I’m grappling with if and how much to maintain this tradition of writing about my mom on particular days. It has been good, overall, but it tires me. And after a spring and summer of COVID and a difficult parenting week, I’m plumb wore out, in every way. Luckily, I have Julia to bail me out. Thanks, Jo.
A lovely guest post courtesy of Julia Rea —
For Pamela’s 50th birthday, she didn’t want a big party. That was Matt’s territory. She didn’t love parties, generally — she didn’t like small talk, she got tired of strangers. What she wanted more than anything was to have long conversations with her friends, so they went on a trip.
Sometimes I don’t feel like my DNA can be 50% Pamela. I don’t feel smart enough or bold enough or fierce enough. I don’t take any joy in cooking, I don’t know how to sew. She beat me on the LSAT. I have certainly never broken up with someone because “you’re never going to be as good a writer as I am” (luckily that one was undone pretty quickly, or I wouldn’t exist). But her ideal birthday certainly resembles mine. So in honor of her 58th birthday, an incomplete list of times I feel like my mother’s daughter:
When I stay up too late reading a book because I need to see how it ends
When I stay up too late finishing a project I’ve been putting off
When I cry because I’m happy
When I cry because I’m angry
When I notice how much smaller my eyes are with my glasses on
When I feel a physical craving to hold a baby
When I feel a physical craving to talk to a friend
When I find it impossible to draw a straight line
When no one can read my handwriting
When I reread Georgette Heyer instead of something new
When I rewatch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
When I can name every flower in a garden
When I call out casual prejudice
When I swear while playing card games
When I get fired up about injustice
I miss you, Mama. We’re all so lucky you were born.
I almost didn’t write anything at all, and maybe it would be better if I hadn’t. But it’s been five years, which feels like a big anniversary to miss. And this is my ritual now: I write something a day or two beforehand so I can provide myself with the illusion of control. I write it and cry and then it becomes a box I’ve checked, so on the day itself I can take it easy. I like a ritual and even an arbitrary sense of accomplishment soothes me.
Five years in and I’m being driven crazy by the ways she’s slipping away from me; so many memories are blurred at best. The sharpest ones are when she was either sick or mad at me. I feel guilty that after she died I shut a lot of them out; I was too scared to dwell on what I’d lost, too worried about my family to think about much else. I feel guilty that I can keep it together when I talk about her now. I miss her, and I miss the way I used to miss her—I miss the knife wound and I hate myself for the scar tissue. Never think I don’t ache for her.
April in the time of coronavirus: Pamela would not like to shelter-in-place. She would call her parents a lot. She would work in her garden and complain that Berkeley Hort is closed. She would play hours of Spider Solitaire on her computer if forced to work from home. She would bake a lot, but she would not otherwise be very productive.
It’s been five years; it’s a pandemic; it’s Easter. The paradoxes feel cartoonish. Everyone in the world is pulling apart in order to keep society together. We love our friends, so we never touch them. Unceasing sirens are lighting up New York, the city that introduced me to myself; over here in my lucky, claustrophobic, stupid little world, my daughter drinks greedily from her sippy cup and every swallow brings me a rush of such satisfaction it’s as though my own thirst were quenched. Her body brims with exuberance—duh, with life.
There’s also this: in 2020, the day we grieve Pamela’s death is the day my faith, like all Christian faiths, celebrates eternal life. This tenet can make it very trying to talk to some religious people while grieving; sometimes they just want to tell you things about a plan, or seeing the person again, assurances thereof, etc. It is not helpful. If you’re reading this and you want a takeaway message, let it be this: comments of this nature, even when delivered with total sincerity and all good intentions, are not helpful. It is never really okay to have someone you love not be on Earth with you, regardless of what the future might hold; to pretend otherwise is callous and dumb.
But here is the thing. My mom loved Easter. Of course the flowers, the welcoming of spring, the pretty colors and the pretty candy; matching her daughters to herself or to each other for church. But so much more than that, the faith part of it mattered to her—the promise, the gift, the ensuing joy. He is Risen.
Every year for this day I write something that enshrines my grief (is this even a good thing? I don’t know) and, I hope, honors the reality of loss. But everyone is lost and losing right now. And today is Easter, which she loved, which she chose to believe in, which I choose too. So this year as we mourn, I acknowledge some of the (fleeting, painful, better than nothing) ways she has been with me, since she left:
In Calistoga, in June, three years ago. I lay on the grass while Jamie swam, and I swear she came to me with the sunshine. It was so specifically the sensation of her presence that I said aloud Hi. Hi.
In myself, more and more, and often not for the better: too impatient, too critical, premature gray hairs that are plentiful and wiry. My increasingly insatiable desire to throw everything away. I pat Jamie and Julia on the leg when I want them to get up from sitting, three short little bursts. She did this to me all the time and for some reason it totally bugged me and now I do it — and I still don’t like it but at least she’s right here in my reflexive, habitual bones. Some good things, too: I read Nadia The Runaway Bunny and I can hear my voice sliding into the grooves of her inflections. There she is, there we are, daughters and mothers and granddaughters.
In crisis. When someone close to me is suffering I can sometimes feel the urgency of Pamela’s presence, her ache for them, her pride in them, her suffusing them with strength. I think I can sometimes tell what she would have me say.
In Fall of 2018, when I felt lost and sick with PPD and so convinced I could never be a good or happy mother. Someone brought me a phrase in the dark night: parenthood is long, parenthood is long, parenthood is long. (It won’t be this way forever.) I don’t know if this was her, or God, or my addled mind, or a combination, but I’m giving her the credit.
In one dream, years ago now. We were in a big house, lots of people were there. She kissed me on the cheek, I think. She was herself completely, and happy. That’s all I remember.
I picture her standing in a pew on Easter Sunday. Her posture is very good and her eyes are full of happy tears Alleluia, she sings. Alleluia.
In spite of the world’s imminent demise, we’ve had a pretty good fall. I find myself surprised by this, because normally I feel personally attacked by summer ending. The relentless pro-autumn propaganda brings out the most curmudgeonly version of myself (for more on my feelings about fall, see this iconic essay). But this one has been gentle on us, in part because Julia is 60 miles away instead of 3000, in part because we obnoxiously went to Hawaii a few weeks ago. But the other big factor is just that it’s not like last fall, when I was pretty sure I would never be happy again.
I’ve been putting off writing this: posts here have historically been downers already. Also it turns out that everyone who says there is a stigma around postpartum depression must be very right, because for a long time, whenever I tried to talk about my experience, I was like, I feel crippling shame about this. Huh.
But one of the only things I found helpful, both in the thick of it and after the worst was over, was hearing about other people’s experiences, so I felt like less of a monster for the despair that surged after my darling girl was born. So I’m writing it here, in case someone else finds it helpful, in the form of a q&a with myself, because maybe that will make this seem more useful/informative than it actually is?
But first, a quick clarification: I wasn’t formally diagnosed with postpartum depression, and I know my bout was certainly milder than many people’s. Perhaps it falls into the nebulous and unhelpful category of “baby blues.” I don’t know. But I think there should be more honesty about women’s postpartum experiences across the board, because even my low-grade version felt, at the time, terrifying. So:
When did it start, and how long did it last?
I really thought I was fine at first. The hospital stay went well, coming home went well. I was texting friends proudly and joyfully about her name. Then about 5 days after she was born, I started to feel like I was crashing. I felt my happiness plummeting through the floor in real time, especially while I was breastfeeding (which, with a newborn, is most of the time).
Again, I think I had a mild to moderate experience: the worst lasted probably a couple weeks, and then tapered off a little, then resurged in October with less intensity but for longer (Na was born September 4). I started to feel consistently better probably in January. So it was about 4 months, with bright spots during that time and the occasional dark episode later on.
What did it feel like?
During that first terrible stretch: I couldn’t taste food. I missed Jamie all the time, even though he was right there. I could barely look at the messages pouring in from loved ones because I was so sick with sadness and guilt. Here’s the part I most hate to admit: I didn’t feel like I loved Nadia. I never neglected her, I never had any desire to hurt her, I held her all the time, I considered her objectively beautiful and felt proud of her, but I didn’t really want her around. At the worst moments, I wished we had never had a baby.
“‘We’ve kept the little stranger alive for 2 weeks’ [praise hands emoji],” I posted on Instagram. I needed the good vibes infusion of posting something online, but I couldn’t write anything more positive than that because it didn’t feel honest.
I fantasized about contracting some terrible illness — if I got really sick, we’d have to go back to the hospital, where someone would take care of me. And Nadia would be safe there, with competent professionals, and I could finally, finally rest.
Somewhere between the first and second waves, the curtains parted a bit and I realized how much I loved her. But when it got bad again, I still felt sad and adrift. Her sleeping regressed instead of improving, so I felt a thundercloud of dread every single evening — the darkening sky sent me reeling, and the prospect of how little we would sleep, night after night, was very much like despair.
It felt like I had moved to a new city, that kind of instability and disorientation, except for—and this was even more dizzying—it was all happening within my own body and my own house. I remember looking at a towel hanging in our bathroom and thinking how strange everything seemed. I wasn’t myself. I missed myself.
Did anything exterior contribute?
I think so. Na and I had a hard time learning to breastfeed those first few weeks, so she lost weight—leaving me tremendously, relentlessly anxious; so even when she was asleep, I often wasn’t.
She also specifically had a really hard time sleeping on anything that wasn’t a human, especially after the first couple of weeks. This meant that in addition to the sleepless nights, we pretty much held her all day, every day (and it was mainly me once Jamie went back to work). Sometimes on a good day she would stay in her baby swing for 15 or 20 minutes, but she slept best and longest nestled into my neck while I sat on the couch. I never got anything done, my back hurt all the time; I longed for something, anything, to make me feel productive and unencumbered. But you’re being productive! Jamie would assure me. You’re taking care of her! It didn’t feel productive to me, though. It felt, basically, lame. I like to be busy. I like to move. Being parked on the couch made me sad and distant from who I used to be.
Finally, as you probably recall, California was on fire for a long time last fall, so even once I was feeling a little more energized, we were stuck indoors while our sky filled with smoke.
So yes, I think exterior factors made things worse; perhaps they were even in my case the main problems. But as this article explains, PPD is usually “a medical complication of pregnancy,” and I think it’s valuable to keep that in mind when discussing it.
What DIDN’T help you feel better?
Probably the most painful part of everything for me was how guilty and ashamed I was for feeling crappy in the first place. Na was a bad sleeper, but she was completely healthy, and in every other way a very, very sweet and chill baby. What could I possibly have to feel sad about? Wasn’t I the luckiest?
I was convinced, most of the time, that my reaction was a character flaw: that I was supposed to be loving this experience, constantly enraptured by my baby, pillowed in a cloud of beatific motherhood. I was sure that I was simply too selfish to be a good parent, and if it weren’t for my role as cow, Jamie and Nadia would be better off without me.
I was a little out of my mind. But I do want to point to a couple of common tropes that I think played a part in reinforcing this thought pattern, when I was hormonal, fragile, and even more sensitive than usual:
Social media motherhood—the way many other people talked about having a newborn definitely helped me think that I was alone in my experience. Very few even alluded to the experience being hard, myself included (though I did try not to get too saccharine). It really seemed as though most everybody else who’d recently had a baby was extremely happy and at ease. I don’t really blame anybody for this. No one is or should be obligated to share their intimate struggles or everyday drudgeries online. The impulse to record and preserve the best aspects of parenthood—for your children one day, for yourself to look at on a bad day—is natural. The positive reinforcement that comes from a well-received post can turn around your day. And of course, the pressure of self-presentation is immense. For a long time I felt that most arguments about the negative impact of social media on people’s lives/relationships/selfhood were obvious, uninteresting, and/or overblown. But I am here to tell you that the constant, cyclical pressure to polish any rough edges off our lives, and perhaps especially motherhood, in our presence online—I think it is bad. I don’t think anyone should have to post about their hard times, but I do think some of the language about the good times could be — tempered? Nuanced? Balanced out by other things? Or maybe there should simply be less of all of it? Is this making sense?
Imperative platitudes—I also felt inundated by my least favorite piece of advice: just enjoy it. Or its cousins soak it in, savor the moments, take every breath as though this is the only thing you were ever made to do. I made that last one up, but you get it. I couldn’t enjoy it—I was exhausted, in pain, missing my mom like crazy, more overwhelmed and scared than I’d ever been. I couldn’t enjoy it, couldn’t even locate myself, and I felt like garbage for that.
To be clear, if you’re reading this and you were a person who said this to me, I definitely don’t remember if it was you specifically, I don’t blame you, and I understand this impulse, too. Now that my baby is already (!!!) a toddler, almost done nursing, sassy and getting more independent by the day, it’s easy to look back on that time in a honeyed light. Sitting on the couch while she sleeps in my arms sounds pretty magical. Of course there were beautiful moments that I genuinely miss. And I hope that if we have another baby, I’ll be in a place where I can truly appreciate that stage.
But at the time, I really felt awful when people gave me this advice. And I find that it is particularly the province of women to be made to suffer and then told to be happy about it.
So I’m going to try very hard not to tell mothers how they should feel about having a newborn baby.
What DID help?
In the interest of brevity, I’m going to excise the stuff that obviously helped in the general “just had a baby” way, because I was trying to write everything down and then remembered anew how many people were so generous and kind and supportive of us—and it was lovely to ponder, but long and probably dull to read! Suffice to say that if you happen to be reading this and you were among those who visited, fed, talked to, advised, texted, and generally were with us last fall — it mattered so much. We are so lucky.
Here are five things I can think of that specifically alleviated my sadness, for some (frankly, usually small) amount of time.
Honesty from and with friends: I’ve touched on this already, but hearing from women I loved, trusted, and knew to be great parents was huge. I learned that they’d felt what I was feeling, and that I wasn’t to blame, though I couldn’t always believe them in the moment. I took a walk with one friend when Nadia was 9 days old and I was feeling pretty desperate. She listened while I sobbed out all my darkest thoughts and told me she’d felt them all herself, and that in her opinion, PPD was truly hell, but it wouldn’t be like that forever. I have forgotten most of what has happened in the last year, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
Serious sleep, aka more than 3 hours at once: a big duh, but not to be underestimated. When we had help with night shifts — shoutout to Sara and Karen!! Heroes!! — it really mattered.
Jamie snuggling me and telling me stories from his childhood. I don’t know what the broader, more generalizable recommendation should be here. Perhaps something about physical contact with someone other than just your baby. Or just being around someone who helps you feel calm.
Friday Night Lightsand Jane the Virgin. I will love these shows forever and ever amen. It sounds dumb to list television alongside things like “friends” and “nature” but man, did it help. Obviously this falls under the general category of “distraction,” but not all distractions are the same— like I said, social media was a little bit poisonous for me. And there are plenty of shows that will keep you mildly distracted but not engage you. These two got me tasting feelings beyond my own despair, talking with Jamie all the time about what made them so great (rather than just talking about why Na wouldn’t sleep), and looking forward to something every day. Once Na was older and I felt my brain was a little bit more like a brain, I started reading books again, and that was great, too — it felt like returning to an essential part of myself. But reading felt totally impossible to me for the first long while, so a good show was key.
Of course none of these things might be valuable, necessary, or sufficient for other people. I didn’t try medication or therapy—again, I think I had at worst a mild to moderate situation—but even so I sometimes wish that I had. I’ve decided that if I have another baby and feel things getting out of control, I’m going to try both.
Oh you know, the obvious things: you don’t have to feel guilty if being a parent—or an alive person in 2019—is hard. It doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job or being a bad person. And if it is hard, there are things and people who will help you. Sisterhood, biological and otherwise, is magic. Your experience matters. Tim Riggins forever.
I couldn’t think what to write this year on Pamela’s birthday. The combination of mobilized baby and work and trying to contain the chaos of our life and house (thank you, Nadia, for making sure my kitchen floor is always a little bit sticky) has been consuming. What I wrote from April 12 this year still feels very terrible and fresh, and it tires me out to think of revisiting the weight of that. And what I wrote for her birthday last year feels hard to follow up, because it means a lot to me and I’m a little bit proud of it (in large part due to a workshop session with my writing group — thanks guys), so I didn’t want to then write something lousy.
I think/hope my mom would understand that I couldn’t quite get it done this year. Did you know that in college she once turned in the same paper 4 different times? Because, she explained without a trace a sheepishness, if you write about a Henry James novel it will count for 19th century lit and 20th century lit and British and American.
Respect. But also, Mama, you would have flayed us for doing this.
Anyway: Enter my dad. With permission, here’s an excerpt of what he wrote to my sisters and me in honor of our mom’s birthday, because I thought those of you who come here to think of and learn about Pamela would enjoy a different part of her story:
Mama used to tease me that I fell in love with her in a period of about a week and that, no matter how mean she was to me, she couldn’t get rid of me. There is a great deal of truth in that although I have never thought of her as having been mean to me. I was different than anyone she had dated — not is brilliant nor as artistic as David Veloz for example. Not as good-looking as Brian — her kind of boyfriend in Portland when she went home to work after losing her scholarship. So, she didn’t know what to make of my ridiculous head-over-heels thing.
We met at a party that was put together by our friends, the Pingrees — Mark Pingree’s older brothers and his sister Allison (who was Mama’s roommate that semester). Mama was seriously, incredibly beautiful. And, she spoke Spanish perfectly. I was both totally captured and very much intimidated. She was obviously so much smarter than me. And, as you might imagine, I had thought I was pretty smart.
She certainly did try to get rid of me during the winter of 1982; I can remember three incidents clearly. There were probably a couple more. Let me tell you, I still hear her saying, “Paso de ti; paso mucho de ti!!!”
Thank goodness I was persistent.
Mama admitted over the years that she was happier married to me than she had been as a mid-to-late teen (notice that I didn’t say as when she was “single”). I know, I know — we both went from being kids to being married. But, I do think that it is true that I was good for Mama in that way. Being married to Mama in college was also so good for me. Together, we focused on school and friendships. Together, we were good at both.
And, then, we ate our oatmeal and pretty soon, we were grown up.
~ with thanks and apologies to Clement Clarke Moore ~
‘Twas the night before Labor Day, when here on the couch One creature was stirring; she was the size of a house. Contractions were coming, some minutes apart She hoped that a baby they soon would impart. (1)
Her husband was nestled all snug in their bed. But then inner quiet filled Laura with dread. (2)
So away to the hospital the two of them flew, To make sure babe’s heart was still good as new. Into triage they strode, their nerves all a-clatter, Though none of the nurses thought much was the matter.
“There’s your baby, she’s fine,” they said in a flash. (Making Lo feel a bit of an ass). “Go home for right now, your pain isn’t too shrill Go home for right now, and take Benadryl.” (3)
The morning thus passed in a pain-punctured haze, Lo hoped labor’s languor was only a phase. In the midday a blessing soon did appear — ‘Twas Ingrid the doula, so helpful, so dear. (4)
Alas labor that day didn’t seem so on track — Every single contraction was all in her back. (5)
More biting than tigers, ferocious they came, And Laura, in anguish, could no longer be tame: “Now, Jamie! now, Ingrid! I cannot do this! If it goes on much longer, I’m in the abyss!” (6) Yelled Lo as she shook and clung to the wall “They’re 4 mins apart! Let’s dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, They tore down 580, before more she could cry; And once more to triage the three of them flew: A girl full of pain, a support crew of two.
And then, in a twinkling, in hospital gown She was barfing up everything she once had held down. As she lay to be checked and was making much sound, “You’re a 4!” said the doctor. “You can turn right around”. “Or stay here in triage, we’ll check on you later” (Who knew this slow baby would be such a traitor?) (7)
Contractions picked up as she lay in despair, Thank Heavens, admitted! Epidural, soon there! The pain—how it lessened! The needle, how simple! Suddenly contractions were no worse than a pimple. (8)
All three of them slept, it was two in the morn, By seven am, babe was soon to be born; “I’ll take my break now,” said the nurse with composure, “When I come back, let’s push; it soon will be over.” (9) A minute with Jamie, one last look at her belly And so much exhaustion, her body like jelly.
The music she’d picked didn’t have the right tone, As hastily Jamie pushed play from his phone. (10) But then, in a little bit less than an hour— Her sweet hairy head, her face like a flower. She came out face up, her eyes toward the sky, (11) And Laura, above her, heard a first little sigh. “My baby!” she said, as the little one cried, She held her and rocked, with James by her side.
All in all, it was awful, exhausting and cruel But it brought me this baby, o’er whom I now drool. Thirty-six hours, labor all in my back— I did it for you, Miss Nadia Stack! (12)
(1)One thing I learned from my pregnancy is that my intuition is basically crap. I felt strongly that the following things would be true: a. It would be hard for us to conceive (nope). b. Our baby was a boy (girl). c. I would have a fast labor (HAHAHAHAHAH)
(2) Around 4 am I fell into a very light sleep for about 40 minutes. When I woke up I couldn’t feel the baby moving. I got up, had some water, walked around a little. Nothing. Lay down on my left side and held very still. Nothing. I called Labor and Delivery around 4:30 am and told them I couldn’t feel the baby. They told me to come in.
(3) I later learned they were supposed to offer me morphine. I am not over this.
(4) Attention all people who might at some point want to have a baby: get yourself a doula. Consider getting my doula. Her name is Ingrid and she’s amazing. I truly do not know how we would have survived without her.
(5) Because of my ballet background I have fancied myself as someone with a decently high pain tolerance, so I had a minor crisis after the fact about how rough labor was on me. I felt a little better after reading about the ‘occiput posterior’ fetal position and talking about it with other women.
(6) By 10pm I was in despair. Every contraction hurt enough that I was making a lot of noise. They were long. They were not close enough together. When would anything change? Never. I would never have the baby, never go to the hospital. It would just be pain, like this, forever, until I died, which would hopefully be soon.
(7) This was the darkest moment: I could go home with something to help me sleep (another hellish car ride, relief for maybe a few hours at best), or I could stay in triage with nothing and see how things progressed (impossible pain — I had the impression that a saber-toothed tiger was gnawing on me, teeth sinking deeper each time, trying to pull my entrails out my lower back). I yelled and yelled. I could hardly see.
(8) The epidural was one of the sweetest moments of relief of my entire life. At the time it kicked in I had been in labor for 27 hours.
(9) After the drama of everything pre-epidural, the pushing part felt oddly casual and chill.
(10) Jamie makes fun of me for how frustrated I was by the music (the playlist had been intended to keep me mellow during labor [HA]), but it was not helpful for the hard work of pushing. Clearly I was delirious, but also music matters! Sue me.
(11) This is “occiput posterior” and I do NOT recommend.
I’m a mess this year. A mess, and a mother, and the two are related.
Because when was the last time I needed Pamela this much? I think the answer is never. I had all the help in the world when I brought my baby home from the hospital. I had Jamie, family, food, friends. I had a healthy baby. But I’ve never felt as desperately lonely as those first few weeks of Nadia’s life. There’s nothing like having a child to make you feel like a child, it turns out — clueless, clumsy, prone to tears. I needed her peerless competence, I needed her warmth, I needed her to tell me how proud she was of me. She would also, I think, have sometimes driven me crazy, said something slightly insensitive and sent me reeling. What a freaking privilege, to be driven crazy by the assistance of one’s mother. I needed her, and she couldn’t be here.
There were a few phrases that ran in my head on a loop just before and just after Nadia was born. One of them was from the Will Smith “Just the Two of Us,” from like 1996 or whatever: Got you home safe/Placed you in your bassinet — because we were always saying the word bassinet and, you know, wishing the baby was sleeping in it. The other was She’s really not coming. It was frankly excruciating.
Because already, seven months in, I can see so much more of her experience. It’s like how you feel when you first learn to read. Do you remember that feeling? You look up one day, and everywhere: words → sentences → meaning. On the back of the cereal box. On storefronts, at bus stops. Road signs. I remember staring out the window of my parents’ car at the brave new world — everywhere, everywhere! Something to read!
I’m so new to the parent game, but already there is simply more that we now share. I look up and I see my mother with a new, more acute lens. I see pictures of us as babies and different things come into focus. Maybe the reason my baby book is so different in tone from Sara’s is because she had a crappy dip into postpartum depression. Maybe that super short haircut after Julia was born was because after three babies, she was sick of pulling out gobs of hair in the shower. Sometimes when I was in high school, if we had some visiting toddler at our house, she would pull one of us close and tell the toddler gravely, this is my baby. Was that because she could still remember what it was like to stroke our faces as we slept?
I can see more, I can reframe the memories. But I can’t ask her. We don’t get to be mothers together. I feel rage about this.
Because — and how can I even bring myself to type this? — Nadia and Pamela will not meet in this life. She would love my little girl so much. She would be so proud of her hair. She would delight in her prodigious thighs. She would crave holding her, would laugh at her, would read to her. She would talk about her all the time. Her three granddaughters! Her most special small friends! Their world, like ours, is dimmer without her. This fact is constantly, violently, endlessly awful.
There are some words that sound exactly right for what they mean. Frenetic. Sassy. Asphyxiate. Wan. Jovial.
The word that comes to me like a heartbeat this week is bereft. A whispery word, but leaves you gasping. Bereft: deprived of. She’s really not coming.
I hope that someday, in the far green country, she will meet my girl.
The obvious but important takeaway from pregnancy is that the world is extremely unfair. First, the biological facts — after their initial (um, not difficult) contribution, men do literally nothing to assist in the baby growing process. That is insane. This is not a Jamie slam; Jamie was and is the world’s most supportive husband and was awesome to have around during my pregnancy. But the growing really was all me. How is that the system?
Of course the injustice doesn’t end there. Among women who want to bear children there is so much dumb luck involved. Some women have a terrifyingly easy time getting pregnant; some women try and try and try and it takes years of heartbreak and/or thousands of dollars; or it doesn’t happen at all. Some women have easy pregnancies and cruise through 40 weeks with barely a swell of the ankle. Some women are miserable. Some end up in the hospital from any number of scary complications.
The unvarnished truth: I got pregnant quite quickly and proceeded to have a very easy and uncomplicated pregnancy. I can(‘t) imagine how annoying, frustrating, and potentially painful that could be to read about, so by all means pass this one by if you are having those extremely valid feelings. But I need to try and capture some aspect of this experience before it’s completely vanished from my mind (it’s already hazy), so I’m going to include some memories of my pregnancy here.
But first, a video by Jamie, on this topic:
And now some words. For me, the experience of pregnancy was all paradox.
All the Responsibility | None of the Control
Before I was accustomed to the idea of having a baby — not that I ever got accustomed to it, am still not — but when it was especially new, one perpetual feeling was that surely we were evading some important rule-following procedure. We had decided to bring life into the world and then we just sort of went ahead with it. Now it was happening, and nothing at all had been asked of us. Didn’t we need to see a judge? Sign some forms? Visit a notary?
Wanna take one hot yoga class for one hour? You must read and sign a waiver. Wanna have a kid? Knock yourselves out!
And once the decision was made — speedily, so speedily, it now seems — things just sort of started to happen. Someone, somewhere, had flipped a switch and now my body was running a whole new program utterly foreign to me. By 28 I had a pretty good sense of what my body was like, when and why it felt good or bad. Then suddenly, not so much. It is resoundingly disorienting to encounter that much unknowability within your own literal self.
Sometimes, especially after I started to show, I sort of felt like a superhero. Look what I’m making!
Sometimes, the phrase that came was – my body is a savage jungle. My body is. A savage. Jungle.
One aspect of pregnancy I truly hated: that I was housing a living thing, charged with its care and well-being, beholden now to something small and helpless and essential — but I couldn’t see, hear, check on it. I assume this is hard on all pregnant people; for those of us in the worrywart club, it sucked. The roiling worry of trimester 1 is vivid to me: when I wasn’t that nauseous in the 9 to 11 week period, instead of rejoicing in my good fortune I worried that I had lost the pregnancy in a silent miscarriage. In fact I convinced myself that I had. I lay curled around my phone some Saturday mornings, clicking through heartbreak on miscarriage forums.
Ultrasounds helped, dopplers helped, but the certainty in the OB’s office was so short compared to weeks — months — of constant, low-grade anxiety. Was she okay? She started kicking, which helped, but was she kicking enough? What if she had a terrible disease that was all my fault? I had gone in a hot tub very early on in my pregnancy, a big no-no; maybe I ruined her nervous system. I did. I did. I did. I tortured myself about that hot tub almost every single day.
4am to 6am was the darkest time. If I woke up to pee, I would just lie awake and think about everything I was doing wrong and all the ways I could be hurting my baby.
The fears had changed by the last trimester — the hot tub, still, niggled at me. But now I thought about stillbirth. Would it happen because I accidentally slept on my right side, inadvertently turned that way in my sleep? I made Jamie promise that if the baby was stillborn we would leave the country for a month, get away from our house and the little clothes, the changing table.
So Private | So Public
I’m not much of a secret-keeper, and this one was so big. Not telling my sisters while we were in Hawaii together (we found out on Boxing Day on Maui) was the greatest feat of self control I think I’ve ever displayed.
It was mostly thrilling, keeping the secret; the intimacy of it. Though I sometimes wanted to tell people for purposes of disclaiming my body and/or behavior. There’s a really good reason why I’m wearing these pants! Pringles and ginger ale for breakfast at work again? Really good reason!
The disclosures to loved ones: truly some of the most densely concentrated joy I have ever, ever felt. Adrenaline zipping up and down my veins every time. That pulsing secret, trapped in my rib cage for so long, volleyed at last into the air and caught so tenderly.
A professor walked by my desk one morning while she was kicking. I must have been smiling because he said, “There must be something good on your screen.” “I’m pregnant!!” I answered, surprising us both with my candor and exuberance.
Once I started really showing, it felt like privacy was at a permanent end. I’ve never felt so on display. Everyone had something to say. For example, a male colleague who said I was “looking ripe.” ICK. For example, the lady on the train who recommended I drink cornsilk in hot water for my swollen ankles. UGH.
This was not always bad: “Baby…woman?” Asked the man in halting English running the boutique in Torri del Benaco. “Baby Girl!” Corrected his shopgirls laughingly.
At Tahoe, looking truly absurd in my bathing suit, I passed a woman in a high ponytail. “Almost there,” she said. “You got this.” It was one of the most wonderful things anyone has ever said to me.
Pregnant Forever | Never Pregnant
Around 32 or so weeks it seemed as though I had always been pregnant, for my entire adult life, and would always be. I couldn’t remember what it was like not to have that peculiar silhouette. I couldn’t remember the experience of easily staring down at my toes. I marvelled at women who lay on their stomachs at the beach, who bent down and picked something up from the ground. How sublime, to have that level of ease.
It hasn’t been so long since then, but already my body has almost entirely forgotten the feeling of being pregnant. The last remaining sensation I can still call up is that grinding in my hips after trying to sleep on my left side all night. The feeling of perpetual internal bruising.
Rigidity | Gentleness
Pregnancy has lots of intense rules, which was stressful. (see: Expecting Better). I worried every day that I wasn’t eating enough fruits and vegetables; then when I ate them, I worried that I hadn’t washed them thoroughly enough.
That said, I did love the way everyone around me — people on the Bart train, my app, my family members, my friends — encouraged me to treat myself with gentleness. Pregnancy was a sustained period of kindness to my body. The delivery guys for whom I signed off on packages, each and every one gruff and burly, showed me startling sweetness. “How’s that baby?” They asked. “Is your husband rubbing your feet?”
“Prego,” I said to the guard manning the handicapped bathrooms at Boboli Gardens. “Incinta,” I explained, a word I had looked up on Google translate before we left. He let me in. We had a friendly, smiley, semi-signed conversation about my pregnancy, boy or girl, how far along I was. It was genuinely lovely.
At some point I realized that as a woman I had been granted this new beneficence toward my body only when someone else was living in it. That seems telling.
Must Plan | Yet Cannot Plan
We did so much prep. I had such a long google doc. Labor classes, breastfeeding classes, postpartum classes. We watched the goofy DVD of The Happiest Baby on the Block (which side note: I do recommend). We cleaned out our garage. Julia helped me organize all her little clothes, then organize them again. I packed our hospital bag. I nested like the completely batty mother hen I had become.
But we could also recognize that we really didn’t have any idea of what was to come. And even wilder — we didn’t know when it happen. How often can you say that in modern life, let alone about something so earth-tiltingly new and strange? It is weird to live in the world of order and information and also be suddenly very tied to animal reality. At any moment of the day I could click around in my phone and know the time of our staff meeting, the weather at my sister’s house, Emily Blunt’s highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes.
But no one—not my phone, not my spouse, not even my doctor—could tell me who my baby was and when she was going to come.
All August long I wondered: Who is steering this ship? WHO WHO WHO?
Wicked World | Wonderful World
Every day on our walk to the train we passed the middle school, and the tweens in their gym uniforms on the blacktop, and I would remember anew that by birthing this child I was condemning her to seventh grade P.E. How could I do that to her. Why did I get pregnant.
How could we bring her here, when so many things have gone so wrong.
And also while we walked to the train, and on Saturday mornings in bed, and in the car, Jamie and I would talk about all the new things she would do, feel, see:
The trees and the wind. The moon and the stars. Harry Potter. Standing at the water’s edge — the whoosh and grasp of receding waves. Mulan. Christmas, and Christmas lights, and a first crunchy step into snow. Sleepy car rides. Music. Dancing.
Here are 18 lil book reviews of 18 books I read in 2018! Partially because that symmetry pleases me, partially because I didn’t read that many more than this — stopped reading pretty much entirely after September 4 — and partially because most of the other ones I read were for Publishers Weekly reviews, which means I read them a) in one night, b) complaining bitterly the whole time, c) now can’t remember a blessed thing about them.
Top 5, Baby Edition
I spent two-thirds of 2018 pregnant, which is, you know, a kind of intense way to be alive. So the books that I truly loved from 2018 were all in some way related to pregnancy. I’m sure they were especially resonant for me, but I think I can confidently recommend these to you whatever your procreative status.
Expecting Better, Emily Oster
Okay so this one is definitely most relevant to pregnant people; its subtitle is Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know. But if you or someone you love will at any point in the future become pregnant—Get. This. Book. It’s written by a University of Chicago economist who, while pregnant herself, got frustrated by doctors who would give her stern but hazy rules for behavior (about caffeine intake, weight gain, foods to avoid, etc) without explaining the research that supported those recommendations or the risk level of each individual choice. Oster looks at each conventional recommendation or practice related to pregnancy (from conception all the way through labor) and combs through the studies that support those recommendations to determine their soundness and level of applicability. She then provides careful and up-to-date suggestions on behavior for and during pregnancy—and, importantly, how to make those assessments for yourself—helpfully summed up at the end of each chapter.
I highly recommend reading this early on in pregnancy, because it is remarkably reassuring—my friend Taylor, who loaned me the book and is also an economist, summed up what she learned from Expecting Better very well: that basically, smoking is definitely a bad idea if you are pregnant, and pretty much everything else is probably fine. It also reinforces the idea that in pregnancy, as in the rest of your life, it is important to do what is right for you personally. How freaking great, and how freaking different from my horrible app that gave me a heart attack several times a week because it told me something new and potentially devastating I screwed up on.
And Now We Have Everything, Meghan O’Connell
A subtheme of this top 5 is: books given to me by very smart friends. My friend Kelsey sent me this one. I read it about halfway through my pregnancy, in about half a day. It’s a quiet memoir, and that one adjective alone makes it notable, I think: so often we read memoirs that are about people who have had insane lives (see: Educated). Those are often great, but I always feel a little bit like I’m rubbernecking to check out a crash on the freeway. This book is not a car crash. It’s about O’Connell’s semi-accidental pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood. She is in a committed relationship and leading a generally happy and stable life. But it is every bit as compelling as a typical crazy memoir, because O’Connell’s writing is easy and nimble and very, very funny and also very, very honest. So honest that it was a little bit scary to read while pregnant: I remember getting to the chapter about her labor while at the beach (I was at the beach, she wasn’t at the beach), and crying from the intensity and also from terror at what I had gotten myself into. But it is so, so enjoyable and worth reading: three cheers for honesty about women’s experiences!
Bring Back Beatrice, Jennifer Griffin
Another book from Taylor! Hooray for Taylor! I hesitated to list this one, because it’s a baby name book. So, light on plot. But I did in fact read it 100% cover to cover, in the middle of the night, more than once. The reason why this baby name book is preferable to others is because the author is a funny, opinionated, and perceptive guide, explaining why it’s not a good idea to name your kid something trendy; why it’s not a good idea to name your kid just a nickname (want something like Mimi? She’ll have a helpful sidebar of all the real names you can use on her birth certificate that will open the door to Mimi); and why it is a good idea to take into account the sounds and syllables of your middle and last names. She offers an extensive alphabetical list of names both classic and rare (with nickname suggestions!). Naming your kid is a big deal, and it was fun for me to feel like I had a witty and no-nonsense aunt and/or English teacher type of person whispering in my ear.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
This one came from my friend Eva. Thank you, Eva!!
This book is nuts. I am looking at the Amazon listing right now and apparently it is subtitled A Memoir, but truly it is uncategorizable. Nelson does write about her life — her relationship with her nonbinary partner Harry, her pregnancy and childbirth, her family and career — but she also incorporates literary theory and philosophy, blending thoughtful arguments about how to approach concepts of life and family alongside her memories. Normally, the word theory is shudder- and eyeroll-inducing for me. But I kid you not, this book is a page-turner. I read it in just a couple of days while on vacation in Italy! The language is incredibly beautiful and the intellectual prowess on display is just staggering. Nelson reminds me of Zadie Smith in her refusal of dogma of any stripe; she takes ideas apart with rigor and care and left me with approximately one million things to think about. Plus it has a great labor scene. Favorite line: “I’m sick of these clowns who aren’t in pain.” INDEED.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
Okay so this one really isn’t about pregnancy, and I don’t think it was a gift (if it was, and the gift giver is reading this, I am so sorry!). It’s a beautiful, harsh, heartbreaking novel about mass migration told on an intimate scale, following one blossoming relationship in the context of crisis. The sentences in this book are staggeringly lovely, long and dense and full of ideas that wriggle all the way into your heart corners. The two central characters are vividly rendered and their relationship feels palpably, achingly real.
I’m including it in my ‘baby edition’ because I read it early on in my pregnancy and found something I needed: a great character named Nadia. Jamie and I were already considering Nadia as a name for our baby (if she turned out to be a girl) but, as I’ve written about, it was important to me to choose a name with a literary connection. This Nadia is a worthy and lovely book sister (though my Nadia will be MUCH older before she’s allowed to read Exit West).
I Liked These Ones Too, Though These Reviews are Admittedly Pretty Shoddy
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
I have barely scratched the surface on Atwood, but I’m glad to have read this one. It’s a slow burn — a bit too slow, for the first couple hundred pages — but it gets pretty fascinating. And creepy! I’m amazed by how lightly Atwood can leap between genres. This one’s part historical fiction, part mystery, and extremely dark.
The Summer List, Amy Doan
One of the few Publishers Weekly-mandated reads I sincerely enjoyed. Romance slash coming of age slash friendship drama with a hint of mystery. It’s not mind blowing from a literary standpoint, but it completely held my interest and didn’t make me think about being pregnant at all. Win.
Turtles All the Way Down, John Green
Oh, John Green. Why are you so extra? Why can you not be chill for one single moment? Why do you cherish cleverness above all else? These questions crop up for me every time I read one of his books. But I always read them quickly, and I almost always enjoy them, which does demonstrate considerable talent in spite of all the affectation. This one has some stuff about anxiety that I think is really rather effective.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
This was an interesting reading experience, because I completely tore through it and loved Ng’s sentence-level writing; she reminds me a bit of Ann Patchett or Karen Joy Fowler. But at the end I was left thinking there was going to be a bit more to the characters—their motivations felt more simplistic than I expected. But this was Ng’s first novel, and I’m eager to read her other work.
Dispatches from Pluto, Richard Grant
A highly educated British journalist moves with his girlfriend to the Mississippi Delta and befriends local rednecks; (nonfiction) hijinks ensue. This was a pretty fascinating portrait of a part of the country I know nothing about, though Grant himself didn’t come across to me as an especially excellent dude. It did reinforce to me that I am not cut out to live in the South—the anecdotes featuring giant bugs, snakes, and armadillos (?!?) alone. Shiver.
What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah
A debut collection of short stories that were funky and cool! Short stories rarely stick with me the way novels do, but I liked these.
How to be Famous, Caitlin Moran
Another fun fluffy novel. Caitlin Moran is incorrigible in the best way. My only quibble was that this book is set in the 1990s, but a lot of the dialogue sounds straight out of Me Too-era 2017. Anachronism is annoying!
Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple
Funny, biting, playful, ultimately pretty weird. I liked it. I liked it more because we listened to this one as an audiobook and the narrator was excellent. Fun fact: the narrator also plays Luke’s sister Liz in Gilmore Girls. Good job, Liz!
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I read this one to prepare to write the essay for my mom’s birthday last year, so I had a very particular purpose/lens and read it very fast. I find it lovely at the sentence level because I have such fondness for this genre, and I think I’ll be excited to read it to Nadia. My other main takeaway is that British fiction has a long history of depicting adults being extremely cruel to children. British kids’ books: childhood is terrifying and violent and the class system is rigid and important!
Heretics Anonymous, Katie Henry
An excellent, thoughtful, funny and effortlessly readably YA novel written by a friend. Way to go, Katie!
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez
Another thoughtful YA. This one was written from the perspective of a Latina teen striving to escape her Chicago neighborhood and mourning her sister. It’s a painful book on a number of levels, and could have been edited a bit more tightly, but the narrator is vivid and arresting and I still think about her.
Educated, Tara Westover
So much has been written about this book that I don’t feel I really have anything new to add. It’s completely bananas and harrowing but/and worth reading.
In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri
This was the only 2018 book I read after Nadia was born (thank you, lovely Leslie!). It’s a memoir of sorts written by Jhumpa Lahiri about learning the Italian language as an adult. The crazy thing is that Lahiri wrote it in Italian — she even refused to translate it into English herself, so she wouldn’t inadvertently polish her Italian; she has stopped writing fiction in English entirely. The book is a collection of brief essays about the experience of learning a new language and reinventing herself as a writer within the confines/liberties of that language. It’s interesting and instructive to read about writers’ relationships to writing, and even in her third (!) language Lahiri is elegant and perceptive. Mostly this book confounded me, though, especially in my extreme postpartum haze: how could anyone have the intellectual curiosity and stamina to stop writing in the language for which they have been celebrated just to basically try something out that’s extremely demanding and frustrating? Whyyy? Amazing but crazy. I definitely did not relate. But I liked it!
There you have it! Many words! Hope this leaves you with some potential reads for the year of the pig.
Soon, I will remember nothing that has ever occurred in my life. Quickly, before I forget and before I have a baby, some things happened to us in 2017:
I started a new job at UC Berkeley and stopped teaching
Jamie learned to be a programmer and stopped teaching
We moved out of the studio in my parents’ backyard into a duplex palace, meaning now sometimes I’m in one room, and Jamie is in a different room.
We encountered some seriously intense familial upheaval, which resulted in lots of good things but also permanent departure from our family home and the most traumatic trip to Costco ever
Jamie looked for a programming job for a long time, which he handled like the total champion he is, but like every human did not enjoy
Also we drove to Utah and spent the last day of the trip tearing all our stuff apart looking fruitlessly for our car keys, which by hour 4 or so led me to conclude that life truly has no meaning.
We saw quite a few beautiful things, including:
the wide skies and charmingly Seussian trees of Joshua Tree National Park
the view of San Francisco from Treasure Island: particularly lovely one day in March because we stopped there to turn around and go home after I successfully petitioned Delta Airlines to change Julia’s flight when she had a fever over spring break. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments of 2017.
My nieces’ faces at Disneyland, particularly baby Rosie’s beatific smile while waving to us from the carousel and Flavia’s giddy wonder after the Finding Nemo ride. “It was real,” she said. “It was REAL.”
the Mad Menny (Man Mennish? Mad Mendom? I just mean mid-century modern) delights of Palm Springs.
Some of our favorite water alongside some of our favorite people: the Provo River and Silver Lake; Lake Tahoe in summer and fall; and the Calistoga community pool, not a long-term favorite but a stumbled-upon oasis on a blistering day. We swam and lay out on the grass. For a few minutes, dazed but maybe also awakened by sun and comfort, I could feel my mom there with me, saying hi.
Rosie at my birthday dinner, completely drenched in curry and noodles, flinging tiny strips of lamb into her mouth with abandon.
Three Great Dance Parties and Our Own Christmas Tree (title of my memoir?)
A beautiful, white Christmas Eve Eve in Utah, and a beautiful, green Christmas Day on Maui
The next day, Boxing Day, I learned of my pregnancy.
I had brought a pregnancy test and prenatal vitamins on the trip, stuffed way, way down in my backpack. I had been feeling the tiniest hint of symptoms for a few weeks, but figured I was just making them up due to hope or (and) panic. I had told Jamie just a few days before, “Just so you know — I’m not pregnant. I’m definitely not pregnant.” “Okay,” he had said in his imperturbable way.
On Christmas Day I was late, but still feeling the familiar low back squeeze of menstrual cramps, so I figured things were just off. That night I lay in our hotel room and decided I would take the test early the next morning to confirm that I was not at all pregnant, so I could stop thinking about it and drink as much Diet Coke as I wanted to during our week in Hawaii.
Did you know that cramping from uterine expansion in early pregnancy feels the same as menstrual cramping?
Like I said, my memory is bad and getting worse. The days and weeks run through my fingers like water. But I hope so much to remember this:
My hand gripping the towel rack in shock, crouched on the sandy bathroom floor and staring at two pink spider strands on a plastic stick.
His face when he opened his eyes to see the present I told him I had forgotten to give him the day before.
When Pamela was grown, she married, and some years later, her first child was born. A girl, a beautiful baby girl, with round cheeks and lots of hair. Her name was Sara, spelled without an “h.”
Sara without an “h” was an important distinction, for Sara was named for Sara Crewe of A Little Princess. Pamela had read it when she was a girl. On the inside cover, she printed her name, address, and phone number as carefully as an eight year old could; and though the letters sloped down more than she’d hoped, anyone who found it missing would bring it back to her. She knew very early that her own daughter would be named Sara.
Sara Crewe, like all the best heroines, possesses both goodness and pluck. She, like Pamela, loves books and stories. And though she is an orphan, and has a period of great suffering at the hands of fate and Miss Minchin, she is honorable always and happy mostly, even in adversity. And, of course, she triumphs in the end.
It was not that Pamela thought Sara — her very own sleepy, milk-soft Sara — would be gifted the precise qualities Frances Hodgson Burnett gave the little princess once her name was printed on her little hospital wristband. But she did think that to name her daughter for a good, brave girl from a good, loved book was probably the right way to start off her life.
When Sara learned of her namesake as a little girl, she was terribly proud to have been named for a princess.
Pamela’s Sara began to grow, and as she grew Pamela read her many books. She read her The Big Red Barn and Blueberries for Sal and The Runaway Bunny. But Sara’s attention span, like her namesake’s, was unusually hungry, so Pamela read her longer and longer books. When Sara was approaching three years old, Pamela read her The Little House in the Big Woods, and it was around this time that Pamela learned that she was again pregnant.
As Pamela read to Sara about Laura Ingalls’ simple, industrious life, the food they prepared and the games that they played in the beautiful Wisconsin woods, she pondered the name Laura for her second daughter. Laura Ingalls, too, has goodness and pluck. She too works hard and is mostly happy. It was a good name, Pamela decided, should her baby be born a girl.
She was, and so Sara and Laura were a pair for many years. When Laura was old enough to be read the Little House books, she pictured herself as Laura without any trouble at all, for Laura Ingalls is also small for her age, and also possessing a dignified older sister with blonde hair. Pamela’s Laura often forgot that the sister in the books is named Mary and not Sara. Laura dressed as her book sister for Halloween, and when she turned six, requested a Laura Ingalls birthday party. They played old fashioned games. Pamela made everyone a bonnet. It was a great triumph.
Sara and Laura slept in bunkbeds in their small apartment. Sara sang in a chorus and Laura went to ballet class. They had friends and they each had a sister, and mostly they got along.
Always Pamela read to them, and in time they read to themselves. In the evenings, when they snuggled up under a blanket on the couch with Pamela, they heard the adventures of their other sisters: Sara Crewe and Laura Ingalls, yes, but also Anne Shirley (Anne with an “e”), and Mary Lennox and the March sisters, the Melendy children (some of whom were boys, it couldn’t be helped) and the Fossil sisters and many children without last names: the children in E. Nesbit’s stories about magic, and the children in Edward Eager’s stories about magic. Sally Watson’s heroines, with their fiery sense of justice and complicated family tree. Pippi Longstocking, and Ronia, the robber’s daughter. Sometimes Pamela took Sara and Laura to see plays, and here they discovered even more sisters, though these were grown and beautiful and fierce, with names like music: Viola, Rosalind, Helena, Titania, Celia, Portia.
Though the books Pamela read to her daughters were not always old-fashioned — and, indeed, the books she read in her own bed, late into the night, were mostly, it must be confessed, grisly murder mysteries — they had often been written fifty years before or more. Pamela was drawn to their sweetness and perhaps not put off by their occasional didacticism, for she wanted her girls to be good and polite and hardworking and brave. And Sara and Laura loved the strange little windows into the times before. They loved the peculiar words and expressions that sometimes made sense and sometimes did not: they learned what a “frock” was, and a “scrape,” arms “akimbo” or ears, savagely, “boxed.” After reading books like these, the girls would sometimes hear a warm, old-fashioned narrator in their head as they went about their business, which would wrap them in a puffy little cloud of storytelling for some time, even after the last page had been turned.
Sometimes when Pamela read them these stories, the girls did not even notice that things had changed. Sometimes it seemed that girlhood was always the same, for their sisters in the books seemed quite like them: they too were wounded by embarrassment or indignant at an injustice. They too had golden days outdoors and awful, boring, or unbearably lonely days. They too had chores, good adults and bad adults, the exhilaration of cold air in their lungs and the hard little nugget of determination in their stomachs to outshine the boys in their classes.
One day Pamela sat down with Sara and Laura at their little round table and told them they would have a new baby in their family. Everyone was pleased, even Laura, who would no longer be the baby. This time they discussed the baby’s name as a family. Abigail was considered. Madeline was considered. No one took seriously the idea that the baby was a boy.
She was not, and Pamela named her Julia. This was a bit of a departure, for the Julia-from-a-book was not her story’s heroine but rather the heroine’s dignified, beautiful, and talented sister. Pamela thought her a suitable tie to the Ray family’s house, which is full of tenderness and mirth, and the Betsy-Tacy books, which were particular favorites for them all.
When Julia was a bit older, she learned that her sisters were named for girls in books, and Pamela was quick to assure her that she, too, had a book sister, a good one — who made her own decisions, who was brave and good.
When Pamela’s Julia was still a baby, she and her family moved for the first time to a house, and there Sara and Laura got to hear all the Betsy-Tacy books, even the high school and grownup ones. When they read Betsy and the Great World, they came to a scene when Betsy watches a stream of young men in England march off to fight in the Great War, singing a song with great boisterousness. Laura was disturbed to see Pamela crying through this scene, and Pamela explained how terribly sad it was, for most of these boys would never come home.
Pamela’s girls grew and read and read and grew, adding sisters to their wide constellation of girls with goodness and pluck. Soon Sara and Laura were almost all the way grown, though they still read aloud with Pamela often. Julia read most of all, with her legs tucked up and her fingers plunged into her ears.
Sara and Laura are grown and married now. Sara has two girls of her own, and each has a book sister: Flavia has a girl scientist who also solves mysteries; Rosalind has Rosalind, funny and wise, of As You Like It.
Pamela’s daughters have not read the old books in a long time. Julia — now a young woman herself — remembers them best. But Pamela has died and it hurts their hearts to read them without her voice. The sloping letters in the old copy of A Little Princess are almost too much to bear, and fill each daughter with a thundering grief.
But now when Laura wakes each morning she feels the happy twirl and wriggle of her own little girl within, and remembers her sisters’ sisters. She wants to gently tether her baby to a girl in a book — but who? It feels terribly important to keep the pattern alive, to show Pamela that Laura, too, believes in the power of the book sister.
It is true upon consideration that the pattern is not strict, that there were other considerations for Pamela as well: the taste of a name on the tongue, the lilt of syllabi from first name to middle to last, the other meanings and associations that cling to a name — the good ones like sunbeams, the others like bats.
Laura lies awake at night and thinks about her daughter, and her mother, and books, and names.