While many women struggle with fertility, this sensitive aspect of women's lives is still rarely discussed openly. Jamie Sumner challenges readers to explore this personal territory in her newly-released memoir. Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood is confessional and candid about her efforts and pains in order to become a mother, which turned out to be much more complicated than she ever imagined. Sumner details her journey to motherhood through her strong Christian faith, where the barren and fertile women of the Bible are her mentors.
Coming from a writer who has written extensively about various aspects of parenthood and has been published widely in magazines, blogs, and journals, Unbound takes readers along Sumner's journey to conceive a child, which is even more difficult when "people take it for granted that you'll get pregnant," and you don't. Sumner, a Reviews Editor for Literary Mama, discusses the road she and her husband Jody traveled, which took them through various obstetrician offices, fertility clinics, and hospitals all to finally become pregnant and then be labeled "high-risk" due to abnormal ultrasounds relating to the baby's development. Just as things seemed to be progressing normally, something would happen that caused Sumner to experience setbacks. Once her baby is finally born, however, Sumner encounters a whole new round of complications relating to her baby's diagnosis of Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which is classified as an overgrowth syndrome that can affect various parts of the body. Sumner's son had an enlarged tongue at birth, requiring assistance with breathing and eating. She openly discusses her son's condition, describing her time spent in the NICU as well as her first experiences bringing him home.
Unbound details the long journey of new motherhood through four sections: The Wanting, The Waiting, The Getting, and The Appreciating. Each of these sections, while expressing intimate moments ranging from a miscarriage to IVF treatment to premature labor, is compared alongside a biblical character who encountered a similar episode or whose faith is comparable in the moment. Sumner organized the book chronologically in terms of her pregnancy efforts and birth experience, while weaving in these biblical women from various chapters of the Old and New Testaments as the titles of each of her chapters; for example, "'The Trying' and Hannah" and "'The Joys of Pregnancy' and Mary Magdalene." She provides brief summary backgrounds to remind readers about these women's stories, particularly to highlight how Sumner relates to their trials of faith and motherhood. Throughout this journey, Sumner mentions struggles and common experiences of motherhood, which hint at the fact that she will become a mother and help to lighten the tension she was feeling. For example, "I remember that IVF summer as the hottest on record… Target was my best friend in those days. It offered air-conditioning on full blast and at least an hour's worth of distraction from the rest of my life. This would be true later in the mothering years."
Sumner writes encouragingly and hopefully throughout the memoir, always ending each chapter on a positive note about how her struggles have connected her to God, prayer, and other religious women dealing with similar life events. Each chapter ends with references to biblical verses and includes guiding questions that can assist either a church book club or an individual reader interested in journaling alongside the book.
Sumner knows her Bible stories well and often assumes reader knowledge through a Christian lens. It seems she has a clear audience in mind: Christian women who are either hoping to conceive one day, are trying to conceive, or are pregnant and struggling through all the daily difficulties that pregnancy brings. She often talks directly to the reader, making the writing informal and conversational so that Sumner feels almost like a friend and a guide. This book will also be eye-opening to women who had a relatively easy time conceiving and staying pregnant. The lengths that Sumner went to in order to become a mother are inspiring and create empathy in readers.
Throughout the first half of the memoir, Sumner includes information about her fertility options and about the physical reactions and difficulties she experienced due to the drugs she had to take. She writes candidly about how all of it felt like a violation of her privacy and intimacy: "Too many needles and insertions and removals of too many things for a body to handle." She doesn't ignore how alone she felt or even how the process caused changes in her relationships with her husband and teaching career.
Many barren biblical women became pregnant later in life, which reassures Sumner. Their pregnancies seemed to happen all of a sudden by declaration of God's will due to the woman’s excessive prayer or good deed. She cites examples in Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth among others. Sumner writes,
Unlike Hannah’s husband, Zechariah didn’t judge Elizabeth for wanting babies. Instead, being the good priest and spouse that he was, he prayed that they would be able to conceive. And one night when he was on incense duty in the temple, he got his wish. An angel appeared with congratulations, noting that his 'prayer has been heard' (Luke 1:13).
Sumner's faith is rarely shaken when an angel does not appear to her and Jody announcing conception while they are trying to get pregnant. She often recognizes gifts from God in the small successes she encounters on this journey and in simply knowing that her life is in God's hands. She frequently reminds the reader that there is a larger plan for everyone's life, which may not be clear in the moment, but looking back, she knows everything happens for a reason. She cites examples from her pregnancy, including the time Jody sensed something was wrong when he was out of the house, so he returned home to find his wife in labor. Sumner aims to reassure readers by helping them remember "[f]rom famine to feast…Whatever the plan, in this life and thereafter, you will be cared for, you will be safe, you will be home."
Much of pregnancy and early motherhood felt out of her control. She was put on bed-rest toward the end of her pregnancy and then her newborn baby had to endure several months in the NICU, where doctors and nurses did the "mothering" while Sumner prayed, pumped breastmilk, and spent her days next to her hospitalized son, Charlie. Charlie ended up needed a risky surgery in order to be released from the NICU. Sumner chronicles the difficulty in leaving her baby in the NICU, an emotion many women of NICU babies share but whom, Sumner recognizes, do not often speak together about their grief, frustrations, and anxieties.
My first true meltdown did not happen until I was released from the hospital and had to leave Charlie behind. He had been with me for months and months. We had a nice thing going. I wasn't ready to say good-bye, even for a few hours. I wasn't ready to sleep away from him. Jody and I got lost in the parking garage. I cried and wanted to claw at the upholstery of the car because it felt like God didn't want us to leave either… [Once home], I opened the drawers to his dresser that had taken so long to assemble that Christmas Day an eternity ago and pulled out a monogrammed onesie and socks, a gauze blanket, a hat. He couldn't use any of it. He was still too small…
Later in the book, Sumner evaluates waiting rooms and hospital rooms as well as doctors and nurses to show the characteristics that she found to be the most meaningful and helpful. Sumner shares her resentment of not feeling like a good mother in those early days of parenthood, especially since she had tried so hard to conceive a child in the first place. The fact that her child was born with disabilities didn't seem fair. Nothing seemed to be getting any easier.
Through all of her struggles, Sumner is able to see the glory of God, which she makes clear through her prayers as well as the conclusions of each chapter. These allow readers to consider how everything that happens in her life is part of the larger adventure that she shares with God. Her Christian faith allows her to focus on the positive during times of uncertainty and chaos, while openly sharing many often-undiscussed struggles of becoming a mother.