It’s easy to become complacent about the birth process in our society. We’ve got prenatal vitamins, ultrasounds, “push presents” (don’t ask) and Space Age strollers that come with drink holders. So when Minneapolis-based author and writing instructor Kate Hopper starts to experience signs of pregnancy-induced hypertension, or pre-eclampsia, in her seventh month, she naturally chalks it up to one too many bowls of ice cream.
A visit to her doctor proves otherwise, and Hopper quickly finds herself going from worrying about her weight gain to checking into a hospital as she realizes that her and her baby’s lives are on the line. Within a few days, Hopper and her husband, former Minnesota Thunder soccer player Don Gramenz, find themselves parents to a premature baby girl, Stella, who weighs barely 3 pounds at birth.
One in eight babies in the United States is born prematurely, and most struggle with minor to major health problems the rest of their lives. Hopper’s birth experience is traumatic for her and Stella, as well as their extended family, and as Hopper fights to heal herself she struggles with the knowledge that Stella’s own survival is day to day, if not hour to hour.
Slowly, with two steps forward and one step back, Stella improves. Hopper finds that motherhood as she had expected it to be — “the instant bond, the baby latching on immediately, falling head over heels in love” — is not what she initially experiences with Stella. Hopper and her husband cannot even hold Stella when she is born, and Hopper’s sadness, and anger, are palpable in her writing.
Lingering on the sidelines is the unspoken knowledge that Stella could be one of the babies that never make it out of the ward. As Hopper and Gramenz stand and look at the before and after photos of the children who do leave the hospital, Hopper is uncomfortable. “I realize that if these babies are supposed to reassure me, nothing is guaranteed for my daughter.”
Hopper toes a fine line by advocating for her daughter while respecting the work that the doctors and nurses do to keep Stella thriving. When the day finally comes to bring Stella home, Hopper suffers the typical isolation of a new mother with the added complication that her daughter must remain essentially quarantined for six months so that her immune system will not be compromised.
Hopper’s memoir can be seen as a comfort to some and an explanation for others, but for her it is proof of her own strength as she writes, “As long as I have words, I’ll be strong enough.”
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.