When Kate Hopper’s first child arrived eight weeks early, she and her husband were unexpectedly plunged into an alternate universe where brain bleeds are normal and parents help revive their babies when they stop breathing, over and over again. Her new memoir, “Ready for Air” (University of Minnesota Press), chronicles her daughter’s frightening first weeks at the Children’s Hospital’s ICU unit and looks unflinchingly at the psychological realities of learning to be a parent when other people are in a charge of a baby that can’t come home.
At one point, Hopper notes a study that found parents of premature babies in ICU wards suffer high degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder — incredibly, on a level near that experienced by veterans. New babies and warfare shouldn’t be in any category together, but as this book shows, profound stress is a normal part of the ICU experience.
“I wanted to have this honest look at motherhood and how intense and hard it can be sometimes, especially when things don’t turn out the way you expect it them to, which happens more often than anyone thinks it does,” said Hopper in an interview. “But people don’t want to admit that reality can be very normal. One publisher read it and said, ‘She’s a deranged mother!’ But look what we were going through. Of course I was. We were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, never knowing what would happen next. Her life, and ours, were totally in the balance and we had no control over anything.”
Stressful balancing act
Hopper, along with her husband, Danny, navigate their daughter’s medical challenges, while balancing work, extended family and changing roles. Hopper cuts herself little slack, recounting episodes in which stress and postpartum chemicals collide in cringe-worthy breakdowns. She also declines to suffer fools in the hospital setting. Doctors and nurses of Children’s Hospital, consider yourself warned.
“I know the people at Children’s will read this, and I’m sure some people will recognize themselves. They are part of the story, and I definitely have criticisms of the way we were treated at times,” says Hopper (who will be the keynote speaker at a Children’s Hospital and Clinics’ annual meeting this winter; all has been forgiven). “But my hope is that it will help medical professionals understand that when a child is in the hospital, the parents are part of that experience. Every mother deserves to be looked in the eye and treated with respect and listened to.”
Hopper’s career as a writer and teacher has centered on helping writers overcome the practical challenges that get in the way of the story. She pays special attention to mothers, who are often forced to set writing aside in favor of the household demands (Her first book is “Use Your Words, A Writing Guide for Mothers.”).
Women writers ‘often not taken seriously’
“Male writers are never regarded as fathers who write. And women writers who are mothers are discouraged in so many ways. When women write, and when they write about their experiences as a parent, they are so often not taken seriously by the literati — whoever that is, I don’t even know — and that really is why I do the work I do.
“I think a well-written book about motherhood is going to express something about the human condition. It’s not a “momoir” — I hate that term so much. It’s so dismissive of everything a woman writer who happens to be a parent has worked for. I recall one reviewer of another book just dismissing, trashing the whole genre of books by women who are mothers, before saying something nice about that particular book. Why do that? Why trash an entire group of people’s work? It’s so ignorant.”
Hopper says the editor who bought “Ready for Air” is actually a man, and appreciated the story in part for its rich setting among Minneapolis neighborhoods and landmarks — the crux of the story takes place in the ICU, yet Hopper remains firmly enmeshed with the Twin Cities.
Eventually, baby Stella is able to come home — into a state of quarantine for five months during a Minnesota winter. And even people without fragile newborns can imagine that particular grim isolation and cabin fever.