Tag Archives: surprises

Surprise endings and a fish foot massage (A Writing Wednesday post)

Yes, that is a picture of Mike in Cambodia, reading my manuscript while fish nibble at his feet. That was more than a year ago, and if you’d told me then I’d still be fine tuning this book 13 months later I may just have jumped into the pond and let the fish have me.

Sometimes it’s a good thing that we don’t fully realize in advance just how much work is in store for us when we follow our passions.

On Sunday Mike hung with Baby Bear while I wrestled with the ending of my memoir. This has to be at least the tenth time I’ve gone through this manuscript in the last two years. I thought that this final read-through before I sent it off for copy-editing would take me about half the time that it actually did – surprise!

And that’s not the only surprise I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I had thought that the draft was very tight, but I trimmed more than a thousand words from it in this final go around. Surprise!

I had thought I was 100% happy with flow, but I ended up having to do more intensive editing on two chapters – one struck me as too long, the other as too dense. Surprise!

I had thought my ending was excellent, but when I got to the end of this final edit I was plagued with the nagging feeling that I hadn’t quite nailed it. Surprise!

This last one perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, when I hired an editor nine months ago to give me some unbiased feedback on the book, this was one of the things she mentioned.

“I felt a little let down by the ending,” she told me. “Just those last few lines… they’re not as strong as they could be.”

At the time this was one of the few pieces of feedback she gave me that I discounted. I did think it through carefully, but decided she was wrong. Now, nine months later, I’ve decided that she was right after all. It seems that I am not the world’s fastest processor. (This is another thing that shouldn’t surprise me, but still regularly does).

I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with the previous ending for a couple of days, not until I was trying to explain it to Mike one evening.

“It’s just… it’s just… it’s just that it’s cute, I finally finished. “And a bit glib.”

So on Sunday I sat down with a cup of tea and my iPod and the laptop and stayed there for the several hours it took to eke out the 183 words that make for a different and better ending, a much better ending. The last chapter of the book is set on the day before my wedding, and two of the sentences in that ending state:

I want Mike to be beside me whatever form home might take for me in the future. I am convinced that a white picket fence with him would be better than bumping down a dirt road without him, and that traveling a dirt road together would beat out a white picket fence that’s mine alone.

After Mike read the new ending he came into the kitchen and wrapped his arms around me.

“Aw,” he said into the top of my head. “Do you really mean that? That a dirt road with me is better than a more comfortable, stable home without me?”

I thought briefly of the special little (frustrating) adventures that this particular dirt road has held during the last few weeks, and then I laughed.

“I meant it the day before our wedding,” I said.

Mickey Spillane once said: “The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.” Do you agree? And do you struggle more with endings or beginnings in your writing?

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Lessons learned during labour and delivery

I don’t really know where to start when writing about labour and delivery. For starters, it was such an intense experience that even now, almost two weeks later, I’m struggling to find the right words (any words) to tell the story well. And secondly, while I was pregnant I was incredibly curious about other women’s experiences of the whole process. Yet I’m not sure that hearing all those stories actually served me well.

Almost no one I talked to spoke positively about labour and delivery, and it seemed that for every woman who had experienced a relatively trouble-free birth there were two more who spoke first (with the haunted look of a trauma survivor) of how badly they tore, how intense back labour was, or how everything went wrong and they needed to have an emergency caesarian. Then there were the real horror stories, of which I heard several.

So I’m unsure of how much detail to go into. I mean, do you really want to know that at 8AM I was 5 cm dilated, throwing up, the contractions were coming one on top of the other almost without pause, and that I told the obstetrician I was dying? Maybe you do, but does knowing that actually help anyone? I’m not so sure.

So instead of giving you the blow by blow, complete with timeline, I think I’ll just talk about a couple of things that I learned or that surprised me along the way. But let me say this before I say any more – overall I had a reasonably good experience of labour and delivery. At eleven and a half hours from first contraction to delivery it maybe wasn’t quite as speedy as I had hoped for, but quicker and generally more manageable than I had feared.

Now, lessons and surprises…

I was more capable of managing the pain than I’d feared I would be: I won’t lie – the pain, especially during the last seven hours, was intense, all-consuming, and like nothing I’d ever experienced before. All that work I’d done creating birth playlists and packing movies we could watch in case of a long labour – none of it was needed. I was completely incapable of concentrating on anything except what was happening in my body.

What helped me the most during labour was keeping my eyes closed and counting my breaths during contractions. As long as I could do that I stayed focused and calm – almost as if I were in a trance. At no time was there any screaming, or swearing at Mike, or biting. Apart from the rough patch at 8AM when I said that I thought I wanted an epidural, I didn’t ask for medication again. In the end I was more afraid that my focus and self-control would completely disappear if I opened my eyes long enough to ask for pain relief than I was of continuing to endure without it. The end result? A completely natural birth.

Labouring in water was a big help: After my waters broke at 8AM I got into an inflatable tub full of warm water and stayed there for the next several hours. The warmth and being comparatively weightless when I wanted to shift position was a huge help in dealing with the contractions.

Having a doula (a birth coach) was a big help: Partly because of the risk that Mike would miss the birth, we decided to hire a doula to be with us during labour and delivery. It was a great decision. Jade was able to stay with us the entire time, whereas the hospital midwives had to keep coming and going as they attended to other patients. She massaged my back at key points, sponged off my face with cold water, gently nudged me to change positions at certain times, kept a vigilant eye on the process, and was able to reassure Mike that things were progressing normally. Left to my own devices I suspect I would have stayed curled up on the bed with my eyes closed the entire time, labour would have been longer, and I probably wouldn’t have made it without pain relief. If you’re pregnant and considering whether or not to hire a doula, hire one.

Moving on, here’s one that I could never fathom how it would be possible beforehand… The women who tell you that in the later stages of labour you will not care if you are stark naked and in the most unflattering position when three total strangers walk into the room… they are right. 

That oft-talked about magical moment when they place your newborn on your chest right after delivery? … Not so much. I was surprised how out of it I was immediately following delivery, and how long the whole after-birth process took. After he was delivered I went into shock and spent most of the next hour shaking uncontrollably while I was being stitched up and delivering the placenta. The baby was on my chest, but it was all I could do to hold him and pat him. There was no incandescent moment of mystery, connection, and wonder as I gazed into his eyes or kissed his little face (which was mostly screwed up, purple, and screaming). He pooed all over me. It was all much more earthy than magical.

Later that night though, when he was all bundled up and I was alone with him in the hospital, and he started to squirm and make unhappy guinea pig noises and wouldn’t settle down again until he was cuddled up right against my chest… that was pretty magical.

So there you have it. If you’ve had a baby or witnessed a birth, what did you learn or what surprised you about the whole process?

Ten things that have surprised me about pregnancy (#5-10)

Here is the second installment of the post I started yesterday – things that have surprised me about pregnancy. After I started writing these posts on Sunday, Mike and I talked about this topic over dinner. We agreed that, overall, I’d had a pretty good second trimester and been lucky enough to stay fairly healthy.

“Huh,” I said, looking at the food on my plate as we were saying this, “I don’t feel so good all of a sudden. I don’t think I can eat that.”

To cut a long and yucky story short, that was the start of a night when I broke my own personal record for the number of times I can throw up in twelve hours. I dropped five pounds overnight and yesterday I couldn’t make it out of bed until 5pm. We suspect food poisoning – though we have no idea what could have caused it – and today I’m feeling much better. I am at least showered, sitting up, drinking water, and eating toast.

Ah, surprises. Some of them are great. Some, not so much.

So here are six more things that have so far surprised me about pregnancy.

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5. I expected that morning sickness would strike immediately if it were going to strike at all.

It took me quite some time to really grasp the fact that I was indeed pregnant, and it seems that my body is not the quickest off the mark, either. If I were going to suffer from it, I thought morning sickness would hit me much earlier than eight weeks and I thought it would go away earlier than eighteen weeks. Alas, wrong on both counts.

6. I expected that I’d continue to enjoy a cup of coffee a day all through pregnancy.

I know traditional wisdom is that you should avoid all caffeine when pregnant, but most doctors and research now suggests that you can safely ingest the caffeine equivalent of one or two cups of coffee a day all during pregnancy. I love coffee and had already decided that I wasn’t giving up my morning cup… except that my body had other ideas. The day I got morning sick, right on week eight, I went off it overnight. All of a sudden it tasted revolting. It still doesn’t taste the way it used to.

7. I expected that I’d be hungry all of my 2nd trimester.

Food was such a weird experience for most of the first trimester as I veered between the two extremes of not being at all hungry and being completely ravenous (often within the span of five minutes), that I expected I’d be a lot hungrier than normal in my second trimester. I haven’t been. Sometimes I even forget to eat a small snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon. This is not to say, however, that I did not disgrace myself when I was consistently put in front of all you can eat buffets in Bangkok last week. On more than one occasion the only thing that stopped me from returning to the buffet for three more scoops of ice cream after I’d polished off my first dessert sundae at lunch was shame. Who says that peer pressure can’t be good for you?

8. I expected that disrupted sleep was something that would begin only after the baby was born.

I expected that the whole waking up numerous times a night to pee would start in approximately month seven of pregnancy instead of week seven. I still have problems understanding how a baby the size of a lima bean can really put that much pressure on a bladder. I mean, come on! I have now been waking up between three and six times a night now practically since I found out I was pregnant. Not cool. Not cool at all.

9. I expected that my sex drive would surge in the second trimester.

Most of the books I’ve read paint a picture of the first and third trimesters of pregnancy as virtual sexual wastelands but hold out this oasis-like vision of the second trimester as a time of unparalleled sexual desire and enjoyment. I don’t know how many accounts I’ve read of women’s transformations into total sex kittens the minute they hit week thirteen of pregnancy, so perhaps it’s understandable that I feel particularly ripped off to have so far had this expectation disappointed. For not only did my sex drive vanish so completely the minute I got pregnant that it became difficult to remember I ever had one, it hasn’t really returned to pre-pregnancy levels yet much less been catapulted into “sex kitten” territory. I will be especially peeved if this, like morning sickness, is merely my biology lagging behind the curve and sex-kitten-energy kicks in four weeks from now, right when I head to Australia and Mike and I say goodbye for three months.

10. I expected that the quickening would be unmistakable.

The quickening, for those of you who haven’t read 5000 pregnancy books, is the name given to the first time you feel your baby move inside you. The books do warn that it can be hard to tell whether those early flutters are the baby or something else, so I don’t know why I expected to feel the baby move in one, singular, weirdandwonderful moment. Maybe because “the quickening” sounds like such a singular “moment”ous event. Nope. I spent about a week trying to decide whether it was the baby I was feeling or gas. Now the baby moves all the time – particularly at 10pm when I’m trying to go to sleep and at 6a.m. when I’m trying to stay asleep.

I’ve tried to explain to Mike what it feels like. I’ve described it before as feeling like a sackful of eels squirming around in there, but as I’ve never actually had a sackful of eels tucked in my belly I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of that description. The most accurate physical description I can come up with is the completely unromantic, “it feels like giant bubbles of gas slithering around intestinal corners, but without any gas pain.”

The most accurate psychological description I can come up with, for me, is that it feels like fishing. As a kid I used to love going over to the river across from my grandparents house, baiting a hook, and fishing off the wharf. I would wait patiently for ages for that first tug on the line – that sudden, promising, tightening of the nylon under my index finger signaling that something alive was definitely out there underneath all that water. When the baby taps me from the inside I get that same feeling. Of course, given what ended up happening to the fish I caught, that metaphor has its limits, so we’ll stop right there.

OK, that’s it for this edition of “expectations that have been turned on their head by pregnancy.” Catch you later this week, perhaps from the road as Mike and I are leaving on Thursday night for a road trip down south, and do chime in below and let me know what’s surprised you about pregnancy or parenting. I love learning from others’ stories. 

Ten things that have surprised me about pregnancy (#1-4)

It’s a slow, sultry Sunday afternoon here in Laos and I’ve just finished unpacking after my week working with journalists in Bangkok discussing issues of trauma and resilience. It was an inspiring and exhausting week and there’s a post I’m mulling over about the blasphemy laws in Pakistan (among other things), but my head and my energy levels just aren’t there yet. Instead, since so many of you have been asking how I’m doing with the pregnancy, I thought I’d update you on that. In fact, while I’m at it, how about I just go ahead and tell you some of the things that have surprised me about pregnancy.

This is my first pregnancy, so I knew I was in for a couple of surprises, at least, but I didn’t venture into this territory completely unprepared. I knew I’d be trying to get pregnant in a town (indeed, a whole country) where the medical care is, shall we say, sub-ideal. Not even Lao women have their babies in Laos if they can help it, so we knew we would be at least partly on our own for most of this pregnancy. There would be no monthly doctor visits. The nearest good medical care would be (at best) one plane flight and eight hours “from need to hospital” away.

So I did my research. I brought more than a few books with us and, thanks also in part to donations from other expatriates here, I suspect I now have the most comprehensive English language library of pregnancy and childbirth books in the entire country. Not to mention that Dr. Google is ever at my fingertips. Let’s just say I was not completely uninformed about this thing called pregnancy.

And, yet… there have been numerous surprises along the way. Today and tomorrow I’ll walk you through ten of them. Today, here are the first four:

I expected that…

1. Getting pregnant wouldn’t take as long as it did

I feel ridiculous even mentioning this, as this falls squarely into the category of things I should not have been surprised by. All the research suggests that you only have about a 15-20% chance of getting pregnant each cycle, the average number of months it takes couples without any fertility issues to get pregnant is still five or six, and about 80% of these couples will be pregnant within a year.

Why, then, I was surprised when three unsuccessful months of trying ticked over I am not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, deep down, both Mike and I believe that when we set our minds to something we can accomplish it with a minimum of fuss and in less time than it takes most other people. Logically I knew it was ridiculous to think that this would be true of conceiving a child, but the illogical part of me started to wonder right around the third month mark whether everything was OK. As we got pregnant after five months of trying I didn’t have to wonder for too long, but those couple of months gave me a very tiny taste of what an emotional roller coaster an extended battle with infertility might be.

2. Finding out I was pregnant would happen in one life-changing moment

I’ve written a whole post on the experience of finding out I was pregnant, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that this one caught me completely by surprise. I had expected to have an earth-spinning, destiny-changing, confirmation moment. What I got instead was a week’s worth of wondering and then another couple of weeks of not really believing that I actually was pregnant.

3. I’d be a lot bigger by now

I’m 24 weeks pregnant today, about five and a half months. I thought by this stage I wouldn’t be able to see my feet and that I’d be feeling decidedly bulky, clumsy, and uncomfortable. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. I do have a baby bump, and it is a bit harder than normal to bend over or stand up again after I’ve sat down to play with the dog, but I’ve only gained ten pounds so far. In this tropical heat (and given the daily struggles my feet and legs already wage thanks to lymphedema) this slow and limited weight gain is good for all sorts of reasons. Yes, bigger is most definitely not always better.

4. I’d need a brand new wardrobe by month four

Or, if not a whole new wardrobe, at least some maternity pants, new bras, underwear, etc. Thankfully I’m still fitting into some of my regular clothes – like the four pairs of loose linen pants I bought right before we moved here. Although, I must confess that I am still fitting into these pants (most awesome purchases ever at $15 a pair) partly because they are drawstring, and partly because when I bought them I weighed, uh, two pounds more than I do right now. So I would like to personally thank Asia for stripping me of twelve pounds before pregnancy. Should any of you out there be struggling with this particular issue I can highly recommend moving to Laos – it totally works just as well as Weight Watchers.

And it’s a good thing all that walking and a healthy rice-based diet undid (or at least effectively curtailed) some of my addiction to ribs and hamburgers and take out Chinese food, because I don’t know where I would have bought maternity pants that fit here. The missionary community here does have a box of maternity clothes that are passed around among pregnant expatriates, so theoretically I shouldn’t have had any problems on this front. Except… I seem to be spiritually blessed in the area of “hips and ass”. I didn’t fit into a single pair of pants in this barrel even when I was only three months pregnant! I can now attest to the fact that all the breeding missionaries in this town are sizes 0-4, just in case you were wondering.

That’s it for today. Come back tomorrow for surprises 5-10, including my thoughts on that fabled surge of sexual energy in the 2nd trimester… And for those of you who’ve traveled this road before, what surprised you about pregnancy?

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Surprise!

It’s been a week full of surprises. This morning, for example, I woke up before Mike. Then I suggested we go for a walk, so we covered 4km before 8am with Mike uncharacteristically dragging himself along beside me instead of bouncing like Tiger at being outside on such a gorgeous morning. We came across a wallaby along the way. It was standing in the middle of the road listening to our approaching steps, and then it bounded off into the brush as soon as we rounded the corner. That’s about five surprises before 8am.

Last week in Tasmania we saw plenty of wallabies – on beaches, in parks, all over the place. We also surprised a wombat and it also headed straight for the brush, but as it was built like a big furry cask on tiny legs it didn’t bound, it waddled. There were a bunch of other surprises in Tasmania too. When we got to Coles Bay in Freycinet we found that half the town had burned down the night before (in a town that size the gas station, a convenience store, and a restaurant, is half the town). And after we toured the Cadbury Factory and ate every free sample we were offered, then ordered something that was advertised as “the world’s best hot chocolate” (which turned out to be more than half a glass full of chocolate shavings melted in hot mik), we felt sick. In retrospect, perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

When we got to Ballina on Saturday, however, we received by far the biggest surprise of the week. My brother, Matt, and his wife, Lou, picked us up from the airport in the Gold Coast and when we got down here and walked into the house who should come down the stairs but my sister, Michelle, and my niece, Tahlia, who were supposed to be spending this Christmas in Washington DC! Michelle had managed to organize last minute tickets and flown home, surprising all of us (including my parents, whose 39th wedding anniversary it was that day). It was a total surprise-coup.

We talked about surprises that night around the dinner table. Did we like to give them? Did we like to be on the receiving end?

Matt, it turns out, likes to get surprises when he doesn’t know they’re coming, but if he knows a surprise is in the air but isn’t sure what might be heading his way he’s not much of a fan. Mum said she liked giving surprises, but not getting them. Mike liked to both give and receive surprises.

“I tend to plant the seeds now that a surprise is in the offing with you,” Mike said to me. “Because when I’ve completely surprised you in the past it hasn’t always gone over so well.”

“Like when you asked me to marry you after we’d spent a grand total of 20 days in the same country,” I said. “That surprise? Yeah. It turned out OK in the end though, didn’t it?”

The opinion was floated that people who like to give others surprises all the time have a high need to control others, and that people who don’t like getting surprises at all have a fairly high need for staying in control of themselves. What do you think? And do you like giving surprises, or getting them?