Pregnancy. Childbirth. I don’t know what my daughter had done in a previous life to have landed a mother like me, but whether I was ready or not, she was born. Who would have believed that one day I’d take a job where I would be on 24/7 standby, would receive no pay, no accolades, no perks and would, for long periods of time, go topless?
While it is somewhat difficult to face the strength of her optimism, knowing this piece was written months before she died, my mother’s story is beautiful. We enjoyed more time with her than would otherwise have been possible, thanks to the pregnancy ultrasound and her hope that she would watch us both grow up. I now live in Japan with my family and enjoy writing, much like my mother. My sister, Ilana, is a college student, who lives in Oregon and is returning from a year abroad in Germany.
So many women can recount traumas and heartaches, and we are told to focus on our blessings, our living treasures, and never mind what we lost: an opportunity for sacred transformation. But even though my last birth was over ten years ago, I found Dr. Lyerly’s book provided a healing opportunity to review my birth experiences, to find meaning and beauty and pride in them, and also to mourn the areas where I felt abandoned. In this regard, Dr. Lyerly’s book is essential reading for those who give birth, as well as for those who attend births. In listening respectfully to pregnant and birthing women, both before and after their births, and in studying their collective wisdom like an anthropologist would, Dr. Lyerly’s reframing of what makes a successful birth experience is a gift to both mothers and birth attendants. This book serves as a wake-up call to care providers, whatever their ideological camp, to reconsider how they practice, and the impact their approach has on the women they serve. is a book I’ll be buying for my friends as they go through this transformative experience. For women who have yet to give birth, is critical reading, as it inspires them to consider the choices they make around birth, and also to ensure that their care providers are held accountable.
I tottered around in the awkward newness before I was able to reveal myself to my family, the ones who had cautiously given me their support to push the rewind button on the events that existed before the Kodak flash of my first special day. I got used to knowing my medical history and the circumstances surrounding my conception. It was a story as old as time, she wrote, where two careless teens found summer love and later faced the disappointment and embarrassment of families. Only in my story, the teens didn’t rush into marriage and play house with a real baby like their families wanted; they signed papers in the room at the end of the hall where the nurses spoke in whispers because the birth mother couldn’t bear to hold the baby she had signed over to an adoption agency. I devoured the personal words describing their physical traits that mirror my own and allowed myself the validation that came with the pain she felt for months after my birth.
Five months ago and several years after the self-absorption of my youth had faded into adult reality, I became serious about the search. The intimacy of pregnancy, and the birth of my own two daughters had given me the chance to experience the tenderness of growing life; I couldn’t imagine not knowing the little limbs that nudged me from within. An intense admiration for the woman who gave me up grew as strong as my own babies’ kicks. I imagined the tales I would tell my kids one day, of the two college students who fell in love, went on adventures, and spent a few years traveling the Caribbean, events that put into motion their conception and presence years after the thrill of late-night partying and a two-person tent had faded.
It would be easy to say that my mother practiced and maintained her frontier-woman, pioneer-wife skills because she loved them, the rhythm and movement of the seasons and the process itself. Part of that is true. Canning was also the only way she could escape from motherhood and still keep a fingertip in the creative life she passionately wanted. She chafed at being a mother of small children. More than anything, she wanted to spend her time writing stories, a dream she put off until my sisters and I were grown.
In many families, this would be a story about the harmony of the kitchen, mother passing down to her daughter the practices of her pioneer grandmother. But it isn’t. My mother didn’t want me kicking my heels on the alderwood kitchen stool, didn’t want me snapping the tops off the beans with eager, sloppy fingers. She didn’t want me there at all.
I envisioned terrible things that I don’t want to admit to, screaming back at him being the least awful. One day my arms, meant only for motherly comfort, felt weak after a desire for violence surged through them, and I laid him gently down in his crib, shut the door on his cries, went to the garage, and shrieked at the top of my lungs until I grew hoarse. Then I sat there among the dirty garage smells, trying to work out if I still existed, under the exhaustion and frustration and constant nursing.
The summer my little sister was born, another August, my mother sweated, short and swollen, over a stove bubbling with jars of beans drowned in vinegar. Dilled pickled beans became her signature side dish. In later years, every time a jar was opened she restrained my sisters and me from eating the entire thing at one sitting, and we would negotiate over the chunks of pickled garlic on the bottom.
Every now and then my father used to take my two sisters and me out for the day so my mother could write. We’d go fishing or run errands. When we came home, there’d be hot jars of peach chutney or dilled beans resting on the counter, but rarely did any writing get done. It’s a hard thing to battle those demons every day, the ones that tell you that putting pen to paper without knowing what will come of it is pointless or worthless. To do it occasionally is almost impossible.
I’m descended on both sides from families in which competence is the predominant religion: the ability to make things, fix things, grow things. The knowledge that you could scratch out a life far from the conveniences of modernity. For my paternal and maternal grandparents, food was simply about survival. But more than that, its production and preservation defined the value of a woman. My Russian grandmother kept my father and his siblings alive during World War II by digging potato beds and scouring the woods for mushrooms after working double shifts managing the metallurgical lab at the weapons factory. On my mother’s side, my forefathers went West to Montana, where the women, no matter how soft they’d begun, grew hands puckered and hard from the sweltering woodstove, the endless kneading of bread, the maintenance of the vast pickling crock, the coaxing of vegetables from the water-starved soil of Eastern Montana, the drying and preserving and pickling that ensured—they hoped—a winter free of hunger.
I know that my passion for canning is often a stand-in for something more. Sometimes I’m sweating over a boiling pot of blueberry-lime jam because I badly want to be sitting somewhere else with a notebook in hand. I’m reminded of my mother then. The difference is, I can change that feeling, acknowledge that there doesn’t have to be one predominant self—whether mother, writer, or competent frontier-woman—to feel whole. Canning, which began as an escape, has simply become part of the ebb and flow of who I am.