Saturday, December 30, 2023

Top Ten Books of 2023

 In recent years I've neglected posting my top 10 list here (I've been settling for the ease and brevity of just posting about my reading life on Instagram these days, and even then, not with any regularity, see my last post on how intensely busy my life is). But I have a minute today, so let's do this like old times! Here's my arbitrarily-picked-based-on-my-mood-today list of the top 10 books I read in 2023 (out of 103 books read so far... I have roughly 32 more hours to read another one...;)

Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma by Claire Dederer

I don't think I recommend this one as a general populace read. It's a bit more literary critic, a bit more academic (though still mostly written for a public audience). Anyway, I loved how deeply Dederer engaged with these issues around what it means to love art and literature, especially when the creators of that art are problematic. She delved into questions I've thought about deeply myself (especially when it comes to women/mothers producing art), and while she doesn't arrive at any easy answers, her ideas (especially the idea of "stain") have shaped the way I've come to think about some art. I plan to use excerpts of this book in my upcoming course on "Authors and Identities" where I'll be teaching an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

At about the quarter mark of this book, when I realized where the plot was headed, I thought I was not going to like this book. In fact, I thought I was going to put it down and not finish. But I did finish, and I ended up loving it. The conflict is a bit emotionally grueling, but the characters are so beautifully drawn and the writing just so lovely. It's loosely based on Little Women, and I just loved the way it borrowed from the original while still being its entirely own story. I had a hard time seeing how this was going to be a "happy" ending, and while it might be a stretch to call it happy, I found it satisfying. Anyway, just lovely. I highly recommend.

Lockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud

I'm cheating a bit and including the whole five-book series in one spot here on the list. I'm still wondering if this should make the final cut, but really, this just hit at the right time and in such a satisfying way for me. Jonathan Stroud has the best type of dry British humor, and I love his world-building. I wanted to throttle all of the characters in this book (my goodness, but the Brits really can't talk about emotions, can they?), but I loved them all so much, and the stories were so fun. These would make fantastic October reads (all about ghosts and creepy things like that). It's a YA series, fantasy dystopian, and just so much fun. Highly recommend.

Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross

This definitely wins as my favorite fantasy read from the year. It was so romantic and had lovely writing, and the world-building aspect was unique and intriguing for me. The plot is basically You've Got Mail (enemies to lovers through mystery letters) set in a WWI-era European-type world with some sort of Greek/Roman god mythology (the war is happening between the gods with humans fighting for them), and magic? And technology? It's a mash-up, but it totally works, and I was here for it. This is the first book in a duology, and the second book just came out (it is currently sitting on my phone, waiting for me to listen!!!! Squeee!!!!). Highly recommend!

An Immense World by Ed Yong

Oh man, this was a book I could not stop talking about. I talked about it so much that my husband then picked it up, and then he could not stop talking about it. This is a non-fiction book about animal senses, and how different animals have different ways of perceiving the world that we can barely begin to comprehend. It was fascinating for so many reasons, but one unique reason for me was because of ideas it gave me for intersections with my research (one of my dissertation chapters focused on the sense experiences of audiences). Anyway, it was fantastic (if a bit dense) and I highly recommend.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut

Oh man, this book! Okay, this is not a general recommend. I think you have to have a solid interest in sciences like quantum physics but also a high tolerance for fictional/fantastical re-imagining, so yeah, maybe not a book for the general public. But, this book spoke to me on so many levels. I found it fascinating and creative and I wanted more and more and more (okay, there were a handful of moments that went too far for me, got me a little grossed out, so there is that caution). I am here for this kind of history of science!

Babel by R.F. Kuang

I went back and forth on whether or not to include this one on the list. To be honest, I did not love the ending, and I'm still working through my emotions on the overall message of the story. One of the unofficial subtitles is "The Necessity of Violence" and the book makes a strong argument for that, which I just struggled with. Plus, I felt it was overly long. But! But the magic system in this book was just fascinating! Translation and the power of words, and wow! It was so cool. So in the end, that got me. If this book weren't so dang long I would recommend it for a book club, because there would be so much to discuss. Anyone else read it? I want to talk!

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

I went back and forth on including this one as well, because it was so long, and I nearly lost steam in the middle and didn't finish. There were just a lot of threads that I struggled to see how they connected, and a lot of meandering side stories that didn't connect. But I powered through, and in the end, yes, I can confidently say this is a masterpiece. I mean, it is simply incredible, and will probably turn into some kind of classic. So I'm glad I read it. But do I recommend it? Only if you really like sprawling epic multi-generational literary tomes in the grand tradition of 19th-century Victorian writers (or you really want to learn more about 20th-century India? Or weird medical conditions?). It was very good, but it takes patience to appreciate it.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

This is another one that I went back and forth on including here. This is another long, sprawling, multi-generational (true!) story about 20th-century China that covers everything from the early war-lord years through Japanese occupation through civil war and then through a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at growing up in Mao's Communist regime. There was so much I did not know, so much that blew my mind, and so much that I found fascinating. Did I enjoy it while I was reading it? No! (Communist China is just about the most depressing subject). But am I glad I read this? Yes. Do I recommend this? Honestly, I feel like everyone should read this because we all need this context for why our relationship with China is what it is today. But yeah, I would not have picked this up if it had not been selected as a book club read, and it was a slog. But a really important, really fascinating slog.

The Whalebone Theater by Joanna Quinn

I also debated heavily on whether or not to include this one on the list. Through the first half of this book I was sure this was going to be a five-star favorite read of the year. But then it devolved into a rather unremarkable WWII story, which killed my enthusiasm for it (I'm tired of WWII stories). But based on the strength of the first half alone, I'm recommending this one here. I loved the characters, I was floored by the writing (it's a debut novel, and the writing was just so beautifully crafted!), and I (obviously) loved the theater bits. Can't help my bias any time Shakespeare shows up in a story. It really is very good.

Honorable Mentions

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

This book blew my mind. It wasn't so much the murder mystery, but the way the murder mystery was explored/solved. I felt like I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of everything, so if you don't like really complicated convoluted plots that take all your mental energy to follow, you'll want to stay away from this one. It doesn't make the official list because I feel like the ending/outside world of the story wasn't super satisfying. But really, I have to give Turton props for coming up with the most interesting and unique murder mystery I've ever read. It was incredible, what he attempted (and achieved) with this plot. I heard rumors it was getting developed for a TV show and then canned, which is too bad, because in the right hands, this could make a phenomenal TV series.

Zorrie by Laird Hunt

This is a short and sweet little book that follows Zorrie, our main character, through her mostly lonely single life from her time as a girl in the 1920s, through her short marriage, then her long widowhood running a farm in rural Indiana. While reading this book, I thought it was lovely but ultimately not that special and probably something I would forget. But then, I didn't forget about it. In fact, I kept thinking and thinking and thinking about this book. I was amazed at how Zorrie's life was so sad but also not sad. It was so small, but also so meaningful. Anyway, I just keep thinking about it. I don't think this is a book most people would love, but if you like character-driven novels along the lines of Wendell Berry or Marilyn Robinson, then you might enjoy this one.

The Real Story of 2023

On my Christmas card this year, I gushed about what an amazing year it was for me. I graduated with my PhD, I went on a dream trip for two weeks with my husband around France, and then I received a dream job offer and became an English professor at a small local private Catholic university. It really was an amazing year, and so many good, amazing, wonderful things happened. Nothing I said on my Christmas card was a lie.

But as we all know, the snippets we see on social media or in that end-of-year Christmas card don’t tell the whole story. What the summary on my Christmas card left out was how 2023 was one of the most intense years of my life. Finishing up my dissertation consumed my life in the most mentally and physically draining way. I spent most of January, February, March, and April glued to my laptop. I nearly pulled all-nighters trying to meet revision deadlines. My fingers ached from the amount of typing I had to do. I missed my family’s spring break trip and instead spent twelve-plus hour days working. I doubted all my life choices and spent many, many days shaking from the stress, anxiety, and exhaustion of it all. It was a lot. Of course, I did finish, and successfully defended and graduated, which was incredible. But not exactly easy.

Then my autistic son had a very rough spring (I'm not sure I've written about this publicly? My second son was diagnosed with autism and ADHD last year, it's a whole journey that I want to write about sometime...). Some very difficult issues cropped up involving his sensitivities, and he required a lot of my mental and emotional time and energy. I struggled to find a therapist for him, then found one that didn’t seem to help much, and then spent a good majority of the summer and fall researching and reading and struggling to master what felt like the entire field of pediatric occupational therapy. I was learning everything I could about sensory dysregulation and trying to figure out how to help my son function and get through normal activities without constant panic attacks. I made some progress, but we are still very much in the process of finding him the right help, and it is a lot. It is a heavy burden.

Then in early July, I received an interview request and job offer in very short succession that threw my summer plans into chaos. Yes, it was a dream job opportunity I was very excited about, but I had very few weeks to familiarize myself with an entirely new university system and design two new courses from scratch. In between some fun (but not restful) trips, I planned and prepped and spent more late nights trying to pull things together. The semester started in mid-August, and I have been drowning ever since. At one point, right before midterms were due in October, I broke down sobbing on my husband’s shoulder before he had the audacity to leave on a business trip. While solo parenting, I had to grade 85 papers in a week, while pulling curriculum together for new units, while still managing to keep our house and family of six floating and fed. The discipline it took from me to wake up every morning at 5:30, get everyone to school and daycare, get myself to class, teach all day, pick everyone up, shuttle everyone around to activities, make dinner, get everyone to bed, then sit and grade papers until midnight or later… it was unsustainable. My body was breaking down. My mind was breaking down.

I could tell I was on a one-way path to burnout. Something had to give. I wondered which of my children’s various activities we should drop, I schemed about finding room in our budget to hire a housekeeper (ah, the pipedreams of working moms who make a pittance), and I considered quitting. After all, we don’t need my salary to live. My income is not a financial necessity, and if this job is going to ruin my mental and physical health, it isn’t worth it, right?

Here’s where I need to explain how I make decisions. I have two channels, two streams of intuition, if you will, that I tap into when I’m faced with life choices. The first channel is one I’m confident we all have some version of. Some might call it a gut instinct or whatever, but I recognize it as a collection of various messages I’ve received from the world around me and (consciously or unconsciously) adopted. These are messages that speak to me, resonate with me, and “feel” right. Some of these messages come from various philosophies I’ve studied, media I’ve consumed, or ideologies I’ve found appealing. Mostly, they come from the church: scripture, conference talks, sacrament meeting talks, Sunday School discussions-- basically a lifetime of soaking in the dogma of my religion. We all consume messages from various places: our family, our peers, and society as a whole. Messages are swirling around us all day every day, and our brains latch onto some of these messages, mix them all together, and use them as a guiding inner compass to help us define who we are, how we want to be seen, and how we make decisions (for good or for ill).

Look, generally I consider myself a fairly discerning person. I feel like I’m pretty competent at weeding out the crap messages the world sends my way and only attracting/attaching/absorbing the good. So, listening to this stream of intuition, I was absolutely sure in October that I needed to make drastic changes in my life. I believe in rest! I believe in sanity! I believe in self-care! Phrases from conference talks over the years kept popping into my head, about “Good, Better, Best!” or “Simplify!” Our very own prophet gave a message last year about rest, and I was all ready to believe that was a personal message meant just for me. And those are just the messages coming from inside the church! There are all sorts of segments of society touting minimalism, rest, essentialism, and simplifying. Gen Z seems to be perfecting the art of defying burnout, and I was willing to listen to all of this. I was willing to make the drastic changes, cut back, and do what needed to be done so that I could not feel on the verge of a breakdown at any minute. It seemed like the “right” decision. 

But here’s where I need to take a step back and explain about that second stream of intuition, if I can call it that. What I actually call it is the Spirit. 

You see, for me, the Spirit as a source of revelation and influence in my life is very separate from my gut level intuition. I know that everyone feels the Spirit differently and receives revelation in their own personal ways, but I’ve always wondered about people who describe feeling the Spirit in the same way I described my gut intuition earlier, because my experience is so different. For me, my gut level intuition (composed of all those messages I’ve consumed) is something that I always have access to, is always there, and while sometimes not exactly clear (there are lots of conflicting messages out there!) is always very much “me.” The Spirit, on the other hand, is more like a mental radio station that I tune in and out of. I have to consciously tap into it (through prayer and meditation), and the signal is not always broadcasting. Sometimes all I get is static, radio silence. Sometimes I get muffled signals or emotions, like I just need to adjust the antenna because nothing is coming in super clear. Other times, the most important times, I get a voice. Not like a voice I hear with my ears, but thoughts in my mind that come intensely loud and clear, full complete sentences. I get words, and those words are coming from outside me. They are not me, they are God.

I use both these streams of intuition to make decisions about my life. For most decisions (should I sign my kid up for soccer? Should I force my kid to eat veggies he doesn’t want to? Should I buy that pair of pants?) I listen to my gut. It’s more accessible, and by and large, I’ve done good work to consume the right type of messages so that I trust my gut. I trust the voices I listen to. I’m pretty good at making decisions. This is one of my personality strengths.

But for the really big decisions (should I marry this guy? Should I have kids? Should I get a PhD?) I invariably check in with the Spirit. Sometimes I get very clear answers that already align with my gut instinct (yes, you should marry that guy), so they are easy to follow. Sometimes I don’t get any answers from the Spirit (like, absolutely zero guidance on having children) which leaves me confused (does God not care if I have children?) but ultimately, I follow my gut instinct and just roll with it (I want children, so now I have four). And other times, the messages from the Spirit come way out of left field and shake up my entire life and worldview (like getting that PhD when I didn’t even want a PhD, and it meant I had to do all sorts of things that went against my gut instincts, like putting my precious children in day care).

Here’s the thing. Every time I have listened to the Spirit over my own gut instinct, I have never regretted it. The way my life has played out has taught me in the most profound way that even when the voice of the Spirit seems to be commanding me to do things that go against world views and philosophies and opinions that I think in general are “right,” I am never wrong to follow the Spirit. Never once has it led me astray. And so I’ve come to trust the Spirit, and made a promise to myself that I will always, always listen when I get a clear message.

Okay, so back to October. I’m a hot mess. I am not getting enough sleep. I’m worried my neck and shoulders are going to be permanently damaged from the perpetual state of clench I find myself in. I am on the verge of tears all the time. And my gut is telling me something has to change. This is unsustainable. I cannot keep up this pace of life, and I need to make some big changes. And I’m just sure the Lord has to agree with this, right? There’s no way this is the life He wants for me.

So of course I pray about it. After all, quitting a job is a pretty big life decision. I lay out all the cards, all the things on my plate (my job, my calling, my heavy responsibilities as a wife and mother), and explain how the thing that seems the least important in the grand scheme of things is this job. I explain how I feel like I am standing too close to the sun and I’m being burned alive, that is the intensity of my life. I explain that I am breaking, and something has to give.

And I get a voice, loud and clear, that says, “Everything you are carrying is necessary to me. Every responsibility on your plate is a ‘BEST,’ not a good or a better, and you are not to put down anything. This is the job I prepared for you. These are the children you are meant to have. This is the life you are supposed to live, at this level of busy and intensity.”

Guys, I cried. I was already weepy, but this was too much. Have you ever had the experience of kneeling down in prayer seeking solutions, seeking rest and relief, and instead feel that weight is being added?

I tried explaining again that I was going to break under the demands of my life, and I got another clear voice that said, “Stop asking what you can put down. Instead, ask how you can get stronger. I have already carried you through completing your dissertation, I will carry you through this job. I will not let you break if you rely on me.” 

It was a humbling moment for me. And a moment of surprising reflection. I thought back to the semester of finishing my dissertation. Last January, my dissertation was in really bad shape. In fact, it was in such bad shape that my advisor recommended I delay graduation for a semester or even another year, because there was so much work to do on it. But I prayed about it (of course), and felt very distinctly that I needed to stick to my original plan and graduate in May. I didn’t know why this felt so urgent, but I understand now it was because the Lord had this job prepared for me (though again, I’m still grappling with why this job is so important to the Lord…? I don’t know!). So I worked and I worked and I worked. It was brutal, and I thought it was all me, but looking back, I can see how much the Lord carried me, guided my mind in my revisions, gave me the ideas I needed. At my defense, every member of my committee commented on how they had never seen a student make such drastic improvement in such a short amount of time. I see now I would not have finished in time if the Lord had not been carrying me.

And so I’m here now, at the end of my first semester as a college professor. I submitted grades and have had a few weeks to catch up on sleep and reflect on all of this (and just to illustrate, yes, a week where I hosted grandparents for Christmas and celebrated two children’s birthdays was more restful for me than a regular week during the semester). There is still so much I don’t understand about the path my life is on. As much as I love this job, I still don’t understand why I’m here, and why this seems so important to the Lord. I’m looking forward to next semester still with a lot of fear and trepidation (I’ll be teaching three preps instead of two, once again designing an entirely new course while tweaking the two I just finished). There will be spring sports for my kids and therapy for my son. There will be a conference paper to write, other trips to plan, relationships to maintain, and a calling to keep up with. And all of it is necessary. All of it is important.

I don’t for one minute believe that the revelation I received for me is a universal truth. I still trust my gut instinct that for most people, simplifying is crucial. Most people desperately need to listen to the message to say no, to let go of the things and activities cluttering their life with stress and leading to burnout. It’s not healthy. And I also still firmly believe that at some point in my future, I am meant to have ease and rest as well (I still believe what I wrote at the end of this post).

But for right now, for this season, I have been called to a life of busyness and intensity. And so, I will brace myself to face the glaring heat of the sun without burning out. And I will have faith that I will not fail, for I will be carried. I pray not to ask what I can put down, but to ask for strength to carry all that has been given me. I’m still probably going to be more exhausted than I want to be, and less able to indulge in my hobbies and rest activities (like bookstagram, blogging, puzzling, and other things I dream about longingly when I sit down to grade papers), but I trust the Lord. Perhaps the intense burning of my busy life will strengthen me like coal being turned into diamond. The Lord will not let me break. 

I also share this story because I am intensely curious, does the Spirit work like this for anyone else? Does anyone else feel this very clear divide between gut instinct intuition and the Spirit? And if not, how does the Spirit work for you?

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Feminist Multiplicity of Motherhood: A Review of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love

 Note: I wrote this review specifically as part of an assignment for a course I took this past summer with a visiting professor, Rita Felski. Thus, the review does assume an audience that is somewhat familiar with the book, since I knew Dr. Felski had already read it. Anyway, still thought it was a good piece of writing, so I wanted to share it here.

            “You know, when you’re a mother, you won’t be able to read all the time like this. You’ll have to actually pay attention to your children!” My mother repeated this refrain to me often as an adolescent, when she would become annoyed with my seemingly endless freedom to bury my nose in a book and become lost to the world. I was a voracious reader then, plowing through several books a week in a way she saw as irresponsible. I would stay up late to finish books, I would read through my (really quite boring) school classes, I would have read through dinner if my mother would have allowed it. I’m sure it was pure jealousy, her own wish to abandon her responsibilities as a mother and a housewife and a full-time working elementary school teacher and just get lost in a good book like me, get lost in any sort of activity that was purely for her own pleasure. But she was always too busy, so she contented herself with projections of my own future, when I would also be too busy to read, too absorbed in the roles of being a good mother.

            I still hear her voice in my head often, warning me that to be a good mother I have to put away my books and pay attention to my children, now that I have four children of my own. I also work full time, toiling away at a full teaching load of freshman composition as I struggle to finish my dissertation and graduate with my PhD. And like my mother before me, I have a husband to keep up a relationship with, and dinner to get on the table every night, and a house to keep (somewhat) clean. Yes, I am just as busy as she was.

            But I also still manage to read just over one hundred books for pleasure every year. Slower than my adolescent rate, but not by much.

            And I wonder, often, as any modern American woman with children will do, am I a bad mother?


            Hanne Ørstavik’s Norwegian novel Love, written in the late 1990s, explores similar questions about what it means to be a good mother, or a good woman. Translated into English by Martin Aitken in 2018, it is remarkable how much these issues still resonate in the culture of American motherhood two decades into the twenty-first century. Ørstavik’s tightly woven and relatively short plot revolve around the inner monologues of a single mother, Vibeke, and her almost-nine-year-old son, Jon, during their divergent adventures one fateful and perilously cold evening. After coming home from work and indulging in various self-care activities, Vibeke decides to venture out in search of books, entertainment, and possibly the companionship of a man (any man will do). Unbeknownst to his mother, Jon also ventures out in hopes of giving his mother time and space to make a surprise cake for his birthday, which is the next day. Vibeke’s inner monologue reveals not a single indication that she has any plans for her son’s birthday, let alone that she even remembers it is the next day, and this unforgivable fact, in concert with her general self-absorption, marks Vibeke as unquestionably a “bad mother.”

            And yet, when asked which of the two main characters I identify most with, it is not the son, who is clearly the more sympathetic protagonist. No, it is the mother I identify with most. Like Vibeke, I too wish I could “read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up” (7). She gets through at least three books a week, sometimes four or five. My two books a week seem tame in comparison. Like Vibeke, I also like painting my nails deep shades of red. I too enjoy the sensuality of a bath and little rituals of self care. A damning line from the novel comes after the dinner scene, when Jon is chattering endlessly about something. “Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something” (17). This line is pointed to by critics as evidence of just how terrible she is as a mother. But I have this exact same thought about my own children at least twenty times a day. Please, can’t you just stop talking to me, stop needing me? Just give me a moment to think my own thoughts? I see myself reflected back to me in so much of Vibeke. Does this mean I am a bad mother?

            This book was one of a spate of Norwegian novels written during the final decade of the twentieth century that offered examples of “bad mothers” or broken families as part of an exploration of the relationship between critical feminism and motherhood. Early feminism had a complicated relationship with motherhood. On the one hand, the roles of motherhood were so defined by the institutions of patriarchy that choosing not to have children seemed the only way to be a true feminist. Influential feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Jeffner Allen called for a complete rejection of motherhood, arguing that “motherhood is dangerous to women because it … denies to females the creation of subjectivity” (Allen 315). On the other hand, women keep choosing to have children (and rationally, some women must have children to propagate the species), and such women’s lived experiences cannot be discounted in the great feminist project of caring for and about all women. But the question remains, both for feminism and this novel, what makes a good mother? What makes a bad one? And can you be a feminist, individual woman and a good mother at the same time?

            One could make a surface argument that Vibeke embodies a fully liberated feminist woman. She apparently has left Jon’s father because, according to Jon, who repeats the phrase as if he’s heard it many times before, “She was too young to be tied down” (56). She only reads books by female authors (a fact noted in passing that could be interpreted as either very feminist of her indeed, or rather weak-minded of her, depending on which female-authored books we’re talking about). And she seems like the type of woman who, unlike the model mother figure of the oppressive patriarchal order, is peculiarly free of self-sacrifice. She is her own woman. She pursues her own pleasure. If it weren’t for the fact that she is painted as a little silly and foolishly bad at reading people and relationships, Vibeke could be the heroine of some other novel, the free woman escaping the bounds of expectations placed upon her by society and the patriarchy.

            But she is not a heroine here. In this novel, her silliness is inexcusable, her self-absorption bordering upon the criminal as it leads to the serious neglect of her son. The neglect is not so much in how she is unaware of her son’s location, nor of his seeming self-assumed freedom to enter the houses and cars of strangers, nor her own failure to secure a babysitter before she leaves for the evening (here is a feature of the novel that does not translate well to current American culture, where we helicopter and hover over our children to the point that even in the safest of suburban neighborhoods, children up to age fourteen are not allowed to be left on their own[1]—Americans must take care to remember that even as historically recent as the nineties children were routinely left home alone for several hours at a time with no one blinking an eye; and as for Jon’s encounter with strangers, it is also important to note that he is neither harmed nor endangered by any of these strangers, they do not cause the tragedy of the book). No, the true neglect is in how little Vibeke thinks of her son at all. The inner monologues reveal that Jon thinks of his mother all the time, while she thinks of him rarely. That is the essence of Vibeke’s “badness” as a mother.

            But it is also the essence of where this book fails, both in terms of Vibeke’s character development, and as a feminist (or anti-feminist?) text addressing the issues of motherhood. In setting the liberated and self-focused Vibeke up as a “bad mother,” the sub-text seems to suggest that a good mother would be the opposite of Vibeke. A good mother, in contrast, would be self-sacrificing. A good mother would not go out in search of her own pleasure, she would devote herself to the care and pleasure of her child. A good mother would not have gone to the fair; rather, a good mother would have stayed home and made that cake for her son. This has been the narrative of motherhood writ large for the past century, if not more, and this is the patriarchal institution of motherhood that feminism has continued to grapple with. When you become a mother, you cease to become an individual, you cease to become a woman with needs and interests and desires. You must subsume all of that in service of your children. So my mother told me (both in words and by example), and so this book seems to be telling its readers. This is what good mothers do.

            But I would like to propose an alternate possibility for what it means to be a good mother, via an alternate imagined version of this character of Vibeke. It doesn’t substantially change the plot of this story, and indeed, may not change the outcome of the tragic ending. In my version of this story, Vibeke still leaves the house to go to the library in search of a good book. She even still goes to the fair, and possibly even on that terrible date with Tom (the man she meets at the fair). But in my version, in between all the other thoughts she has, Vibeke also thinks of her son. She thinks of what books she might pick up for her son at the library along with her own. She thinks of how her son might enjoy the fair and when she might be able to bring him back to it. She thinks of Tom in terms of how he might get along with her son. She still has her moments of annoyance and frustration with her son (heaven knows we all do), but alongside those, she has her thoughts and feelings of affection. At the very least, she remembers the birthday, and thinks of picking up a cake at the store in the morning. And while these individual thoughts might not change the specific course of the plot as it stands, I suspect that they would indicate a fundamental change in the character of Vibeke that would ripple out into the thoughts and actions of her son, and possibly make the tragic outcome one of pure accident, not neglect.

            Not a single one of these thoughts requires any self-sacrifice on her part, or rejection of her individual self in the service of her son. She is still allowed to be a completely individual woman. She is still allowed to indulge in her own needs and desires. She is even allowed to be a little silly and bad at reading men. But here’s the thing about women that any fully realized feminist ideology recognizes: we are capable of multiplicity. We are capable of multiple identities, we give attention to multiple areas of our lives. We can love reading, we can seek out companionship and excitement, and we can think about our children. While I am in no way espousing the doomed platitude that women can “have it all,” I am absolutely saying that a woman can be an individual person and a good mother. At the same time.

            Because after all, being a mother, just like being a partner or a friend or a daughter, is far less about the “roles” society has assigned to that title, and far more about what matters in any relationship: paying attention and showing love. It does not follow that the attention paid must be all consuming. In fact, in any other relationship, paying all consuming attention is generally considered dismally unhealthy. In any other relationship, it is recognized that a fully whole and individual person who takes care of themselves is far better able to show up for the other person. So it is in motherhood. Vibeke fails as a mother not because she takes care of herself and seeks to fulfill her own needs. She fails as a mother because she forgets her multiplicity. She forgets she can pay attention to both herself and to her son.


            And yet, I still find myself pondering the question, am I a bad mother? Am I paying enough attention to my children? Perhaps those questions can only be answered by my children themselves and their future (and in one case, current) therapists. But here’s what I do know: sometimes I ignore my children so I can finish the book I’m in the middle of, or work on my dissertation, or I send them to bed early so I can carry on an uninterrupted adult conversation with my husband. But sometimes, I put my book down so I can shoot the breeze with my oldest son, or I leave the dissertation mid sentence to comfort the crying baby, or I sacrifice date night with my husband so we can have game night as a family. I’m not perfect about the balance. There are times I feel frustrated about the lack of time and attention I’m able to pay to my work and my hobbies and my adult relationships. There are times I feel frustrated about the missed moments with my children. But I still give some time and attention to each of these things in turn, because each of these parts of my life is better for the attention I pay to the other. I am a happier mother, happier to spend time and attention on my children, when I’ve already had some time to do other things just for myself. And I’m a happier woman, happier in my career and my hobbies, because I’m grounded in relationships that bring me foundational purpose. My children give my life purpose and meaning, my work and hobbies give my life interest and satisfaction. I devote attention to my identities as a woman, as an academic, as a reader. And I devote attention to my children. Both/and. Is it enough? I don’t know. But I do know I’m happier than I would be without my children, and happier than I would be if I never allowed myself the time to read for pleasure.

            And also, I’ve never forgotten my children’s birthdays. So at least there’s that.


Works Cited

Allen, Jeffner. “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women.” Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, edited by Joyce Treblicot, Rowmann and Allanheld, 1983, pp. 315-30.

Ørstavik, Hanne. Love. Translated by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books, 2018.


[1] Every state has different laws and age limits, but in the most extreme case of Illinois, it is illegal to leave children unattended before the age of fourteen. See https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=070504050K2-3

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Eternally Safe

I wrote this story last year, shortly after the events here happened, but I could never quite bring myself to hit publish on this piece. I just have too many close friends and family who have experienced miscarriages recently who might read this blog, and I didn't want to rub my miracle in their faces. But as my husband's birthday was this past weekend, which marks the one year anniversary of this worst night of my life, I've been reflecting on this experience again, and my feelings from that night. Now that I have a beautiful amazing squishy perfect baby in my arms, the potential loss of that night seems even more unimaginably painful, but I hold to my original feelings of faith. I guess I use this blog often to record some of my more personal reflections on faith and spirituality. These just are organic parts of me that I need to write about, record, and feel compelled to share. And this is one story I do feel compelled to share, so here we go. 

Content Warning: Graphic descriptions of blood loss, trigger warning for (potential) miscarriage, (potential) baby loss. Read only if your heart (and gross factor) can handle it.

My husband's birthday had been on Thursday, but we celebrated that Friday because, well, Friday is just an easier day for celebrations. I dropped all the kids off at their various schools/daycares, then ran to a doctor's appointment. I was seventeen weeks, we listened to the heartbeat, she prescribed me a new medication to help with the nausea (I'd still thrown up that morning), then met my husband for lunch at a barbecue place (and yes, I managed to keep the food down, it helps when I don't have to make it myself!). A mid-day date is a rare luxury we've only begun to enjoy this year, with him working from home and all the kids in school. We talked about how once the baby came, such luxuries would disappear again for a few more years.

That night with the kids we ate cake, watched a movie (Dad's pick, since he was the birthday boy), then got the kids put to bed. It was about 9:30, I was sitting on our bed on top of the snow white duvet, when I shifted positions and noticed the blood. A bright red spot in the middle of that snow white fluffiness. Out of place. Unexpected.

"I'm bleeding!" I announced to my husband, who examined the spot and immediately jumped into stain-prevention mode (he's the one in our relationship who cares about stains, it's his area). I ran to the bathroom, hoping against hope that this was just a minor fluke, just a little bit of spotting, nothing to worry about.

But the flow down my legs told a different story. I grabbed toilet paper and tried to staunch it, but the blood just kept coming, soaking through wad after wad after wad. My husband hovered back and forth between me and the trail of blood I'd left behind, trying to clean things up, trying to find the one thing he could control in this situation. I told him to grab a phone and do a Google search, "Bleeding at seventeen weeks pregnant: when to call a doctor!" This had never happened to me before in any previous pregnancy. I'd never so much as had a spot of blood before delivery. I knew this was not normal, and it was not good.

Then I felt it. A giant, slithery, squishy something slid it's way down my vagina and slipped into the toilet with a splash. My heart stopped. What was that? I couldn't tell through all the bloody water, but I needed to know (because the not knowing, the imagining was so much worse), so I reached my hand into the toilet and pulled it out, heart in my throat. It looked like a giant disk, rubbery, about the size of my palm. My husband used my phone to take a picture. It was a clot, we guessed. Just a blood clot, nothing more.

But it was still the moment when I had to look at my husband, hands and legs and toilet covered in blood (it looked like a crime scene), and whisper, "I think I'm losing our baby."

Everything after that was a blur. There was the phone call to my doctor's office emergency line, where we were told we needed to go to the emergency room immediately, then the phone call to my mother-in-law who immediately jumped in her car to come spend the night at our house with the kids, the phone call to my parents to ask for prayers, then my husband gave me a blessing, and we cleaned up the blood as best we could and got me dressed with a giant pad in place, and loaded into the car as soon as my mother-in-law showed up.

And through it all, through the long dark drive to the emergency room clutching my husband's hand, I imagined my future weeks and months. I imagined healing from a miscarriage. I imagined telling my children they wouldn't be getting a sibling in July (that thought nearly killed me). I imagined an empty summer with just normal activities, no babies. I couldn't imagine trying again. I couldn't imagine going through a first trimester again. I didn't know if I had it in me. I thought, "This is still our last baby, even if we lose it now," and that thought made me want to curl into a tiny ball and cry.

Perhaps it says something about the immense privilege of my life to say that this was the darkest moment of my life, the closest to heartbreak and loss I've ever come (there was the night we almost lost my father-in-law, which was also a dark, dark night, perhaps only that moment compares). I felt the weight of it hovering over me. It wasn't real yet. It wasn't medically confirmed yet. But I knew as soon as it was, the weight of the grief and sorrow would crush me. I wanted this baby so badly, I had already sacrificed so much to bring this baby into the world, and it would hurt beyond any pain I'd ever experienced to lose it.

But even in this dark, dark moment, even with this impending tragedy hanging over my head, and even with the expectation that I was facing a crushing pain that would shatter me, I found a place of stillness deep inside me. I sat in that car on that dark drive, and then sat in the bright antiseptic emergency waiting room, and I knew that no matter what, I would be okay. Because in my deepest core, I knew God was with me.

You never really know how deep your faith is until it is tested. This was a moment of test for me, but it is a moment I've also been trying to prepare myself for my whole life. The test was how will I respond when life comes crashing down and I face losing the most precious pieces of my heart? And my answer, which I had prepared myself for and then was able to find in that dark moment, my answer was to turn to God.

It wasn't until I taught a Relief Society lesson a few months after this dark night that I fully realized what I had experienced. The lesson was based on a conference talk by Sister Lisa L. Harkness, and the message was about how to find peace in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty in this life. Sister Harkness shares the story of the disciples on a boat in the Sea of Galilee one dark and stormy night. While Jesus slept, the storm raged and the disciples feared for their lives. I posed the question to the sisters in my ward, were those disciples ever in actual, real danger? Did they actually have reason to fear, or lose hope? Was all lost?

And the answer, obvious to us centuries removed and with all the hindsight in the world is, of course not. A ship containing the Son of God who had not completed His mission was never in danger of sinking. Catastrophe may have felt imminent to those disciples, but it was an illusion. There was no real danger. As long as they were with the Son of God, they would never be lost.

But I took the question further. I asked about later on, when Christ was actually killed. What must have the disciples felt then? Did they feel that the catastrophe had come? That the worst had happened? Did they feel despair, crushing defeat, immense sorrow? Yes, I'm sure they did, but the original question still stands. Was all lost?

And the answer, of course, is no. Even in that darkest night when Christ's body lay in the tomb, even in the poignant sorrow of that moment, God was there. They were safe, there was hope, for nothing can frustrate God's plan.

And that's what I knew in my own dark night. I knew that even though I would be incredibly sad to lose my baby, even though it would be heartbreaking and crushing, I knew I would be safe. I knew God still lived, and I knew God would be with me through my sorrow. I knew I would be sad, but I also knew the sadness would not destroy me, God would not let that happen. I believed in my worthiness to be comforted, as long as I remained faithful to my covenants. I wouldn't be safe from pain or sorrow in the moment, but I would be eternally safe in the love of God.

Of course, those of you who know the outcome of the story know that my faith was not completely put to the test that night. We got a miracle. We got to that moment when they held the monitor up to my belly and we heard the steady rhythm of a tiny, healthy heartbeat. My baby was alive. It was not a miscarriage. The ultrasound later confirmed baby was kicking and squirming. My placenta had simply slipped down to cover my cervix, a condition that often causes bleeding, but otherwise, was not cause  for major concern. Placenta previa (the technical name) usually self-corrects, and even if it did persist until the end, the worst it meant was that I might need a C-section. Compared to losing my baby, this was no big deal. My baby was safe. My baby was alive. The story had a happy ending that even a few minutes earlier, I didn't believe was possible.

I wonder often why we were spared in that moment, why the hanging threat of crushing grief was lifted and turned to joy, when for so many others the outcome is different (miscarriage is so common, but the commonness of it doesn't make the grief any less potent). I do not have answers to that question. I do not for a moment suppose it's because my faith made me more worthy of a miracle. I do not understand miracles yet, or why they are granted to some and not to others. I have known far more worthy and faithful people have their requests for miracles refused, so I do not know why we were granted ours. This is a subject I still wonder and think about often.

Instead, what I do know is that if sorrow had been the path I was called to walk, God would have walked it with me, even as He now walks with me in my joy. I'm so grateful I don't have to face the heartbreak of loss, but I'm also grateful to know that if I did have to face it, or when I will have to face it (as we all will at some point or another), I won't have to face it alone. I am eternally safe.

That is my faith, and it carries me through.

Rosie at birth

Rosie today.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

2021 Top Ten (+1)

Okay, my last post on here was to announce the birth of my baby girl... and she's 5.5 months old now... so that's how things are going. But! I will never stay away forever because babies grow up and seasons pass and I find more pockets of time in my schedule and that continual itching to write about books and life never leaves. So I'll always be back.

The year is not over yet, but between now and New Year's Eve I have to finish my grades and wrap up the semester, celebrate the heck out of my-sister-in-law's wedding, pack like crazy, and take my whole family to Hawaii for Christmas (and not take my laptop), so this is kind of my last chance to get this post written before January (which is when I usually write these end of year wrap-ups, but hey, let's try doing things early for once in my life.)

So far this year I've read 71 books, and while I will likely hit at least 75 (after all, I still have that trip to Hawaii ahead of me), it's still not a banner year for me. This is the first time in three years I'll be under 100, but considering 2017 (when I only managed to read 67 books) was the last time I had a baby under one, I anticipated this year would likely be a struggle. On the one hand, I have all that nursing time to read, but on the other hand, my brain is sleep-deprived and fried.

And 71 books means I've still had a fair chance to read some pretty amazing books this year. In order that I read them, here are my top eleven reads from the year (I tried to narrow it down to ten, but hey, this is my blog, I make the rules).

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

It's about two couples, two co-ministers of a church in New York through the sixties and beyond and their wives, how they came to be friends, their relationship with faith and God, doubts, and trials. It was beautiful, but not perfect. I wanted more from it, I wanted the story to go on, I wanted more things explored and explained. And there are people I know who didn't care for this book as much, found it went on too long or whatever. But there were passages in here that made me feel so much, moments I still haven't forgotten a year later. I loved it.

Wintering by Katherine May

I read this one back in January or February (a good time to read it), and I don't remember everything about it, but the things I do remember have really stuck with me and kept me thinking. It's not a perfect book, with a bit of a strange imperfect mix between personal narrative and research about winter, coldness, depression, and all sorts of things. But I still highly recommend it, I think, especially if you struggle with winter. I don't hate winter the way many people do, I don't struggle with depression, but I still found the message here resonated with me about why a season of dark, cold, and rest is necessary for life.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

A feminist retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey, or at least, a retelling from the women's perspective. The chapters jumped around from story to story, and often I found myself just getting invested in a character's story when we'd be ripped away to the next one. But I still loved this perspective of these classic stories, especially Penelope's letters to Odesseus. 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

I've heard this book criticized for being "gimmicky" or having a plot device that's a little too allegorical or hit-you-over-the-head with it's theme and message. Sure, but it's a really good and powerful message, and I actually thought Haig navigated his plot structure (which could've gotten old, or really Groundhog's day, or actually, whatever the opposite of Groundhog's day is, really fast) quite skillfully. It's the same message as It's a Wonderful Life about your life regrets probably mostly being unfounded, and the value of the life you've lived that you feel is worthless. I don't have many regrets in my life, but I still found this book resonating deeply.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I debated about whether or not to add this one. The experience of reading this book at the beginning is completely disorienting and strange and beautiful, but by the end has reduced down into something knowable and understandable and maybe even mediocre. But I don't know that I would've liked the beginning at all if it hadn't answered most (not all) of the questions by the end. But yes, something of the beautiful mystery had to die with the answers. Anyway, it's a very different book, and I recommend this one in print over audio. It's strange, be prepared, but just stick with it.

The Power of Writing It Down by Allison Fallon

For someone who makes a living inspiring and helping other people write, the writing in this was actually mediocre at best. But the message, despite it's self-help packaging and regurgitated cliche's, in one that resonates and speaks to my soul. The message is simply that we figure our lives out through writing about our lives. I believe this message, and I will preach it forever. And I think this book is worth the read if you can handle the self-help tone and style.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

I almost gave up on this one early one, because while I found the (based on real life) culture and history of these Jeju women divers to be fascinating, it took a while for the central conflict and direction of this plot to get going. I was getting impatient and a little bored, but I'm so glad I stuck with it. It got dark, super dark, but in the end this story has had some serious staying power with me. It was beautiful.

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

A graphic novel about high school basketball has made my top ten list for the year. No one is more surprised than I am. But guys, this book was so good, and so interesting, because it's mostly based on a true story, and it was just fascinating to see how Yang chose to frame the truth of it, the parts of real life that didn't fit neatly into some perfect narrative, and while there was triumph, there wasn't perfect resolution in everything. And it was just so compelling and clever and fascinating to see what can be done with the graphic novel genre. In short, this was brilliant, and I highly, highly recommend this.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Wow. My brother's comment about reading this book is that he's just so sad he'll never get the experience of reading this for the first time again, and I feel exactly the same way, because the first time through reading this book is so. much. fun. It's a thrilling ride, hilarious, with an insane amount of science, and it's just so good. I wouldn't say anything about this is super deep (I mean, the science is deep, but not necessarily the themes or philosophical side of it), but the writing is incredible. And so fun. I mean, can I say it enough? This might have been the most fun reading experience I've ever had. Full stop. Highly recommend.

More Than a Body by Lindsey Kite and Lexie Kite

Nonfiction about the cultural objectification of women's bodies and how it causes massive shame and horrible problems. Here's the thing, we all know this is a problem. We all know women have too much shame and pressure around their bodies and looking young and thin and perfectly beautiful and it causes major mental health problems. But also, we are so much inside the culture that we don't realize how bad it is. And that's how it was for me reading this book, knowing that our culture objectifies women, but still needing this book to get me to see just how pervasive and harmful it is, and how we need to think more deeply about all of this. Read this, then talk to me about it, because it's going to take some digesting.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Not quite as good as A Gentleman in Moscow in my opinion, but still so, so good. This was another one where I just loved the experience of reading it, loved being in the middle, and didn't want it to end. Towles is amazing at characters, and these characters are incredible. The plot gets a little over-drawn by the end, and that ending! I don't think it was the right ending! But I want to talk to you about it, because that is an ending that I just want to talk about forever and ever. I want to re-read this book again and again because I feel like there are so many layers to peel apart here. In essence, a worthy meaty book that leaves me already anxious for the next one Towles will write. I'm here for it.

Okay, there's the list! In the unlikely event I read another fantastic one before the end of the year that deserves a spot here, I reserve the right to come back and edit this list, but for now tell me which of these you've read so we can talk about them!

Friday, July 23, 2021

Baby #4 Birth Story

Introducing Rose Elizabeth Tanner, born July 2nd, 2021.

Yes, dear reader, I am no longer pregnant! And if everything goes according to plan, I will never be pregnant again! This is a fact that I cannot help marveling over again and again now that I am on this side of things. I will never be pregnant again. Hallelujah!

As with all of my pregnancies and birth stories, there is so much for me to process, so many emotions, and writing it out here always helps. There was my super traumatic first labor and delivery that ended in an emergency C-section, then there was my unmedicated second birth story that served as a dose of healing, and then there was my third birth story that was as dramatic as the little person herself.

And now we have my fourth and final birth story, which I'm just sitting down to write three weeks after the event. If I had to pick one word to describe this birth, that word would be "hard". 

Which is silly, because when I tell the short version of the birth story, it's actually very routine and happy. The short version goes like this: I experienced a long-term promodromal labor and was already dilated to a three, so my doctor agreed to induce me as early as the hospital would allow (39 weeks). We went in on the day scheduled, I got hooked up to the IVs, they ran antibiotics for the morning (I was strep B positive), then started pitocin, then broke my water. I labored through increasingly intense contractions through the afternoon, got an epidural around 4 PM, and was ready to deliver by 5 PM. The baby was born at 5:44 PM, and we were both healthy and well.

That's the short story. It was fine. It's the kind of birth story that is common, my doctor will likely have already forgotten about it. There was little drama, everything was fine, and we ended up with a beautiful baby girl in our arms. Happy story.

But to me personally, it was hard. Part of the reason it was hard is because, based on my last three experiences, I had some expectations for how this labor and delivery would go. I expected to go into labor on my own without pitocin (I did not). I expected the labor to be quick (it was not, at least by my standards). I expected to be able to do it without an epidural (I ended up getting an epidural). And I expected it to be early (technically, it was early, as I was induced at 39 weeks, but considering I was dilated and laboring for the ENTIRE month of June, I really wanted her to come earlier). When each of these expectations was shattered, I felt disappointed. I felt like it wasn't the way I wanted things to go. And it just felt like a hard end to a hard pregnancy.

But there were other factors, left out of that short version of the story, that did objectively make this a hard birth story. First, it was just a hard pregnancy. There was the fact that I was hospitalized twice with bleeding during this pregnancy (more on one of those stories coming soon), causing extreme concern about my ability to carry this baby to term. There was the long laundry list of smaller health concerns that plagued the end of this pregnancy: anemia, a recurring yeast infection, vulvar varicosities, and extremely low blood pressure, that made everyday life extremely difficult (because it was all of this on top of being nine months pregnant and in almost constant labor). There was the spit cup (have I told you about the spit cup?) and heartburn and insomnia and just so many reasons that this pregnancy was physically, but also mentally and emotionally, the hardest pregnancy I've ever had. June was just about the longest month of my life.

But then we finally got to July 2nd, the day of my scheduled induction. Like I mentioned, I was disappointed that I needed to be induced, that my body wasn't able to spontaneously go into labor itself (and maybe it would have, but after experiencing a month of prodromal labor, I would take the induction, anything to not be pregnant any more). Then the induction didn't quite go like it had in previous pregnancies. Before, I'd only needed a little pitocin to jumpstart my body, and it would take over from there, but this time, they kept giving me higher and higher doses of pitocin, and it seemed to be doing nothing. Several hours after breaking my water, I was still dilated to a 3, the same as when I'd come in to the hospital. Nothing was happening, and the higher doses of pitocin were brutal. You know how when you're working out, and you hit a point where you've over-exerted yourself, and your muscles start shaking because they can't hold up anymore? The contractions were so intense and painful that I could feel my entire uterus shaking like that, like it was going to collapse in on itself if only it could.

I wanted to do this birth without an epidural, but when they checked me again and I was still only at a three, I knew I couldn't endure the pain of those high-dose pitocin contractions. I begged for an epidural, but they couldn't give me one because my blood pressure was too low. Did you know this was a thing? I did not. They had to give me half a bag of fluid to try to raise my blood pressure, and the process took well over an hour. I thought I was going to die. I literally felt like my body was going to rip apart from the force of those contractions.

Finally, with the fluid in me, they called in the anesthesiologist. It took everything in me to sit up for the epidural, every ounce of mental and physical will power to hold myself together while they inserted the epidural into my spine. I anxiously waited for the relief to wash over me... but it didn't. Well, it sort of did. Just like with my first pregnancy, where my experience with an epidural was subpar, this time the epidural only worked on the right half of my body. The left half still felt the full force of each intense pitocin contraction.

But half the pain was still better than all the pain. I was able to relax a little, and apparently, that's all I needed. I just needed to be able to relax my body a little, because the next time the nurse checked me, I was fully dilated and ready to push. In the span of an hour, I went from a three to a ten.

We still had to wait for my doctor, who had just gone into surgery with another patient. This wasn't too much of a problem for me. Even without an epidural, I never feel the strong urge to push that most women talk about. I just feel like I could push if I wanted to, so we waited for about 30 minutes until my doctor was able to get there. The pushing part was relatively easy. Three sets of pushes and fifteen minutes later, I was holding our beautiful little Rose Elizabeth in my arms.

But the hard part wasn't over. After we'd had a chance to sit for a while and bask in the glow of newborn sweetness, they moved us from the delivery room to the recovery room. I met my new nurses and ate some dinner while Nathan got some snuggle time in. Then the nurse came in to help me go to the bathroom, and as soon as I shifted positions, I felt the blood start gushing. And gushing, and gushing. Not in all my previous pregnancy recoveries nor in my two episodes of hemorrhaging during this pregnancy had I ever bled like this before. It was a bit terrifying to see the blood soaking through all the pads they had in place, drenching the hospital gown and flooding the bed. More nurses were called in. They brought in scales to weigh the lost blood and count the clots. They got me to the bathroom and changed the bedding and cleaned me up as best they could.

My doctor ordered two different types of medication to help stop the bleeding, one administered as a shot in my hip. Unfortunately, I had an adverse reaction to one of the medications, spiked a fever, and began to shiver uncontrollably with chills that continued on and off for the next twelve hours. And while the medication did seem to help staunch the hemorrhaging, I continued to lose a lot more blood and scary looking clots (like, the size of golf-balls) throughout the night. The nurses assured me that I was within acceptable ranges of blood loss and wouldn't need a transfusion, but even still, I've never lost that much blood before in my life.

It was draining, literally and figuratively. I remained stable, I continued to improve, nothing was ever life-threatening, but everything about my recovery was slower and more difficult than it's ever been before. I felt that blood-loss. I asked the doctor who was discharging me why there was so much blood this time, both during the pregnancy and after the delivery. Her answer was, "Well, honestly, this is your fourth pregnancy. I think your uterus is just tired."

When I prayed about this pregnancy a year and a half ago, the Lord's response was, "Well, you can if you want, but it will be hard." When my husband gave me a blessing the night before the induction, he talked about "enduring the trials and hardship" of the labor and delivery. It was all hard. It was a hard pregnancy. It was a hard labor and delivery. Not dangerous or life-threatening. Just hard. My uterus is tired. My body is tired. My soul is tired.

And because I'm the type of person who looks for meaning in everything, I've been asking myself "Why was this so hard?" Why does pregnancy in general, and this pregnancy in particular, have to be so hard?

I just finished reading Greg McKeown's new book Effortless. I have many thoughts about this book, and hopefully will get a chance to write more about it later, but he opens the book talking about his epiphany that life was not meant to be hard, and if life is feeling hard, we should ask the question, "How can I make this easier?" In retrospect, this was not the best book for me to be reading at two weeks post-partum, because life is just hard at two weeks post-partum, and when I asked myself, "How can I make this easier?" the most obvious answer was, don't get pregnant in the first place. Don't have a newborn (I especially felt ragey during his chapter about making sure to get enough rest... if there's one thing a mother with a newborn should not be lectured on, it's the benefits of getting enough rest). If I didn't have kids at all, my life would be so much easier.

But despite McKeown's conviction that life is meant to be "effortless," some things are worth the extra effort. My beautiful little baby was worth that hard pregnancy and that hard labor, and this hard newborn stage. I would do it over again in a heartbeat to get our last little girl again.

But what about theoretical future children? Theoretical future pregnancies? Here's the thing, I love my kids. I love them so much, and I admit I'm a little bit heartbroken at the thought that I will never get to experience the miracle of playing genetic dice again, watching a new little spirit with a fully independent personality inhabit a new little body and grow and develop in the most surprising and (usually) delightful ways. It's spectacular to experience.

But one theory I have, one hypothesis about why the Lord allowed this pregnancy to be so difficult, is to convince me I need to be done. To convince me my body cannot handle pregnancy again. Four has always been the plan, we have always known this would be the last one, but I know that if my pregnancies were easier, I would have more children, and I don't think the Lord wants me to. Does that sound strange? It does to me too. Why wouldn't the Lord want me to have more children, when my desire is there?

Because McKeown is actually right. The Lord really doesn't want my life to be unnecessarily hard. Something underlying all the revelations I've ever received (or not received) about my pregnancies and family planning is that the Lord is completely and utterly aware of how hard my pregnancies are, and He does not want my life to be hard. He is pleased with my righteous desires to raise a family, but He also understands that my body only has so much energy, and I need to conserve that energy for the children I already have, and for the other work I have been called to do in this life. 

I know that my greatest joy and purpose in life will come from my family, and from my role as wife and mother, but I also know I have not been called to run faster than I have strength. I have not been called to raise a large family (or at least, not larger than the family I have now). I have been called to get a PhD, and I need to have mental space and physical energy for that as well.

And I'm meant to have a period of ease. I became pregnant for the first time a little over ten years ago, and this past decade of pregnancy and babies and young children has been exhausting. It's not over yet, I still have a year of nursing ahead of me and one last toddler/pre-school stage to get through, but I see in my future a period of rest. A period where I am more in control of my own sleep, my own schedule, my own energy. I see life getting easier, and that's what the Lord wants for me.

So here's to being done with pregnancy! I will not miss it.  

But also, here's to the sweetest little newborn ever! All that hard was worth it, a thousand times worth it.