When Kate Hopper set out to tell her story of premature motherhood, she immediately bumped up against the myth that motherhood is a rosy experience in which every mother falls instantly in love with her baby and lives happily ever after. “Where are the other versions of that story? The fear and disappointment, the hours and hours spent each day trying to get your baby to stop crying?” Hopper writes in [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood"], her memoir of giving birth to her daughter Stella at thirty-two weeks gestation following sudden, severe preeclampsia. “Where are the stories about what to do if you’re afraid you’re going to hurt your baby? Those stories need to be told, don’t they?”
Every page of [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] answers that question with a resounding yes as Hopper tells her harrowing tale of uncertainty in the topsy-turvy world of NICU, where nurses, ventilators, intubation, alarms, isolettes, hand sanitizer, and the sound of “beeping, whirring machines” set the scene in which we meet newborn Stella through Hopper’s eyes: “A white ventilator is taped over her mouth, scrawny legs are splayed like a frog’s, goggles cover her eyes, purple veins track across her skull like a spider web.”
The urgency of the situation is palpable and the suspense heightened as Stella develops one life-threatening complication after another before being released from the hospital at twenty-eight days only to be quarantined at home for six months. A lesser writer might have allowed the relentless, page-turning crises to eclipse the deeper story. But Hopper effortlessly twines the external situation with her internal landscape, plumbing the depths of her emotional truth—her initial inability to bond with her daughter, for example, for fear that she’ll lose her; her temptation to give up breastfeeding, a hair-pulling struggle around which the early days, weeks, months of Stella’s life are organized. The result is a multifaceted narrator whose complex reactions to the relentless challenges of her daughter’s premature birth are raw, uncensored, unapologetic, and unladylike. “This cannot be my baby. This is not how it’s supposed to happen,” Hopper writes upon seeing Stella in NICU for the first time. “I remembered Stella being beautiful [at birth]. … But as I stare at her I realize I was wrong. She’s not beautiful. She’s yellow.” Welcome to a tour de force of real motherhood, demythologized.
Motherhood is, of course, an identity, and [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] is at its core a book about Hopper’s struggle to retain her sense of self in relation to motherhood. “I imagine that most women undergo some kind of shift in their identities when they become mothers—some morphing from woman into mother. But I don’t feel like a mother yet."
Before she was thrust into motherhood, Hopper was writing a book, her MFA thesis, about three generations of women she had lived with in Costa Rica after college. But the writing was slowed by doubts she had about her subject; namely, was this her story to write? “I’m worried about the ethics of writing from a country of privilege. If it’s ever published, will it seem as though I’m appropriating their stories? And then there is the question of what the book is really about: me or them?” These concerns are upended—along with Hopper’s sense of self—when severe preeclampsia, “a conflict of interest between a mother and a fetus, each attempting to survive at the cost of the other,” necessitates an emergency C-section and Stella is delivered weighing less than four pounds.
Early in her narrative, when it still “feels as if we’re suspended in time, teetering somewhere between before and after,” Hopper skillfully threads her pre-motherhood identity as writer and story collector into the journey of motherhood she’s embarked upon. In her desperate attempt to make sense of Stella’s birth, she acknowledges her innate need for story to navigate life’s mysteries. “I see myself less alone when I see myself reflected in someone else’s story.” Indeed, even amidst the chaos in NICU, she attempts to peer beneath the surface of the other NICU families, not to trespass but to glean the details of their unique story that she might see who they are and in turn recognize a piece of herself.
Once home, between endless days of failed nursing sessions and hours spent walking Stella around the dining room table to keep her calm, Hopper enjoys occasional respites into poetry and literature. In these brief forays, she experiences the stirrings of her old self and slowly begins forging her new identity as mother with the reader and writer she knows herself to be. But these forays are few and far between. When a technicality at the university mandates that she drop her thesis credits, she feels “as if the last thread connecting me to that old version of myself—Kate the student, Kate the writer—has been severed.” Eventually, the breastfeeding resolves and Stella gains weight and life slowly begins to assume enough semblance of normal that Hopper can return some attention to her writing self.
In preparation for resuming her thesis in the coming fall, she signs up for a writing class at a local literary center. Before the class begins, she visits a coffee shop, notebook in hand:
...and what comes out when I put pen to paper is this: Stella in the NICU, yellow and mottled, goggles covering her eyes, a ventilator tube taped to her mouth. And as I write, image after image comes back to me, a slow collision of memories on the page. I can feel my heart beating fast, my eyes filling with tears again and again. I keep my head bent over my notebook, not wanting the other people in the coffee shop to see me cry. I’m exhausted when I get home, but I also feel lighter than I have in months.
Thus, Hopper meets her true thesis subject—premature motherhood—and begins to integrate the Kate she was before preeclampsia with the Kate she is becoming as a mother.
In the writing class, Hopper meets head-on the pervasive cultural narrative of motherhood when a classmate suggests she “write more about the amazing bonding that happens between mother and infant.” The new Hopper, who has been transformed by her grueling, traumatic experience with premature birth, sees through the classmate’s naive reading of what it means to be a mother.
I want to explain to her that that’s exactly the point: I didn’t feel connected to my daughter when I first saw her. Hell, I didn’t even want to love her because I was so afraid I’d lose her. I felt guilty about this, like a failure. And it’s people like her, perpetuating the myths of motherhood—You’ll fall instantly in love! Everything will be perfect!—who make it harder for those of us who don’t experience that to reconcile myth with reality.
[booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"] is solidly researched; you will come away informed about preeclampsia, premature birth, and the effects of premature birth on parents. But the research, woven seamlessly into the narrative, never overshadows the deeper story of a woman who doggedly wrestles her varied and complex history from the jowls of a motherhood myth that insists a woman’s identity only truly begins with motherhood. Hopper offers instead the story of a woman who dives into her own interior on her quest to become a mother, a quest that ultimately demands she realize herself as a multifaceted woman of formidable substance. Lucky for us, she surfaces with [booklink isbn="0816689326" title="Ready for Air"], a story that bucks the traditional narrative while offering women a model of what it means to be a mother and be wholly, incorrigibly yourself.