Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Even, Even More Reviews of Books About Preemies

And now for something more substantive.

I think I've hit the wall with my reading of books about preemies and their parents.  Probably that's a good stage in my emotional health.  For this installment I read This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood by Vicki Forman, and Jenny Minton's The Early Birds: A Mother's Story for Our Times.  Forman is a professional writer and Minton worked in publishing and both books are nicely written and seem to reflect a good deal of care and editorial attention.

In This Lovely Life Forman has the more unusual and compelling story to tell, which is also to say the more tragic and complicated story.  She went into labor with her twins at 23weeks, and despite the wish of Forman and her husband that no extraordinary measure be taken to revive and support the babies, the hospital insisted on aggressive medical intervention.  Twin Ellie lived a few days, and twin Evan survived with significant disabilities.  He died at age four of complications related to one of his early surgeries.

Forman presents her story of mothering children who she wanted to let go in all its pain and confusion. I felt so much empathy and sadness for the Forman as they sought to do what they thought best for their children, and were blocked by an obfuscating institutional entity.  But, I also felt anger-both at Forman's father who comes off as a complete asshole, telling his daughter, among other things that "these children should never have been born."  It was also hard to take Forma sometimes, with her expectation that things like this don't happen to people like us (successful, wealthy, educated people) and at her surprise at her love for her disabled son.  This book was a good one to read so soon after I had finished Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree, because Solomon gave me greater context for the feelings Forman expresses.

[I find that as the mother of an early, small baby who believes strongly in reproductive choice, I am often in a confusing ethical and emotional place.  I believe that the Formans should have had more say in the medical decisions for their babies.  I don't think it is wrong to withhold heroic medical measures for a very early, very sick baby, but neither do I think it wrong for a parent to ask for all measures, and it isn't wrong to want your baby to live, even if the child is likely to have serious lifelong disabilities.  Those choices, it seems to me, must be made from the heart.  The parents need to do what love tells them to do.  I'm much less sympathetic to the sort of casual eugenicism that assumes lives live with disability aren't worth living.]

Nevertheless, I really appreciated the work that Forman put into honestly representing her thoughts and feelings.  Evan died only a year before this book was published, and I'd be really interested to read what Forman would write in another ten or twenty years.  In this book, Forman's experience is raw and honest, but also jumbled and chaotic, I think a longer look back would allow her to shape her experience into a stronger narrative, although maybe it would be less honest.

Minton's story in The Early Birds is more ordinary: twins born at 31weeks, one of whom had a scary bout with NEC.  The book jacket states that "for 64 days [the boys] hovered, critically ill, in the neonatal intensive care unit,"  a description that seems overwrought and inaccurate.  In contrast, Minton captures the minutia of the NICU with a close eye.  The book is a straightforward narrative that takes the reader through pregnancy, birth, NICU and post-NICU babyhood.

Minton's larger point is a cautionary tale about fertility clinics and multiple births.  As she went through the process of getting pregnant and carrying twins, Minton was not warned of her risks of delivering early, and of the problems that early babies can face.  Potential parents should be more aware of the problems presented by a largely unregulated fertility industry and by preterm birth.  These are all good points, but to make a compelling case, Minton would really need to expand these parts of the book and provide more background information and analysis.

I'm not sorry I read these books, but overall I would recommend Alexa Stevenson's Half Baked as a more engaging preemie memoir, and Geoffrey Miller's Extreme Prematurity for a discussion of ethical issues related to premature infants.

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