Books
11:49 am
Mon January 28, 2008

Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother

The letters, warm, smart, loving, honest, useful, are now a book, and well worth anyone's time, pregnant or not. (I suspect that Fennelly's agent thought, as I do, that this is a book that could have legs, as they say in publishing, and sell for decades.)

Sometimes the story of how a book comes into being just has to be told. The poet Beth Ann Fennelly, teaching at Knox College, became friends with her student, Kathleen. The two women kept in touch. In the spring of 2004, Kathleen had married and was headed with her husband to Alaska, where he had a post-doctoral fellowship in marine biology. They would be 1,500 miles away, in a place where they knew no one, where there was not even e-mail. And Kathleen learned she was pregnant. Fennelly, now teaching at Ole Miss with her husband the novelist Tom Franklin, and with a two-year-old, Claire, agreed to give aid and comfort through letters, one a day, written in pen on paper and mailed, to help her student/friend through the fear and loneliness of pregnancy and childbirth.

Although Fennelly did not write literally every day, from March 10, 2004 to October 25, 2004, she wrote a lot. Kathleen felt the letters had helped her and showed them to a friend. That friend showed them to another, and last year Fennelly showed them to her agent, who was wondering how Fennelly's third manuscript of poems was progressing. The letters, warm, smart, loving, honest, useful, are now a book, and well worth anyone's time, pregnant or not. (I suspect that Fennelly's agent thought, as I do, that this is a book that could have legs, as they say in publishing, and sell for decades.)

Many of the letters contain advice a first-time pregnant woman wants to hear. Childbirth, especially natural childbirth, is really difficult and painful, but of course worth it. Also, the new mother doesn't remember the pain, or at least some of it, or at least how very terrible the pain was. Of course, this has to be true or else, as Fennelly says, "if we [mothers] could remember how much the first birth hurt, we'd never have a second child."

Fennelly reminisces and advises about the stages of pregnancy, trimester to trimester, and the joys and challenges of each, finally culminating in untied shoes. Then there are the magical elements of new parenthood: baby Claire's first words, first steps, her smells, her perpetually exciting development from day to day. And the down side: the money worries for a young couple, the sleeplessness?exhaustion, actually, the "epaulettes of spit up" on every new mom's shoulders, the stress on the marriage as the husband realizes "his former beauty queen, if she is breast-feeding, is now a dairy queen."

A series of letters like this one is bound to stray some from the ostensible topic of pregnancy and child-rearing, and Great with Child does. Fennelly has written, without really meaning to, a memoir. We learn of her childhood in the Chicago suburbs, her alcoholic father, her pointless time at the posh Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart where "you were popular in proportion to your number of eating disorders. If you had bulemia and anorexia, well, you were definitely 'in.'" After Woodlands came Notre Dame and then Fennelly went to the "Deep South" to get an MFA. Tom, of Mobile, Alabama, went "up north" for his. They were students together at the University of Arkansas.

There is a moment I really liked where, poor together, they pool their libraries and sell the duplicates to a used book store. In readers' world, that signifies a lifetime commitment.

Also touching and illuminating is the answer to Kathleen's question regarding the relationship between motherhood and poetry. After the normally facetious "Now I have no time to write," Fennelly tells of how the sheer physicality, the blood and fluids and feces of childbirth and infant care moved her from a poet writing in others' voices to a poet writing in her own voice about her most intimate experiences, afraid of nothing.

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