Motherhood & Words

We went up to my mom’s cabin in Northern Minnesota last weekend, and I took fifteen books with me because my summer Motherhood & Words class starts next week, and I was trying to finalize my reading list. Of course, it’s not humanly possible (if you read as slowly as I do) to get through fifteen books in three days at a cabin full of people (Stella and her 19-month-old cousin included), but whatever. I skimmed a number of anthologies and re-read some pieces with which I was already familiar. The hard part, always, is deciding how my favorites fit into the class. Some essays are so good (and I’ll be discussing these as the summer progresses) that I could use them to talk about any number of craft issues and motherhood themes. How to stop my excitement? How to narrow the list? Very hard for me to do.

One of the books I read in its entirety this week was Catherine Newman’s Waiting for Birdy, a memoir about Newman’s second pregnancy. I used her essay “Pretty Baby” (from Andi’s Buchanan’s anthology It’s A Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons), in my last class, and I loved it. It’s a short essay about judgment and gender stereotypes and how reductive (and impossible) it is to fit kids into neat little gendered boxes. I love the essay’s subject matter and how it’s been structured, but I also love the fact that it’s freaking hilarious.

So anyway, I picked up Waiting for Birdy, and guess what? Catherine Newman is my new BFF. I’ve never met her (not even over e-mail), but if I’m ever in her neck of the woods, I’m tracking her down. (Does that sound scary?)

Her voice is conversational and intimate (a hallmark, of course, of the personal essay), and she uses humor deftly, employing irreverence, sarcasm, and enough cultural and life references to make her words come alive on the page. (She is similar, in this way, to Anne Lamott, I think.)

There is so much she says in this book that resonates with me. I could try to dissect all the reasons I like her as a narrator, but because she’s my new best friend, I’ll just say that I really like her, and I feel connected to the persona she’s created on the page.

My dad was over the other night, and after Stella was in bed, he stayed to watch a baseball game (we have cable and he doesn’t) while I read. I was lying on an opposite couch, and every time I laughed out loud he would ask me what was so funny. One of the passages I read to him (my 79-year-old ordained minister father) is from just before Birdy is born:

“Probably due to a combination of nerves and exhaustion on my part, along with Pat’s (the nurse’s) slight strangeness, I kept not understanding what she was saying. After I’d gotten undressed and peed, for instance, Pat held up a metal bowl. ‘Hoist up your Johnny,’ she said. ‘I’m just going to have you crap a little.’ She left the room, and I looked at the bowl. ‘So I’m just supposed to poop in there?’ I whispered to Michael. ‘What?’ he said. ‘I’m supposed to ‘crap a little’?’ I asked him, and he laughed. ‘No, hon. She’s going to prep you a little. Look.’ He tipped the bowl to show me the razors and antiseptic inside. ‘Lucky for you that I’m here. Lucky for Pat.’”

I know that not everyone is going to think that’s that funny, but I almost peed myself. Tears streamed down my face as I read it to my dad, and he laughed, as well. He’s used to lots of conversations about bodily functions because potty talk and foul language are about the only ways that my sisters and I rebelled (other than refusing to go to church as adults). He’s resigned himself to it, and maybe he even enjoys it a little?

Waiting for Birdy is not all humor, though. Throughout the book, Newman lays bare her neurosis (I don’t know anything about that, of course) and deals honestly and thoughtfully with so many issues of childbirth and parenthood. I love this:

“I confess that I’m so happy this time not to be consumed with the minutiae of the birth, like whether or not to get drugs. With your first baby, you think this is actually an important decision. Only later do you realize that a) You understand nothing about labor until it is happening to you, and b) The birth is just the first tiny town—barely a black dot—on the enormous, complicated road map that is the rest of your life as a parent.”


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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Sheri on June 1, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    you’re the second person this month to openly fall in love with MY catherine. i guess i can go ahead and tell you cause i told my other friend who fell hard while reading WFB that she had a long-lived column at babycenter (still archived) and now has one at wondertime. plus, she has a blog. oh wait. you probably already know this by now. now that you’re a stalker like the rest of us who love her so!

  2. kate on June 2, 2007 at 7:10 am

    Sheri, if we were in the same city, I think I’d have to fight you. I’m just saying.

  3. Melissa on June 2, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    Well, I won’t try to get in between the two of YOU, but that passage about “lucky for Pat” is my favorite part of WFB. Kind of makes you glad you’re not an L&D nurse, doesn’t it?

  4. **camera shy momma** on June 5, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    oh man, if only i lived in massachusetts! there is so much that she says that resonates with me, she is just so real. and encourages me to be real as well. should someone start a catherine newman fanclub?!
    just kidding (um, not really?)
    ~ meredith

  5. Doctor Ruth on July 22, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    I too love, love, love this book. I am reading it now and am torn between rushing through the pages as each is filled with what I think and feel so often (waiting for my second baby) and trying to read slower and wishing it were longer as I don’t want the book to end. I don’t know if it’s the hormones or the resonance of the writing or both, but I tear up often while reading it, but it a good way, and they slowly dry as the next passage has me laughing loud and hard enough to end up snorting and sniffling and lovely.