how i got this baby

The Mom Who Lost Her Home the Day Before She Gave Birth

Illustration: Palesa Monareng

Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, “How I Got This Baby” is a series that invites parents to share their stories.

In October 2020, Melissa*, then 21, felt burned out from working as a home health aide in Raleigh, North Carolina. The early months of the pandemic had been full of grueling 24-hour shifts, so she decided to take a month off to visit her cousin in Georgia. Soon Melissa struck up a casual romance with a childhood friend named John. Melissa had known John since she was 15, and their relationship was flirty and relaxed. Neither of them was interested in dating the other seriously. 

Then one day, out of the blue, John mentioned he’d been sleeping more than usual and he had heard a funny superstition — that when a man starts to sleep more, it means his partner is pregnant. John bought Melissa a pack of cheap pregnancy tests, and to humor him, she took one. “I thought there was no way I could be pregnant,” she says. But the test (and the two she took after it, plus an expensive digital test purchased a few hours later) came back positive. 

“Seeing the word ‘pregnant,’ my heart just sank,” Melissa says. She had always wanted to be a mother, but on different terms. “I wanted to have all the stability you would want when you bring a child into the world, to be married, or partnered, with good jobs and financial stability.” 

Melissa and John briefly considered staying together. But she came to believe John was immature; he always seemed to be bouncing from job to job. “I have pretty high standards, and he wasn’t rising to them,” she says. Melissa’s own parents split when she was 3 years old. Melissa’s father raised her and her two younger brothers, while their mother, an alcoholic, drifted in and out of their lives. Her inconsistent presence deeply wounded Melissa. “I didn’t want unreliable people like that around my baby,” Melissa says. 

She decided to return to Raleigh to create a stable life for her baby. Her pregnancy went smoothly. “I loved being pregnant. Feeling him move and kick, seeing my body change, all of that,” she says. 

 But the first year of parenthood proved more tumultuous and challenging than Melissa ever could have anticipated. Now 24, Melissa looks back on how she navigated eviction, giving birth to her son, James, and managing postpartum depression. 

On facing the financial reality of single motherhood

When I learned I was pregnant, I had been working for a senior-care company for three years. I worked 40 to 60 hours a week, but I didn’t get employee benefits like health care or a retirement savings plan or paid maternity leave. I didn’t have a plan for child care when the baby arrived; all I knew was that I needed to make as much money as possible so I could take time off to be with James after he was born. I also wanted a little financial cushion in case something went wrong — like medical bills that I couldn’t afford. I worked 60 to 80 hours a week so I could put money away. I also had a side business doing hair and makeup, so I did that on weekends.

A couple of months into the pregnancy, I made the cost-saving decision to move into employee housing. One of the senior homes where I worked had apartments for employees to ensure that an employee was always available if a patient needed overnight help. Part of my paycheck from that company was deducted to cover my rent.

The owners of the senior home seemed super understanding about my pregnancy. One of them even said that when the baby came, I could take him with me to my shifts. They didn’t seem to have a problem with me living in the company apartment with the baby.

On the moment her plans began to unravel

I worked with patients who had Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. I’d get them dressed, help them go to the bathroom and get cleaned up. Some of them could get a little bit aggressive. One day, I was going to change one of the residents, and he sort of jerked his body really fast and I hit my belly on the side of the bed. It was a total accident. But the hit was hard enough to take my breath away. I would’ve brushed it off, but the baby was super reactive — really kicking — and that’s what freaked me out.

At shift change, I told my supervisor what happened and she told me to go to the hospital to get checked out. Thankfully, the baby looked totally fine, but the doctor still wrote me a note to give to my bosses saying I shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 30 pounds through the end of my pregnancy. I sent a photo of the letter to my boss and let her know that I was feeling fine.

A couple of days later, I got an email from the company’s property manager that said I needed to move out of my apartment immediately. Apparently, there couldn’t be a baby in the care home based on state regulations for senior-care facilities. I was like, Wait, what? I’m weeks away from my due date and you’re telling me this now? 

There was no way I could find an apartment, get packed, move, keep working, and then deliver three weeks later. I didn’t even have a car at the time. How was I going to pay for a moving truck? There was also no way to find an apartment in such a short amount of time.

I would’ve been more understanding if they had said, “Okay, you actually can’t have the baby with you while you come back to work and you’re on your shift.” But to say I couldn’t have my baby in my private apartment because it was attached to the senior-care home did not make sense to me.

I truly panicked. I didn’t know what to do.

I did what I could to start looking for housing. I even started packing. But I wasn’t hopeful. In retrospect, I think they took advantage of me. They knew I was having a baby and couldn’t stay there, but they didn’t tell me to move because they saw me taking extra shifts and working hard and they wanted me to do that as long as possible.

On becoming homeless the day before her baby was born

The day after my due date, still pregnant, I went to see a friend, and when I returned to my apartment later that afternoon, my key didn’t work. They had changed the locks while I was gone.

I called the property manager, and he had zero compassion. I was so upset that I was shaking. I called the police and they came out and listened to me explain the situation. As I was speaking to the officer, I started having contractions. I had felt some cramping earlier that morning, but these were intense and uncomfortable.

The police officer asked me to call the property manager so he could talk to him on the phone. “Hey, she’s very pregnant. She said she lives here, her stuff is inside. At least let her in,” the cop said. The manager said, “Sure, I’ll come down,” but he wouldn’t give a time frame. It was 4 or 5 p.m. at that point. I waited a while for him, but I knew he wasn’t coming. The cop couldn’t do anything else. “My hands are tied,” he said. “No one is in danger; there’s nothing I can do.”

I was very distraught and my contractions kept getting worse. I ended up going to a nearby hotel, and that night, I went into active labor. After hours of laboring, at about one in the morning, I started to feel like it was no longer safe to be alone and called the friend I’d been with earlier that day for a ride to the hospital.

On giving birth amid intense stress

As soon as I got to the hospital, I was totally focused on the birth. Somehow, I was completely detached from everything that happened the day before. I had called John to let him know I was in labor, but he had a long drive ahead of him and didn’t arrive until after I delivered. My mom made it there, though. The birth itself was awesome. It was natural, like I wanted. James arrived at 6:36 in the morning. He was 7 pounds, 2 ounces. I was so proud, just in awe. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

After James came and I was recovering, I started panicking again about what I was going to do next. Weeks earlier, I had set up a smart security camera in my apartment to make sure the property manager didn’t do anything weird while I wasn’t there.

The morning I had James, I was holding him in the hospital bed when I heard a notification sound coming from my phone. It was the camera app: motion detected. I pulled up the app, and sure enough, I saw the property manager and another guy in my apartment, moving my stuff out. Most of my stuff was already in boxes, thankfully. I called out to them through the camera: “Y’all, this is illegal.” They acted like they didn’t hear me.

My mom went down there to find out what was going on. “We’re moving her stuff to a storage unit,” they said. But they wouldn’t give her the storage-unit key, because I wasn’t there. My mom said, “She is in the hospital! She went into labor and had the baby! Give me the key!” I didn’t even have my hospital bag with me. Finally, they gave it to her and my mom was able to get my bag. In the end, they paid for a month’s rent on the storage unit. I never heard from them again.

On finding a place to live after her discharge

My mom and I have always had a rocky relationship because of her alcoholism. A couple of years before I got pregnant, I reached out to her and offered to help. I found her a program that would help her get sober and then get a job and housing. When I learned I was pregnant, she was finishing that program and about to go out on her own — so I hoped she would be able to help with the baby after he was born.

Unfortunately, not long before James was born, she started drinking again. Her living arrangement wasn’t good; she was living in an apartment with other people, and it wasn’t an appropriate place for me and the baby. But I had nowhere to live and no idea what I was going to do. I crashed on her couch for a week so I could figure things out. I’ll never forget sitting there on that couch, trying to learn how to breastfeed James. I stayed with her for that first week, and then stayed with a friend for a little bit.

About a month after I delivered, I signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment. I remember being at my storage unit with my mom and my friends and James. The unit was a mess — my stuff was everywhere. But once we were settled, I started adjusting more to newborn life.

On her difficult first few months as a mom

I had some savings, so initially, I didn’t worry too much about money. When James was 2 months old, I started picking up hair and makeup jobs. Sometimes a friend would watch him; other times, I’d take him to jobs and he would nap or I would put him in a baby-wearer.

But I started struggling with my mental health around that time. I had anticipated all of the physical changes, but I wasn’t ready for the mental toll. I cried all the time. I had cried a lot during my pregnancy because I didn’t have a lot of support. But after the baby came, I cried even more — all day. And I wasn’t getting sleep, not just because I was the only one there who could feed him. I developed insomnia. If I wasn’t nursing or pumping, I would watch Netflix or listen to music for hours in the middle of the night. I was especially unprepared for breastfeeding being so difficult. I think that was the thing that really tipped me over the edge and triggered the depression.

On her descent into secret postpartum depression

By the time James was 3 months old or so, I could tell he was frustrated with my milk supply. I was frustrated too. I couldn’t stand hearing him cry, and when he would clamp down, I’d get mad. Sometimes he’d scratch me, and I’d lose it. I would have to put him in his crib and walk away. I remember crying, thinking, Whoa, Melissa. What’s wrong with you? He’s a baby. This is not okay. That scared me. I started worrying I was going to hurt him.

When James arrived, I started participating in a weekly virtual postpartum support group, but other than that, I didn’t have much of an outlet. I remember going to my six-week postpartum appointment with my OB/GYN. They give you this multiple-choice questionnaire to see how you’re feeling. I had a lot of anxiety about James being taken away from me; if you’re a single parent, you need to be very protective of what you say and what you do. I don’t know if it was rational or not, but I was really scared about that. So on that postpartum questionnaire, I just made it look like I was fine and didn’t answer the questions honestly. I didn’t say I was depressed. I grew up with an unstable mother who lost her kids, so I know from experience that if you’re not capable of taking care of your kid, then someone else is going to have to take care of them. I knew I was James’s best option — even at my worst, I believed he needed to be with me.

On finding help through a clinical trial

I was feeling really sad and anxious for about a month and a half when I started looking for help. I subscribed to a bunch of newsletters, and one day, I got an email with a blurb in it about a clinical trial testing a new medication for postpartum depression. [Editor’s note: The medication was zuranolone (brand name Zurzuvae). In August, zuranolone became the first oral medication for PPD to gain FDA approval.] 

The email said that the research was being conducted at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, and that there would be compensation. It had a link to a prescreening questionnaire. I answered the questions, and after a call with the research team, I qualified for the trial. I’d never been in a clinical trial before, so I was a little nervous, but I mostly felt desperate. I couldn’t breastfeed on the trial, but that wasn’t a problem because I had decided to stop nursing and was feeding James formula and breast milk from my freezer stash.

I saw the research team every other week, and took the medication — a pill — at the same time nightly for 14 days. It was a blind trial, so they didn’t tell me whether or not I was on the medication. But right away, I knew. I would take it and feel really sleepy. I started getting way better sleep.

I was also more patient with James — less irritable, less triggered by his crying and his scratching. I started enjoying him more, singing to him, playing with him, putting him in cute outfits. I noticed a huge change. Within a day or two, I was feeling different.

On how she and James are doing today

James is 2 and a half now. I know I’m biased, but he’s the best. He’s so friendly, so sassy, very assertive. You can’t coerce him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. I try to do affirmations with him: “You are smart, you are brave, we are healthy, we are strong, we are capable.” I want him to grow into a regulated, well-adjusted person. He could grow up and be anything — be the most regular person. But I think he’s destined for big things. Big, big.

Before having my son, I envisioned being the mom who purées baby food, exclusively breastfeeds, does super-fun things with her kid, all of that. And we do fun things as much as we can. But I’ve learned to manage my expectations of myself. I try to remind myself that everything is for a season, and some seasons are harder than others — and every season ends. I’ve also learned to ask for help.

After the clinical trial, I started thinking about how I could maximize my earning potential and decided rebranding as a wedding aesthetician made sense because I could command more money. So I started booking more weddings and marketing myself on WeddingWire and the Knot. Only recently have I felt ready for a more full-time job. One of my big goals is buying a home for us. To get a Federal Housing Administration loan, you have to demonstrate that you’ve got solid, reliable employment, so that’s what I’m working on. I just got a verbal offer for a sales manager position at an office equipment-leasing company. I’m planning on working about 30 to 40 hours a week and putting James in a home-based day care. I would love to have James in some private Montessori school where he’s fed organic food and the teachers do all the little things for him that I would do. But I have a budget.

I have so much more sympathy and respect for moms now. Whenever I read a story about a woman who hurts her baby or herself, I don’t judge; I completely understand, because I’ve felt those feelings. Depression isolates you. Sometimes you want to crawl out of your skin. Being home alone all the time with your baby can make you feel like you’re going crazy.

Right now, I’m focused on being the best mom I can be. But I’m still ambitious. There’s a lot that I would still like to do. I’d love to go back to college and finish my bachelor’s degree; I’d love to have a master’s degree someday, too.

But I’m content with where we are right now. And I’m proud of us.

*Names have been changed to protect the subjects’ identities. 

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