For the first five months of this year I was too deliriously happy to pay much attention to anyone’s written words, including my own. I was pregnant, due in August. Though I knew when our daughter was born I’d read and write much less for a while, focusing my time and energy on her, I made only halfhearted stabs at parenting literature both practical (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé) and philosophical (Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work). I gave up on other literature almost entirely. Most of what I read those months I read on the August 2015 Babycenter.com birth board, where other mothers with babies expected the same month as mine gathered to share their weird anxieties and basic biological ignorance. I forget now too much of what it felt like to be cheerfully, healthily pregnant with that so loved, so desired child. But I remember the Babycenter posts of other women like scraps of weird poetry recited in old dreams: will Kraft mac and cheese / make my kid dumber? If you live in a haunted house while pregnant / will your baby be the ghost reincarnated? We found out it was a girl and / my husband went outside to vomit.
Our daughter was not born in August. Her heart developed weirdly, wrongly, and she was stillborn in May. For the past six months I’ve been tending not to the baby I’d anticipated, but to the sorrow of having lost her, as tangible and time-consuming a presence as any tiny person. To say I’ve been miserable this year is both overstatement and understatement — because I have many good days, more good days than bad ones, and yet when the bad ones arrive they can sometimes seem so dark as to be almost unendurable.
To endure them, I read. I read Edith Wharton, detective novels, memoirs by chefs. The Night Circus. Frankenstein. Elena Ferrante, who left me embarrassingly cold. (As if grief were not isolating enough, I am apparently the only literary feminist of my acquaintance who is inexplicably immune to Ferrante Fever). I read the copy of Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time that my wonderful agent sent me — a witty, absorbing book in which no one feels too bad for too long. P.G. Wodehouse, Meg Wolitzer, Nancy Mitford, countless YA novels, cookbooks, chick lit. The Middlesteins. Dept. of Speculation. Rules of Civility. A Visit from the Goon Squad. In every one of these books I looked for, and in nearly all I found, shades of the awful, comforting truth: everyone despairs; nearly everyone survives.
Some books were more explicit about this than others, and these I devoured, though reading them felt sometimes like pressing down hard on a bruise. Matthew Baker’s melancholy and clever middle grade novel, If You Find This, follows a young narrator who confides in a tree in his backyard that he believes contains the soul of his stillborn brother — I waited anxiously for another character to disabuse him of this notion, but, kindly, no one ever does. Elizabeth McCracken’s story collection Thunderstruck captures the mundane and the surreal of grief, such as “the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.” Before this year, such a sentence might not have even registered with me — but by the time I read it, a few weeks after my daughter’s death, after the initial rally of support gave way to a lot of uncomfortable silence, I heard in it the delicious snap of truth. (I’m still reading, very slowly, McCracken’s memoir of her own stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and have never felt so grateful for a book I’m too tender, most days, to open). And for the first time, I waded my way through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a more haunting book than I’d expected, in which Merlyn prescribes for Wart the best cure for sadness: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
I’d found my way to White through Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H Is for Hawk, a book that’s part hawking manual, part literary biography of T.H. White, and part meditation on grief. Macdonald writes about her experience training a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators, in the wake of her father’s death; she interweaves this narrative with one of White’s own emotional pain and falconry. It’s a strange book — crisply written, funny, and wrenching, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. But this year, it also happened to be intensely familiar to me. “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things,” Macdonald writes. “And then there comes a day when you realize…that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.” Like Macdonald, my loss made me feel disconnected from the world I’d once inhabited. I thought of myself as a Grief Monster: a creature too sad and angry to be rightly categorized as human, unable to appreciate simple pleasures, sent into a tailspin at the sight of other mothers’ healthy babies. I could not imagine feeling normal around other people again; I could not imagine wanting to. Macdonald channeled her Grief Monsterhood into the wild, into her hawk, longing somewhat more than wistfully to achieve the bird’s isolation, her self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work that way, Macdonald finds, nor should it: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”
Even before I was pregnant with her, when she was nothing more or less than a dream my husband and I shared of a cozy, sunny future, we’d given our first child a code name: Hawkeye. It was partly a nod to the Marvel superhero as written by Matt Fraction, mostly an homage to my husband’s love for M*A*S*H. We called her Hawk for short. We figured when she was born we’d give her a “real” name; we had one chosen and ready, but through what we then considered silly superstition, we never said it out loud much. When she died, it became impossible to think of her as anything but Hawk — impossible to separate the real, sweet, three-pound baby we’d held for a few quiet hours early on a morning in May from her infinite and unrealized potential. We’d imagined too many happy possibilities for the girl with the other name. For ourselves. So Hawkeye was the name we shared with the diplomatically unperturbed nurse who asked; Hawkeye was the name we wrote on the death certificate. Hawk is the name we call her still and always. It’s a word that can’t help but mean more to me now. Bird, daughter. Love, loss. Despair. Survival. Losing Hawk helped me understand that I remain stubbornly, sublimely human even when I’m hurting. Thanks to H Is for Hawk, her name reminds me that I want to be. Macdonald writes of dreams she’d had after her father died, anxious dreams in which a hawk glided out of her sight:
I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk — one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields. I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.
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When I was engaged to be married, I lost my mind. I’m aware that sounds hyperbolic, but that’s really how it felt: as if my mind had abandoned me, slipped through my ears when I wasn’t looking, to be replaced with something that I didn’t recognize or trust. I was so nervous all the time, my mind skipping from one terrible and scary thought to the next, that reading became almost impossible. Do you know how many stories there are about bad marriages?
During this fraught time, I tried to read an Alice Munro story in the bath. What story, I have no idea (clearly, I blocked it out), but it was about a woman who kills her husband. I couldn’t finish it because I began to fear–to believe, actually–that I was in danger of killing my own future husband. Oh, how my Intended laughed when I voiced these fears! He wasn’t afraid of me and my murderous capabilities! He eventually talked me down from my nonsense ledge, and got me laughing along with him. But I was still too afraid to finish the story.
That was five years ago. I’ve since retrieved my mind, gotten and stayed married, and returned to reading. Thank goodness. Sometimes, I imagine all the great and beautiful books I must have missed during my engagement, and the loss sends a shiver of regret through me.
Last fall, when I found out I was pregnant, I waited for the mind-losing anxiety to descend on me once more. It didn’t. (Or, I should say, it hasn’t yet. I do have five more weeks to lose my mind for old time’s sake!) Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you’re growing a human being inside of you, I’ve noticed that other people experience anxiety for me. They don’t want me to carry anything, not even a carton of orange juice. They want me to sit down already! They want to give me more water, a glass of milk, a pint of ice cream. And they don’t want me to read just anything. More than once I’ve had a person recommend a book to me, and then say, “Oh, but don’t read it now. Not while you’re pregnant!” Apparently, people’s protective urges extend beyond the body of the mother-to-be, and into her reading life. If literature is clogged with unhappy marriages, it’s certainly also darkened with dead babies and the complex melancholy of mothers.
So, as either a warning to other mothers-to-be, or as great “Fuck you!” to all the people who keep telling me to keep things light as I carry my child to term, here’s a list of non-friendly pregnancy books. Read at your own risk…
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin: I admit, I haven’t read the novel, but I love the movie, starring the bewitching Mia Farrow. I have purposely kept my blonde hair very short these last 8 and a half months because I appreciate the cinematic allusion, though I have one friend in particular who urged me, early on, to grow out my locks. “It’s not funny!” she said. “What kind of message are you sending?” How about this: Every pregnant woman wonders, at least once, if she’s got the devil’s spawn growing inside of her.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: This is the next novel I’m going to read, despite my sister Heidi’s warnings that I should wait until after my baby’s born. O’Farrell’s novel, which my sister could not put down, and which made her sob at its ending, follows two stories–one about a woman in post-war London, and one about contemporary parents in that same city. There’s apparently some childbirth trauma. Lots of blood, my sister said. She also told me to avoid Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. The deaths–deaths, plural–in this novel still haunt her.
An Exact Replica of a Figure of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: Every morning I awake to the spine of this powerful and painful memoir, which I chose as one of my favorite books of 2008. It sits on the shelf by my bed, right next to Nox by Anne Carson and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. (That’s a lot of death to wake up to, I realize). McCracken’s story of raising a child after the stillbirth of her first is all the more terrifying and moving because it’s true, and because she speaks of trauma and grief in a distinct, unflinching, and sometimes even funny way. I keep wondering if this book might mean more to me on a second read, now that I am pregnant, now that I know firsthand what I could lose, what and whom I would mourn. Such a book reminds me not to take this time in my life lightly; it reminds me that I’m already a mother.
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk: This novel is about one day (a la Mrs. Dalloway) in the posh lives of British mothers. The unhappiness of its characters is so delicately and expertly rendered that it, at times, grows oppressive. These are women who feel unconnected to their husbands, their kids, their lives. Such a book makes me fear the very phrase Sippy Cup.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be. Eva articulates every single dark thought a pregnant woman would be wise to avoid (For instance: “What if my child grows up to be a murderer?” And, “What if I don’t love him?”). Here’s a taste of the sharp prose, most likely to be left out of the highly-anticipated film adaptation with Tilda Swinton, due out this fall:
Meanwhile, I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teats for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for.
The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort. The flaps seemed to open not to a narrow, snug dead end, but to something yawning. The passageway itself became a route to somewhere else, a real place, and not merely to a darkness of my mind. The twist of flesh in front took on a devious aspect, its inclusion overtly ulterior, a tempter, a sweetener for doing the species’ heavy lifting, like the lollipops I once got at the dentist.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is so far my favorite book of the year. I read it when I was about four months pregnant, and as I did so, I prayed I was having a girl (She might be anorexic, I thought, but she probably won’t be a serial killer.) Turns out, I’m having a boy. Ha! Shriver’s novel is the most memorable book I’ve read in a while. And also, um, the most frightening.
What novels do you recommend a pregnant woman avoid? Tempt me…
One favorite book I’ve read all year? Impossible. But when I think it over, I do see a trend in the books I’ve most enjoyed in 2010. This probably says way too much about my year, but I have delighted most in narratives peopled with characters who have come undone in some fashion, be it by history, by the failing of their bodies or minds, their screwed up finances. These characters are negotiating how to remain in their own skins, or they are doing what they can to unzip their hides, step out of their pelts.
Or they are figuring out how to come undone alone. Marisa Silver’s story collection Alone With You was one of my favorite reads this year. I admire all of Silver’s novels—The God of War was one of my favorites of 2008—but her stories go even deeper into the vast terrain of human longing. My favorite story in the collection is the title piece, which gets into the head and heart of someone dealing with mental illness, who, “has come to understand that identity is a porous thing, an easily felled house of cards.” Like the keen way Charles D’Ambrosio’s stories delve into the pain of that loss of self, this story—the whole assemblage—works with the backdrop of family, motherhood in particular, and the result is a stunning collection, sad in all the best, thinking ways.
Dear Money, Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, was a favorite for many reasons, one of them being that writing about money has always seemed to me to fall under the purview of men. Well, McPhee goes at it whole hog with her character, India Palmer, a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist who is more concerned with his work than financial security. (Here is where I must confess: I am a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist.) With the help of a mentor, India is transformed Pygmalian-style from midlist writer into a Wall Street wizard (is that even a term?) and McPhee manages to realistically remodel this woman—what she wants, what validates her, what grants her power—while bearing miraculous witness to the financial crisis. The book, which is also an investigation of what it means to want, takes no prisoners and it ends terrifically.
Switching gears entirely, I found An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, published in 2009, to be one of my more exquisite, if difficult reads this year. This is the story of the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child. I have never not admired anything McCracken has written and I imagine I will always love whatever she offers up, but what I admired most about this memoir was how she put order to her devastating experience. What happened leading up to discovering her child would not live, and the after effects of that shattering moment of discovery is quite miraculously contained in these few spare pages. McCracken’s ability to convey that experience—convey grief, convey hope, convey despair, convey relief, convey unspeakable want—all the facts and emotions that accompany terrible loss, whatever that may be—is breathtaking.
There were many other books read and loved: Matt Bondurant’s utterly gripping The Wettest County in the World, in which Sherwood Anderson, here an investigative reporter, chronicles the story of these three distinct brothers, the author’s kin, who have been distilling and distributing moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia. I also re-read The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow, which to my mind is one of the most perfect novels on earth, one written from the fictionalized and incredibly wacked out and necessary point of view of the Rosenberg’s—as in Ethel and Julius’s—son. It’s about the end of the American old left and start of the new, about a family and a country undone but their respective histories. And Hyatt Bass’s The Embers, also about a family in crisis, negotiating how to stay knit together after a death in the family threatens to unravel them. Which led me to what I am embarrassed to admit is the first time I’ve read A Death in the Family by James Agee, a novel that gives terrific insight into how we think during a moment of tragedy.
Who hasn’t been unmoored? Each of these characters in these terrific books in some way is granted a new beginning. It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, to be sure, but there is something gained here after loss. Always. Which feels very promising for my favorite books of 2011…
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