Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia, offered plenty of nearby options for an adventurer — thundering waterfalls, the Amazonian rainforest and the remote trail on which Che Guevara died. Yet six weeks after arriving to begin a new posting there, I still hadn’t left the city once. Why? I was pregnant.
The symptoms appeared within days of my arriving in Santa Cruz — a light weakness and nausea that grew with time, and a sudden exhaustion which forced me to bed as soon as I came home from work. I knew right away I was pregnant but braved requesting a pregnancy test from a local pharmacy to confirm it. I was happy and excited to see the positive sign, but I was also nervous to go through the experience in a new assignment, a new country, and far from Jim, my husband.
Jim and I had pursued a long-distance relationship for much of our three-and-a-half years together. He had a job he loved in the United States. I was a micro-finance consultant, helping banks overseas provide loans to low-income entrepreneurs. Following our marriage and a two-week honeymoon, he returned to his job in the States and I moved on to my next posting, in Bolivia.
Not long after I arrived, just as the zygote implanted, the Bolivians celebrated a holiday with a three-day weekend — a fantastic opportunity to head to the jungle. I called a tour company. They proposed a trip — a 4×4 over rough road, river crossing on horseback, camping in the wild. Great. That sounded like my idea of adventure.
When my local friend backed out because she didn’t have a yellow fever vaccination (and mosquitoes were said to be rife there), I had to admit I didn’t feel so well myself — tired, nauseous and weak. What if I couldn’t keep up? I’m in Bolivia, I told myself. When else will I ever have this chance?
But after talking with my husband, secretly hoping he would support my instinct to skip out, I decided not to go. I needed to shift gears. I had to take care of myself and this life inside me. Bouncing on rough roads, traversing slippery rocks, hiking in tropical heat, and fighting off mosquitoes and maybe even snakes wasn’t the right thing to do for this developing child’s well-being.
Each subsequent weekend, as I felt physically worse, I again made the decision to stay home and play it safe — not to travel out to the nearby ruins, not to visit the remote wildlife, not to spend my days off wandering the colorful markets. I slept, I watched TV, I read, I spaced out. I knew that other people spent their weekends this way, calling it relaxing. To me it felt boring and lazy.
With the passing weeks, I had to place more restrictions on my activities. I was no longer just giving up weekend adventure trips. Extreme fatigue meant I had to go to bed right after work — no more going out at night. After I fainted while trying to buy groceries, regaining consciousness under the kind eyes of a young beggar, I became afraid that I couldn’t even handle the basics anymore. I called my husband in tears. Was I losing myself entirely? Would I never be free again?
Suddenly, the dangers of life in a developing country became more scary. There was the tear gas I breathed in from a nearby protest, the wrenching 24 hours I spent vomiting from food poisoning, the assault on our taxi by glue-sniffing children. I could control my own reactions, but I couldn’t control the world’s impact on the developing life. I needed to be more careful.
When I was four months pregnant, my employer sent me to a conference in Quito, Ecuador. Eager to explore the lush, green countryside and to get some physical activity, I was captivated by a company offering one-day bicycle tours. I looked for an easy, flat ride. But the only tour available on the day I could go began on a 13,000-foot mountaintop and coasted down the Andes into the jungle.
During my visit to a doctor in the United States one month earlier, she’d told me that fuzzy image was a boy in formation and that I could do anything except activities that presented a risk of falling, such as biking or skiing. She’d specifically forbidden biking. But this adventure was too attractive, and I was finally in that short but advantageous window where I felt physically comfortable but didn’t have the protruding stomach to make me off-balance.
I weighed the options; I worried. I asked the bike company if I could start off lower on the mountain, if I could go slow, what the risk of falling was. Eventually, I decided to go for it. I joined a small group of tourists, and we took a Jeep outside of the city and up the mountain. At the top, where we were dropped off with our bicycles, we found snow. Slush lined the road. Yes, this was risky, I recognized. But I would take it slow.
I rolled down the mountain with a firm hand on the brakes, drinking in the verdant scenery like an elixir of happiness. I rode past a waterfall cascading down a roadside cliff dotted with green moss and snowflakes. I passed a green pond circled by rocky escarpments, white mist blocking the sky. As I moved to lower altitude, the frozen slush that lined the road turned to mud, then water, and the rocky slopes turned to grassy valleys, then dense green cloudforest. Riding under a light shower that increasingly strengthened, I traversed bridges over white raging waters and watched one waterfall after another crash down green mountainsides.
For the first time in a long time, I felt like myself again, more than just a home for a developing creature. Up until that point, I hadn’t related to what was growing inside of me as a child. At the 10-week ultrasound, I heard the heartbeat, and that was exciting. But it looked more like a bug. And the way it made me feel — taking my oxygen, blood and nutrients — made it seem like a parasite.
I had been truly worried about whether or not it made sense to take the ride. As I pumped the brakes on the way down the hill, I realized I was taking the precaution because a child was in the process of formation. For the first time, I related to it as a future child rather than as a growth.
At that time I made an agreement with him. I would be his provider, nurturer and caregiver and would make the changes necessary to provide for his safety and security. This would start immediately with me biking more slowly than everyone else in the group, taking extra precautions. But I would also be an adventurer. I asked him to allow me the freedom for some wanderings and the pleasure of his companionship.
As someone who takes pride in being independent, recognizing that I couldn’t swashbuckle through unknown territory the way I had in the past 15 years made me feel I’d lost part of myself. It was such an integral part of who I am that letting it go was hard.
A new adventure
Before, for me, adventure meant hitting the road, taking the least beaten path, learning from new people. Then I began a different adventure, closer to home. As I felt my blood vessels expand to carry more air, my breasts grow to hold milk and my body change, involuntarily, painfully, but incrementally, a day at a time, I realized I was on the journey of creation. I found out as the pregnancy progressed that the process of creating and birthing a child was much more painful, longer and surprising than any of the adventures I’d previously taken on.
Four months after his birth, Soren and I seem to have lived up to our agreement. I am up day and night to feed him, change him, comfort him and love him. At age 3 weeks, he took his first trip and handled it like a trooper. At 2 months old, he hit the road with my husband and me, traveling by plane, boat, car, bus, monorail and cable car — to five states and two countries — within five weeks.
Soren and I shared some firsts together: our first journey up the Seattle Space Needle, our first walk through the California redwoods, our first view of the expansive Oregon coastline, our first saunter through Mexican agave fields. He will probably never remember these moments, but I will. I told myself that the ocean air, the heavy presence of the giant trees, the warmth of the southern sun could only do good things for his development. We modified our plans to suit his needs — hiking a few hours from the car instead of taking a long route deep into the woods. But at least we were still exploring.
Following our five-week trip, Soren returned to our New Jersey home, just over 3 months old, having spent over a third of his life on the road. And the seed of exploration seems to be planted.
One afternoon I called my father, telling him that Soren wasn’t much of a napper.
“You know, he seemed to like the activity and the noise whenever we went somewhere,” my father said, referring to the time we’d spent visiting him. “He almost seemed to find that soothing.”
He was right. So I began to take Soren on long walks every morning, down to the canal, to watch the spring buds appear day by day. I filled his field of vision with people, cars, houses, trees and geese. After a few days of activity and sights, he was able to sleep without problem. He was back into the swing of an active life.
We’ve reached a place of compromise, Soren and I. Unlike my prior journeys, I had to learn that I don’t set the itinerary in motherhood. I needed to release control and follow the route set by my body and my growing child. The path to motherhood was a new road for me — one as unknown, exotic and scary as a trek into the Bolivian jungle. But by following it with the same spirit of adventure, I’m finding it as full of learning and surprises as any other trip I could take.
J. Lee Jacobson is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She’s working on a memoir about her time as the first Western resident of a Siberian village.