This month, Pregnancy & Newborn’s Book Club is finding out the truth about preemie parenthood from one mom’s brazenly honest story. After being diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, Kate Hopper’s pregnancy and delivery are nothing like the birth she dreamed about. Between tears, regulated hand washings and a few choice words, Hopper confronts the unknown—not because she’s a heroine, but because she’s a mother. Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, is a must-read for any parent learning to live with the uncertainties of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Here’s our chat with the author:
Pregnancy & Newborn: You’ve taught and written memoir long before you penned Ready for Air. How did that attention to detail and reliance on memory affect your pregnancy experience? Were you planning on writing your birth story before any of the complications?Kate Hopper: I had written short pieces, and I was working on a different memoir about three generations of women in a small village in Costa Rica when Stella was born. I hadn’t planned to write my birth story, but after Stella’s traumatic birth and those challenging first months of motherhood, I knew I had to. I felt strongly that I needed to write against some of the myths of motherhood that are perpetuated in our society, and I also hoped that our story might help other parents who had had babies in the NICU. Getting the details of her birth down on paper was such a relief for me. It really helped me process the experience. And then of course I had to revise and rewrite and revise—and that took years and years.
P&N: How much did you know about preeclampsia before your diagnosis? How did the countless books you and your husband read help or hinder the situation?
KH: I didn’t really know much at all, even though I’d read a number of pregnancy books. Some of the stuff covered in those books is so scary, and I think I shied away from it. I was so naïve, and I was probably in denial about it, as well. But as a first-time mom, I had nothing against which to measure my weight gain and swelling. (And I had been eating A LOT of ice cream, so I assumed that was the culprit.)
When my doctor told me I might have preeclampsia, that’s when I really dove into the books searching for information, and I’m so glad that I did because I then had some understanding of what was happening in my body when I got to the hospital the next week and my blood pressure was through the roof. I knew we were in danger.
P&N: Your memoir covers an incredibly intimate part of your life. How difficult was it to open up to readers about your fears, marriage, bowel movements—all of it?
KH: I always tell my students to go deep, to be vulnerable. You really need to do that as a writer in order to write your experience with as much honesty as possible. But it’s scary to really open up and write the ugly side of yourself and hard parts of your life (which is why people have a hard time talking and writing about those things). But it was really important to me to write myself as honestly as possible, to not sugarcoat anything or make myself into a hero. With that said, because I was writing about my marriage, I did check everything out with my husband. He’s a private person, so I wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with me sharing what I wrote about us (and his family). Luckily, he was!
I hope readers will see me simply as a human being navigating a challenging situation.
P&N: What is the one thing you wish you knew about pregnancy beforehand?
KH: That it would be so uncomfortable! I don’t wish I knew how things would turn out because then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all. With my second pregnancy, I was terrified most of the time—first because I had some bleeding early in the second trimester and I was on bedrest, and then because I was so scared I would develop preeclampsia again and end up delivering early (or earlier). Luckily, my second daughter, Zoë, was full term.
P&N: Your pregnancy and delivery were nothing like you expected, but what would you say you gained or learned from those experiences?
KH: Part of what the book is about is learning to live with uncertainty. We can’t know what’s going to happen, so we have to try really hard to appreciate where we are and celebrate joy in our lives. Stella’s premature birth and knowing how lucky we are that she did so well help remind me daily to live life with joy and gratitude. I try to be thankful every day.
P&N: While reading Ready for Air, there were times I had to put it down and take a break from the weight of it all, but you and your husband didn’t have that escape option. What advice do you have for moms-to-be who are facing the uncertainties of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?
KH: It’s so important for parents who have a medically fragile baby to have support. But it’s important to communicate what kind of support you need. I suggest starting a CaringBridge site, so your loved ones can stay informed and know exactly what you need. Have a friend set up and coordinate a meal calendar. Be very clear about rules and why (i.e.; no visitors, hand washing, etc.) It’s great if you can connect with other parents who have a baby in a similar situation, as well. Get as much sleep as possible, and take breaks to go out to dinner. It’s so important to get fresh air, even when you’re in crisis.
Celebrity: Oh it’s too hard to choose …
Indulgence: Chocolate and wine
Workout: I love running.
Beauty product: Bare Escentuals—any of their products.
Weeknight dinner: Grilled chicken, rice pilaf and frozen broccoli steamed or in the microwave