In my former life, falling head first into a novel or memoir and not coming up for air until I had surfaced on the other side was fairly commonplace, but since L was born I've been reading in a piecemeal, catch-while-catch-can fashion. Until I started Beth Ann Fennelly's Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, that is. I have been completely consumed by my infatuation for this book. I read it in one day and probably would have read it in one sitting if I hadn't needed to sleep so desperately. I even googled her, trying to decide if I should send her a ridiculously gushy email (she works at a public university so her contact information is widely available for all kinds of creepy stalkers like myself). In the end, I decided to keep my thoughts to myself -- and by myself, I mean to share them with you, of course.
I was wishing at first that someone had given me this book when I was pregnant, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that I probably wasn't in a place to absorb all of it then. Even though you know that motherhood isn't something you can plan for and that you won't really "get it" until you're in it, you don't get it until you're in it. (Funny how that works.) But it would have been a salve for the soul in those early, sleep-deprived, nightmarish first few weeks of feeling lost and alone, that's for sure.
Here are the basics: Fennelly is a professor and a published poet. She struck up a close friendship with one of her students when Fennelly was pregnant with her first child, and when that same student became pregnant, Fennelly sent her dozens of letters answering her questions about childbirth, marriage after having a baby, surviving a miscarriage, balancing an intellectual life with the demands of parenting, and all sorts of matters of the heart and mind. The book, which is a collection of those letters, is intensely personal and moving -- it's a honest account of motherhood ("I [realized] that many new mothers felt betrayed by all that's been kept from them," she says at one point) that doesn't shy away from the difficult moments but doesn't wallow in despair, either. I actually read it with pen in hand, marking up my favorite passages so that I could come back to read and reflect on them again, because I knew one time through wasn't going to be enough.
I want to share just a few of those passages with you to give you an idea of how beautiful Fennelly's writing is (I've never read her poetry, but I desperately want to now because of how lovely her prose is!) and how insightful the book proves to be -- and then you should stop what you're doing and go order a copy. When you're done, pass it on to a friend who needs it. And tell her to pass it on, too.
(all passages from the 2007 Norton paperback edition)
No matter what else I was doing, I'd also be touching her. Whether teaching or walking or eating an apple, some part of me was musing on our mystery, the love that felt ageless and wise. Such a laying on of hands, such a daily walking embrace. (page 44)
On giving birth:
Michaelangelo dreamed of creating a life, someone who could breathe and walk. Dr. Frankenstein dreamed of something similar. But only women can bring forth a living creature. We do this with our bodies. We do this with our hearts. [...] Oh we women needn't play at war and its games like men I've known who can't disguise their aggression and excitement when the bombs begin falling on some country or other. We needn't play at war because if we give birth, we go to war, and at the deepest level, deeper than bone deep, our evolutionary history tells us that it's a matter of life and death. [...] You will split open your body to free the tiny god who will be caught and held up like a hero. You are the hero. No one but you can do it. (pages 163, 190-91)
On the passage of time:
Truly, babies are hyphenated -- they are endearing-exasperating, they are amusing-annoying. But the phases go so quickly that nothing is unbearably bad (or good) for long. That's why every phase is so bittersweet, for even as you are pleased to dress the child in a never-before-worn outfit, you grieve the tiny outfit suddenly too small -- how lovely she was in this lavender dress from Monica, I always thought she'd get a few more wears out of it...so their infancy passes in a wave of nostalgia that swells and swells but never crests, never recedes. (page 47)
On becoming a mother:
Motherhood, for you I gave up guarantees and road maps, for you I traded my plaid uniform skirt for a cardboard rocket ship. For you, I have appeared indecorous, and more than once, worse than indecorous. Yes, I have been downright foolish. And it would seem you give so little in return -- no patches! No gold stars! Not even a sash! I cannot fully predict or perfect you (I believe it, I am almost thirty-three, old enough to play with phrases like "in my time"). I will spend my life attempting it, and I will fail, I will fail because I know that ten lifetimes aren't enough. And that is both my sorrow and my deep, thrumming joy. (pages 80-81)
Final verdict: ****