Tyee Books

'How to Expect What You're Not Expecting'

For those who suffer great loss during pregnancy, often 'no words exist.' But a new book gives voice.

By Fiona Tinwei Lam 3 Dec 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of two books of poetry and a co-editor of the non-fiction anthology, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood. Her illustrated children's book, The Rainbow Rocket, about a grandchild dealing with a grandparent's struggle with Alzheimer's, was published earlier this year.

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New compilation confronts the silence, awkwardness, and shame around miscarriages, stillbirths, children born with health problems, and more. Pregnancy photo via Shutterstock.

One morning when I was about nine years old, my father cautioned me to be quiet around my mother because she had been taken to hospital in the middle of the night. I wasn't informed of the reason until she told me a few weeks later. Trying in vain to bear a son, she had miscarried for the second time. I was shocked. My sister and I had no idea our mother was even pregnant. I was also confused: why hadn't we been told? Why was this event being treated as a shameful secret that we were not supposed to share? I still remember my mother's sorrow and sense of failure and inadequacy, how much she yearned for a boy in her struggle to please my father and his family and prove she was a good wife. Despite the eventual birth of my brother a few years later, I don't believe she ever stopped mourning those two losses, not until Alzheimer's disease eventually dismantled and erased both her short and long-term memory.

Decades later, when I became an expectant mother myself, I talked about my mother's experience to an older friend. She related to me the details of the child she had lost and still mourned herself. Her memories were still vivid, although over three decades had passed. She had been five months pregnant with a longed-for son while living in a small town. The doctors were unable to stop the contractions or prevent her cervix from dilating. Her baby was born too premature to survive, given the state of medical knowledge at the time. She still wondered what her life and the life of her family would have been like if the child had survived. Like many expectant parents, I also worried about my pregnancy, through the blood tests, the ultrasounds, the amniocentesis. I dreaded news of a problem, a defect, of having to make a difficult and impossible choice, right up until the time of his birth.

My friend's story and what I'd witnessed with my mother made me wonder about the silence, awkwardness, embarrassment, and shame in our culture and in others around miscarriages, stillbirths, children born with health problems and disabilities and other issues. So when editors Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-Demoor sent out a call for writers to contribute essays on parenthood and loss, I wanted to join with many other writers in breaking down taboos around death and disability, to try to express what is often difficult, even inexpressible.

Death crashes into the nursery

This past weekend, How to Expect What You're Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss was launched at the popular Planet Earth reading series in Victoria. During the "open mic" portion of the event, a number of audience members read moving poems about family and loss based on events they'd witnessed or experienced. Then, we four contributors from British Columbia took to the stage to read from our non-fiction essays in the anthology. Poet Yvonne Blomer interwove lyrical reflections about a family road trip across Canada with memories of her son's birth and the impact of his diagnosis with Prader Willi Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Visual artist Janet Baker read her piece about raising her son, Gary, who was born with the neural tube defect myelomengocele, and described how his life continued to enrich her life and her family's long after his death at the age of 29.

Vancouver writer and teacher Cathy Stonehouse read her piece about her baby being diagnosed in utero with a genetic abnormality, Trisomy 18, and described the speechlessness and uneasiness of friends and family: "No words or images existed for what we had been through. A perversion, a twist, a monstrosity; the silent, hushed-up world of death crashing helter-skelter into the nursery, as if someone had driven a hearse right into the daycare... There was a sense of embarrassment, of being inadvertently causing offence. A need to apologize: sorry. I just don't know what to say."   

She described the loss of her baby, the grieving process, and the subsequent arrival of her second child who was born healthy, while also providing fascinating glimpses of the background context of consumer culture's perceptions of what is natural and unnatural. I read my essay about my attempts to cope with overlapping losses: my son's grief over my mother's death after her long struggle with dementia, and the end of my relationship with his father.

To enter someone else's pain

How to Expect What You're Not Expecting contains a diverse collection of essays about parenthood by published and award-winning authors such as National Magazine award-winner Susan Olding, Halifax's former poet laureate Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Trillium Book Award winner Maureen Scott Harris, and Carrie Syder, a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. There are contributions by both men and women.

The first essay in the collection, "Largo, Lento, Grave," is by Juno-award winning bassist Chris Tarry, about the challenges he and his partner faced trying to get pregnant and about how they lost their first child. A few years later, they do try again and eventually give birth to their second child, Chloe. But Tarry never forgets the sound of their first child's slowing heartbeat in utero. "And there's that heartbeat. I still think about it today, nearly two years after our Chloe was born. I can feel 20 beats per minute in my body like it's a part of me, something I've taken on, a rhythm that guides me as I lift Chloe into a swing or help her down the slide. Like there's a life, as small and fleeting as it was, that gave up everything for this happiness."

Besides stories about infertility, fertility treatments, stillbirth, birth defects both surmountable and insurmountable, and miscarriage, there are stories about witnessing a child becoming tangled in drug addiction and depression, and about the aching loss of being a young unmarried mother who must give up a child for adoption, among other subjects. As noted in the book's foreword by Kim Jernigan, the writers in the collection "...show us how to embrace the rituals of remembrance, how to make something, to give something, to enter one's own pain or someone else's. And do it in language that is often itself transcendent."

Victoria-based publisher Touchwood Editions has published a number of groundbreaking and well-written non-fiction anthologies over the past few years that challenge stereotypical ideals about family, including Somebody's Child (about adoption), Nobody's Mother, and Nobody's Father (about adults who are childless by choice or circumstance), of which this anthology, How to Expect What You're Not Expecting, is the newest addition.

As Kim Jernigan's foreword states, "We all belong to the country of the bereaved." Even if we haven't experienced the loss of a child within our immediate family, at some point in our lives we may be faced by such a loss, directly or indirectly through someone we care about -- a relative, friend, co-worker or neighbour. Jernigan notes that "love makes us vulnerable." The essays in this collection endeavour to depict our very human vulnerability to loss, as well as our open-ended capacity to love.

The editors dedicate the book "...to everyone with a story like this to tell: this book is for you." To that I would add that this moving collection is also for everyone who is willing to reach out, to care, to feel, and to listen.  [Tyee]

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