedding, I couldn’t wait to dance. It had been so long. When I hit my first hip thrust/bounce, urine poured down my leg and almost onto the dance floor. I scuttled outside under the moon. There, alone, I could release my sobs. This was not what I had expected for our first evening out alone. Later that night, I begged my husband to suck the milk out of my breasts because they were so engorged without my daughter there to nurse them. So he did—in the dark of the parking lot with the car windows down, the smell of sagebrush on the night air. “It’s sweet,” he said, and we laughed, because the gap between laughing and crying was invisible. I woke desperate in the early morning. No breast pump. Hand expressing would not be fast enough. I grabbed my own large, painful breast and drank my own sweet milk. Urine or milk. Life is about fluids or being fluid, I think.
In the haze of sleep-deprivation, I couldn’t manage a plan to do my pelvic floor exercises. All I could do was lie on the concrete floor and stare at the ceiling fan, the red latex PT strap unused. One morning, I woke unable to move. “Help,” I gulped to my husband as he made his way out the door, “Help me.” My battery had died and I couldn’t lift my daughter. I watched her watch me with wide eyes. Panic washed over me in waves. A blood test revealed postpartum hypothyroidism on the edge of becoming an autoimmune condition. I morphed from someone who never took prescription medicine to someone who did. Healing this thyroid issue would also require, in part, more exercise, but every time I exercised I peed. Sometimes I found myself in the woods throwing, no hurling, rocks at a tree. How had I gotten there? My rage scared me enough to request more blood tests. No serotonin problem, no postpartum depression, but my neurotransmitters were all off. Months later, adrenal fatigue became part of the picture. My doctor started an email to me with, “Dearest Molly, …”
None of this was the worst thing possible
None of this was a death sentence
But I didn’t believe it would ever change.
This was not the mother or woman I had ever wanted to be.
Every day I scanned my perimeter for someone to blame—my husband, my mother, my father, my friends, my dog, myself. My anger became volcanic. During the day, I sang, swam, laughed, loved, and smooched my daughter. When she fell asleep, I paced the kitchen and drove down dark roads at 1:00 AM, fantasizing about walking into the woods and never returning. Was this what giving up looked like? But my daughter kept me accountable. I could never have left her. I made gratitude lists. There was so much to be grateful for. Hard as I tried, my gratitude practice fell flat.
Two years into this situation, something changed.
I don’t know what clicked. I began to swim laps at our local hot springs. There I could exercise and pee and no one would know. At my doctor’s suggestion, I stopped nursing and took progesterone and herbs. My daughter started to sleep through the night. As she potty-trained, I chanced it and stopped using pads everyday. We could let go of diapers together. Summer came around again. Sun. Heat. Green. Maybe it helped that time had passed. I don’t really know. I still wonder how nothing changed but everything did. Maybe I decided to step back from the edge.
For the first time, in 35-years of living, I decided to be kind to myself. I started to talk to myself the way I talked to my daughter. “It’s okay, I know it’s hard, you can do it, do you need a hug, I see your radiance, I see you, I see you…”
When a body-worker recently told me that my pelvis was in shock and all tangled up, I didn’t catastrophize with images of doom. I let her words pass out of me and replaced them with My body is healing. I could cultivate this belief—despite the externals. Of course, this story is still alive. This, right now, is me finding my way. I still pee on myself but mostly just before my period. I still take thyroid and adrenal medicine and may have to for who knows how long. But I’m off progesterone.
And now, I wouldn’t want any part of my continuing journey to be different.
It forced me to break up with my beloved anger. That, turns out, was the only way to open the starting gates to heal. My righteous self used to quietly judge the hell out of people who make poor, life-altering decisions. Now I understand that we all walk an edge, whether we touch it or not. My pelvis is my new gal pal. We talk everyday. I’ve gotten comfy with the mess of life. I’ve learned that grief can take time. The laboring woman in me has been laboring all along. She is the woman I was looking for. And this is the only way I could have found her.
Molly Caro May is a writer whose work explores body, place and the foreign. She leads writing workshops across the country and her work has appeared in Orion Magazine, Salon, and Fourth Genre, among others. Her memoir, The Map of Enough: One Woman’s Search For Place (Counterpoint Press) was published in 2014. She lives with her husband and daughter in Bozeman, Montana where she is co-founder of the Thunderhead Writers’ Collective. Her next book explores emotional inheritance through the matrilineal lineage.