To me, my son’s birth was not just a “good birth.”
The medical community thinks of births as either “good” or not good based on the physical health of the mother and the baby. Yes, my son was healthy within a day of his delivery. But for a mother, there’s so much more to it than that.
Since reading Kate Hopper’s gripping memoir Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood, I’ve been thinking a lot about my son’s birth and early infancy. Even though Hopper’s book Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers has become one of my touchstone resources for writing about motherhood, the topic of this new book terrified me and I waited awhile before deciding to read it. For me, reading and thinking about preemie babies seemed like an exercise in breaking your heart. I was not brave enough, I thought, to begin a reading journey of contemplating these tiny babies’ fragility, their struggles, and their families’ pain.
But as the glowing reviews for Ready For Air came in from writers that I respect, I took a chance on the book. Then I read it in one weekend. It consumed me.
Yes, the book did break my heart. But it was worth every tear and every difficult emotion. I cried for Kate, for her baby, and for her husband. But in truth I cried for myself as well.
Like Kate, and every first-time mother, I had dreams and plans for how motherhood and parenthood should and would be. The birth process terrified me so I approached it like the doctoral student that I was. I researched, and I wanted as much control over the outcome as possible. Ever the perfectionistic, I was striving for the perfect natural birth. I had stacks of pregnancy books, took several prenatal classes, and hired a team of birth doulas, with whom I wrote a birth plan.
Yet in the final stages of pushing during a fast, intense labor, the doctors rushed me into the operating room for an emergency c-section because my baby’s heart rate had fallen dramatically and would not rebound. There was rushing, shouting, shoving releases in my face. An intern yelling at me that I was not responding to his questions about anesthesia fast enough. The c-section was happening so fast that at first it seemed that my husband would not be able to join me. No time to put me under general anesthesia. The operating room was like a war zone, birth as a combat operation, armies of doctors and nurses rushing in and out, shouting orders to each other.
Once my son was born, he wasn’t breathing and there was more chaos. It turns out that he had an umbilical cord that was too short to make it out of the birth canal.
Yet by the end of the day my son was fine. I was fine. After a rough c-section, my recovery was long and painful, but I was fine. In the eyes of the doctors, this was a successful birth — everyone was physically healthy — and I didn’t want to listen when my doula, who was also a clinical social worker and therapist, told me that I might want to consider therapy at some point to process the emotions that I might feel. She said that mine was one of the most traumatic births she had witnessed, and it was okay to feel emotional pain and a sense of loss from that experience.
But the weeks went by and I was consumed with my own physical recovery, my son’s all-consuming colic and digestive issues (severe allergies and reflux) and our move from Cambridge to western New York.
In the two years since my son’s birth, I had never thought about motherhood from the perspective that Ready For Air helped me to see. This book is about Kate Hopper’s battle with severe preeclampsia during the final part of her pregnancy and the premature delivery of her daughter, Stella, at 32 weeks gestation. But about so much more.
When I taught writing and memoir to middle school students, I would always tell them that it’s not enough to tell a story, a sequence of events and collection of characters; you need to have a “so what?” Why should a reader care about these events? What is it that you want your reader to understand about you and about life from this story?
From the book, I learned a lot about medical conditions, such as preeclampsia, that I had always wondered about, and about the isolation, difficulties, and day-to-day joy and pain of caring for a premature infant. The events in the book are told simply and compellingly.
Yet Kate’s “so what?” is that life can be full of challenges that you don’t expect. At a moment’s notice, the direction of your life can change forever. And our job is to accept our lives for what they are. There are no perfect stories — no perfect marriages, no perfect children, no perfect parents.
For years now, I’ve been carrying a lot of baggage about my early months of motherhood, and I felt that I didn’t have a mental shelf to put that baggage. That baggage was my own feelings as failure as a mother. Why couldn’t have I have had a “normal” birth? What had I done to cause my son’s cord issues? (One doctor actually asked me why I didn’t tell my ob/gyn that my son had decreased levels of movement during the last months of pregnancy… I felt guilty, even though I knew that — as a first-time mom — I had no basis for comparison about what were “normal” levels of fetal movement.) Why didn’t I try harder to breastfeed longer? Why was I so weak that I stopped after two months? Why wasn’t I able to stop my son’s constant crying for the first several months of life?
This is a beautifully written book that may help women see that those are the wrong questions. Instead, we could ask: What am I grateful for today? What’s the best that I can do today? This book can help mothers understand that there is no perfect experience of motherhood. Tragedy can happen in the blink of an eye, and we should be grateful for our own paths and for our own set of coping skills.
To read more about Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood, go to Kate Hopper’s website.
To read more about another terrific book, She Matters: A Life in Friendships, and to enter a giveaway, go to our new HerStories Project website. Visit our HerStories Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. Our anthology of friendship stories, including a foreword by Scary Mommy’s Jill Smokler, will be released next month!