The Real Story of Cotton Babies

The exhilaration of seeing two pink lines on the pregnancy test for the first time fifteen years ago is a feeling I won’t soon forget.  I called my friend and had a squealing moment about those two pink lines.  Then I had to take the other test… just to be sure.  It felt amazing. I’d dreamed about having a family for years.  After all these years of dreaming, I was finally going to be a mom.

Two days later when the phone rang, only my husband and my friend knew I was pregnant.  The voice on the other end of the phone was telling me that the company I was working for was closing.  All the staff was being laid off.  I was losing my job too. I listened to the voice talk while I looked at the positive pregnancy test that was still sitting on my desk.  It was real.  It was also real that my job was going away. The last thing he said before hanging up was that I had two more paychecks coming and our insurance coverage would expire at the end of the month, when we would be able to opt for Cobra coverage.

Rewinding a few years, shortly after we were married, Jimmy and I had idealistically moved to Columbia from St. Louis thinking that we could live there while I worked on my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at Mizzou.  Having a degree was a dream, but with the job market in relatively good shape the dream seemed reachable when we moved. Programmers were making a good income.  We were hoping that we could find work quickly that summer so I could start school in the fall.  Then the tech stocks crashed, a hiring freeze started at several large companies in Columbia, and the general job market for programmers fell apart.  We watched my dream of getting a degree evaporate. There we were, away from family, with no idea of how we were going to pull things together.  We talked a lot about what to do… and finally Jimmy started working on code for a website that we thought would be amazing, while I went to work for a company that let me write code and work from home part-time, traveling the rest of the time. I didn’t go to school and the travel was more than we’d planned.  When we added all the travel up, we discovered that I’d been gone a full eight months out of the first year of our marriage. I worked there for about eighteen months before the day that the phone rang.

About sixteen weeks later, my husband found a job making copies in St. Louis, 90 miles away from Columbia, but near his parents.  His job offered health insurance and full-time hours.  He didn’t make much, but it was something.  He stayed with his mom and dad five days a week and came home to be with me in Columbia for two days.  While he was gone, I got our house ready to sell.  We had purchased a fixer-upper with plaster walls, so I was crawling around on the floor pregnant, sanding baseboards, filling nail holes, sanding down the plaster, painting and packing boxes.  When he was home, we alternated between working on the house and worrying about what we were going to do.

We’d been through a lot of change by the time the baby was born.  We spent a few months living with my in-laws in St. Louis until we found an un-airconditioned apartment in the city.  I have these crazy memories of laying in front of the window unit we’d bought for our bedroom in that apartment… letting the cold air blow over my belly and praying that I would go into labor soon.  It was really hot, but at least we had a place that was ours. Jimmy was still making copies. We were actually making ends meet on not much per hour.  Rent, insurance, groceries, gas… by the time all the bills were paid, there was really only about $30 a week left for groceries and our weekly WIC check.  I’d figured out how to do it though. All throughout this period, Jimmy kept looking for better paying programming jobs.  In spite of resume after resume going out, he was rarely called for an interview.  Too many people were applying for the same jobs. Unless you knew someone or were one of the first to apply, it was really tough.  Thankfully, his job making copies was nearby so gas costs were negligible.

The night I went into labor happened to be the night that was the first day of his weekend.  We were walking around the St. Louis Zoo when I started having contractions that felt real.  Specifically, we were right outside of the (really stinky) bird house with a long way to walk back home.  I was an experienced doula having already helped a number of babies make their way into this earth. I’d done all the reading. I’d been with moms during labor.  I knew what I wanted… an unmedicated birth, a natural latch, exclusive breastfeeding, baby with me the whole time after he was born, and no pacifiers.  Our baby’s birth started out normal.  I progressed well, but was struggling with a lot of back labor.  After many hours of laboring unmedicated, I’d made it almost all the way through transition.  But then, without my permission, my body had started pushing and the last tiny bit of cervix started to swell.  I’d gone from nine with a lip back to an eight.  You don’t go backwards in labor. At least that’s not in any of the books that I’d read.  I could feel myself panicking and the doctor was clear… the only way I could deliver naturally was with an epidural.  I got the epidural and within just a few minutes, the swelling was gone – just like the doctor said would happen.  It was time to have my baby. This is when the boxes of failure started getting checked in my head.  Failure #1 (I had a medicated birth).  When the baby was delivered, he didn’t immediately latch.  We struggled through the night and the next day, but by then, the nurses had brought me a pump so I could pump and give him a bottle.  Failure #2 (I couldn’t breastfeed).

I got a call shortly before we were leaving the hospital that my friend, who was also my doula, was in labor and getting ready to push. I remember thinking, “Wait, are you sure? Is this a joke?  I was supposed to be her doula!”  She was due three weeks after me, but she delivered a tiny baby boy at home in the bathtub that day, two days after my son was born.  I saw her that evening, nursing her baby in the living room.  We said hi and then my baby started to cry.  I hid with my pump in the guest room and tried to figure out how to feed my hungry baby for the first time away from the hospital and all of the helpful postpartum nurses.  Failure #3 (I didn’t get to be there for her birth like we’d planned), Failure #4 (she had what looked like an ideal birth and I didn’t), Failure #5 (I was embarrassed to be pumping giving my baby a bottle in front of my friend who was breastfeeding).

We went home that night to experience that inevitable first night with a new baby in the house.  Our son cried all night. We were awake all night.  I didn’t seem to be able to pump enough to help him feel satisfied. So he cried.  Failure #6 (I couldn’t feed my baby enough, so he was crying).  After seeking out the help of an IBCLC the next day, we finally gave him some formula until my milk was all the way in and I was producing and pumping enough for his belly to be happy.  All this, while still continuing the routine of offering the breast, baby refusing to latch, getting exhausted, giving up, pumping while he cried because he was hungry, then giving him a bottle.  We set a timer to do it all again two hours later because someone told me that babies should eat every four hours…. and that whole routine took us two hours.  We never slept.

A few days later, I found myself with another breastfeeding friend who questioned my decision to give him a pacifier.  She thought that was why he wouldn’t latch.  We would give him a pacifier while I tried to pump so he wasn’t crying.  I literally trembled when he cried, but she didn’t know that.  Failure #7 (My baby won’t nurse because I gave him a pacifier. I must be weak.).

Six weeks later, I’d watched my other friend go back to near her pre-pregnancy size.  I was still at least 40 pounds heavier than I’d been when I got pregnant. She’d only gained a little bit of weight. I’d gained a lot of weight.  She was thin again. I still felt so, so fat. We were doing things so differently as parents.  She seemed to have the perfect attachment parenting story, and I was living a mess that I’d never dreamed would be mine to live. I blamed myself for giving in to getting an epidural – a decision I know now wasn’t really optional. Jimmy still didn’t have a different job.  Money was even tighter than it had ever been.  I wasn’t sleeping.  The one piece of light in the middle of all that darkness was finding out about nipple shields.  My baby would latch to a nipple shield and could nurse directly on me. I’d been able to stop pumping and bottle feeding.  By 9 weeks old, we’d dropped the nipple shield and he was nursing like a champion without any nipple supplementation.

But by then, the damage was done… to me.  In my exhausted, first time mom brain, I was a failure as a parent. I’d let my baby down.  And some sick, twisted piece of me believed something I’d read online… that the drugs they’d given me in the epidural were the reason my baby wouldn’t latch.  Nobody told me about flat, inverted nipples.  Nobody checked my breasts before I had my baby.  Nobody helped me know what it was going to take to draw out my nipples so I could nurse. I believed the decision to let him have a pacifier was why he continued to refuse to nurse those first few weeks.   I believed that it was somehow my fault that my friend had delivered early.  I was a wreck.

I remember going to my postpartum follow-up appointment and lying to my obstetrician when he asked me how I was feeling.  I was embarrassed to think that I might be dealing with postpartum depression, but I was sure that I could fight this on my own. We were fighting other battles. Surely I could beat this on my own too.  There are tears falling as I write this because it’s so emotional just to think about that period of our life.  I left without the help he could have given me.  And for months after that, I couldn’t get out of the funk of feeling fat, feeling like a failure, feeling lonely, and feeling like a really terrible parent.

Now remember, Cotton Babies started when our first son was eight weeks old.  I used $100 to open a wholesale account with Maya Wrap and started selling slings to my friends and to doula clients.  I put ten business cards in the pocket of every sling that I sold. Gradually, my phone started to ring.  As the phone started to ring more with people looking for slings, prefolds, and diaper covers, I somehow stopped thinking about all the things that had gone wrong and started focusing on the business.  Being busy was helping me.  We bought a cheap HUD house because the payment was going to be less than our rent, and we moved out of the apartment.  I joined a moms group and started to make a few friends. We still didn’t have any money, but at least I had something to do to keep my mind from focusing on why I should be miserable.  Life wasn’t good, but it started to improve in some ways.

I remember a moment, driving home from church one week, where I remembered that Jesus had promised in the Bible that we would have our basic needs met (Matt 6:25-34).  We couldn’t splurge on food, but our belly was full.  We had gas and tires. The landlord was a creep, but we had a place to sleep. There was a washing machine in the basement that was only $1 to use.  Things weren’t necessarily going the way that I thought they should go… and we certainly weren’t in a place much above scraping the bottom… but somehow, in that moment, I found a little bit of hope and, like a life raft in the middle of a stormy ocean, I clung to that little piece of hope because it was all it seemed like I had to hold onto.

I don’t remember exactly when I finally started to feel better… when the fog started to lift.  It was somewhere between the day I was filling a couple of orders by myself in the bedroom, and the day that we found ourselves going to the airport every night at midnight to drop buckets of orders off at the airport post office.

We went through three miscarriages and three more live births.  Then, not long after Louis was born in 2013,  I was going through a really intense season trying to be a mom, and work, and transitioning my kids to public school, and dealing with a husband having a broken leg, and shutting lights off in a house that had a dark basement.  I’d had death threats from someone on the internet… without realizing it, I had slipped into a funk again. I was afraid of crazy things… it’s just a dark basement, right?  And why shouldn’t I go to the mall or to the grocery store?  I rarely went out in public without someone with me.  I slipped and hit my head on a business trip and found myself passed out with a concussion in a strange city. Knowing that something was wrong after the fall, I finally got a real doctor after years of not going anywhere except urgent care..  My doctor listened to me talk and decided that, on top of having a concussion, I also needed help sleeping.  He was right.  I hadn’t slept without taking something to help me sleep in a long time.  He prescribed a pill that they give lots of people with chronic sleep disorders. It helped me sleep… and a few weeks later, I realized that I wasn’t afraid anymore. I wanted to play my piano. I wanted to sing.  I wanted to write again.  I felt like I could create again. I wanted to do all the things… and that’s when it hit me. I looked at the description of the prescription he’d written and realized that it wasn’t just a sleep aid, it was also an anti-depressant / anti-anxiety medication. I not only needed to rest…  the meds that he’d given me were actually giving me a part of my life back.

I would never have written this blog post years back… mostly because it’s really personal and it’s nobody’s business.  As parents, we set off into a journey with goals that are amazing… but when we fall short of our own standard, we end up feeling like there must be something that is best in life that other people have and we’ll just never be able to reach. Let’s talk about that for a minute. It’s not true.  There’s a lot of paths to walk and, no matter what those perfect people say on the internet about any of it, not one of them has it perfect.  It doesn’t matter how their birth went, how their feeding journey went, how their weight loss story went… maybe they love their body, maybe they’re happy with the way their baby needed to be fed, maybe breastfeeding didn’t hurt, maybe they’re over the rainbow excited about their birth, and maybe they had sex a week later.  It isn’t all real.  Not everyone loves their body.  Not everyone is happy with the way their baby needed fed.  Not everyone has an idealistic birth in the fog in the woods with Enya playing in the background. And some people don’t have sex again for months.

But honestly, perfect moms with perfect stories only exist on the internet. Some of us need to start writing about what’s real instead of letting authors who don’t even remember what it’s like to have kids set the standard.  There are countless “advocates” out there with extreme positions on nearly every single parenting issue.  They build tribes of people who evangelize their extremes.  Do your best. Shut out the noise.  Seek balance in all things.  Find your center.  Take care of your baby the way your baby needs to be taken care of.  Rest.  Exercise when you can. Have sex when you feel like you’re ready. Eat good food. Tell your doctor the truth.  Get help if you need it.  That’s what matters.

Remember, not all of us have the same story.  There are other stories about postpartum depression, many triggers, and many other issues. One in seven women is a mom with a story to tell though, and countless others with stories of their own are never diagnosed. I’ve recovered from where I was at during those dark days, but I can’t even begin to imagine what else we could have accomplished had I not lost so many nights awake fighting all the lies.

Like all of us, you’re trying to be the person that your kids want to take good care of when they’re old.  You want your kids to have good memories.  You want them to have full bellies and to get rest at night. You want them to grow up educated and successful in this world as adults.  ALL of us deal with the pressures of how we interpret those goals and how the rest of the world seems to be interpreting those goals for us. We all do it differently.  We’re all living through the same twenty-four hours today.  We all have our own crazy stories to tell of all the things that have gone right and wrong along the way.  Don’t forget to do what it takes to take care of you.  You are a good mom.  I believe in you… and so do a lot of other people.

Louis is a big kid now. Life is back to normal – or as normal as it can be as a business owner with four kids. But, I’m better. 

Lots of us fight this battle. I won. Together, I know we can set some other moms free to start getting better too. I hope you share this post with your friends. I hope you tell your story. It’s real.  And that’s where change starts.  

Do you have thoughts to add?

9 thoughts on “The Real Story of Cotton Babies

  1. Thank you Jennifer. I am so grateful I chose to diaper my last two babies in bumGenius. You are such an inspirational person. I suffered post partum depression after my third little one. I was so gone I nearly lost my life. I had nowhere to go for help, let alone know I needed help. Your mothering stories have helped me believe that I am a good mother again. Thank you for empowering mothers everywhere.

  2. After two years of unexplained infertility I finally surprise got pregnant with my first, and surprise got hooked up to an IV with constant fluids and meds and surprise could not work the entire time and felt like death most of my pregnancy. My first birth was complete with a reluctant epidural and inept education in feeding babies with tongue ties and having inverted nipples and loving my child but so not loving being a mother with this looming feeling of failure and just being utterly lost and then realizing four months in to this journey of hot mess, surprise, I was pregnant again and terrified. I clearly recall all that flood of overwhelming emotion and just believing the lies of the devil that I was all alone, in all the advice I’d gotten no one ever told me that it could be so hard and so disappointing and that somehow none of those things are a reflection of me as a mother! It is easy to get caught up in the world and lose sight of God. I admire your vulnerability and your truth. More exposed truth would ha e helped me when I began the journey of motherhood as I think it helps so many of us mama’s always!

  3. Jenn, when I came out and talked openly about my postpartum depression and anxiety, people called me brave. But the truth is, I had very little to risk. I was a SAHM with a well-payed husband and supportive family, filled to the brim with all kinds of privilege. Nobody knew who I was and I blogged about it in relative anonymity. I put my name on it for sure, because that’s what fought the shame for me, but when nobody knows your name, it really doesn’t matter. And yet, it felt terrifying. Shame had such a strong grip on me that it felt revolutionary to spill about my very private experiences and my treatment.

    So I imagined, as I was reading this late last night, that you must have gone through some of the same feelings when hitting publish. We’ve come a long way in the last 6 years, but it’s still an act of courage to come out about your motherhood struggles, and certainly about postpartum depression and anxiety – and even MORE so for you because you have a very public profile and a successful business to run.

    So I sat in bed, phone screen lighting up my face, and tears rolled down my face. Not because I was scared for you, but because I know the huge relief and lightening of spirit that comes after being unburdened by such a secret. Because I count you among the ranks of Warrior Moms who I know have my back. And most of all, because I picture the thousands of women who you will reach with your story, women who will reach out and get help because of your words.

    With so much love and gratitude,
    Susan

  4. Thank you so much, Jennifer, for sharing your story. Especially this, “Don’t do what I did. Don’t lie to your doctor.” I lied to mine, too. Maybe if I had been in a place where I accepted my bipolar diagnosis, and was able to overcome the shame and stigma before I had my kids, I wouldn’t have gone through postpartum psychosis and antenatal psychosis. Still, I own my story now and share it so others can learn from my experience. Together we are stronger.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jennifer! Your struggles with breastfeeding resinate so much with me (thank god for the nipple shield). I felt so isolated in my struggles, and thought I was a damaged mother in a sea of happy delivery stories and successful breastfeeding mommas. It is stories like yours that remind mothers that they are not alone and it does get better. Thank you for sponsoring our Warrior Mom Conference!! xoxo

  6. Jenn, this is beautiful and heartbreaking, but mostly inspiring. Thank you x 100 for writing and sharing this vulnerable story.

  7. Wow Jennifer…..what a beautiful and intimate exposé of the lies we tell ourselves when we have postpartum depression and anxiety. Bringing tears to my eyes, I am realizing that some of those lies have quite a life of their own well past the time you think you’ve healed. Thanks so much for sharing and for all you do for moms. Love, Deborah

  8. (((((Jenn)))) I remember when you and Andrew came over and I had you practice laying down to nurse because you were just so exhausted. Isn’t it amazing that we go on to have more children? They can bring us so much heart ache and so much joy. I love you my dear friend!