Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Great Expectations: A Review of How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting

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How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss
Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-DeMoor, eds.
TouchWood Editions, 2013; $19.95

After my first miscarriage in 2001, I searched in vain for books on the subject. Apart from the dry and directive pamphlets put out by fertility specialists and grief counselors, there were few options. Though invisible to most people, my loss was a gaping gulf that separated me from the rest of the maternal world, from those whose parental lives were proceeding as planned. This lack of supportive and insightful reading on the subject reinforced my sense of isolation, deepening my loss. In this lonely and barren place, a book such as How to Expect What You're Not Expecting edited by Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-Demoor, would have been most welcome.

How to Expect is a wise book and a much-needed addition to the now slowly expanding collection of books about pregnancy and loss, such as Peggy Orenstein’s memoir Waiting for Daisy and the anthology About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing and Hope, edited by Jessica Berger Gross. These two books, both published in 2007, have initiated an important dialogue about pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth, and infertility. How to Expect, the fourth in a series of anthologies about modern families put out by Canadian publisher TouchWood Editions, broadens the discussion started by Orenstein and Gross in both interesting and profound ways. In addition to pieces on miscarriage and infertility, stillbirth, premature birth, and the birth of a child with severe disabilities, one also finds in How to Expect essays that examine other struggles and losses about which so many parents are also frequently silent: the difficulties of single parenting or coping with a parent’s dementia and the “loss” of a child to drugs or alcohol or depression. While this list of topics might seem a vast and depressing line-up, the effect of reading these essays all together is strangely comforting. How to Expect is an antidote to the shame and loneliness that silence engenders: an honest, insightful exploration of the complex pleasure—and sometimes devastating cost—of trying to create a family.

The title of How to Expect is a clever inversion of the title of the ubiquitous pregnancy guide, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, as well as a refutation. In the nineteen essays included here, again and again readers see how little control parents have, how even the best intentions and most careful plans don’t always result in outcomes either hoped for or expected. For instance, in “Largo, Lento, Grave,” Chris Tarry and his wife, Michelle, decide to have a child and move quickly to talking about timing the birth, possible names (Chloe and Zachary), and even a decorating scheme for the nursery. “[T]his was New York, after all, the kid needed to be on a schedule,” Tarry comments. He and Michelle follow all the rules: they have sex on schedule; Michelle takes prenatal vitamins and prenatal yoga classes; but they still have difficulty conceiving, and then, once pregnant, Michelle suffers a miscarriage. Tarry equates this process of first hoping for a baby and then grieving over its loss to the tempo designations on his metronome, moving from “Accelerando (quickly, and with excitement)” to “Lagrimoso (tearfully)” to “Obbligato (required, indispensable).” Another essay, “Female Trouble” by Susan Olding, is a meditation on the word barren, and the narrator starts with a visit she made to a birth control clinic as a young woman. Writing of her young self, Olding says, “How strong was my need to control my own life, every moment, every breath of it. How deep my faith that such a thing was possible.” Like Tarry, Olding comes to see the flaws in this belief that one can control one’s own destiny—that one can “expect,” and then receive what one expects. Finally, in “Missing Data,” Laura Rock notes the way childbirth practices of the 1990s encouraged pregnant women to take charge of their labor and delivery by writing up birthing plans—once again falsely reinforcing the idea of control—when in fact “there is no way to prepare, no matter how much data you amass as a shield.” Rock ends with this simple yet elegant advice: “Expect anything.”

If the authors included here didn’t expect loss, neither could they predict its tenacity. As much as a parent might try, loss refuses to be erased or replaced, even by subsequent good fortune. In “Swan Song,” Chris Arthur writes that the loss of his son “demands endurance; it does not admit of any cure.” Olding, too, reveals the tenacity of loss. Unable to conceive, she is encouraged by well-meaning but misguided friends to invest in her role as a writer, to “give birth to books.” She is lucky, she admits, to have other identities—writer, teacher, friend, and wife—but Olding says, “none of this erases my desire to bear and raise my own child. No matter how I look at it, infertility is a loss, a painful, too private bereavement.” In “Delivery,” the final essay of the anthology, Carrie Snyder reminds us, as she reminds herself, “there is only ever the illusion of conclusion, of ending.” Readers will appreciate that the essays collected here don’t offer false hope or easy answers, one single road to happiness. As in life, with pregnancy there is no formula, no control, no guarantee.

What is there, then? Music, painting, poetry, and spending time in nature are some of the ways these writers bear heartbreak, try to make sense of it. Janet Baker, in “Story: On the Order of Things or What I Really Want to Say,” turns to painting to give expression to her life with Gary, her severely handicapped son. As the hesitancy within her title suggests, words alone won’t suffice. Sadiqa De Meijer’s “Stork Bite” ends with a poem by Herman de Coninck, one that insists poetry is what makes life bearable. In “Invisible Mending,” Fiona Tinwei Lam finds in writing fiction a way that “the heart and imagination may work together to transcend death.” And in “How to Bury a Yellow Toque,” Jessica Hiemstra illustrates how art offers both the means to understand as well as solace: “Artists make windows / out of dusk and shallow water… / offer us poems to recite in the dark, verses / to comfort us when we are confined by solitude.” With such rich and evocative language, How to Expect never feels grim or bereft, even as it confronts the hard truths of family life.

The anthology offers both honesty and comfort, so it is easy to imagine buying How to Expect for a suffering friend. Indeed, within the collection, friendship is a theme that runs alongside that of loss. Throughout How to Expect, authentic connection takes the sting out of loss as well as the accompanying guilt and self-blame. For instance, in “Threshold,” Lorri Neilsen Glenn writes, “As we have learned to breathe again, we have found other parents—far more than we have imagined—with stories that echo ours. All along, we were not alone, but none of us had the courage to talk then. We talk now.” An invitation more than a guide, an illustration more than a prescription, How to Expect is an exquisite reminder that those of us who have lost a child are not alone. And just as we may wish to talk, the essays within How to Expect talk with us.

Rachel Hall’s short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, most recently Midwestern Gothic, Lunch Ticket, and Bellingham Review. She has received awards and honors from publications such as Lilith and Glimmer Train, and from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, and Ragdale. Hall lives, writes, and teaches in Western New York.

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