By Anna Blackmon Moore
About five months after giving birth to my son Ian, I noticed muscle pain in the front of my pelvis—tight discs of soreness just above my thighs and just below my hipbones that I could not stretch out or massage away. If I sat for long periods, the pain intensified, and I was sitting a lot, nursing Ian and then letting him nap in my lap. I watched him loosen his lips from my nipple and drift into sleep, or drift into sleep with his mouth wide open and his lips still latched, or sigh into my skin and grow still. Rather than put him down for naps in his crib, I stretched more often and started jogging again, assuming the activity would loosen my joints and strengthen my muscles.
A few weeks later, after a short, easy run through the park, Ian and I had a typical Nurse-n-Nap. He suckled for forty-five minutes and fell asleep for an hour. When he woke up, I kissed his hands until he laughed, scooped him against my side, and rose from the recliner. My hip flexors burned. I could barely straighten. Playing with Ian on the living room rug became impossible—no more Roll the Shaky Ball or Let’s Stand Up.
I went to my doctor, a GP in her fifties. She often wore flowered skirts that resembled vintage aprons; I always pictured her in a kitchen doing domestic, motherly things. During my pregnancy, when she’d treated me several times for hemorrhoids, I asked if she had children. “Oh, yes,” she said, pulling off a Latex glove and stepping away from the exam table where I lay on my side. “Two teenagers. It’s sort of tough right now.”
When I described the pain in my hips, she suggested physical therapy.
“You don’t want to take an X-ray?” I asked.
“The usual protocol is physical therapy first, then an X-ray if it doesn’t help. And until we figure out what’s wrong…”—she pulled a pad of referral slips from the pocket of her white coat—”I’d definitely stop exercising.”
“But I barely go two miles. And I love jogging.” So do my flabby thighs. So does my depression, which I additionally placate with Prozac.
“Jogging is probably making things worse.” She filled out a referral slip. “Stop for now. Go to physical therapy, see what they say.”
The physical therapist thought it might be tendonitis.
“How would I get that?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Hip flexors are kind of a weird place for it. Any injuries, any accidents?”
“No.” I was in my underwear, lying face up on the treatment table, my legs and torso covered by a paper sheet.
“Are you still nursing?”
“Yeah.” By then, Ian was about seven months old, eating spinach and beans and squealing for yogurt, but he still nursed. Between the writing classes I taught during the week and throughout the day on weekends, Ian and I Nurse-n-Napped once in the morning and once in the afternoon. When he twitched or cried out in his sleep, I touched his head so he knew I was there.
“Nursing can have all kinds of effects on the body,” she said. “It might get better when you stop.”
I stared into the ceiling. My hips were throbbing. “God knows when that will be.”
She laughed and started circling the ultrasound probe over the sore spots in my hips. I asked if she had children.
“A boy and a girl,” she said. “Nine and twelve.”
She clicked off the console and massaged anti-inflammatory ointment into my hips with her thumbs.
I returned three times a week for ultrasound, massage, and ice packs. I started doing the exercises she recommended. The pain worsened. On my sixth visit, she was on vacation, so I saw one of her colleagues.
“I don’t think it’s tendonitis,” the colleague said. I was on my stomach, knees bent, soles of my feet to the ceiling. She told me to raise my right knee off the table.
“That bad, huh?” She wore hiking boots and said she had an eight-year-old daughter. “Raise the other knee.”
I blew out a breath, tried to relax. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But you’re really weak, that’s for sure.”
I explained this new diagnosis to my therapist.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” She sat in her cushioned armchair, her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. I sat across from her. “You’ve exercised all your life.”
I pushed a throw pillow further down my back. Her couch was aggravating a new pain, deep in my tailbone. Sitting made it ache. Walking helped, but if I went more than half a mile my hips tightened to a burn. “I have an appointment with the acupuncturist tomorrow.”
She thought it might be bursitis. Throughout my pregnancy, the acupuncturist had treated me for hemorrhoids, anxiety, and the cavernous pressure of my son’s butt tucked beneath my right breast like an upside-down bowl. Sometimes I cupped my hand over his cheeks and patted them. Other times I pushed down on them to try and pop a few of my ribs.
“Between your bones and your tendons…”—she held up her hand as if holding a sandwich—”you have sacs of fluid called bursae. They can get inflamed. They can really hurt.”
“Have you had any accidents or injuries?” she asked.
“That might explain it,” she said. “Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body.”
“Nursing puts a lot of stress on the body,” my dermatologist told me the next day.
I had made an appointment to treat the dandruff that had started to shower my shirts. He was examining my scalp through a lighted magnifying glass the size of an eye. He had a slim moustache and slicked black hair, a father of five. He’d told me once that he loved having kids. I wondered if his wife did. I wondered which functions she had lost with five pregnancies, five cycles of nursing.
He rubbed a patch above my temple with his index finger. “This is seborrheic dermatitis. You know how infants get cradle cap?”
“Yes.” When Ian was only a few weeks old, I had scraped scales from his scalp while he stared blankly toward his rubber duck.
“Same thing,” he said. “It could be hormonal. Pregnancy and nursing can really change the skin.”
“All the energy in your body is going to feeding your child.” I was back at the acupuncturist’s, lying face up on the massage table with my pants off and a heat lamp warming my feet.
“Other areas of your body are lacking. They aren’t getting as much energy, as much blood, as they normally would.”
I stared at a sparkly, New Age mobile.
“You’re working too, aren’t you?” she asked. She was fifty but looked thirty—tall and strong. She swam a mile three times a week and had no children.
“I teach every day this semester.”
She tapped a needle into my right hip and rotated it until I winced. “You’re putting a lot of demands on your body,” she said.
After a few weeks of acupuncture and no exercise, the hip pain improved. I could walk up to a mile. The tailbone pain, however—a ball of it right on my coccyx—was at times excruciating, and my scalp continued to shed. The shampoo the dermatologist prescribed was $106, and insurance wouldn’t cover the cost. Rather than buy it, I was rubbing vitamin E oil into my scalp three times a week and scraping off the scales with dull nail scissors.
“Your body might never be the same,” said my psychiatrist, during a check-in appointment for a Prozac refill. She, too, was a mother. Her daughter was sixteen. They had just taken a vacation together, hiking and camping in the mountains. “It’s something you have to accept and work with.”
I started putting Ian in his crib for naps, which left him wailing and sobbing before he fell asleep to the music of his mobile. I sobbed, too, for a while—I missed his flesh, his thin, wheaten hair, the curve of his nostrils, the length of his blinks when he woke. But I persisted.
The tailbone pain did not subside, and the pain in my hips kept me from sleeping through the night.
“I would see a chiropractor,” said the acupuncturist. I was on my belly with my underwear hiked up so she could stick needles into the crown of my butt.
“But the problem isn’t in my back.”
“They’ve helped me a lot in the past.” She dimmed the lights and turned on the music—ocean sounds with a harp. “That’s what I would do. Get a ton of acupuncture and see a chiropractor.”
The chiropractor asked how much Ian weighed.
“Twenty pounds,” I said. She pulled on each of my feet to stretch my hips and then walked around the table to my head. Her hands smelled like soap. “He’s about nine months.”
“It can take up to two years before the stress on your skeletal frame gets better,” she said. “First you have him stretching out your ligaments”—she cupped her hands around her belly—”putting stress on your spine, and then you’re picking him up all the time.”
She clipped my X-rays onto the viewbox. I was crooked. My right hip was higher than my left, and my coccyx was curved slightly to the right like a shortened tail. I looked like I hadn’t quite evolved.
“It’s actually not that bad,” she said, standing next to the image. “There’s no sign of arthritis at all.”
“Thank God,” I said. I’d been having visions of incapacitation.
“But your spine is out of alignment, so your hips are out of whack. You need adjustments.”
I lay on my back. She twisted my hips to the left, crossed my arms over my chest, and leaned onto me.
“Take a deep breath.”
She pushed. Nothing. She pushed again. I had been grading papers all day, sitting on my ass. My tailbone was a rock.
“You win the Tight Award,” she said, standing. Her children were grown; her daughter shared her practice.
“I sit a lot,” I said. “But I’ve always been active. I don’t understand why my body is such a mess.”
“It’s not uncommon,” said the psychiatrist. “Women recover at different rates.”
“Nursing releases hormones,” said the dermatologist. “It puts a lot of stress on the body. It can have all kinds of effects on the skin.”
“When I was getting trained,” said the acupuncturist, “my teacher had a baby. After the birth, she stopped working. Her mother moved in and did everything. It was completely understood that her only job was to nurse her baby. That was it. But in this culture, we can’t do that.”
“It will get better,” said the chiropractor. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I promise. Be patient.”
“Have you considered waiting before you have another child?” asked the psychiatrist.
“I’m thirty-six,” I said. “I don’t want to change diapers and breastfeed when I’m forty.”
“You could still wait,” said the therapist. “You have a depressive condition. It can make everything harder.”
“Ian needs a buddy,” I said. “An ally.”
“You still have some time,” said the chiropractor.
“But I want to get it over with.”
“I don’t blame you,” said the acupuncturist.
“How’s the physical therapy going?” asked the doctor.
“We can do whatever you want,” said the husband. He was lying on his back, lifting our son into the air. They were both laughing, balloons full of joy. Chris put Ian down on the living room rug and tossed his blocks into the playpen, high up into the air, one at a time. Ian watched the blocks spin and laughed again—loud roils of delight that made his belly shake while he heaved for air.
When Ian laughs, strangers laugh back. Despair retreats.
“Let’s get it over with,” I said. I was sitting on the sofa watching them, tightening and releasing my buttocks. Trying to straighten my tail.
“Having another kid is worth wrecking your body?” Chris watched as Ian reached for his tambourine, wrapped his fingers around the frame, and put a jingle to his mouth.
Chris looked at me, his hand resting on Ian’s foot. “Are you serious?”
I held out my left hand, let it droop, and shook it out. Holding Ian against my side all the time had caused some swelling; my wrist and thumb were growing rigid. I curled and straightened my fingers, tightened and released my ass, rubbed my right hip, scratched my head. Ian shook the tambourine and made a new sound.
“Yes,” I said. “Definitely.”
Author’s Note: While I have gotten treatment and relief from the tailbone problem, my hips are about the same, and Ian has been weaned for more than four months. A friend recently decided that I have Iliotibial Band Syndrome, which usually affects people in the knees. I have started lifting weights to strengthen my quads, which might help, at least until I become pregnant again.
Anna B. Moore has essays and fiction in The American Scholar, Shenandoah, Native Peoples Magazine, and many other journals. She lives in Northern California and is currently working on a novel.
Brain, Child (Spring 2007)