I’ve always been a bit obsessed with birth stories. Even before I became pregnant and began consuming them as a way to allay my blinding panic, I sought them out regularly, like one would crossword puzzles. I nursed vague aspirations of becoming a doula—what could be more beautiful than helping a mother as she underwent one of the most transformative experiences of her life, without the years-long hassle of a midwifery certification? I relished the narratives that didn’t gloss over the messier details—childbirth was such a fascinating, terrifying yet completely normal human phenomenon, and I wanted the full scope of the experience, not just the palatable parts. Meaghan O’Connell’s new memoir, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, fulfills that borderline voyeuristic impulse in full technicolor, with raw, unflinching honesty.
It opens with a premonition, one that so many of us have experienced without being fully sure of this how this suspicion was supposed to feel: Oh shit, am I pregnant? Just one week past the date of their engagement, Meaghan and her fiancé Dustin are forced to come to grips with the reality that their lives and their once fairly certain future will now revolve around a person they’ve unwittingly created.
The realization, and its aftermath, produces a dizzying cocktail of emotions: joy, relief, fear, resignation, doubt, despair. Options are considered, discarded; Meaghan and Dustin struggle to make sense of the rapidity with which they will become spouses and co-parents. These scenes are achingly authentic in their wrong-footedness; the truth is, there is very little that can prepare you for this specific brand of delirium. One moment, you’re a solitary figure in the world, in the next, you prepare to assume responsibility for a brand-new, fragile life. In less than a year! O’Connell’s emotional hand-wringing strikes a perfect chord between impossible—the first essay’s opening line plainly intones, “A baby was the thing we were trying to keep out,”—and obvious, inevitable: “Part of me loved this feeling, of being steamrolled by life, of being totally fucked.”
“Well that’s it then,” Dustin says, absorbing the full weight of impending fatherhood a few pages in. “Then we’re going to do it.” And so it is. And so they do.
When it was my turn to begin cataloguing baby kicks and choking down fist-sized prenatal vitamins, I looked to the Internet for commiseration and wisdom with a new level of hunger. Sometime during my second trimester in the spring of 2015, O’Connell became one of my heroes, not for writing a compelling birth story (unfortunately, I hadn’t discovered her earlier version yet), but for compiling a number of responses for The Cut to the question that haunted my sleepless nights, made my teeth chatter before my midwife appointments, and sank into my gut like a leaden ball as my due date loomed in the rapidly approaching future: what did labor contractions actually feel like?
In And Now We Have Everything, O’Connell addresses that fear, and many more, with the kind of clear-eyed wit that you can only hope that your more experienced friend will possess when describing the process of their cervix being “checked” (short version: awful!). She makes it easy to relive the various quirks and unusual pleasures of modern-day pregnancy: the existential quandary of naming a person, how silly and amazing it feels to talk to an invisible fetus for the first time, that bizarre first appearance of colostrum. Squinting at herself in the bathroom mirror during week thirty-five, O’Connell puzzles over the enigma of her own physicality, just as unwieldy and occasionally embarrassing as an adolescent’s. “Now here I am again,” she thinks. “The orchestra of my body was warming up and I didn’t even know it.”
O’Connell’s frank dispatches from a life utterly upended by an unplanned pregnancy feel strikingly familiar: who among us hasn’t been victim to an unexpected event whose shockwaves displace every illusion of stability? As a fellow surprise mom, reading her terror and anxious theorizing took me right back to my early days of frantic Googling, of relinquishing any fanciful short term dreams (let’s move to South America!) in favor of settling in, settling down. I felt borne aloft on her roiling sea of hopped-up hormones, images of my various phases of mommy-to-be acceptance startled up from memory: breathing deeply in a darkened yoga studio, communing with the tiny life inside me, and later taking a calming walk only to collapse, sobbing, onto a park bench. There is a very particular sort of mania in being pregnant, one that either thrums beneath the surface or rushes screaming to the fore, and it’s this maddening dichotomy that O’Connell distills onto the page with such attention and care.
Pregnancy is an unscrupulously convoluted affair, childbirth perhaps even more so; postpartum recovery perhaps even more so. In a world increasingly littered with half-conceived stories that purport to offer a peek into the process, O’Connell’s charmingly neurotic, confessional ruminations feel justifiable in their untidiness, their emotional grit. This isn’t a comfortable book, by any means. The descriptions of her various hospital procedures (“You feel like someone is stapling your back, but deep inside you. Stay still, though, or else you’ll be paralyzed.”) are nearly impossible to read without cringing, or in some cases, whimpering in remembrance. I’d never thought of contractions as an ex-lover bursting into your house to “throw knives at [my] uterus,” but god, how apt. The discomfort is refreshing, though, like the cleansing burn of a powerful astringent. I flew through the short chapters, crying and laughing, sometimes—often—at the same time.
I hoarded the compilation of labor descriptions in my Pocket, hating it and needing it in equal measure. I couldn’t help but recall some of the more colorful phrases to mind whenever I felt a twinge (lightning crotch! Braxton Hicks!), always wondering if this could be it. I wondered what shape my pain would take, how my brain would struggle to synthesize my daughter’s desperate bids to exit my body with an entirely new brand of metaphor, a story that my nerve endings alone could tell. During the various crescendos of my labor, as I writhed and raged against white-hot quakes I couldn’t escape, my only distant thought was of the other women, other warriors, frankly, who’d lived this, lived through this, and made it to the other side. It was imperative that I remember—even as I attempted to convince everyone around me that I couldn’t do it, I was going to die, and that was fine! Really!—that other women had actually succeeded and had the baby that for so long, felt like little more than a fantasy.
And then there is the after: inconceivable, until suddenly, you’re back home with a mewling baby and wanting nothing more than for a giant hand to descend and prod you into this new role. Parent. Parent?! “For the first few weeks I was always expecting to catch the baby, somehow, mid-death,” O’Connell confesses in the chapter ‘Maternal Instincts’. And this is what it feels like: trapped somewhere between nurturer and stalker, human and animal, nursing the exit wounds for weeks, sometimes months afterward. After all of the work it takes to get the baby earthside, how can you not obsess over their safety? Check their breathing every five minutes? Like any other phase of parenthood, it’s a desperate paranoia that eventually fades, but O’Connell captures that dread and pins it, still fluttering, to the page.
And Now We Have Everything stretches beyond the well-worn narrative grooves of the delivery room, although O’Connell’s keen observational acuity throughout those pivotal scenes is nothing short of a blessing. With a steady-handed, acerbic candor that does not self-deprecate so much as self-examine, she maneuvers through the slippery paths of romantic discord, professional stagnation, postpartum pain and depression. Her baby, once born, is not the answer to any question, but rather the genesis of a thousand new ones that multiply with each passing day—a firm grounding in the reality of new parenthood that rings alarmingly, unerringly true. I am, of course, slightly bitter I didn’t have this book three years ago as I stared down the barrel of motherhood myself—but I’m happy to do my due diligence, and pass it on to other moms-to-be in need. It’s paying it forward, after all. It’s what Meaghan did for me.