Whenever I am in a gathering of women, at some point, inevitably, the conversation will turn to birth stories. I usually nod and listen silently. I might add that I had a C-section and that it didn’t hurt, but I never tell the rest of my story because I know it would bring down a pall upon the conversation. Nobody really wants to hear about how my twins were born at 26 weeks, how the day of their birth was far from being “the happiest day of my life” or even a day of regular joy, but an occasion filled with fear and a grand sense of failure. Nobody wants to hear how I waited until the day after they were born to go see them for the first time, and when I did, I didn’t feel a burst of maternal love. I thought they looked weird and scary, and I wondered if they would ever look normal. These are not the kinds of things that we talk about in polite company, and until very recently, not even the kinds of things that mothers were willing to write about.
Vicki Forman does, however, in her prize-winning new book This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood. Vicki’s twins Evan and Eleanor were born at 23 weeks’ gestation. As the daughter of a doctor, Vicki was aware of the likelihood of severe disability should they survive, and asked for a DNR order, which was ignored. Her daughter died four days later, but her son survived with multiple disabilities.
Vicki writes with astonishing frankness about the following five years in which she learned to love her son without expectations as she sought the best medical solutions for his seemingly endless problems. She admits to telling off nurses and being rude to her brother-in-law and disobeying medical advice (like when she stopped using the apnea monitor because it went off needlessly in the night, and she had learned that by that stage ex-preemies rarely stopped breathing for a long time).
I could relate to many of these things. I, too, found that almost everything that people said to console me was the wrong thing. And at first I didn’t want to bond with other parents of multiply disabled children. And my medical vocabulary (in my case, in Japanese) expanded exponentially.
As my children were born in a Japanese hospital, I found many of the cultural differences interesting. If I’d given birth in California, I would have been quickly introduced to a social worker and a spiritual adviser. Here, I was on my own. But after reading about Vicki’s anger and exasperation with the people who were assigned to help her, I’m not sure that having a counselor would have been all that much help.
Vicki’s husband, Cliff, is a Japanese-American, and through-out this book he is portrayed as kind, accepting, and patient. At one point, Vicki writes: “Where I wanted to flail and yell and lose my temper with everyone, my husband was staid and firm and in control. I don’t know how he did it. He once said, apropros of being Japanese, ‘My culture just accepts people who are sick and maimed. We take care of people when they get old and we take in people with disabilities.’”
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it. It’s true that families here keep their elderly and disabled relatives at home, but, from my American point of view, it has always seemed to be less out of open-hearted acceptance than out of duty. Shikata ga nai. (It can’t be helped.) Gaman o suru. (Everyone must endure their harships.) Mewake o shinai. (Don’t burden others.) Maybe I am wrong.
At any rate, This Lovely Life gave me many things to think about, and also made me feel less alone in this world.
This book is also gorgeously written and full of wisdom – real literature. I have an extra copy – if you’d like one, leave your name here and I’ll do a drawing in a week.