Review of Motherhood Reimagined: When Becoming a Mother Doesn’t Go as Planned
Sarah Kowalski, determined to become a single mother as she nears her forties, documents her experiences on her journey to motherhood in her memoir and first book Motherhood Reimagined: When Becoming a Mother Doesn't Go as Planned. This journey is not what she expects, particularly early on when she encounters issues with fertility. Her memoir helps readers understand the many paths that led to her pregnancy and the conflicting emotions she dealt with along the way, stemming from a lack of support from her family and her distrust of Western medicine. The book is divided into three parts (“Remembering,” “Struggling,” and “Arriving”), which tell the story of this alternative journey.
Kowalski is very involved in her career as a lawyer, so much so that dating and becoming involved in a serious relationship are not a priority. She mentions early on that relationships never came easily to her, but motherhood has always been a goal. Of these early professional years, Kowalski writes, “It would be years before I could see my law career as a divergence from my original calling—my interest in health, healing alternatives, and maternal wellness.”
Kowalski begins the memoir by describing a moment when she was ten years old and a neighbor gave birth to a baby, whom she was obsessed with babysitting: “I doubt the new family was home for even five minutes before I bounded up their doorstep, asking to hold the precious little bundle. From that day forward, I became a constant presence at their house.” She recognizes that these early maternal yearnings always stayed with her. However, she becomes absorbed in her career, until she is diagnosed with chronic fatigue and thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which there is a compression of the nerves, arteries, or veins in the upper chest. This forces her to file for disability due to the constant pain.
In order to work on healing her body after her diagnoses, Kowalski becomes very engaged in Qigong, a meditative, anxiety-calming practice, which involves mental and physical exercises that bring awareness to the body’s energy and pain. Kowalski travels around the country and the world to Qigong retreats to experience healing exercises and to hear words of wisdom from renowned instructors. She gains a mentor in her Qigong instructor, Chris, who provides her with frequent sessions to help her locate anxiety in her body and remove the stress to prepare herself for pregnancy. After a particularly memorable session with him, in which she experiences physical sensations and fantasies connected to anger toward her mother, Chris explains,
It’s easy for you to associate [these feelings] with your mother, even though what you’re feeling has nothing to do with her. You’ve personified those feelings into images of your mother, but they are actually feelings you have toward yourself as a mother… The anger and rage is tied up with your notion of motherhood. You already hate the mother within you.
Many readers will empathize with this harsh self-criticism mothers experience when comparing themselves to their own moms or to other moms. Chris is able to help Kowalski focus her body’s energy on a future baby instead of on negative feelings. Kowalski is a strong believer in the Qigong healing methods and allows Chris to advise her on nearly all the decisions she makes regarding her journey to pregnancy.
Kowalski learns from her doctor that at age 39 she is “basically perimenopausal, and that having a child on [her] own [is] nearly impossible.” Kowalski becomes an expert at calculating her ovulation in order to time insemination at just the right moment; unfortunately, her efforts are not successful. So Kowalski finds herself in conversation with many doctors, midwives, fertility clinics, and hospitals, locally as well as internationally, as she contemplates choosing not only a sperm donor but also an egg donor. When she realizes that she will not be able to use her own eggs, she questions the importance of having a genetic connection to her child. This process breeds anxiety, which she quells through Qigong sessions, but every decision feels huge as she finds herself in charge of choosing her future child’s genetics. Kowalski weighs her options regarding various fertility methods and helps readers understand the complexities of going through the fertility process solo. Finances do not appear to be a burden for her, as she is able to spend thousands of dollars on travel, sperm banks, egg donations, Qigong sessions, and support from doulas and midwives without too much concern. This might cause some readers to wonder if these fertility processes are only for the wealthy.
Kowalski sporadically mentions wishing she had a partner to share in the decision making, but ultimately, she realizes that her friends and mentors are family enough for her. She states, “I wasn’t a failure because I couldn’t find a man to father a child with me. I was, instead, an empowered woman choosing to have a baby from a highly conscious place… I felt lucky that I lived during a time when women had a choice…”
Her obsession with the logistics of her fertility permeates the book. Kowalski values her own sense of her body and distrusts medical professionals with respect to her pregnancy-related issues, who, in her case, have often provided inconsistent results or conflicting information. She is fairly critical of Western medicine and practices and often feels that crucial information is omitted in her conversations with doctors. She realizes, however, that sometimes she needs to let go of her ideal fertility, pregnancy, and birthing situations, because her journey toward motherhood is rarely what she expects.
The audience for this book is best summarized by Kowalski in the Foreword:
If I’d had women to talk to—women who had walked this path before me, to share with me how they’d made the many decisions I faced, I would have moved more quickly through the process. If I’d had someone to work with who understood the emotional wrangling that comes with reimagining motherhood, I would have been spared so much time and heartache. That’s why I wrote this book—to offer a map to the women who come after me, to share the guidance and wisdom I gained in my struggle to become a mother.
Her honesty and her detailed explanations of every step and bump along the way allow the reader to feel like she is in an intimate conversation with Kowalski, who begins to seem like a good friend, and whose worries are nearly universal among women eager to be moms. Kowalski’s writing style is more than an informal conversation, though; she has artfully organized all of the most important medical details of her journey with her emotional ups and downs and the impact of her closest relationships along the way.
Motherhood Reimagined is more than a memoir; it is also an organization founded by Sarah Kowalski that includes support groups and coaching, targeting women on their journey toward single motherhood as well as women dealing with infertility. Kowalski now spends her time as a life coach, mind/body healer, and advocate for women navigating single motherhood. Her book addresses the real struggles of women who choose to become single moms later in life, but also the tremendous joy when a baby arrives: “How do you describe what it’s like finally to welcome the baby you worked so hard to bring into the world?” She finds that the happy ending is well worth the time and effort to conceive. Motherhood Reimagined is a great read for any woman contemplating single motherhood and any reader interested in the complexities of fertility.