Truly, Madly, Gently: A Review of Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family
Catherine Newman wasn’t actually planning on having a second child. She was quite fulfilled (and occasionally overwhelmed) by the one she already had — two-year-old Ben. But, she writes, “. . . birth control doesn’t actually work by osmosis. It’s not enough to keep some stashed in the drawer by your bedside table — you actually have to use it.”
Which explains how she ends up waiting for Birdy.
Waiting for Birdy is Newman’s funny and charming memoir of the year that started when she became unexpectedly pregnant with her second child and ended a few months after her daughter (nicknamed Birdy) was born. It’s based on Newman’s wildly popular online column, Bringing up Ben and Birdy, which is published weekly on BabyCenter.com
Although it’s Birdy’s name in the book’s title, it is Ben — and Newman’s relationship with him — who is the primary focus. Newman manages to portray him lovingly and believably without ever crossing the line into mawkishness. She skillfully captures the humor, irritation, and mind-numbing boredom that are characteristic of living with a two-year-old, where a game of “Guess the animal” can go like this:
I’m black and white and I say ‘moo’.
Um, are you a turkey, Mama?”
And a conversation after a fight in a parking lot goes like this:
‘Why did I have to hold your hand? Why am I too short for the cars to see me? Why did I not want to hold your hand? Why because it makes me feel grown up not to?’ and on and on.
‘Can we stop talking about it?’ I asked at one point. ‘I’m kind of sick of talking about it.’ And Ben said, ‘Why are you sick of talking about it, but I still want to talk about it?’ And on and on.
As is true of the columns, Waiting for Birdy is not a “big” story; no one dies, and there are no earth-shattering surprises or revelations. Newman doesn’t offer parenting advice, nor does she stray into philosophizing or social commentary. This is pure memoir — the day-to-day life of a mother coping with her expanding family.
In memoir, particularly when there isn’t a “big” story, the writer’s voice is everything — and Newman’s voice is the key strength of her writing. It’s the reason readers keep coming back to her column week after week. She deftly combines a screwball humor with a wry — but always gentle — tone. She’s one of those delightful writers who can make the mundane seem hilarious, as when little Ben is given a short book about a horse (Midnight) and his owner (Amy):
There’s a strange Harlequin Romance-type interlude, where Amy grooms Midnight for just a little too long and everyone seems just a little too into it. It’s not as unlike porn as you might expect. Here’s an excerpt: “After Amy had rubbed Midnight down with a rag, she cautiously approached his rear. She didn’t want to take him by surprise and frighten him. . . .”
Column readers will recognize much of the book’s content, but Waiting for Birdy is not simply a collection of previously published columns. It’s more cohesive than a collection of columns would have been, and Newman has added a significant amount of new material. While Bringing up Ben and Birdy is essentially a humor column — and Waiting for Birdy is, in many places, hilarious — the book includes new passages that are more serious.
Newman writes, for example, about her initial ambivalence at becoming pregnant again, worrying that it will change her relationship with Ben. And, of course, it does. During her pregnancy, she finds that “His [Ben’s] breath, which has always smelled exactly like a vanilla milkshake, suddenly seems rank to me. This makes me so inexplicably sad that, after he leaves, I cry into my pillow. Sometimes I really despair. I dial up my OB’s office with the vague idea that I will talk to somebody about terminating the pregnancy, then I hang up as soon as they answer.”
Later she writes about learning that Birdy has failed one of the many newborn screening tests and, for a short period, it appears that Birdy may have a serious congenital disease. This experience was not covered in her column because, she says, it was too difficult to write about at the time it was happening. These additions make the book somewhat darker — and richer — than the columns.
Even with the additional material, however, Waiting for Birdy falls into the category of “easy reading” — it’s short, sweet, and thoroughly entertaining rather than thought-provoking. Newman doesn’t delve too deeply into the emotional turmoil that often accompanies the birth of a second child; there’s no real discussion, for example, of how it affects her relationship with her partner, Michael. Newman is quite capable of harder-hitting writing (as demonstrated by her essay in the recent anthology, Bitch in the House), but Waiting for Birdy serves a different purpose. It’s a deliciously fun read, and it’s a book that can be given — without hesitation — to even the most emotionally fragile pregnant woman or new mom.