“Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health-and-wellness stuff no one talks about.
Before my sons were born, I had a vision in my mind of the first photo we would take together — I’d have them both in my arms, and they’d be swaddled and asleep. My eyes would be cast down toward them, my smile wide and beaming. When they were grown up, maybe my sons would have that photograph framed in their homes, the frozen-in-time image of their mother, young and deliriously happy, with her new babies.
But my boys are 10 months old now and have never seen me smile. Not really, anyway. Not the way I used to, with abandon and a wide-open mouth. I would love to laugh with them like that; they give me the kind of joy that warrants it at least a dozen times a day. But the week before they were born, Bell’s palsy paralyzed the right side of my face, and my smile went with it. My laugh is still there, but it’s different — pinched and instinctively hidden behind my hands. My face, no matter how I feel, is locked into a grimace. I’ve never felt so physically unrecognizable to myself, and in the first months of my sons’ lives, I constantly worried that my emotions were unrecognizable to others.
I was 32 weeks pregnant and smiling at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My mouth felt tingly and weird, so there I was inspecting it, making faces, searching for any visible signs of where the tingling came from and why. I studied myself — made a big smile, a big frown, raised my eyebrows, pursed my lips, big smile again. Everything looked normal; everything moved normally. I chalked up the strange feeling to the general discomfort of being in my third trimester of a twins pregnancy, and I went out to coffee with my husband. Somewhere between the bathroom of my apartment and the coffee shop around the corner, my smile got lost.
“Something just happened to your face,” my husband said as calmly as he could, but I saw a flick of fear in his eyes. I finished my drink because the coffee dribbling out of the side of my mouth told me he was right, and I was entirely too scared to really acknowledge whatever had just happened.
After that, came a weeklong hospitalized blur: MRIs and blood tests and spending the night on a gurney in labor and delivery triage. There were scans of my veins and hospital meals on trays and countless ultrasounds to confirm and reconfirm that my twins were all right. The diagnosis of Bell’s palsy — a benign disorder that is three times more likely in pregnant people than in others — came with the relief that it wasn’t something more threatening and the assurances that my face would be back to normal again in no time. That is the trajectory for the vast majority of patients, doctors told me. The odds of not recovering within the first few weeks or months are very slim. This, right now, is the before, they promised. And there will be an after.
Seven days later and still in the hospital, I went into labor in the middle of the night. My right eye was taped shut as it had been each of the previous seven nights to protect my cornea while I slept. I remember carefully peeling off the tape between contractions. I removed it as slowly as I could so as not to rip out my eyelashes; I needed to see my babies with both of my eyes when they were born. By dawn, I had two healthy sons. I wanted to cry with relief, but my startled eye couldn’t tear up and my twisted mouth couldn’t smile, so I just stared at them and delicately touched their perfect hands and feet, looking for a new way to express my joy.
For the first few weeks at home with my babies, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about my face. It was going to return to normal just as the doctors had promised. So instead, I practiced patience and got on with it. There were so many diapers to change and onesies to wash and babies to feed. I’d hide my face when a photo was taken, so as not to ruin the picture, and I’d preempt my embarrassment by hurriedly apologizing for my face if people came over. Other than that, there was no time to worry.
I counted on other things to convey my happiness to my sons. Knowing they couldn’t yet see very far, I’d bring my face in as close to theirs as I could and rub the tip of their noses with mine. When I talked to them, I’d compensate for my frozen face by brimming my voice over with joy so they could feel how much I loved them. I couldn’t pucker, but I’d press my lips to their heads and arms, the bottoms of their feet, anything to let them know they were loved and safe and I was happy. I told myself they couldn’t see my face very well anyway, so my grimace wouldn’t mean anything to them.
At my children’s second-month pediatrician checkup, things changed. My boys were stripped down to their diapers, their weights taken, and their hearts listened to, their head control tested. “Are they smiling?” the doctor asked. They weren’t, but they were born seven weeks early so a bit of a delay was to be expected. “Just keep showing them how to smile,” the doctor said, smiling herself. “Smile at them as much as you can so they can learn what the expressions mean.” I swear I felt my heart break.
My own mouth was behind a mask, so there was no way the doctor could have known the impact of her words. But it had been nine weeks since my face went still, and nothing had changed. My face hurt less, but I couldn’t smile or blink or kiss or blow out a candle or drink through a straw. I struggled to say any word with a b or a p. And now the thought lodged in my brain that my babies weren’t smiling and it was my fault. Without my smiling at them, how would they learn? Without my smiling at them, how would they know I was happy?
I resolved then that if my smile wasn’t going to return on its own, I would have to go find it. My sons needed me to smile, and so I would. I was already undergoing frequent acupuncture, and now I added a visit to a neurologist for an electrodiagnostic test to assess the extent of the paralysis. Nodes were attached to my forehead, cheeks, and chin, and electric currents were sent through to test if my muscles would move. They barely did. “I don’t imagine you’ll ever return to normal,” the neurologist said bluntly at the end of our visit. “And even if in the future you think you’re smiling, you’ll probably be doing this.” He scrunched up his face and made his eye blink rapidly. I left, angry at his callousness, with bruises on my face from the electric shocks and a pit in my stomach that he might be right.
But a few weeks later, with my own smile still lost, my sons started smiling when they were happy. At first, Baby B, as he was called in the womb, had a crooked smile, like a curled Elvis lip. I worried it was because he was learning facial expressions from someone who didn’t have any, but a few days after that his smile evened out — gummy and wide. What made my boys smile the brightest was the sight of my face. My face, the one I barely recognized, was the most recognizable thing in the world to them, and when they saw it, their smiles would take over. Their smiling at me inevitably made me smile, or try to. The left side of my face moved in a recognizable way, but on the right, my eye would scrunch closed and my mouth would stay frozen in an open-mouthed line, neither a smile nor a frown. My boys loved it and smiled back. They understood it was joy.
My boys’ first birthday isn’t too far away now, and my face still isn’t the one I remember. I’m beginning to really believe the neurologist who told me it never would be. I can blink now, thankfully, and through physical therapy I am relearning movements like how to pucker my lips and draw up the corners of my mouth when I’m happy. It is difficult and frustrating and demands a kind of patience and attention to minute muscles that can take my energy sources and wring them dry. I am still grieving the loss of my old face and trying to make peace with the new one. It’s something I am trying hard to love and something I struggle to express myself with. It’s also something my sons understand completely and love without effort.
More From This Series
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- What to Do (and Not to Do) When Your Friend Has a Newborn
- Surviving the Death Talk With My Kid