9 July 2020

And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O'Connell

Scott and I are expecting our first babe at the end of next month and despite how this review may come across, we're so fucking excited. Unlike some people I know, I was never someone who spent my whole life fantasizing about being a mom. It was an idea I needed to get used to and to really process, and there aren't a ton of books for that. Cheryl Strayed recommended this on Twitter years ago and I knew when/if we got pregnant I'd need to read it.

This is Meaghan O'Connell's first book and it chronicles her journey from getting engaged, to getting accidentally pregnant, to having the baby, to being a mom. I think there are probably a lot of books out there that follow this same trajectory but most of the ones I'm familiar with lean towards being immediately over-the-moon and learning how far in advance to book your newborn photo shoot. 

And Now We Have Everything details O'Connell's experience of really processing what it meant that she was about to have a baby, and saying some of the things you're not 'supposed' to say without seeming like you're not excited about your baby. I knew I was going to really relate to O'Connell in the opening few pages when she is talking about her new fiance, and even expressing anxiety about that choice. My whole life I've been paralyzed with indecision.

I'd just agreed to marry him the week before, which made every interaction between us extra-meaningful. I wasn't just calling after him on my bike today, I was facing a lifetime of it."

O'Connell talks a lot about the conundrum around having kids. By the time you're even mature enough, stable enough, and sure enough to make a lifelong decision like parenthood, it's almost too late? But we aren't allowed to talk about this because we're all supposed to pretend we have tons of time? I know so many people even younger than me who struggle(d) with fertility issues, and even though we were lucky in this sense, the stress of timing was always on the back of my mind.

I remember being with some co-workers in their early 40's last summer who had never married or had kids, and they both said how they would have loved to have kids, but it just didn't happen for them. This was so refreshing for me because I think most people don't want to be that vulnerable- they'll either pretend they never wanted kids, or pretend they still have plenty time to have them as some sort of defense mechanism. O'Connell's book felt a lot like the conversation I had with my coworkers in that nobody was pretending anything.

But admitting you wanted a baby- and wanted the pancakes and the maternity clothes and the chubby spawn around a table- and then not getting it because it just didn't pan out? That was too much, too cruel. Better to try for things more within your control: Better jobs, nicer apartments. Enviable vacations. Better to shrug and say, 'Maybe someday.'... The problem was that with every year of being by ourselves, of moving forward with work, of getting used to our freedom, of learning how to be happy, we got closer to needing to have a baby (Time's up!) and completely upending the lives and selves we'd been building. Only at our lowest and most confessional, or our most conspiratorial, did we acknowledge that we had a deadline."

O'Connell's labour and delivery story is a highlight of the book. Mostly because it's so fucked and I feel like nobody ever tells you how fucking awful labour is going to be because you get this beautiful baby at the end! but I needed to hear it. More pregnant women need to hear it. She's in labour for like, 20-something hours, her epidural FAILS and then she's offered a c-section or the option to get injected with something and keep trying to deliver vaginally.

Being offered a choice like this at the crux of a labour nightmare is literally my worst fear. O'Connell spends a lot of time discussing how we're all made to think a C-section is some sort of lesser experience, and that no real mother would choose one over the miracle of a vaginal delivery.

I wanted the C-section so badly. I wanted it like you want a glass of water at a stranger's house but feel like you should demur for some reason. I wanted it the way you want someone to stick a finger in your butt during sex but would never ask for it. I was thinking like a woman. I was in the most essentially oppressed, essentially female situation I've ever been in and I was mentally oppressing myself on top of it."

Meg and I were both C-section babies (our brains already too big to fit through a birth canal, as I like to tell my dad). C-sections are not a lesser experience and I think its important for people to hear that. 

Throughout the rest of the book O'Connell carries guilt for having chose it and prioritizing her own comfort over "the experience" but then she meets a mom who was given the exact same choice, opted to keep pushing, and tore her vagina straight to her asshole and needed a colostomy bag for weeks postpartum. Bad things can happen no matter what you choose. 

O'Connell highlights these real scenarios in a way that feels realistic rather than idealistic, and offers you what feels like a friend while you choose things that we've been told not to choose.

Meaghan O'Connell

The other 'topic' that was really well done throughout this book is O'Connell's evolving relationship with her partner Dustin as they navigate parenting. O'Connell suffers from postpartum depression after having her son and part of that manifests itself as competitiveness with her fiance, who is, in her eyes, mastering parenting while she fails.

My husband Scott is better than me at everything. It's so annoying but also comforting. I know he'll be naturally better at everything to do with parenting, but it's hard to know how I'll feel about it. I'm sure I'll be thankful to have a partner that's so good at stuff, but I'll also maybe hate him. I really related to the following:

Dustin and I used to agree about everything. I used to feel like he saw me and knew me better than anyone. But now that we had a child together, I worried we actually didn't know each other at all. We felt less like a couple than like co-workers, in service to the same human project... Who was this person swimming laps around me while I was treading water, feeling like I might drown? And how could I tell him how I felt- how could I trust he'd understand?"

It's hard to ask for help at things we're supposed to be good at. I don't have issues asking for help, but Scott likes to call it 'whining' which should be fun.

I also wonder often how we will be as a couple once we have a baby. When we found out we were pregnant, the nights of 2am pizza and watching sitcoms until the sun rose quickly fell out the window. We still have fun together but I am nostalgic for those activities we used to share that I'm now too tired for, or too sober for, or both. I know it's naive to think I'll be able to do those things as soon as we have the baby, but I am really craving a drunken evening with my husband again.

Of the whole book, the part that I loved the most was when O'Connell and her fiance get a sitter and go out for the evening. It made me feel hopeful and happy and it occurred to me that I need less reassurance about being a parent- everyone figures that out- and more reassurance about being myself again, because that you have to do 'on purpose' as she says.

We spend too much money, buy a pack of cigarettes just because we can, get cocktails in a dark basement bar and then smoke under an awning, in the rain. The air is cool and we are a little drunk. I have never felt so free, so happy. It occurs to me I had a baby just to feel this free when I'm away from him."

There's no real wrap-up to O'Connell's book, which is exactly the point. She admits that some days she feels complete as a mother and some days feels fully unraveled and the best thing a mom can do for themselves is accept that this is how it's going to be for basically the rest of your life. 

Was motherhood going to make everything in my life better, make me better, or was it going to ruin everything? I operated as if there'd be a verdict. An easy answer. A story. I operated as if we were setting the tone for the rest of our lives. It did not occur to me that we could simply muddle through. Learn as we go. Change things later. Forgive ourselves."

The book's best quality is it feels like the honest conversation you have with your best friend who doesn't judge you. O'Connell writes the kind of stuff I'd really only say to Meg in fear that any other human being would assume I hate my baby. The big takeaway for me is that you can love your kid and be a good mom and not feel eternal joy 24/7 like some nutjobs want you to believe.

You'll never get this time back. It's a threat. What was work compared to being face to face with a life unfolding before you? Now I am increasingly convinced that I do want to miss out, at least a little bit. 'Your baby will only be a baby once' sounds less like a threat than a small mercy."

I'd highly recommend this book to any woman thinking about having kids, pregnant, with a new baby, etc. I think this will be a great addition to any baby shower gifts because not everyone has friends like Meg to be able to have these conversations with. It's so, so good and has been a huge comfort to me as we get ready for a completely different life.. dum dum dum. 

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