Monday, April 25, 2011

Much more than half-baked

Originally printed August 9, 2010.

There are many lessons Alexa Stevenson learned during the process of watching her daughter, Simone, who was born 15 weeks prematurely, learn to breathe without the help of a ventilator. But Stevenson's most important insight -- the one she uses to organize her new memoir -- is that her generally apprehensive attitude to life utterly failed to prepare her for the specific challenges life threw her way.

"Regrettably, the disaster you expect is seldom the one visited on you," Stevenson writes in the prologue to "Half Baked: The Story of My Nerves, My Newborn, and How We Both Learned to Breathe."

When Stevenson was having trouble getting and staying pregnant, she did what she usually does when faced with a new challenge: She tried to find some books to read and to help her figure out what to do next.

"I really didn't find anything helpful," Stevenson said in a phone interview Thursday. "Some of the books were very, very grim. Some were very, very religious -- overwhelming with their certainty that everything happens for a purpose and that everything was going to come out right in the end."

Stevenson soon found she had her own compelling story to tell. She could provide detailed, darkly humorous accounts of her challenges with in vitro fertilization -- occasionally supplemented with quotes from the real-time posts to her Flotsom blog ( And she could document her own struggle to figure out how to react after one of the twins she carried -- a boy she named Ames -- died nearly a month before his sister left the womb.

Steven-son, who describes herself primarily as an essay writer, said she usually doesn't write about such highly emotional topics so soon after they happen. But this time she was afraid that her memories of Simone's birth -- and of Ames's death -- would start changing the longer she waited to write them down.

After speaking with other parents, she knew her long-term memories of the birth would depend on how well Simone developed over the years. If a growing Simone showed almost daily reminders of how she came out "half-baked," then Stevenson probably would remember it all darkly and forebodingly. And if Simone grew with few visible reminders of her premature birth, then Stevenson might be tempted to forget the sheer uncertainty of those first weeks and start describing her daughter as being destined to survive.

"People tend to fit things into frameworks after the fact," she said. "I wanted to write everything down before I had too much of a chance to do that."

Even after publishers warned her that the market already was glutted with parenting books and that she probably should write about something else first, Stevenson recognized that she "needed to be allowed to write about the experience before I moved on to other things."

The unexpectedly beautiful disaster of Simone's birth also taught Stevenson -- who seems to oscillate between a private atheism and an evangelical agnosticism -- that she could find great comfort in her lack of faith.

"People talk about religion being a comfort," sad. "They say, 'If you don't have God, then what do you have in times like this?' ... But I was so comforted by not having a religion. That I didn't have the feeling that any of this was personal or that it was part of some big plan. I was comforted by the somewhat randomness of it all."

Stevenson, in fact, balks at anyone who tries to describe Simone as a "miracle baby."

"I felt like it undercut everything that goes into keeping these babies alive," she said. "It's a lot of luck and hard work. It's not a miracle. It's a lot of research and dedication by doctors. A miracle implies that it involves this level of serendipity, as if it's an accidental thing. ... And worse, it implies that the babies who don't survive aren't miracles."

"Half-Baked," then, is exactly the book that Stevenson wishes she could have read while sitting in the neonatal intensive care unit. And while "Half-Baked" probably should have been trimmed by 50 pages or so, the 299-page memoir has something to offer anyone who is trying not to take personally what the impersonal universe throws her way.

"I'm hoping that the book has a wider appeal," Stevenson said, "that you don't have to have gone through having your baby placed on a ventilator in order to enjoy it."

Press-Citizen Opinion page editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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