A Little of This and That in April and May

Jun 16, 2017

I was going to just let these months go without an update because, you know, we're halfway through June already, but there were just a few things I wanted to record for my own benefit.

These two months were busy ones. We were . . .

Saying . . . goodbye to Mike's parents before they flew back to Germany. The good news is, I've waited so long to write this update, they'll be back home in just a week. Yay!

Recording . . . an interview with Rachel Wadham on BYU Radio's literature-based program, "World's Awaiting." My episode can be listened to here. I felt like a found a kindred spirit in Rachel, and I'm so glad I got to meet her and chat about books for an hour. It was delightful.

Playing . . . basketball. I had been planning on giving Aaron a basketball hoop for his birthday (at the end of July). But after watching them play basketball at their cousins' house, I became convinced that we needed one immediately. I'm not usually one for instant gratification, but in this case, I'm so glad we didn't wait. That thing has gotten daily use in the last two months. Every day when Aaron got home from school, he wouldn't even go into the house before he started playing. Mike also plays with the boys almost every evening after work. And it's been quite popular with all the neighbor kids as well. Basically, it was worth every penny and then some. It's quite literally saving me this summer.

Organizing . . . a neighborhood Easter egg hunt. We asked anyone who wanted to participate (ages 12 and under) to bring a dozen filled plastic eggs to our house the night before the hunt. Then the next morning, we hid them in our yard plus the yards of three of our neighbors. We divided the kids by age (0-3 years hunted in one yard, 4-6 years hunted in another, etc.), and then each child could find twelve eggs. I loved not having the craziness of a huge community egg hunt, and it was so fun to chat with all of our neighbors on one of the first really lovely days of spring.

Cheering . . . on Aaron's car at his pinewood derby race. He didn't win, but he didn't come in last either, and we figure we have at least fourteen more chances to get it right. :-)

Visiting . . . Aaron's class wax museum. This was one of the most impressive things I've seen. All of the kids chose a famous person to learn about, wrote a brief biography about him/her, memorized it, dressed up in costume, and then delivered the speech slowly and expressively. And maybe even more impressive than all of that is that it was all done in class. I didn't do a single thing except borrow a part of Aaron's costume from my sister-in-law. It was so fun to walk through the wax museum: all of the kids stood as still as statues until one of us pushed the "button" beside their name and brought them to life. Aaron was Mozart. I usually consider him fairly shy, but apparently his teacher must have worked her magic because she somehow got him to be totally animated while he was saying his speech (and over the course of two days, he probably said it 75 times). Did I mention how much I loved Aaron's teacher?

Welcoming . . . baby Ian to the family. The highlight of the last two months. Obviously.

Enjoying . . . lots of time with my mom and sister who spent a week here after Ian was born. My mom baked treats with Clark and kept up on the never ending mountain of laundry and even played basketball. Angela played games, drew pictures, and cuddled Ian. They even babysat the boys so Mike and I could go out for lunch. Their help was so invaluable.

Celebrating . . . Mike's birthday, Easter, Mother's Day, and Clark's birthday. All good things.

Attending . . . the performance of Maxwell's class opera. He and his classmates made up the story, wrote the words, composed the melodies, made the set, and performed the entire thing. Maxwell played the part of a double-sided stamp (I guess you had to be there. . . ). Even more impressive though was when we got home and Maxwell acted out all the parts and sang all the songs by himself. Which reminds me, I need to get a video of that before he forgets it all.

Reading . . . a lot. Such are the perks of a nursing baby.

Wearing . . . Ian in the baby wrap every day. I love this thing so much. I've had other baby carriers over the years, but I wish I'd had this one with all of my boys. It's so comfortable, and it keeps Ian so snug and close. I love it.

Working . . . on lots of projects. That would be Mike. Here's a rundown: He built benches in the kitchen (and the seats are hinged so they can double as storage), painted the kitchen (it's no longer a putrid green), planted the garden, organized the shed (not for the faint of heart), installed automatic sprinklers in the backyard, and planted two trees.

Knitting . . . every spare minute. That would be me. Projects included: a tie for my dad's birthday (I discovered the magic of washing and blocking when it straightened out all of my uneven edges), a baby hat for my friend's new baby (I tried short rows for the first time to make the ear flaps!), and progress on Ian's baby blanket (I changed the way I hold the needles and yarn, and it's increased my speed by a lot).  And I lined up a bunch of new projects as one who is addicted to knitting will do.

Running . . . in the school fun run. Aaron really wanted to finish in the top three this year, but he barely missed it and came in fourth (same as last year). Maxwell didn't have quite the same stamina but crossed the finish line with a smile on his face

Lagging . . . behind on responding to blog comments. I will get to it though, so don't give up on me!

Recording . . . Episode 13 of The Book Blab. Suzanne was visiting in Utah, so we filmed it in person. Oh, and our babies met.

Finishing . . . the school year. Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley had phenomenal teachers this year, so it was a bittersweet ending for sure.

Kayaking . . . with my family. We spent Memorial Day kayaking, fishing, eating, and playing. It was so much fun.

Wondering . . . why it's so hard to maintain a regular blogging schedule. Seriously though. I have so many things I want to write about, but a week slips by so easily without finding time to write a single post. I need to figure out some sort of routine.

Kicking . . . off summer with the first (of many) trips to our neighborhood pool.

How is your summer going so far?

Review x 2: The Distance Between Us and Ten Miles Past Normal

Jun 6, 2017

With these two books, I'm checking off another goal on my 2017 list: Read two young adult novels.

And yet, I don't feel like I should check it off.

Why? Because the whole point of that goal was to help me find realistic, clean, well-written YA novels that I felt like I could recommend. And I don't think either of these achieved that objective. Not exactly anyway.

I read The Distance Between Us by Kasie West first. It's about a girl, Caymen, who lives with her single mother and helps run their porcelain doll shop in a small touristy town. One day, Xander Spence walks into the shop on an errand for his grandmother. He's good-looking, extremely wealthy, and just a little bit snobbish. Of course Caymen has absolutely zero interest in him, except actually she's completely smitten with him. And wouldn't you know it, Xander seems to like her, too.

I rolled my eyes a good deal through this whole book, but then spent one evening forgetting about everything else except finishing it.

Then I moved onto Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O'Roark Dowell about 14-year-old Janie Gorman who lives on a farm with her parents and sister. They haven't always lived on a farm, but several years before, they decided (at Janie's urging) that they wanted to be more independent and try living off the land. But now Janie's going to high school, and she very much wants to just blend in and hide her association with anything rural or country. Then she meets Monster Monroe (that's his real name), and he doesn't seem the least bit caught up in all the social pressures of high school. Hanging out with him not only helps Janie be okay with being herself but also introduces her to a new hobby she really loves.

This one was cute and quirky and made me smile, but again, I didn't come away totally impressed.

But here's the thing: were both of these novels realistic? Yes, at least to a certain extent--no fairies or time travel or anything like that. Were they clean? Yes, very, especially Ten Miles Past Normal, which was a little more juvenile. I wouldn't have any problem recommending either of them on that point. Were they well-written? Yes, not in a wow-me kind of way, but the writing didn't annoy or distract me.

So on all my criteria, both books earned at least decent, if not outstanding, marks. So what is my problem? Why can't I just bestow my stamp of approval and move on?

And I guess the answer is I'm looking for something more. I want a book that transports me into the story, not one that leaves me standing with a skeptical look on the side. I want writing that compels me to come back for more and stays with me long after the final sentence. I want characters that make me think deeply or, on the flip side, provide a good dose of amusement and entertainment. This is what I expect from the middle grade and adult fiction I read, so it doesn't seem too much to ask young adult fiction to do the same.

I think if I'd read these books when I was sixteen, my feelings about them might have been very different. And maybe that says something: as a thirty-two-year-old mother of five, I'm not exactly the target audience. But I feel like a book that is really well done will make me feel like I'm sixteen again and might even make me want to be sixteen again. Maybe.

So I'm still on a quest for clean, realistic, well-written YA. You all gave so many great suggestions on my goals post, and I'm planning to return to those comments for more ideas, but if you've read a YA novel recently that has wowed you, please tell me about it. Maybe it will wow me, too.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Jun 2, 2017

I think the very first book I read by Amy Krouse Rosenthal was Duck! Rabbit! It was cute and clever, and I liked it. But it wasn't until a couple of years later when I read Little Pea that I went back to the library and checked out Little Oink and Yes Day! and Spoon and a good many others. I was so excited about this new-to-me author that I passed on the recommendations to my good friend who lived across the street, and she fell hard for all books AKR also. We've both been fans ever since.

Earlier this year, I found out that Amy Krouse Rosenthal had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. You may have seen her essay in the New York Times entitled "You May Want to Marry My Husband." If not, you must read it pronto but not without a box of tissues close by.

After reading her essay, I immediately put her newest book (a memoir, not a picture book) on hold at the library. It took weeks for it to come in, and during that time, on March 13, 2017, Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away.

Reading this memoir was a sweet and delightful experience, but also heartbreaking. So heartbreaking. I don't know when in the timeline of writing this book Amy found out she had cancer, but I'm assuming the bulk of it had already been written by the time it was discovered. At any rate, she never mentions her diagnosis or seems to have any inkling that her own lifespan might be anything less than average. She didn't know how her story would end. But I did. And that made it all the more poignant.

In fact, she wrote things like this:
"If one is generously contracted 80 years, that amounts to 29,220 days on Earth. Playing that out, how many more times then, really, do I get to look at a tree? 12,395? There has to be an exact number. Let's just say it is 12,395. Absolutely, that is a lot, but it is not infinite, and anything less than infinite seems too measly a number and is not satisfactory. Also, I would like to stare at my kids a few million more times. I could stare at them a few million more times easy."
And I wanted to weep because she didn't actually have anywhere close to 12,395 more times to look at a tree.

I read When Breath Becomes Air last year. It was written by Paul Kalanithi after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The book was profound, as you might expect from someone who is facing his own death.

But therein was the magic of Amy's memoir for me. You expect someone who is dying to suddenly notice the beauty in the ordinary, everyday, mundane things, which Paul Kalanithi did. But you don't expect that from someone who is very much in the middle of living. And yet, Amy does: She feels happy when she arrives at the crosswalk and there are still many seconds left on the walk sign; she observes the beauty of green treetops against blue sky; she recognizes the fleeting sweetness of waving to her son as he stands by his bedroom window.

And when she highlighted those ordinary moments, I felt an immediate kinship with her. I'm not as good as she was at appreciating the loveliness in a normal day, but I despise the unrelenting passage of time because I want to live life to the fullest, and I don't think I've quite figured out how to do that yet.

The book has an unusual format, which won't surprise anyone who is familiar with Amy's work. It is set up like a textbook; it begins with a pre-assessment, followed by different subjects (geography, social studies, etc.). There's a midterm essay sandwiched in the middle and a final review at the end. It's not chronological in any way--more just little snippets of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's life and personality and musings.

There were parts of the book that I would give five stars to in a heartbeat (I want to memorize the midterm essay because I loved every paragraph so much). It was interesting to see how she applied each subject to her own life (I'm still curious to know who Ana and Peter were in the Romance Language section. I feel like I should be able to figure it out, but they're not mentioned anywhere else in the book. Maybe she talked about them in her first memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life? Or maybe they're pseudonyms for someone else?)

But I didn't love all of the subjects equally (which is similar to real life, I guess). For example, the math equations were clever but also seemed like a waste of paper. There were thirteen equations in this section, and they took up twenty-six pages. That made for some pretty fast reading, but I don't know if all that white space was really necessary. And also, there were just a few things that were maybe a little too clever for me because I just didn't get them, no matter how many times I read them again.

There was also a texting element to the book. At certain points along the way, the reader is invited to interact with the book. For example, if you see a rainbow, you can take a photo and text it, and it will then be added to the rainbow gallery. Or you can hear a recording of Kenneth Koch reading one of his poems. Or you can participate in a survey of whether curly or straight brackets are more popular. At first I thought this element of the book was totally gimmicky, but in the end, I think it did for me exactly what Amy Krouse Rosenthal intended it to. She is really big on making connections with friends and strangers alike (just read "The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment" if you have any doubts), and I realized partway through the book that I was doing something I've never done with any other book before: I was thinking about the other people who were reading it. Of course I wasn't actually putting names or faces to anyone or having any real interactions with them, but I felt this strange connection nonetheless.

The texting part is optional of course, and I only participated in the ones that interested me. My favorite was the musical accompaniment that went along with the last few pages of the book. It was beautiful and added a depth and poignancy I wasn't expecting.

But here's the truth: I really just love Amy Krouse Rosenthal's writing, and I love the way she thinks about the world, so I didn't actually care if it was my favorite subject or not. She captures life in a unique way, and there were many times where I paused in my reading just because I was so taken by her way with words. For example, this:
"The word literature enters the room with its nose in the air. But get it in a corner, ask the right questions, and it will reluctantly fess up to its humble origins. It hails from the Latin litterae, you whisper in your date's ear. It puts on a big act, but it literally just means 'things made of letters.'
Or this: 
"I cannot be the only one who finds myself making a concerted effort to heave/tug/lug a conversation up and over the hill of small talk."
The whole book (even my least favorite subjects) was such a pleasure to read. I wanted there to be more: more serendipitous discoveries, more playing around with words, more colorful observations.

Amy said,
"If it is wonderful, splendid, remarkable--a view outside a window, a lit-up fountain at night, that fig-chorizo appetizer--I am compelled to seek some sort of saturation point, to listen/stare/savor on a loop, to greedily keep at it until I've absorbed, absconded with, and drained it of all its magic. Invariably, I will have to move on before I have had enough. My first word was more. It may very well be my last."
I don't know what her last word was, but that's the word that kept coming to my mind as I finished this book. I want more of Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

And that is why, upon finishing it, I watched her TED talk, put several of her books on hold at the library, reread her New York Times essay, read Little Pea to Clark, and revisited my favorite parts of this book.

And it still wasn't enough.

The Book Blab Episode 13: The Girl Who Drank the Moon Plus Two Other Newbery Favorites

May 31, 2017

Several months ago, Suzanne and I announced that we would be reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill in preparation for an upcoming mini book club. That mini book club finally happened last week when Suzanne was in Utah for a friend's wedding, and I was able to steal her away for an hour so we could discuss the book in person.

There was so much to talk about with this story, and we could have gone on for much longer if we'd had the time (and if we'd thought anyone would actually want to watch a three-hour long episode). In fact, after we wrapped up our conversation and stopped recording, we remembered other things we had wanted to talk about. (And at that time, Suzanne also diagnosed why I loved this book even though it's fantasy. Apparently it's because it's more theme driven instead of plot driven. Who knew?!) Anyway, we hope some of you accepted the invitation to read this book with us and will share your thoughts, questions, or opinions in the comments. Enjoy!

1:23 - There will be spoilers in this episode!
2:00 - Plot summary of The Girl Who Drank the Moon
5:40 - Introduction of characters
8:58 - Sorrow versus hope
14:00 - "A story can tell the truth, but a story can also lie."
17:15 - The power of love
  • 19:35 - The relationship between love and magic
  • 21:15: "There is no limit to what the heart can carry." 
23:40 - Humanizing the villain leads to complex emotions
27:00 - Did this book deserve the Newbery?
  • 28:25 - Amy's thoughts
  • 29:50 - Suzanne's thoughts
  • 32:20 - Would a child like this book?
34:40 - Two other Newbery recommendations
  • 35:00 - Suzanne's recommendation 
  • 36:20 - Amy's recommendation
37:50 - Conclusion

Books talked about during the show:

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
The Giver by Lois Lowry
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

One Month of Ian

May 24, 2017

I'll never understand time. How is it possible that the same quantity of minutes, hours, and days can add up in such different ways? The last month of pregnancy dragged by. It felt impossibly slow. But ever since Ian arrived, the weeks have disappeared in a blink. Here we are, at the one month mark already, and I don't even know how it happened.

But I'll tell you this much: it has been one month of heaven on earth. I love the newborn phase so much, and I honestly wonder how long Ian would have to stay a newborn before I would finally say, "Okay, that's enough. I'm ready for him to grow up." Because what I've gotten so far has not been long enough.

That's not to say I'm not grateful for every second (okay, almost every second) I've had with him. Mike had two weeks of paternity leave (which was just as amazing as it sounds), and my mom also came and stayed with me for a week. Right after Ian was born, I told Mike, "Just so you know, I'm planning on holding him the whole time you're home." And I basically did exactly that--not because Ian needed me to, but because I needed me to.

Life went on around me. The older boys needed rides to school and various activities. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner had to be made. Clark wanted lots of attention, always. The laundry cycled through from dirty to clean to dirty again. Mike built a bench in the kitchen and planted a couple of trees in the backyard. And I just watched it all from my chair in the living room while Ian slept peacefully on my chest.

It felt luxurious, like I was on vacation--the very best kind of vacation where you get to sleep in your own bed, but you don't have any responsibilities outside of feeding the baby, which you want to do anyway, and it just so happens that your favorite hobbies (i.e., reading and knitting) go together perfectly with holding a sleeping baby. I feel so grateful that Mike and my mom made it possible for me to soak up these fleeting newborn days.

The kids adore him as well, and I feel like a two-year-old all over again as I learn how to share him with everyone. :-) During the first two weeks, Clark told me every day, "I'm so glad our baby is here!" His other near-constant refrain is, "Our baby is so cute!" The only time Clark didn't love him was when Ian spit up all over his shorts and leg and foot. 

Last Sunday, I was getting ready for church and Ian was sitting in his bouncy seat outside the bathroom. Mike walked by and said, "Oh, what's this cute little boy doing here?" A few minutes later, Aaron walked by and said the same thing. Then a few minutes after that, Maxwell saw him and said exactly the same thing. I thought it was funny that all three of them couldn't help but comment on him and that they each used the same words to do so.

Bradley is hoping the baby takes after him and ends up with blonde hair. He just might get his wish. Ian's hair is definitely blonde around the edges, and he has blonde eyelashes and eyebrows. We're all anxious to see what it does as he gets bigger, but right now, Bradley is quick to tell people, "He has dark hair, but blonde highlights." 

Temperament-wise, Ian is a calm and sweet baby (of course, that could be due in part to the fact that no one wants to put him down, even for a few minutes). He's not one of those babies who never cries, but he is easily consoled when he does. He tolerates, and even seems to enjoy, the doting attention of his four older brothers (one of whom has a difficult time containing his love). He sleeps much better at night than any of our other babies ever did. I don't know if this is because we gave him a probiotic during his first three weeks of life (as recommended by our pediatrician) or if he likes the rock 'n play (which we didn't have with our other kids) or if Mike and I are just keeping to more of a routine (so that Ian doesn't spend the whole night nursing) or if he's just a really good baby. His one fault is that in his first month of life he has spit up more than the other four boys combined. But if that's the price for a happy baby, we'll take it.

Mike rarely reads my posts, but if he reads this one, I know he'll roll his eyes because I'm gushing like a first-time mom, but I can't help it. I love babies, and especially, right now, this baby.

The one thing I haven't quite adjusted to yet is his name. I had never even considered the name Ian until Mike mentioned it three days before his birth. We were spending the evening hashing out names. We had a list of about seven that we liked, and Mike was making random suggestions to see how I would react. He asked, "How about Ian?" And I responded, "I actually kind of like it." And he said, "Me too." So it got added to the list. And somehow, I'm not entirely sure how, it knocked out all the other contenders. But it still catches me off guard when someone asks what his name is, and I say, "It's . . . Ian?"

I always mourn my babies growing up too fast, but I think I've felt it even more acutely this time because it's quite possible that he could be our last. And it's making me feel a little panicky.

I can literally see him growing up and changing every day. Each time I change his diaper, his legs look a little chunkier. Each time I kiss his cheeks, they're just a little squishier. Every day, he spends more time awake, quietly observing the world. None of these are bad changes, and I'm so grateful for a healthy little boy, but they do mean he's growing up. (When we took him to the doctor's when he was three days old, his weight had dropped from 8 lbs. 8 oz to 7 lbs. 11 oz. This is totally normal and expected, but there was a part of me that was strangely overjoyed: "Yay! He's getting smaller!" Of course, by his two-week appointment, he was already up to 9 lbs. 2 oz., so he doesn't seem to be following my wishes to grow up a little slower.)

Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley said that the "experience of childbirth [is] akin to dipping into heaven for a brief moment and returning with this blessed new infant." She also said that "with each new baby [comes] a bundle of love so love never runs thin." I guess it's probably obvious from this post that I feel the same way. We love everything about this baby, from his blonde-tipped hair to his long skinny feet to his little elf ear to his adorable little sighs after he sneezes. Ian brought heaven with him, and our home is immeasurably better for it.

The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald x 3

May 19, 2017

Maxwell, as I've mentioned in many many posts, is my child who is very difficult to find good reading material for. He's a strong reader, so we don't have any problems there, but he is fairly resistant to most of my suggestions and is quite strong-willed and opinionated (although, in all fairness to him, he's made a concentrated effort to be more open minded in the last month, and I think that's pretty self-aware for a seven-year-old).

Anyway, several months ago I was bemoaning his stubborness yet again, and one of my virtual friends, Beth, commented that he might like The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald. I loved The Great Brain when I read it as a kid, and I'd been waiting for years for the right moment to introduce it to my kids. Beth's suggestion made me think maybe the time had come, and so I ordered the first three for Maxwell's birthday (and felt super annoyed when I couldn't get all three in the same edition--why does Amazon do that?).

Max wanted me to read them aloud, and that was fine with me because I couldn't wait to revisit some of my favorite chapters, and I was pretty sure Aaron and Bradley would enjoy them just as much as Max.

"Enjoy" is probably not a strong enough word for how much these boys liked these books. They inhaled every word. Each chapter had them sitting tensely with baited breath or laughing out loud or bouncing up and down with excitement and always, always, begging me to read just a little more.

These books are the somewhat autobiographical (and probably heavily embellished) account of John's growing up years in a small Utah town in the 1890's. He has two older brothers, Sven and Tom. John (or J.D., as everyone calls him) has the greatest respect and admiration for Tom, who always manages to turn a profit while looking like he has another person's best interests at heart (and that person is quite often J.D. himself).

For example, Tom charges a fee when the neighbor kids come by to see his family's brand new water closet (the first in the town!). Another time, he helps the new Greek kid learn how to fight so he won't be picked on by the other boys. And later, in the second book, his father takes all three boys camping, and Tom secretly marks a trail because he is certain they're going to get lost (and they do). After Tom catches the infamous "ghost" of Silverlode, Papa complains to Momma,"Why, oh, why did you have to give birth to a son who hasn't given us a moment's peace since the day he was born?"

The few times J.D. tries to follow Tom's example end disastrously (as when he purposely contracts the mumps because he never gets any diseases first and he wants to gloat over Tom and Sven when they get it after him; that was definitely one of our very favorite chapters). But eventually, in the third book, J.D. learns how to put his own little brain to work in a way that is uniquely his own.

Partway through our marathon reading of these books, Max asked me, "Mom, who do you think is the great brain in our family?" And I had to laugh because I think, to the rest of us, it is as obvious as a spotlight beaming down and an arrow pointing right at him: Maxwell! Maxwell! He is always coming up with plans that directly benefit him, but he gives them just the right slant to make them seem like he's being really noble and generous. As a parent, I have to be really vigilant about making sure he's not being too unfair to his siblings (or to me!). But rather than feeling like he'd found a kindred spirit, he was a little indignant each time Tom pulled one over on J.D., not realizing how similar his own tactics are when he's dealing with Bradley.

Since I'd already read the first book in the series, I was well aware of the similarity between Tom and Maxwell, and because of this, I was slightly wary about handing it over to him. What kinds of ideas would it put into his head? What might he think was okay after reading about what Tom did?

My worries were not totally unfounded. In spite of how much I liked these books, there's a lot going on that I really wouldn't want my boys to copy. One of the chapters I was most worried about was the last chapter in the first book, where J.D.'s friend, Andy, wants to commit suicide because he lost his leg after stepping on a rusty nail and he feels completely useless. J.D. agrees to help and after a failed attempt at drowning and another at hanging, Tom takes over and helps Andy relearn how to do everything so he no longer feels useless. This is actually one of my favorite chapters in the series, but I was worried that my kids would find it disturbing. However, it ends on such a positive note that I needn't have worried a bit.

Instead, what I should have been concerned about was the chapter where Abie Glassman, a Jewish peddler, starves and dies in his home without anyone in the town realizing until it's too late. Or I should have been worried about almost the entire third book where first, a little boy loses his mother, father, and brother in a tragic rock slide, and then later in the book, that same little boy gets taken hostage by a wicked and violent man (of course, since I hadn't read the third book before, it was as much a surprise to me as to my kids). Mixed in with all the humorous escapades, there were some mature themes as well as some fairly violent content. I think I probably would have waited on the third book if I'd known what was coming, but once we were into it, they wouldn't let me stop, and it ended up having a pretty fantastic ending.

But bigger issues aside, John and Tom and Sven are just typical boys growing up around the turn of the twentieth century, and what I mean by "typical boys" is that they wrestle, fight, or compete at every turn. As a mom and a girl, I can't understand it. I don't see where the appeal is in pinning each other to the ground. My boys, on the other hand, totally seemed to get it. It reminded me that girls and boys really are wired differently and that boys are just naturally more physical (they were in 1890, and they still are in 2017). I've always said that my kids were born knowing how to wrestle, and it appears J.D. and his brothers were, too. That said, it's not as if I want my boys starting up fights at school (or frankly, with each other), so even the more mild content needed a healthy dose of discussion to go along with it.

All this makes it sound like I didn't enjoy reading these books to my kids but quite the opposite is true. They are among some of our very favorite readalouds to date, but I would definitely recommend that they be just that--read aloud--because there was a lot I wanted to help them process.

Unbounded Joy: Ian's Birth Story

May 12, 2017

I'm well aware that this recounting of Ian's birth is three times longer than it needs to be, especially considering the fact that it doesn't have any rush-to-the-hospital moments to keep up the pace. I left in the mundanest of details for my own benefit because I know I'll want to go back in a few months or years and relive it. So no apologies, and I won't be at all offended if you do a lot of skimming or just skip over it entirely.

As I sit down to chronicle the details of Ian's birth, he is swaddled to my chest in the Solly baby wrap (one of the few things I actually purchased this time around). I could lay him down, but I don't want to. I want him right here, snuggled against me, helping me remember the little moments that made this birth so special.

But first, I need to revisit the internal debate that consumed me during almost the entire length of this pregnancy: that of whether or not I wanted to get an epidural?

The question poked its way into my brain early on in the pregnancy, and I have to say, it surprised me. With my other children, I had never even considered an epidural (except for a brief few minutes during Clark's birth). With each one, I knew I wanted to have as natural of a delivery as possible (but in a hospital). I spent the months leading up to each birth preparing to handle the discomfort, and when the time came, I accepted it (granted, among moans and pleas and cries) as a necessary part of the birth process.  And those births were beautiful, miraculous, sacred, and transformative. It's not that they were so perfect I wouldn't change anything about them, but as far as the big, important things, I wouldn't. The intense, exhausting pain contrasted in high relief with the sweet rush of deliverance, and after each one, I seemed to catch a glimpse of eternity and understand the purpose of life on a slightly deeper level.

I'm telling all of this so you'll better understand my confusion when my mind and heart suddenly latched onto an epidural and wouldn't let go. I couldn't figure it out. I didn't know why I would want to do things any differently when my experiences had been so overwhelmingly positive in the past.

And so I set about to convince myself otherwise: I read two amazing childbirth books, both of which advocated natural childbirth and were filled with positive, inspiring birth stories. Those stories called to remembrance some of the precious details from the births of my own four children, but at the end of each one, I said to myself, Oh, that is so wonderful . . . but I still want an epidural. I also read through my accounts of the births of my children, which almost always made me shed a few grateful tears as I remembered how sweet and special each birth was.

I prayed a lot but didn't feel especially compelled one way or the other. And I sought advice, or at least a listening ear, from family and friends. Most people were firmly in one camp or the other, depending on their own experiences. Those who had experienced both an epidural and natural labor generally stayed on the side of natural delivery, which made me wary to get an epidural. Mike wasn't overly opinionated on the matter but finally said he thought I shouldn't get an epidural--not because he is a huge fan of natural labor but because he thought I'd be happier with the end result. But the majority of the advice ended with, "Just wait until you're in labor. You'll know what to do then."

But that's not really my style. If I was going to get an epidural, I wanted to go into the hospital with that as the plan so that I could really take full advantage of it and enjoy it. And if I was going to go for another unmedicated birth, I needed to get in that mindset well before the onset of labor.

I also tried my hand at a pros and cons list, just to see how that all turned out. I had definite reasons for wanting an epidural: I wanted to see what the other side was like, I thought Mike might enjoy the birth more, I didn't want to go through that blinding pain again. There was also a part of me that was frustrated that my "natural" births weren't actually that natural because I was always hooked up to an IV getting penicillin for Group B strep and pitocin to help keep the contractions going, so it wasn't like I was laboring in a tub or moving around with ease like the women in so many of the birth stories I read. I kind of felt like if I was going to be tethered to the bed anyway, I might as well be comfortable.

There were cons as well: the epidural might not work (or worse, I might not react well to it and have some negative side effects), I might feel out of touch with my body, I might not be able to help the baby turn if he followed his brothers' examples and went posterior, I might miss out on that incredible rush that comes after delivery, or my recovery might be slower and more difficult.

But through it all, I just could not rid myself of the thought, I want an epidural. I WANT an epidural. And I finally decided to pay attention to that thought and give it some credence. It had been a matter of prayer from the beginning, and I realized this might be Heavenly Father's way of communicating the answer to me. Once again, I prayed, but this time I said, "I've decided to get an epidural. If this is right, please help me to feel at peace. And if it's wrong, please stop me." And there it was. Peace. I didn't know why this was the answer (and I fervently hoped it wasn't because there would be complications that would require an emergency cesarean or something of that nature), but I finally felt like I could move forward again.

I talked to my midwife, Gretchen, about my decision, and she was completely on board with it (but I have no doubt she would have been equally supportive of the other choice as well). A few weeks before my due date, we also discussed a possible induction.

That too deserves a little explanation (or justification? call it what you will). With all of my other babies, I've been fairly obsessed with going into labor on my own and done everything in my power to make it happen, but then when the time came, each one still needed a little nudge to get it going. With this one, I felt pretty resigned to just being induced. It still felt a little like cheating to me, but I candidly admitted that I no longer had the mental stamina I once had to endure the torture of going past my due date. Plus, an induction came with its own set of perks: we could pick the day, we could arrange all childcare ahead of time, and I could be sure about getting a dose of penicillin for the Group B strep before delivering the baby. So Gretchen and I threw around possible dates and settled on Friday, April 21st, three days before my actual due date (but if I'm continuing to justify things, my 20-week ultrasound actually dated the pregnancy for April 21st, so I wasn't rushing anything too much).

Once that was in place, I basically waited out the rest of the pregnancy. It wasn't that I didn't still occasionally dream about my water breaking and the contractions beginning with a vengeance because I would have loved to have the discomfort cut a little short (in the words of my midwife, this baby's head was resting right on my pubic bone for the last three weeks of pregnancy, and, believe me, I didn't need her to tell me that to be convinced).

But the truth was, I really wasn't getting a lot of contractions. They would come sporadically, at random times, usually just one, and then, maybe four hours later, another one. There didn't really seem to be any activity (or inactivity) that prompted them, and they never came at regular enough intervals that I felt compelled to pull out the stop watch and time them.

This was all fine until my appointment on Thursday, the day before I was supposed to be induced. Then Gretchen checked me and said I was dilated to 1 cm (which was the same as the week before) and about 60% effaced, with the baby's head very low but not engaged with the cervix, which was tilted up and back (in fact, it was so far up, Gretchen had a very difficult time reaching it).

None of this surprised me (I was well aware that the few contractions I was having were totally ineffective), but it discouraged me nonetheless. I wondered if my body wasn't ready for an induction, if maybe I was overly excited and starting things too soon. Gretchen assured me that everything looked favorable for an induction, but I left the office feeling depressed and a little anxious.

Mike distracted me from my pessimistic thoughts by taking me out to dinner and then insisting I go to my book club meeting while he cleaned the house (he's extraordinary, I know!). When I got home around 9:30pm, my outlook was much brighter, and I happily packed a bag for the hospital before setting an early alarm and going to sleep.

The next morning, I called the hospital at 6:00am. Thursday night had been rainy and stormy, and I figured the change in weather had probably triggered the onset of labor for a lot of moms (just not me . . . ). So I fully expected to call and hear them say, "Call back in a few hours and we'll see if we can get you in." Instead, they said, "Can you be here at 7:15?" In a rush, we were waking up kids and getting everyone dressed and ready for school and dropping them off at Mike's sister's house.

Before we left, I asked Mike to give me a priesthood blessing. I was feeling jittery and nervous, and even as he was speaking, my mind was racing and distracted. But it did catch hold of two promises: that both the induction and the epidural would go well, and those both brought me peace.

We arrived at the hospital on time and checked in without incident. As I changed into my hospital gown, I couldn't help but think that except for being extremely uncomfortable, I didn't really feel like someone a few hours away from having a baby. In fact, it felt more like I was just there for a check-up. I don't think I'd had a single contraction so far that morning.

I heard the nurse, Fran, come in and introduce herself to Mike and then begin asking him a few basic questions: Did he want to cut the cord? (He said yes, although it's never been a big deal one way or the other to him.) Would I want to do skin-to-skin after the baby was born? (Yes.) Was I planning to breastfeed? (Yes.) Would I want to use a mirror during pushing? (He didn't know.) What was the baby's name going to be? (??????)

The first order of business was the IV. In the past, the IV has never needed more than a passing mention, but this time, it turned out to be quite the ordeal. First Fran looked at the right side (because I'm left-handed). She pushed and prodded various veins for a few minutes before deciding to look at the left hand and arm instead. Again, she took several minutes examining her options before deciding the right side was better. After a couple more minutes, she geared up for entry: "Okay, here we go." She actually seemed pretty nervous, which made me a little nervous. Unfortunately, the first poke didn't take, even though she stayed in there for a bit and tried to make it work. So she returned to the left side where she again went painstakingly through her various vein choices before talking herself into one, breathing deeply, and pushing in the needle. And . . . nope. The IV was once again a no go in spite of Fran's efforts to move the needle around and get it in the right place.

It was time to call in the reinforcements. Fran got the charge nurse, Susan, to come in, and, just like that, the IV was in and fluids were flowing through it like it was no big deal. I'm not kidding when I say that the IV placement was probably the most painful part of the day--which either shows that the rest of the day was really good or that the IV was just really bad.

I must admit that at this point, I had serious doubts about Fran and considered asking for a different nurse. I knew she wasn't new to nursing, but her IV skills definitely seemed a little rusty, and I could tell by something Susan said to her that she was relatively new to the hospital. But I liked her personality, and so I decided to wait and see. I'm so glad I did because I ended up loving her, and she seemed completely competent for the rest of the day.

After the IV was in, Fran checked me so that we'd have a baseline. I was 2 cm dilated and still about 60% effaced, but she definitely seemed to have an easier time reaching my cervix than Gretchen had the day before, so I was encouraged.

She got the penicillin for the Group B strep going and then started the pitocin about twenty minutes after that (at about 8:30am).

At this point, I was really just hanging out, listening to the baby's heartbeat on the monitor, feeling the occasional weak contraction, and chatting with Mike. I considered reading to pass the time, but the penicillin really burned going in, and I was having a hard time thinking about other things. When I mentioned this to Fran, she wrapped my arm in a warm towel and that helped immensely.

Soon after we arrived, Fran asked me if I was planning to get an epidural. I said yes and mentioned that it would be my first one. She asked what my pain goals were--did I want to avoid all pain completely or wait until I was feeling some contractions or get it when the pain had reached the unendurable stage? This was something I'd already given a lot of thought to. I had already decided, well in advance, that I wanted an epidural. Therefore, I was not going to "wait and see if the pain got too bad." I'd given birth four times and already knew the pain would get too bad. One of my main reasons for getting an epidural was to avoid the pain and enjoy the birth as much as possible. However, at the same time, I wanted to have some sense of where the labor was at before getting the epidural. I didn't want my mobility to be restricted if I was just having mild contractions for several hours. Basically I didn't want to wait too long, but I wanted to wait long enough. I hoped I would know when that point would be.

Meanwhile, the time was passing slowly, marked only by regular trips to the bathroom and incremental increases in pitocin: 8:30 am--4 units; 8:53 am--8 units; 9:25am--12 units (Fran thought this would be the magic number and that we'd see the contractions intensify and come more frequently, but they didn't); 10:00am--16 units; 10:30 am--20 units.

If I'm remembering correctly, with my other labors I think I only needed the lowest dosage of pitocin to kick labor into high gear. So every time Fran came in and bumped the pitocin up to the next level, I felt a little down. I was having regular contractions, and occasionally I would get one that was a little stronger and think, "Oooh, that one was more noticeable," but I can always tell when the contractions start changing over to the real thing because I start to dread them instead of feel excited about them, and that definitely hadn't happened yet. At this point, I was still very happy when the next one would show up and feel very disappointed if it was more than five minutes after the last one.

As a change of pace, I sat in the rocking chair for awhile, hoping the rocking motion would help the contractions and also just because I was sick of sitting in bed. I was also getting quite hungry. I wasn't allowed to have actual food, but jello was permissible because it was clear, so I ate two of those and then felt better. We also had plenty of time to get to know Fran and check up on our kids  and discuss potential names for the baby. Fran was a pro at reading the monitor and pointed out things I'd never been told before. For example, if there's a slight dip in the baby's heart rate at the peak of a contraction, that means the baby is moving down.

Gretchen came in around 11:45am. She was her usual cheerful, positive self and wasn't at all concerned that I was on the highest level of pitocin without much change to the intensity of the contractions. Her plan was to break my water and see if that helped move things along. (I realized that with my other four babies, my water had always been broken before they started the pitocin, so it's hard to say if it was the broken water, the pitocin, or the two in combination that always did the trick in the past.)

Before she broke the bag of water, Gretchen checked me again--still 2 cm and 60% effaced. More evidence that the pitocin was not producing the desired results. Gretchen still seemed to be having a difficult time reaching my cervix and an even harder time doing the amniotomy. In fact, after she was finished, I wasn't feeling anything--not a gush or a trickle or a leak--and I wondered if she actually had been successful in getting to it. Gretchen was sure she'd nicked it and said I should start feeling something soon.

But I didn't. The only thing that seemed to change was that I began to see a little bit of bloody discharge when I went to the bathroom. But other than that, it was back to sitting around and waiting. I pulled out my knitting for a bit, which should have made me happy, but the IV made it cumbersome, and really, I wasn't at the hospital to knit.

Over the next two hours, the contractions gradually gathered some strength and regularity. Fran asked me about my pain level, and I think I told her it was maybe (hopefully?) up to a three or four.They were at least requiring a little bit of concentration to get through.

Gretchen came back in at 1:45pm, checked me (3 cm, 70% effaced) and could tell immediately that she hadn't broken my water. She again inserted the little hook, and this time, there was a swift gush, leaving no doubt that she'd been successful. (In Mike's notes, he wrote: 11:45 - Gretchen breaks water? and then, 1:45 - Gretchen breaks water!) I have my suspicions that if she'd really broken it the first time, the baby would have been born two hours earlier.

Almost immediately, I realized that it might be time to get the epidural. I made careful note of the way I was feeling: still relaxed and in control, but each contraction seemed to be slightly stronger and more painful than the last. I was beginning to feel more dread and less excitement with the approach of each one. I discussed it with Fran. She sat down and went through the entire epidural procedure, step by step, making note of what I might feel at each point and about how long it would take. After the run down, I knew I was ready. I told her to call the anesthesiologist.

I got into position, sitting sideways on the bed with my legs stretched out and Mike sitting in a chair in front of me. When the anesthesiologist came in, he took up his position on the other side. I admitted that even though it was my fifth baby, it was my first epidural and I was a little nervous. He was kind and unhurried and talked me through each step.

He had me relax my head and neck so that they were curled against my chest. After sterilizing everything, he said, "Okay, this is usually the most uncomfortable part for people." And I waited for it . . . and waited . . . but I didn't feel a thing. Not a single sensation or discomfort. I didn't say anything but just kept breathing slowly and sitting perfectly still. Then he said, "Now people usually feel a pop." Again, I waited. I thought I maybe felt something, but it was so slight, I might have just imagined it. Finally, after a few more minutes, he said, "Okay, it's all done!" I lifted my head and came out of my relaxed position and said, "I didn't feel a thing." At first, I worried that maybe it wouldn't work because I hadn't felt anything, but then I realized that if it hadn't worked, I would for sure be feeling something.

I settled back into the bed while Fran placed the catheter. My feet began to feel a little bit tingly, and the numbness slowly worked its way up my legs. I put my hand on my thigh, and it no longer felt like it was attached to my body. I could still wiggle my toes and move my feet though. But the strangest part, and the one that sent me into a little bit of a panic, was that before the epidural, each contraction was slightly more intense than the last, but after the epidural, each contraction was slightly less painful until I was merely feeling slight pressure each time but absolutely no pain. My mind began playing tricks on me: Oh no, the contractions aren't effective anymore. My labor is stopping. This baby must still be hours away from coming. When I expressed these thoughts to Fran, she laughed and put a hand on my stomach, "Oh Amy, these are strong contractions now. This is what labor is like with an epidural."

And so I sat there and marveled for the next hour. It was an entirely new experience for me and one that I was relishing. I watched the contractions come and go on the monitor, but I was relaxed and coherent and just very happy. 

Fran was watching the monitor as well, and she began to notice something that I did not: each contraction had two little peaks at the top of it, instead of just one. Fran said this could be an indication that the baby was posterior, and of course I wasn't surprised; it was what I suspected and feared all along; it was one of the main reasons why I hadn't wanted an epidural. But Fran assured me that they could help me get in a position that would help the baby rotate.

The epidural hadn't had an effect on my appetite however. It was approaching 4:00pm now, and I'd only had a bowl of cereal before I left my house that morning and two cups of jello and some water and juice. Fran said she could give me some Ensure (there is a clear version), and even though a club sandwich sounded a lot better, I took the option I had.

Gretchen came back in at 3:50 and checked me. I was dilated to 5 cm and very thin. She said the baby's head was right there and that as soon as I was dilated, it wasn't going to take much for him to come out. Gretchen agreed that we should try to turn me onto my side in case the baby was posterior. Mike got on one side and Fran got on the other and they maneuvered me into position. I admit I felt a little helpless at that point, but Fran acted like it was just part of the routine, and I think Mike appreciated that he finally had something to do besides look at his phone (with all the other deliveries he was required to breathe with me or let me squeeze his hand off or push on my knees or back). Gretchen told me to turn my chest so that it was on the bed (not an easy thing when your stomach is the size of a beach ball), and then they got an hourglass shaped ball called a peanut ball to put between my legs.

Within just a few minutes of turning onto my side, my teeth began to chatter and I started to shiver uncontrollably. Mike noticed and said, "Uh-oh, she's shaking." He's seen four other cases of the shivers, and they always mean only one thing, which Fran immediately identified: "She's in transition. I'm so glad you noticed." Mike was well aware of how quickly things progress for me when they get to that point, and he fired off a text to my mom at 4:19pm, which said, "I predict 4:30."

Meanwhile, I was sitting there with my teeth rattling together and the goofiest smile lighting up my face. Like a train bouncing along a track, my body was racing to the finish line. I knew that this had to be what was happening, but I could not believe it. Instead of begging for help with each hurdling contraction, I was just like everyone else in the room--completely caught up in the excitement of the moment: The baby is coming! The baby is coming!

Fran asked, "Are you cold?" "Not at all!" I smiled. "I just can't stop shaking." I smiled some more. Fran brought me a blanket anyway. I looked over at Mike and beamed. "I'm in transition!" Fran said, "Amy, if you feel any sort of pressure between your legs, you must tell us right away." "Okay, will do!" I enthusiastically agreed.

At 4:24pm, Gretchen checked me again. 8 cm. The room became a frenzy of activity. They turned me back over to my back. Gretchen and Fran donned gowns, and another nurse arrived. Gretchen sat at the end of the bed, and someone moved a mirror into place so that I could see. I had never wanted a mirror with any of the other births. I found it distracting and discouraging and almost like it added a certain level of intensity that I couldn't handle. But this time I wanted to see it all.

All of a sudden, the contractions felt different. I could feel something right between my legs, and I knew I was ready to push. I told Gretchen, "I'm feeling pressure!"

And then, inexplicably, I started to laugh. To some in the room, it might have seemed like the contractions had triggered some sort of crazy button and I was going a little nuts. But I felt like I was in complete control. I laughed out of disbelief--here I was, about to push out my baby, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I laughed because in that moment I felt pure, unadulterated joy.

At 4:30pm, I gave the first push. Gretchen said, "Can you see his head?" I looked, and I saw a tiny dark circle growing bigger before my very eyes. I was still laughing, and then, all of a sudden, I was crying, too. I locked eyes with Mike. "This is amazing! I can't believe it!" I gave another push, and it was as if I was watching a flower open up in fast motion. His head was out, and then one more push, and the rest of him followed at 4:31pm.

They immediately put him on my stomach, warm and wet and wriggly. Mike did indeed cut the cord, and then little Ian was on my chest, and I was smothering his head with kisses and exclaiming over his sheer perfection, all while continuing to drip joyful tears.

He was the purplest baby I'd ever seen, but one of the nurses coaxed a couple of good cries out of him, and then he started to pink right up. He took to nursing right away, latching on and swallowing like he'd done it all his life (which I guess he had--all fifteen minutes of it!).

Fran couldn't get over the speed of his delivery. "You are the shortest pusher I've ever seen!" she exclaimed. She said when I began pushing, she recorded it in my chart: "4:30 - pushing engaged" and then, when she turned around, he was already out, and she rushed to record his time of birth. She was in such a hurry that she accidentally pushed, "4:31 - breech delivery." I guess the nurses out at the nurse's station were quite surprised: "A breech delivery in under a minute?" That would have been something.

Gretchen stitched up a slight tear, and the epidural gradually wore off without me giving much thought to it (I had a sweet baby to distract me). In fact, as I was nursing Ian, I bent my knee to bring up one of my legs, and Fran said, "Oh my goodness, you can move your leg like that?" By the time I was ready to move to my room, I could move myself out of the bed and into the wheelchair.

In the weeks that have followed, as I've shared how the birth went with friends and family, the most common (and probably most obvious) question has been: "So, do you wish you'd had epidurals with all your kids?"

I can see why everyone asks that. From start to finish, it was about as perfect an epidural as you could ask for. But the short answer is no. No, I don't wish I'd had epidurals each time, even if they'd all been as perfect as this one, but nor do I wish I'd gone without one this time. I'll try to explain.

With my four natural deliveries, I experienced the full physical effects of giving birth. They were raw and primal and also, somewhat ironically, glorious. It was absolutely amazing to see and feel and understand the pristine power of the human body. After each birth, I felt invigorated and strong. I felt like I could take on the world. Not only that, but going through so much for one child transformed the way I felt about God and motherhood and life.

But, it was also very, very painful. And, it turns out, pain can be distracting and block out other emotions and feelings.

With Ian's birth, it was as if I gave myself a new vantage point, one that showed me a different side of things. Having been through labor and delivery four other times, I was well-versed in the stages of birth, and my body still did things the same way it always has, right down to the shaking during transition and the posterior position of the baby, but this time I observed it more than I felt it. But even though I wasn't deep in the throes of it, I didn't feel like an impassive bystander because I knew what I was missing. And because I knew and remembered what each stage felt like, I watched it all unfold with this incredible sense of wonder. I thought my body was amazing when I felt each contraction wash over me like a wave, and I thought it was just as amazing when I watched it happen instead.

I had high hopes that getting an epidural would help Mike enjoy the birth more as well, and it did, but to a far lesser extent than it did me. I guess birth just isn't his thing. That's okay.

Mostly, I just felt overwhelming gratitude: for my body and my baby and for modern medicine that let me just enjoy it. The next day, as the 24-hour mark of Ian's life approached, I said to Mike, "I just wish I could do the last half hour all over again." That's how much I loved it. This birth was truly the cherry on top.

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