This is a memoir in which a Harvard educated woman writes about the time period when she was pregnant with her son who has Down Syndrome and the spiritual awakening she experienced. This is not a book I would have picked up on my own. It was recommended to me by a friend. Someone in my mom’s book club decided she wasn’t going to read the book club’s selection because it wasn’t the kind of book she was interested in and I thought to myself “Way to miss the point of a book club, lady!”My friend and I have an exclusive 2 person book club that is open only to the densest most literal readers so even though the book isn’t my cup of tea, I decided to read it.
A book about having a kid with a disability is actually right up my alley but the spiritual/supernatural element is not. I’m a skeptic who doesn’t believe in that kind of thing. I ended up having mixed feelings about the book. I liked it more than I thought I would but I also disliked it for the reasons I thought I would. When the author reflected on having a child with a disability and society’s attitudes towards it, I found it interesting and insightful. When she got in to the spiritual/supernatural stuff she lost me. I was particularly unimpressed when she decided not to go to the hospital while she was bleeding, vomiting and had a high fever because she had a feeling the magical Japanese puppets in her head had her covered.
This woman and her husband were both in academia at Harvard and their world was a very high pressure, achievement oriented one. It was a world in which you were expected to take business trips from Massachusetts to Japan every other week, to put your children on waiting lists for elite preschools before they were even conceived and to attend class while your wife was in labor.
Such an existence sounds awful and intolerable to me. It is certainly worth speaking out against the kind of people, society and institutions that would perpetuate, encourage and demand such an existence. I see that kind of thing in the school district I attended as a child. Having straight A’s, perfect SAT scores and a zillion extracurricular activities are valued above all else. About a year ago changes were put in place in the district to decrease the pressure on students as it was noted that it was taking a toll on their mental health. Some people were upset by the changes and worried that it would decrease the students’ chances of getting in to elite colleges but I was among those who applauded them.
I do not blame Martha Beck for having a grudge against Harvard considering what it put her and her husband through but at times I think she took that grudge too far and reading what essentially felt like a revenge piece was off putting. I do not doubt that the atmosphere at Harvard can be rather cut throat and unpleasant. I do not doubt that there are a lot of unpleasant, insufferable people at Harvard but I do doubt that everyone at Harvard is like that. As much as it fills us with envy to think that there are some people who “have it all”, I imagine there are people at Harvard who manage to be kind and compassionate while also being demanding and ambitious, people who manage to relax and have fun while also being hard workers, people who manage to appreciate the simple things in life while also keeping their sights on lofty goals.
Yet to hear Martha Beck tell it, you’d think everyone at Harvard was snooty and obnoxious, completely focused on material accomplishments, while neglecting the really important things in life. When she wrote about how wonderful one of her professors was, I was glad to see her acknowledging that not everyone at Harvard is evil. Then she said she didn’t think it was any coincidence that that professor quit teaching at Harvard six months later. My eyes, they rolled.
When Martha found out that the fetus she was carrying had Down Syndrome, many people pressured her to have an abortion. The issue of aborting/carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome is a controversial one, as is the issue of abortion in general. My controversial opinion is that any woman has the right decide for herself to have or not have an abortion for any reason. I was glad to read that Martha Beck was of a similar opinion. She resented the people who shamed her for not aborting for Down Syndrome and she realized that shaming a woman for aborting for Down Syndrome is just as bad. There’s a part of the book where she describes medical professionals who do the former as well as those who do the latter. She essentially says that those people can shove it up their asses. That was a rather satisfying moment.
There are several satisfying moments in the book. As much as Martha Beck irritated me at times, she’s smart, she’s funny and she’s a good writer. And the book’s essential message is an important one. There’s something to be said for slowing down in the rat race, taking the time to appreciate the little things in life and realizing before it’s too late that those little things are actually the big things.
I really dislike the idea of intellectually impaired people being little angels who are full of joy and innocence, sent to earth to teach neurotypical people how to live life to the fullest. Martha Beck dislikes this idea too and she speaks out against it but at times I think she’s guilty of perpetuating it.
You know the phrase”Stop and smell the roses”? There’s a scene where a stranger approaches Martha in a store to compliment her on the fact that her son Adam literally stopped to smell the flowers, while the other kids just walked by them without noticing their fragrance. I would roll my eyes so hard at a scene like that in a novel and it was pretty hard for me not to roll my eyes at it when it was being touted as a true story.
I suppose it’s pretty silly of me to be questioning the veracity of a flower smelling incident, considering all the bizarre supernatural phenomena and eerie coincidences that occur in this book. Of course I’m skeptical of them but in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that much whether some divine spiritual presence was at work or there’s a “logical” explanation for the things that happened. The important thing is that the author’s belief in a spiritual presence brought her comfort during a difficult time in her life, that it led her to reevaluate the way she was living her life and to learn valuable lessons that would help her and her son lead a happier, more fulfilling life.
I can relate to some of the experiences Martha Beck had and the realizations she came to. I don’t have kids of my own and I’m not intellectually impaired but I do have a developmental disability and I live a life that’s devoid of many of the accomplishments that many people consider to be essential. Many people consider me to be a loser, a failure, a burden to my parents and society. I often see myself that way.
I’ve realized that a lot of my emotional pain comes from caring about the negative judgments other people make about me, from failing to achieve the things I’ve been taught are important. Martha Beck says that during the time period in which she was expecting Adam she came to question everything Harvard had taught her about what is precious and what is garbage. I’m questioning those things myself and realizing that sometimes even smart, successful, well respected people get it wrong.
This realization has been aided and exemplified not just by this book but by the friend who recommended it to me. She said that she doesn’t think of me as a loser because I live with my parents and don’t have a job. She realizes some people think anyone in those circumstances is a loser but she rejects the idea that everyone needs to fit in to neat little prescribed boxes in order to have value. And, really, the kind of people who feel the need to judge me, to make cruel comments about me,to define worth by degrees from prestigious universities and money from high paying jobs are missing out on some of the important things in life. Maybe they should read Expecting Adam.