Tomorrow will be an especially joyous Thanksgiving for longtime Oak Parkers John and Carol Stanger. Two new grandsons, born 13 days apart on June 20 and July 3, will be joining the family celebration. The birth of the first, Cameron Cox, was happily anticipated. The birth of the second, Robbie Hayward West, was a surprise. A total, amazing surprise.
Jennifer Stanger West gave birth to Robbie less than two hours after she discovered she was pregnant. A 31-year-old woman who's seen lots of friends and family through pregnancies, West admits this sounds insane. And yet, "I had a period for all nine months. I took birth control pills the whole time. I felt so normal, fantastic, like myself. I gained 15 pounds, but it looked proportionateâ€"my stomach got bigger but so did the rest of me," she says.
"My sister and I are very close, and I went through her pregnancy with her, from the time she announced it in October. I heard all of her symptoms, but nothing rang a bell with me. I had no nausea, no food aversions; I wasn't tired."
"We saw Jen all the time. She put on weight but she didn't look pregnant," echoed her mom, Carol.
So when sister Jeanne needed her floors scrubbed, Jen pitched right in. She chalked up the weight gain to a slowed metabolism. She'd had her annual gynecologist appointment in September 2004, so she wasn't due back until two months, it turns out, after Robbie was born.
Jen, who grew up in south Oak Park and attended Grace Lutheran School and Oak Park and River Forest High School, and her husband Dan live in Villa Park now. They'd planned to spend the July 4th weekend with friends at his parents' cabin in Hayward, Wis. Dan went first, with Jen planning to follow on July 2. The day before, she told Carol she hadn't been feeling wellâ€"her back hurt, she couldn't sleepâ€"but she made the six-hour drive anyway.
"That night didn't go well," Dan remembers. "The next day was real bad. She had a lot of back pain, stomach pain." He and their friends left Jen alone in the cabin and played miniature golf, but when they returned to find her in extreme distress, "I forced her to go to the hospital. She didn't want to go," he says.
They arrived at the emergency room at 7 p.m. No one suspected a pregnancy. Jen told the nurses, "This feels like fibroid tumors [which she'd experienced in the past]. The pain is similar but more intense." They hooked her up to a Doppler machine and heard a steady beating.
"The doctor came in, looked at me, sat down and said, 'You're 8 centimeters dilated. You're in labor.' The nurses and I looked at him. 'Excuse me?' I said. I was blown away."
Dan also heard the sound, from the hallway. "A nurse walked by and said, 'Do you hear that? That's your baby's heartbeat.' I said nothing."
The next hour is a blur to them both. Dan remembers "unbelievable, unimaginable shock." Jen, in the midst of what was now "brutal pain," realized she had to put everything aside and concentrate on the business at hand.
"I'm surprised I got through it without a breakdown," she admits.
Everyone assumed the baby would be months premature. They prepared to airlift him to a larger hospital in Duluth. After a hurried phone call from Dan ("He still wasn't believing it," recalls Carol, in shock herself), Carol called Jeanne and they cried together. Jen recalls feeling guilty and fearful. And then, at 8:50 p.m., Robert Hayward West was born. All 8 full-term pounds of him.
"He came out and I looked at him, looked at the doctor's face, which was so relieved. They did every test in the book. He was adorably, perfectly healthy," she says.
How is this possible? Jen explains that her uterus was out of place, located far into her back. The back pain she'd been feeling was probably the baby kicking. The doctor told her it's rare for a woman to have periods through a pregnancy, but it does happen.
"A woman's body can do funny things," Jen observes.
Of course, they had no baby suppliesâ€"not even a blanket. Robbie slept in a drawer for his first week, while his parents tried to wrap their minds around what had happened.
"I was in shock; my husband was in severe shock for the first few days. But then we fell in love with him. He's a beautiful little boy," says Jen.
Back home on a hastily arranged maternity leave, Jen logged on to the website of The View, an ABC morning show. It asked for e-mail from anyone who'd had a life-changing experience over the summer. Well, yes, Jen thought.
A producer responded to Jen's e-mail "to make sure we weren't crazy," she guesses, and then invited the couple and Robbie to New York. They stayed in a grand hotel and appeared on the Aug. 29 season premiere, receiving much-needed nursery furniture and a complete line of Baby Einstein products as gifts. And something else.
Another guest on the show had won $220 million in the lottery. "At the end, he surprised us with a trust fund for Robbie's college. I just about collapsed on stage," says Jen.
Aside from adjusting to parenthoodâ€"and finding an alternate birth control methodâ€"Jen and Dan are pretty much back to normal. "I'm an even-keel kind of person," says Jen. "Nothing exciting happens to me. And then this most bizarre but also most wonderful thing happened. It was meant to be. A baby, a wonderful gift. And it's such a blessing."