What I'm Reading: And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O'Connell

This post is part of a weekly series on "What I'm Reading."  I'll be talking about whatever book I happen to be reading, and you can look for this series every Friday. 

In the months after Hardy was born I didn't really do a lot of reading.  I often didn't have hands to use, and it was more fun to watch my baby and try to keep my home and body clean than to escape into a book.  Once he was sleeping mostly through the night with just one 2am snack, I read LOTS of books on my iPad: Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, The Call of the Wild, The Last of the Mohicans, Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, O Pioneers!, Peter Pan, The Scarlet Letter, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Grimm's Fairy Tales.  Admittedly, I probably stayed up in the rocking chair holding him and cuddling with him much longer than I needed to, because, well, stories.  And then Hardy's 2am snacks ended (what a blessing!), and so did the reading.  We'd put him to bed around 7 and then I had quiet evenings to myself after a long day of work and parenting.  I was too tired to do anything of substance; I remember painting my nails and watching TV while mostly unconscious with exhaustion.  Slowly, very slowly, things started to change for me. 

One Saturday we went to the library, and I ventured into the adult section alone and browsed through the familiar stacks.  Atwood, Austen, Bronte, Forester, Greene, Hemingway, Marquez, Oates....  Sometimes I feel like I've read a lot of books, and then I go to the library and.... whoa, there are so many books left to read.  People are so creative! And so dedicated to what they are inspired by!

Anyway, I picked up a book, checked it out, and over the next few evenings while Hardy was asleep, I READ IT.  And since then, I've been reading.  I had to find that part of me again, though.  While I was in the midst of my mom-transition, I felt so overcome with my child and breastfeeding -and being back at work didn't help- that the ideas of "self care," which is so big right now, and "my identity" were completely overwhelming, the thought of doing something extra was going to push me over the brink.  What I didn't know what that it just takes time for things to settle.  Time.  Simple as that.  And suddenly, slowly, I began to find myself again.  I was different; the same, yes, but different.

Last week I went to Boswell and bought myself a couple books for my birthday (32!).  With my second mother's day coming up, I was drawn to books that touched on the experience of women and mothers, and I ended up buying two books: one, a collection of poetry called She Walks in BeautyA Woman's Journey Through Poems selected by Caroline Kennedy; two, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready by Meaghan O'Connell.

O'Connell's book begins with her feelings about parenthood, plans for married life, her life as a cool lady in NYC, and then she finds out she is pregnant.  Whaaaaat!  She and her fiance stuggle through what they imagined their life would be like after they get married versus where they found themselves, and ultimately she decides to have the baby.  So they do.

Week by week of her pregnancy, O'Connell takes us through funny, sad, strange and confusing moments of being a pregnant woman out in the world.

11: Prenatal yoga is a lot like regular yoga except the teacher talks about Kegels and has us walk around grabbing our pubic bones just to get us thinking about them.  The new utility of our private parts.  [...] Whoever is the most pregnant wins.  At eleven weeks, twelve weeks, thirteen, I am apologetic, a chubby imposter, merely bloated.  Each body is a revelation.  I wish I could put the women nearing forty weeks behind glass and ogle them properly.

Her perspective is great, and so, so real.  As readers we are in her head, experiencing things with her as the thinks through it and hearing her candid responses.  I had my own experiences which were funny and complicated and sad, but it's so affirming to read another woman's story.

She also touches on the process of learning about childbirth from people who have or haven't gone through it.  For example, she, like the rest of us that aspired for a natural childbirth (at home, for me), holds in high regard Ina May Gaskin, the Queen of Midwives, while she takes childbirth from a teacher she describes as "a chipper blonde woman who has never had a baby."  She also touches on the expectations and plans made from reading and watching other women's birth stories.  Of course we read and watch these experiences because we have no idea what is coming up for us and we want to have some idea of what it looks like.  Just like you watch people on a roller coaster, and review the track while you're in line so you know that the big turn comes after the second loop, we pregnant women want to know the path we will be strapped onto.  The thing though, is that each woman gets her own path, and its in the dark. So, good luck.

Next we experience her labor.  Start to finish.  It was emotionally challenging to read, but funny at times because she's a funny lady.  Obviously I was thinking about my own experience birthing Hardy while reading her story, and while these are two very different stories, they are similar in that they are hard.  Labor is hard, and giving birth is no small feat, no matter how long any of it lasts.  Pregnancy, and often birth, leave lasting marks on a woman's body and soul, so while we can come to terms with what we've gone through (and even look forward to it again!), an important part of moving on or embracing our story is often forgiving ourselves for our not achieving our high (and often unreasonable!) expectations.  (Again, the roller coaster no one else has been on and is in the dark.)

Washing dishes one night, she listens to an episode of The Longest Shortest Time podcast where the host interview Ina May Gaskin.  I want to summarize this, but it deserves to be read in full.

The host confronts Ina May, telling her that the books made her feel like a failure when her birth didn't go the way she'd envisioned.  "I was under this impression," she said to Ina, "and maybe it was the wrong impression, that you believe that all women could have, if not a pain-free labor, then at least, like, a relaxed labor?"

"No," Ina May says. "No! Not everybody has a great time.  Someimtes it's really rugged, it's really hard. You're not alone if you felt like you experienced a lot of pain and you felt like you failed." When I hear this I put down the bowl I am scrubbing and brace myself against the sink and sob. I'm a little horrified by how much her words affect me and how much I needed to be forgiven by this woman I've never met for what I think of as my poor performance. 

Then Ina tries to explain.  "What if we just told people that it always really, really, really hurts?" she asks, and then she answers herself: "Well, that wouldn't be very good, because you'd get everybody so frightened."

This meant something even to read second-hand in this book.  Like, seriously.  

She also has to share her trauma with her fiance.  In my experience, I wanted to move on and be cool, but my midwife encouraged that Ben and I discuss our birth story, the highs and lows.  I, like many other women, often internalize my experiences and often just can't find the words or the right time to share my fears.  After struggling to resume their sex-life post-baby, O'Connell finally opens up.

In a week or a month from this February 13, we'll find ourselves in bed in the middle of the day, and after another botched attempt at sex, I'll confess to him about the birth flashbacks I get sometimes when I'm on my back, pinned down.  We'll cry together in bed and it'll be the beginning of the end of my avoiding him and avoiding difficult conversations.  I'll know, soon, that just because something is hard and takes work and doesn't come naturally, doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile.  It doesn't mean anything.  I'll know that as long as we can talk to each other, we aren't doomed.  But we have to do it on purpose. We have to try now. Ugh.

The final section of the book, Extra Room (1 to 26), will be everyone's favorite.  Well, probably.  It was for me.  1-26 are short, maybe weekly, moments shared with the reader.  I felt like their baby was growing so quickly before my eyes, and her path as a mother changed overtime in a path I can recognize.  Moving, childproofing, starting a daycare, leaving the house for the first time ALONE, sleep training, successful sleep training (#19: I am not sure what to do with my newfound free time in the evenings.  I hide out, paint my toenails, watch TV.), ending breastfeeding, celebrate a fun night out without the baby, pressure from other people to have another baby.  Gosh, it's fun to read, and it was fun to go through myself.  

For all the birth stories I read, and birth videos I watched, and plans we made for our baby's birth, nothing could have prepared me for the labor and delivery I went through, or how completely I would be changed by it and motherhood.  I'm not sure if reading this book prior to having a baby would have changed my expectations at all. Or if I could have learned anything in advance about myself potentially in labor or as a mom.  Even surrounded by women and moms that I love, it was special to read this woman's story in the privacy of my own home, without having to give advice or share my thoughts.  O'Connell is the queen of her story, I am the queen of mine, but to feel her story the way a reader often internalizes a good story was, at this specific point in my life, oddly ideal, it was vindicating.