I’ve been aching lately to connect with other women. To sit down with them and share about life, longer than a 3 minute chat at playgroup until one or other of the toddlers boofs another with a toy and you’re called to sort it out and when you return, you can’t even remember the train of thought you had in your mind. To sit and ask questions about how they got through particular stages, what’s been growing deep down in their hearts and what their homes look like, what’s important to them and why.
So I’ve been stretching myself to find women to talk to, and one way is through reading a book and e-mailing the author, because there’s nothing quite like reading another woman’s book to feel like you’ve seen deeper into her than you possibly could in a myriad of conversations.
I picked up Amy Julia’s book, A Good and Perfect Gift, about her first child, Penelope, born with Downs Syndrome, and they didn’t know until the child was handed to them, squishy and cuddly, and the room grew hushed, and it was a long journey of sorting out feelings, and life and love, like a bead box neatly organised until it scatters on the floor and trying to sort out all those colours.
I read Amy’s book twice, because I wanted to see how others sorted out life, and maybe Amy sorted it much like I do, with her pen and journal, and now with not so much time on our hands, typing in spare minutes and posting to a world we hope will find wisdom in the words we share.
I thought for a few weeks about the questions I would ask Amy if I could meet her, and finally searched for her e-mail, because why not meet her, connected by the internet as we are now?
I’ve just seen Amy’s new book, ‘Small Talk’ advertised in our local Christian bookstore and their syndicate of national catalogues, and it’s inspired me to keep blogging, because for a while I was wondering, what with losing the internet and moving into a caravan, whether blogging was still something I could keep up with. Amy said that book, ‘Small Talk’ is a collection of blog posts and now I understand that a blog is something like a journal that you don’t always write when you’re busy, but because you hope that post will help someone, you scratch out time to write the words and make them line up with punctuation, and that writing is something we can’t stop, even if we need to get the children cared for to get those words out, and it’s a relief when they are.
So thank you Amy for stopping and connecting with me, our ‘chat’ was just what I needed to keep writing, and I loved the advice about the baby wipes.
Thank you for your time here today. I found your book, ‘A Good and Perfect Gift’ at our local yearly Lifeline book fair, and read it the same afternoon. It’s so real and honest, and you take your reader on an incredible journey. Can you tell us a little about your writing journey, how it started and any pivotal moments in developing it?
First of all, thanks so much for your kind words about A Good and Perfect Gift. For that book, I had kept a journal during our daughter’s first couple of years of life, so I had a lot of raw material, and writing the book was about shaping the narrative and making the journal come alive. The pivotal moment was probably coming to truly believe that Penny was a gift, and that her diagnosis of Down syndrome didn’t change that fact in any way. Once I believed that, the story had resolution, and I could write about it.
What was the journey for writing your first book, which I believe was a memoir of a family member, and how did it get published?
My first book, Penelope Ayers, is also a memoir about the experience of living with my mother-in-law in New Orleans after she was diagnosed with liver cancer. It’s a story about hope in the face of death, and it’s also about marriage and family and place. I never actually tried to find a publisher for that book, for better or worse, so it was self-published. Hopefully some day I’ll have a chance to go back and work on it a bit more.
In the book that I read, your daughter Penny, was born with Downs Syndrome, something that you had not been aware of during the pregnancy, and you share your incredible journey of coming to grips with this, but even if you had been aware, you would not have terminated. For readers who might not understand this perspective, can you share with us how you see the unborn child?
When my husband and I received word, through a blood test, that our child had a higher than usual chance of having Down syndrome, we didn’t pursue any further question. We were scared about Down syndrome, but we also knew that we wanted to receive whatever life God was giving us with thanksgiving.
Can you tell us about the journey of writing that book, and a little about your daughter Penny?
It’s hard to believe that Penny is 9 years old now! She is in third grade. She loves reading and gymnastics. She’s a terrific kid, and she has been a tremendous gift to us.
I believe in the journey of writing a book, that we can experience so much healing and look back over little gem moments that we previously had forgotten or that had been hidden, and we get a different perspective on the events of our life, did you find this in writing either of these books, and how so?
I don’t think I can write about my life until there’s a story to tell. For a long time, with Penny’s diagnosis there wasn’t a story to tell. There was just confusion and sadness. But in time, God gave me an opportunity to deal with some of my own brokenness–the places of bias and judgment in my own life–and then healing began to happen. Once there was some movement in my soul, a story began to take shape. So in some ways, the writing itself was a healing process, and I certainly learned a lot from writing them and even more from talking with people about them. In another sense, though, I wouldn’t have been ready to write the book until the healing had already begun.
I’ve previously studied as a pregnancy crisis counsellor, and done a great deal of research and reading about pregnancy and unexpected circumstances, in fact I was pregnant with my first child, whilst studying, and I often wondered how I would respond if she were born with a medical condition. Looking back, how would you have prepared if you had known about Penny’s diagnosis?
I go back and forth about whether it’s helpful to know a baby has Down syndrome ahead of time. I do think it can help parents to welcome their child with a celebration rather than with a huge set of questions and fears. Two of my friends right now have a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, and in both cases they are bringing letters with them to the hospital when they go into labor to instruct the teams of doctors/nurses that they know the baby has Down syndrome and they want to rejoice when s/he is born. I wish we had been able to celebrate like that when Penny was born. A prenatal diagnosis can give some time to adjust expectations and go through some of that transformation. With that said, I also think I would have worried a whole lot had I known Penny had Down syndrome before she was born, and it was nice, when I did feel anxious, to be able to hold her in my arms.
In a short paragraph, what is your best advice on how can we better understand and help children with Down’s Syndrome?
My best advice is to believe that every person with Down syndrome has something to offer you. Yes, they need something from you, but assume that they also have something to give. When you can enter into a relationship of reciprocity you avoid pity and judgment.
Steering towards motherhood in general, you now have three children I believe, what is your favourite piece of advice about parenting?
Oh gosh, I’m not sure I have a favorite piece of advice, but I’ll offer a trivial ones: Keep baby wipes in the car forever. Even at ages 9, 6, and 4, I use them almost daily to clean hands or faces.
How do you develop your spiritual relationship with God and how do you pass that on to your children?
I’ve struggled a lot with that question over the years, and in many ways my latest book is all about that topic. But basically I’ve learned to believe that God will continue to grow me up through my children, not in spite of them. So instead of trying to have daily alone time with God, I invite my kids into prayer or Bible reading time. We talk about spiritual things a lot. We go to church together. We are looking for ways to serve others together. It’s pretty basic–worship, prayer, service–but it seems to be working so far!
Your latest book is titled, ‘Small Talk’ and is actually in a sense directly related to the previous question, because the book is about the questions your children ask and how they help you dig deeper into God and discover what you believe. How did this book come about, in the sense of remembering and collecting these conversations, and then journaling your own thoughts? How did you find time for that, or was it all just in your brain?
I’ve been blogging for a number of years, and in many ways the blog was the raw material for this book. In this book, each chapter is a different topic that our kids have prompted me to think about more deeply or differently. I never took a blog post verbatim, but they helped me remember anecdotes that related to different topics along the way. As far as finding time, I had 3-4 hours to work a day, so I just plugged away!
As a busy Mum, how do you find time to write, and is writing a paid occupation, and if so how did it become one?
Well, writing is kind of a paid occupation. I do get paid, but often I end up paying a babysitter the same if not more every hour than what I’m making! So I find the time by entrusting my kids to other people (which sometimes means my husband or my mom but often means at school or with a babysitter).
Blogging seems to be an integral part of writing and keeping previous readers engaged and finding new ones, how do you blog? Do you have a timetable, how often do you post, and do you do it all yourself or have a virtual assistant?
I do have a writing assistant who does 5-10 hours of work a week for me. She’s invaluable! I post at least 2 times a week, which is pretty grueling at this point so it might not last much longer. Still, I’ve been grateful for the way the blog has connected me with readers and taught me about how to shape content.
What does your husband do and how does he support you in writing?
My husband is a headmaster at a private school for high school students. He’s very supportive–mainly by helping me strategize about writing and by encouraging me when I get down about it!
Thank you Amy, it’s been a privilege to continue understanding your journey, and I’ll be looking out for ‘Small Talk’ at my Christian bookstore.
Thanks so much for these great questions!
Amy Julia Becker is the author of Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most(Zondervan, 2014), A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations and a Little Girl Named Penny (Bethany House), named one of the Top Books of 2011 by Publisher’s Weekly, and Penelope Ayers: A Memoir. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she blogs regularly for Christianity Today at Thin Places. Her essays about faith, family, and disability have appeared on the Motherlode blog of The New York Times, USA Today, ABCNews.com, Theatlantic.com, The Christian Century, Christianity Today, The Huffington Post,and Parents.com. Amy Julia lives with her husband Peter and three children, Penny, William, and Marilee in western CT.