In March 2020, when the world shut down, I was six months into a high-risk pregnancy. At the last medical appointment that my husband was permitted to attend, the ultrasound technician was awfully quiet as she smushed her cold wand all over my belly.
“I’ll just send these images over to the doctor. You can wait for her in the exam room.”
My body went cold. This was my third pregnancy. I know ultrasound rooms. I’d never waited for the doctor to review the images; I was used to smiling giddily while the tech mapped out my baby’s otherwise inscrutable body parts.
My husband held my hand while I wiped off the ultrasound gel; we walked quietly to the exam room and waited. The physician came in, sat down and spoke words. Or so I’ve been told. I only remember the first ones: “The baby is measuring very small for 24 weeks, and the ultrasound shows that your amniotic fluid is very low. Have you noticed any leaking?”
I don’t remember answering, I don’t remember the two dozen questions my husband asked, I don’t remember anything except for the doctor telling me that she had already called maternal-fetal medicine, and that I should head over there. Oh, and that my husband couldn’t come with me; maternal-fetal had already stopped allowing partners at appointments.
A hub-bub of big words followed. Intrauterine growth restriction. Oligohydramnios. Placental insufficiency. Genetic testing. I was scheduled for bi-weekly fetal stress tests and ultrasounds. While my soul was quietly exiting my body, my husband was waiting in the car.
For the next 12 weeks of my pregnancy, I faithfully visited the high-risk doctors. Two or three times a week, I waited nervously while the nurses and techs strapped monitors to my slowly growing belly. I never knew if an appointment would end in an emergency. My husband waited at home.
In the meantime, everything was falling apart. Because of the risky pregnancy, we allowed no one into our home. No outside care, no one to help clean, no one to help entertain and nurture the kids. Everything was very, very noisy and very, very messy. My husband and I continued to work full-time with the kids at home. I didn’t have any paid parental leave: If I took leave now, it would just mean less time after the baby was born.
So we woke up at 5 a.m. to work before the kids stirred. We stayed up late, working after the kids were asleep. I worked through my copious medical appointments, just trying to clock eight hours of work while also doing everything else. My OB-GYN prescribed what I later learned was a non-therapeutic dose of an antidepressant. I once took a day off work just to clean the house, in my third trimester, and called it self-care.
At 36 weeks, the ultrasound tech couldn’t find a pocket of amniotic fluid. I was induced, and my third son was born with little additional drama — he surprised us all at 5.5 pounds. He was perfectly healthy, just teeny.
At least my husband was able to be there for our child’s birth. We said the Shehecheyanu — thanking God for bringing us, somehow and against the odds, to this moment — but it was the moments, days, weeks and months that followed in which I really learned to pray.
You see, we brought the baby home to a scary world. It was May 2020, there were no vaccines. There were barely tests. The baby met his grandparents through our window; we didn’t let them hold him. We continued to isolate in our home. The baby breastfed every two hours. The older kids insisted on sleeping in our bed. I slept nowhere.
Maybe it was the post-partum hormones. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the months on high alert, half-convinced I’d never meet my baby. But I broke. I drank. I bawled. I begged for help. I drank again. I quietly wished to be in a car accident — not a horrific one, but bad enough that I could just rest in a peaceful coma for a few weeks. I screamed. I didn’t sleep. I drank again. My soul escaped. I shattered.
In the midst of my unraveling, I remembered the Modeh Ani, the prayer observant Jews say every morning, before even getting out of bed. In the prayer, we thank a higher power for the daily return of our souls within us. Whispering these words felt like no small feat in those chaotic days: Thank you, eternal one, for you have returned within me my soul, with compassion.
I didn’t always believe it. I couldn’t always tell that my soul was still intact. But I made a practice of whispering those words out loud each morning, begging God to make them true. Begging that this morning would be the one in which I returned to my body.
My baby is 21 months old now. The world has changed again since he was born. I still haven’t totally healed, but I am returning. With the unending support of my husband, I now see a therapist. I see a psychiatrist. I attend recovery meetings. I say it out loud when I’m feeling overwhelmed, sometimes.
But I remain unsettled. I remain quietly terrified that my toddler is fragile, that this whole charade is fragile. The trauma of my pandemic pregnancy seems to have upset my center of gravity. And yet, slowly, morning after morning, my soul returns. I give thanks. Modeh Ani.