Friday, May 02, 2008

Review: Choosing You

by Alexandra Soiseth. Seal Press, May, 2008. When I saw this memoir was going to be part of the MotherTalk blog tour I jumped at the chance to join in. Alex was 39, single and determined to become a mother when she googled for a sperm bank. Choosing You tells the story of how she got pregnant, gave birth and managed the first year of motherhood.

This book is not only about wanting to be a mother and finding a way to do it on her own; it's about what it means to struggle with weight for a lifetime. Alex reached 275 pounds a couple years before she got pregnant. She came to a turning point when she decided to make drastic changes in her life in order to improve her health and become the person she wanted to be. She slim down through sheer hard work and determination, loosing 109 pounds in the next year. When she decided to have a child on her own she dreamed that she would be the perfect mother and that her child would not have the same burden with weight because would give her a better childhood than she had, protecting her daughter from the pain and lose that she had survived.

Her daughter Kaj is a charming, delightful, beautiful baby... but she's chubby. Alex notices people noticing this and it bothers her a lot. She realizes that her struggle with weight is affecting her daughter on many levels; in her biology, in her attitudes, in her habits and in her anxieties. The book is candid about all of her thoughts and feelings around weight, eating, exercising and body image. Even if you are not one who struggles with weight it is illuminating to observe how another woman deals with it. Everyone has something they struggle with on this level. It's encouraging to see how Alex faces her weakness and finds her strength.

It surprised me a bit that Alex got pregnant so easily, on the first try. For someone who had a really hard time getting pregnant that would be difficult to read, I imagine. I got pregnant on the first time too, without even wanting to, so it didn't seem unbelievable to me, but for other women that might be hard. For someone who has spent years in IV, lost babies or never had them at all that might be very triggering.

One of the other aspects that Alex is honest about is the process she goes through in choosing who will be the sperm donor. In the beginning, when she first decided to definitely go ahead and have a baby on her own, she asked a friend to be the sperm donor because she loved his family. His sister was her best friend since childhood, she spent holidays with the whole family, and she wanted her baby to be part of the family so she would be related to them too. They were Japanese American and she thought her child would be "astoundingly gorgeous half-Japanese, half-white." As soon as she sees the website for a Danish sperm bank, however, she become convinced that she needs to have a blond, blue-eye child that will match herself. She comes face to face with her desire to have a baby perfect in the eyes of the world.

"Looking at the image, I'm aware of a primal desire for one of those white, blonde babies. I see in my mind a photograph of my mother and me when I'm a year old. I'm pulling off her glasses and she has her head thrown back, she's laughing. I have blonde, curly hair like the baby in the photo, and my mother is happy, like the mother in the photo.

All thoughts of Ken, waiting for him, leave me for the moment.

Yet I'm uncomfortable with what feels like an egocentric and narcissistic longing. The white-haired baby. It brings to mind a feeling I've harbored since I was a teenager, growing up fat: Well, I may be fat…but at least I'm blonde.

We live in a world that undeniably values Caucasian, blue-eyed babies. As I sit here wanting one, myself, I wonder where my politics have gone: my belief in equality and the beauty of a multicultural universe.

"I just want the baby to look like me," I tell my coworker."

I appreciate how honest she is at this point, in sharing what she really thought and felt about her future child. Yet it deeply disappoints me. On many levels I can identify with the author. I am a single mom. I chose to become a mother (while single) three times; I have three sons. I know what it feels like to wonder about all the issues Alex faces. On this point I think she fell short. She did amazing work on herself to loose weight, to face her fears, to come to the decision to live the life she wanted without waiting for Prince Charming. In so many ways she grew past her fantasies and childish daydreams. When it comes to the race of her child she stays stuck.

When I was first pregnant I imagined I was carrying a little girl who would look just like me. I had a name for her, I daydreamed about what she would look like, I imagined people would tell her all her life that she looked just like me. The way people tell me I look just like my mother. After my son was born that bubble popped and it was a good thing. It freed me from carrying that daydream and burdening my child with my own identity. As he grew I had to come to terms with the fact that he looks a lot like his father. He walks, talks and acts like his father in ways I would rather not have to notice. That's a good thing for him and for me.

When Alex bought sperm to make herself the perfect baby she missed a great opportunity to get beyond her own image issues. Not only did she let racism trip her up, she let her weight, childhood abuse history and painful relationship issues continue to burden herself and her child. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with wanting your kids to look like you or to be the same ethnicity as yourself (Alex is Scandinavian). That's what usually happens for most people who have kids the old fashioned way. I 'm saying when you make a conscious choice about your child's sperm donor you have an opportunity to shed some of your baggage. Alex chose not to.

The main thrust of the book is about desperately wanting a baby and getting pregnant. The part of the book that I enjoyed and appreciated the most was the last section. Alex is honest in dealing with the actual nitty-gritty difficulty of parenting after the baby is born. She is so full of dreams and hopes before the baby comes it is a huge shock afterward, when she doesn't know how to keep the baby from screaming night and day. She is lost and alone, frustrated and sleep-deprived. She relies on friends and family to get through the first couple months and she often questions whether she's made a big mistake. She gets sick and scrambles for babysitters. She looks for daycare, is scandalized by how much it costs, and changes care providers when one is not doing a good job. That's all realistic from my experience. I know those feelings all too well.

I wish there was a whole 'nother book on life after the baby came because I think she could have said a lot more. What I kept thinking was I can't wait till she writes the next book about when her daughter Kaj gets to be two or three and she has another one. She has no idea how much harder it can get!

Alex has published parts of the book in a Babycenter column and as the short story "Baby Fat" in Literary Mama.

1 comment:

MotherReader said...

Wonderful in-depth review of this book.

I can understand her issues with her chubby baby. Both of my nieces were chubby, and I worried a bit about their future health - if weight was going to be an issue for them. At two, they are both still big girls, but the baby chubbiness is gone. The hard thing about weight issues as children is hitting a balance between being healthy and accepting yourself.