March 8, 2002
Great With Child
Early in Debra Rienstra's new book on becoming a mother, the aptly titled Great With Child, there's an obscure passage from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that serves as a launching pad for all that follows.
There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, "Enough!": the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, "Enough!"
In the book Rienstra says simply: "The longing to create life is elemental, on the level of fire, earth, and death. The steadily humming tissues and organs, as they play out their unconscious patterns, long to serve something spiritual, to touch the eternal. It does not seem strange to me, then, that our physical bodies lean hard, with our souls, toward the eternal."
In that context it does not seem strange then that Rienstra decided to document her third, and final, pregnancy with such detail and precision as to inspire an almost 300-page book, due out in early April from Putnam/Tarcher.
"After my first two children were born," she says, "I remembered their births with a sort of nostalgia. With this I wanted to savor every moment of the experience. Also, most books on pregnancy and birth treat it as merely a medical event, physical changes and fetal development. I wanted to read something that treated motherhood in the fullness of its dimensions - - social and personal, body, mind and soul. Sometimes, as all mothers know, if something must get done you have to do it yourself. So I started writing."
Consequently, Great With Child is a wide-ranging recounting of a journey that began with thinking about becoming pregnant and concluded, in the book, with the baby's first birthday. It's a combination of a devotional, a first-person pregnancy account and more with pregnancy as the pivot point.
Early reviews of the book have been glowing.
A recent Publishers Weekly handed Great With Child a starred review, saying: "The book's greatest strength, however, is that she never strays far from her own narrative. Though she spent more than a year revising her manuscript, each chapter reflects her thoughts and feelings as the events she describes unfolded. As such, her memoir tells the truth in a way that few books about parenthood do. Rather than recounting her story long after it happened and/or intepreting it to support a particular parenting philosophy, she simply records how things felt as they occurred. A new or expectant mother is much more likely to find herself, and thereby solace, in these pages than in how-to books written by those for whom the sleeplessness and tumult of infant care is a distant memory."
That, says Rienstra, is the idea. In fact she says those first acts of simply recording events and feelings led to the book's often eclectic nature, where Shakespeare, the Bible, Sesame Street, C.S. Lewis, Star Trek (she's a self-confessed Trekkie), medieval art and more all weave in and out of the narrative at their pleasure. Some of the references were things that have been in her head for years (I walk through life with texts in my head she says), while others required extensive research in a wide variety of anthologies and publications.
"I kept finding that there weren't really any dead ends," she says. "Everything seemed relevant. I was bringing a new person into the world, so the whole world was fair game."
That whole world included her Calvin classrooms where the literature and poetry classes that she teaches often enter into the book.
"I was actually a little surprised," she says, "at how much my Calvin classes enter into it. But one of the things I love about teaching is that the texts that I teach are relevant to my own life. And that's one of the things I try also to communicate to my students. These things we explore together aren't confined to the classroom. They intersect with our lives every day."
In fact, Rienstra says teaching classes at Calvin while writing the book improved the book. And writing the book improved her teaching.
"I teach creative writing," she says, "so to have done a book and to have gone through the process . . . it's very helpful."
Rienstra's not sure what's next on her horizon. Philip, the subject of Great With Child, is now almost three. She jokes that her next book will be called Further Behind: A Day in the Life of a Mother. For now, however, she's enjoying this book, her first, and savoring both the memories of its creation and the moments of its arrival.