Just as a much-needed vacation was getting under way last summer, Jennifer West woke to a painful period: cramps, back pain, achy all over. Miserable, she was ready to stay right where she was until her discomfort passed. But lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wasn't helping. In fact, her back felt a little worse like that. Her side, maybe? No luck. She sighed. So much for vacation.
West, 31, and her husband, Dan, of Villa Park, Illinois, were staying in a cabin in Wisconsin with two friends, Anna Puccinelli and Jan De Keyser. Dan's parents were just down the hill in another cabin. They'd planned a low-key long weekend for the Fourth of July, but on the morning of July 3, the thought of just watching fireworks made West cringe. She couldn't get comfortable, no matter what. She walked in circles around the cabins, and up and down the steps that connected them.
By afternoon, she was so exhausted that she begged off mini-golf. "Come on, you'll be fine," Puccinelli, her best friend since childhood, urged. But West knew she wasn't up to it.
"I'm going to try to nap," she said. "I'm sure I'll feel better by the time you all get back." She managed to nap, fitfully, for an hour or so, but woke up panicked. Could the pain actually be worse? Five years before, a fibroid tumor had caused a similar sensation in her abdomen. Then there was the ruptured ovarian cyst she'd experienced in 2002, which had also hurt like terrible cramps -- and had started with a backache. She couldn't bear the thought of dealing with either again.
So while she was relieved when Dan and her friends returned, what they saw took them aback. Pale and unhappy, West was whimpering involuntarily every few minutes. "This isn't like you," Dan said. "I think we should go to the hospital." "No, no," she protested. "I'll be fine." Whimper. If she didn't go, she thought to herself, then nothing could really be wrong.
But Dan could tell that something was wrong. His wife was not one to moan and groan. She'd stoically made it through ulcers, the fibroid tumor, the cyst. For her to be near tears was bad -- and the fact that they were so secluded was making him nervous. "Jen," he said, "we're going." And they went.
An unbelievable surprise
They arrived in the emergency room of Hayward Area Memorial Hospital around 7 p.m. "I'm having the worst period of my life," West told the nurse on duty. After she gave her medical history, another nurse ran an ultrasound wand over her stomach, listening for the noise fibroid tumors make as blood flows through them. West heard a familiar "thump, thump," and her heart sank.
"Well, it could be another tumor, or it could be a baby," the nurse said.
"It's not a baby," West said. Wondering if she'd need surgery again (and when? How soon? Would she have to miss work?), she realized that this, at least, might explain the weight she'd gained recently: She knew that large fibroids can sometimes cause abdominal swelling.
The nurse left to get a doctor. When Brent Kelley arrived, he gave West an internal exam. Then he said the last thing she expected to hear.
"You're eight centimeters dilated."
"What?" West said. "What?!"
A nurse rushed out into the hall to tell Dan: "Great news. Your wife's in labor!"
"My wife? Oh, sorry, you must have the wrong guy," he said.
But she didn't. While Dan stood, shocked, trying to take in what the staff was saying, his wife was trying not to panic. In labor? How could that be? Her mind raced. But she'd been getting her period! They were using condoms!
She noted that the nurses seemed excited for her, but why, when she was about to have a nervous breakdown? She wanted to tell everyone to stop so she could think, but apparently there was no time for that. All she could do to keep herself together was to listen, very intently, to every word the doctor and nurses were saying. As she was wheeled into the delivery area and told what to expect, she tried to take in their breathing instructions, figuring that if she could do everything exactly right, she'd be okay.
By the time she was asking, "Can you repeat everything you just said?" Dan's mother, Linda West, arrived. She'd left her cabin soon after Dan and Jen had. "I'll just see if the kids need anything," she'd told her husband. "It's so boring sitting in a hospital." Not tonight.
She first spotted Dan standing under a sign that read, "Labor and Delivery," and thought, Uh, oh. Jen must have more female issues. Why else would she be seeing a gynecologist? But when she reached her son, he was stone still. The nurse told her, "Jen's about to deliver."
"Deliver what?" Linda said. A second later, the words sank in. She was floored, like Dan, but also scared. In labor? If Jen hadn't known a baby was on the way, how far along could she be? She didn't think this could end well.
Back in the delivery room, things were moving fast and West was almost fully dilated. To her, Linda's voice was the most beautiful sound in the world. She was so relieved: Someone calm! Someone who's done this before!
By 8 p.m., Linda was diving in to give her daughter-in-law a crash course in pushing, and trying to keep her own worries at bay.
The hospital staff were concerned, too, but were sure, at least, that the baby couldn't be dangerously premature, given the size of West's waistline (there'd been no time for a full ultrasound). They gave her antibiotics, since she hadn't been screened for any infections during pregnancy, and braced themselves. No one knew anything for certain about this baby except that the mom hadn't had any prenatal care.
Still too overwhelmed and scared to play the role of supportive dad-to-be, Dan left the coaching up to his mom and walked the halls. Babies were a part of his fuzzy future with Jen, not their life now. Is this for real? Am I going crazy? he wondered as he paced.
Meanwhile, West tried to focus on pushing, but the baby's heartbeat kept dropping, so she was given an oxygen mask, which quickly became her security blanket: Behind it, with the sound of the flowing oxygen drowning out everything else, she felt just a tiny bit calmer. But then she'd put it aside and the noise and craziness would hit her all over again.
Not to mention the pain, which was unlike anything she'd ever felt. It was too late for an epidural, and after pushing for nearly an hour without any relief, she tried to hang on by telling herself it had to end soon: No one could handle this much agony for very long. She was right. Minutes later she gave a last, tearful push, and her baby -- a boy -- was born. At eight pounds even, he was as healthy as could be. West held him and felt like she was in a dream, but then, her little baby looked right at her, and everything changed again. "Okay," she found herself saying to him, "I'm your mommy. And I'm going to take care of you."
Adjusting to family life
Three days later, the Wests drove back to the cabin (Jen was too sore and tired to endure the seven-hour ride home). In the back was a car seat -- their first baby gift -- from Puccinelli and De Keyser. And buckled into the car seat was Robert Hayward West -- "Robert" after Dan's father, and "Hayward" in tribute to the town where the baby was born and where Jen and Dan were married five years earlier. They stayed at the cabin for three nights, where Robbie slept snuggled in a drawer set atop a dresser. Dan's parents and nearby friends supplied basics like diapers and clothes, and Jen's mom and sister, back in Illinois, sprang into action, hastily planning a shower for when the new family returned.
For Jen and Dan, adjusting to life with a baby was more complicated than for most new parents. Jen found herself grappling with unexpected guilt: "Robbie would have these three-hour fits of crying, and I didn't know what to do. I'd think, 'Is this because I didn't know I was having you?'"
But as the days turned into weeks, and the family settled in back at home, Jen and Dan started to become parents. Suddenly, they had opinions about diapers and how to get Robbie to smile. Best of all, they told their story to so many well-meaning visitors that the whole thing began to sound a little less crazy.
How did Jen miss her pregnancy?
What everyone wanted to know, of course, was: How did you not know? Looking back, though, there was a logical explanation for how West had missed all the obvious symptoms. Morning sickness? She thought she had the flu when she would've been about eight weeks pregnant. Missed periods? She thought she was getting her period just like she always had -- that is, irregularly. (The bleeding the day she gave birth may have been the bleeding due to labor or could have been the expulsion of the mucus plug that protects the opening of the cervix.) Heartburn and stomach pain late in the pregnancy didn't raise a red flag, either. "I was sure I'd aggravated my ulcer," she says. Her gynecologist didn't catch her condition because she saw her for an annual exam just before West would have conceived.
Even the baby's movements, which would be so obvious for most women, got past her: She has a tilted uterus, a common condition in which the top of the uterus is angled back, instead of straight up. In West's case, it may have prevented her from feeling Robbie kick, but it probably caused back pain that West attributed to strain.
What she didn't miss was her weight gain, which totaled more than 20 pounds and, near the end, seemed focused on her middle. "I never used to gain weight there, but I figured my body had changed since I'd turned thirty," she says. She took up bike riding and tried watching what she ate but couldn't seem to shed the pounds.
West wasn't the only one who noticed her progressive plumpness. Her older sister, Jeanne Cox, poked her and said, "What have you got in there, a baby?" but West said, "No, I'm just getting fat," so her sister let it go.
Ironically, Jeanne was pregnant herself. "I was thrilled for her, and excited to be a part of a pregnancy from the very beginning," West says. "I actually said to Jeanne that helping her was the next best thing to having my own baby!"
When her sister gave birth at the end of June, West dropped everything to help her. In fact, less than a week before her own baby was born, she was scrubbing Jeanne's house from top to bottom. Meanwhile, Dan was happy about the new baby in the family -- Jeanne's husband, Justin, has been Dan's best friend since high school -- but still wasn't inspired to start his own family. Babies, it seemed, changed everything.
He was right, of course, but as his own mom points out, it's that way for everyone. "The day Dan was born -- not the day I found out I was pregnant -- was the day my life changed," she says. No one can imagine life without Robbie now, least of all Jen: "When he was born, I was overwhelmed, but I loved him from the start."
The Wests feel their good fortune extends beyond Robbie's presence and good health. "It isn't until something unexpected happens that you realize how important you are to people," Jen says of the support she's gotten from family, friends, and coworkers. They not only pitched in from day one but gave the couple what they needed most: reassurance that despite the rather unusual nature of Robbie's birth, Jen and Dan weren't nuts, and that they're still smart, caring, good parents. But that doesn't mean they're taking any chances for next time around. As West says, "I think I'll be taking a pregnancy test every month for the rest of my life!"
Sarah Smith is an articles editor at Parenting.