Monthly Wrap: How We Come into the World

by Susan Henderson on June 6, 2008

One of the most fascinating things about the birth stories you shared here was how your arrival (as breech, preemie, extra large, and so on) was somehow a metaphor for your personality or a struggle that continues to this day. I had done this as well, though I didn’t realize it until now. For me, my birth marked the beginning of my lifelong feeling of not measuring up.

I was born at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, California, where my father was finishing his Ph.D. in Computer Science.

I found a paper written by him a month before I was born. (I know, I’m such a snoop.) It begins: When locating the zeros of a polynomial, it is usually difficult to know just when to terminate the iteration process. It ends: For the complex case it can probably be shown that for some small multiple of the error bound, there is always a machine representable number which satisfies the bound. And in between are pages of weird formulas and proofs; and talk of cluster zeros, algorithms, and roundoff errors.

(By the way, has anyone read the book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea? I loved it!)

I remember when I had my learner’s permit, my dad taught me how to shift gears in the Pentagon parking lot. When I mastered second to third, he said, Why don’t you try driving home? I get this weird pain in the back of my neck when I’m terrified, and that was most of the feeling of that drive. Northern Virginia is very hilly, and I happened to catch the light right at the street that turned past Sandy Bullock’s house, and I wasn’t prepared to do the whole clutch thing on such a steep hill.

My dad started giving me calculus problems, or what I thought were calculus problems, to determine the ratio of pressing on the gas to depressing the clutch. Naturally, I stalled out. He was so mortified by the honking and the long line of cars behind me that he kept shouting math formulas, hoping I’d hurry up and get it. I don’t remember if I took the key out of the ignition or put the car in park or what, but somehow I let him know that I quit, and that I could take the embarrassment more than he could. I would never be as smart as he was, but damnit, I could be more stubborn.

Right now, the train is going by my house and the bed (where I’m typing this on my laptop) is shaking. And in the stairwell, where all the plays and movies Mr. Henderson worked on are hanging on the wall, all of the frames are tilting a little more.

This has nothing at all to do with being born.

But the train did make me lose my thought so that I had to go back to see what I’d written. And what I noticed is how my own story of my birth, an event I have no memory of, sounds nothing at all like my mother’s story of my birth. Ask a mother about giving birth to her children, and the story gets very physical.

I asked her just the other day if she’d tell me the story, and mostly what she remembered was what a welcome departure it was from giving birth to my older brother on a military base. Where my story featured a kind doctor and an epidural, my brother’s birth was mixed with shame and intimidation.

their rule was that if you gained more than 5 pounds in any one month (monthly weigh-ins with them) you would be immediately hospitalized and fed only water and saltines. Because of this I alternately gorged and fasted. I would gorge, naturally, immediately after being weighed, and kept that up for several days, than I would gradually slow down on eating and stop eating altogether just before the next weigh-in. So every time I was weighed I was severely dehydrated and shaky. It was a miserable game.

They made me lie in what seemed to me like an adult crib with really high rails. I had to stay on my back “for the safety of the baby.” This caused Vena Cava syndrome, which means you pass out from the weight of your own belly pressing on the vena cava, the big blood vessel which returns the blood to the heart and brain. Therefore, I would immediately become sick and faint and the nurses would shout at me for trying to sit up. Daddy (who bought this whole thing and thought I was only sitting up to be contrary), would keep yelling at me to lie back down.

Maybe that kind doctor and epidural over at Stanford’s hospital was what allowed my mother’s memory to move so quickly to her tradition of taping a bow to my bald head, just as her mother had done to her.

I don’t think she thought even once that I didn’t measure up. From the start, she saw someone cute and full of promise. I love that her memory of my birth has so much to do with that bow.


In the spirit of paying it forward, I want to quickly make you aware of a remarkable young woman who is running a marathon to raise money for leukemia research. Click here to read about her campaign or make a donation. The marathon is sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which gives you plenty of information about how to become a registered donor by giving a swab of your DNA. Thank you for clicking on those links and seeing if any of this is a good fit for you.


Thank you to everyone who played here and to my brave and talented guest, Xujun Eberlein. Also, thank you to those who linked to LitPark this month: Jim Emerson’s Scanners, The Doubleday Publishing Group, The Red Room, Wordswimmer, Oconomowoc’s Most Famous Former Drag Queen, Pub Buzz, The Horsehair Couch, Robin Slick’s In Her Own Write, Novelist in Paradise, Steve Erickson, The Education of Oronte Churm, Ass Backwords, Myfanwy Collins, Pasha Malla, Wish It Were Fiction, Ovations, M.J. Rose’s Buzz, Balls, and Hype, and Katie Alender. I appreciate those links!

I’ll close out with a video of my sixth grader playing keys last weekend at a Doors tribute concert. The 46664 on his t-shirt, by the way, is Nelson Mandela’s prison number:

See you first Monday of next month!

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

SusanHenderson June 6, 2008 at 7:01 am

I just woke up and decided to read what I wrote on my blog late last night because I suspected it didn’t make any sense. And now Mr. Henderson and I are laughing because he knows, when my head is full (as it has been of book edits and birthday party planning and remembering all the tests and field trips and concerts my kids have this time of year) that my brain sort of shorts out and can’t stay on one topic. Anyway, I could edit this into some tidy essay with a point, but I don’t have time. And also, I’ve been trying the past few years to move away from being a perfectionist and just be real. So, there you have it. Such is life. Such is my head.


Gail Siegel June 6, 2008 at 10:07 am

This was a fascinating post. As someone without an interesting birth story to tell (cept that the hospital where I was born — Michael Reese — is about to close) I relished yours.

Love that bow!


jodyreale June 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Please note that I’m a fan of the stream of consciousness, full-headed format you used here. As certain people have been known to say, “Keep it real, girlfriend.” That’s how we like you.


Aurelio June 6, 2008 at 12:45 pm

And such a lovely head it is.

Blogging, unlike writing prose, is meant to be like this. It is merely a single entry in a far larger piece, an instance in longer tale, so to not have a “tidy essay” only means we will look forward to your next installment. Where will Susan Henderson’s brain be then? Guess we will all have to wait and see.


Brian_McEntee June 6, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Look, I changed my icon. Now I’m not square-head anymore!

How, when, or where we are born tells all of us, right from the start, that control over our lives is not entirely up to us. We are dealt our opening hand, and have to figure out how many cards to dump and replace as we play the game. A Stanford birth with a brainy dad and a mom who tapes bows to your head isn’t a bad opening hand.


ajdavis June 6, 2008 at 1:21 pm

On behalf of my brother and my family, I want to thank you for posting the information about Mandi and her marathon. I guess my brother is kind of facing a marathon of his own with 2 stem cell transplants in the last 6 years, one of his own cells and one now from a donor, fighting both leukemia and lymphoma. If it wasn’t for the altruistic generosity of the young man that donated his stem cells, my brother wouldn’t be alive now. It is still a long battle for him but Mandi said she wanted to do this run, partly in honour of my brother.

it’s truly heartwarming the way people that you don’t know are willing to firstly save your life, and then the online communities come together to help a stranger to raise funds to help more people. it means the world to me that you would post about this in your litpark community.

I don’t usually open up about my personal life the way i have on my blog about this, but am incredibly humbled by the whole process. So it is my honour, to spread the word about Mandi to help her to finish to hopefully raise the funds she needs to be able to run her marathon. She only has until the 12th of June. So many of David and Charlie’s fans have contributed and written me such wonderful notes.

Thanks again for your lovely message and for doing this.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass June 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Oh, that birthing in a military hospital story… your poor mama.


Kimberly June 8, 2008 at 10:28 am

I’m so sorry I missed that Doors concert… 🙁 But amidst everything else that was going on that weekend, I did manage to finish another hard core edit/polish, so I guess it was a birthing experience of a whole different variety. Pretty soon this “baby” is going to be done cooking (2 years gestation) and gratefully so… Like my mother was so many years ago, I, too, am ready to ‘pop’!


SusanHenderson June 8, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Hey guys, I appreciate all of these comments and will respond to them individually tomorrow night. Had a big slumber party birthday here yesterday, and today my ten year old played a Clapton tribute show at the Highline Ballroom, and tomorrow I’m chaperoning my other son’s class field trip to Fire Island. All fun, but doesn’t leave me much time to jump on the computer.


Nathalie June 9, 2008 at 12:12 pm

That giving birth on a military base was scary! And all this gorging and fasting can’t have been good for the baby either.
You got the better deal I think…


jessicaK June 9, 2008 at 2:10 pm

Wow. An adult crib? How about a torture machine? Your poor mother. Poor mothers everywhere that endure odd and dangerous birth theories and practices. Now. About those train tracks. That image stopped me in my own tracks and got me thinking about suicide and that great book: Anna Karenina, and from there I thought about another stupendous novel: Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)–both books pivoting on train track imagery. I suppose it makes some sense to go from thoughts of birth to thoughts of death or maybe it’s my dark streak revealing itself. Jessica


aimeepalooza June 9, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Your child is so friggen cool! The whole military method of birthing just didn’t work very well did it? It’s that whole we cannot control every aspect of this event, that posed the problem, huh? They’d have killed me…I gained nearly 60Lbs with my first baby.


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 11:18 am

I’ll have time to do individual comments tonight. Need to spend the day on the book and then take one kid to the dentist. Wanted to congratulate Havi for getting her mini-McCain film on the front page of Huffington Post today!

And here’s a great little video with one of my favorites, Carrie Kania, publisher of Harper Perennial:


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:02 pm

You are too cool, Aurelio. Thank you for not holding me to a tidy standard.


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:03 pm

Isn’t it an awesome bow? Is it as hot in Chicago as it is in NY today?


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:04 pm

What a relief, and thank you!


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:04 pm

I love the photo. And I love the idea of learning to play the hand you are dealt.


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:05 pm

You are a big-hearted soul, A.J. I’m thinking of both of you.


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:06 pm

I know, can you imagine a whole bunch of men telling you to lie down and eat a cracker and stop being so melodramatic?!


ajdavis June 10, 2008 at 1:07 pm
SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:11 pm

I did, for sure!


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Ooh, what amazing books you mention!


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 1:13 pm

I gained tons with that particular friggin’ cool kid because I craved chicken skin throughout the pregnancy. With Green-Hand, I craved watermelon and lemon and could hardly keep any weight on.


Lucia_Davies June 10, 2008 at 7:29 pm

I loved your kid’s band’s delivery of Riders of the Storm. Very moving.
As to the how-we-come-into-the-world-setting-the-tone-for-the-rest-of-our-lives question, i’d never thought about it, but you struck some gold there. My mother’s telling of my birth goes like this:
“When they put the gas mask on my face, one of the nurses laughed and said ‘Boy, they really suck that stuff up, don’t they?” – and then I passed out.”
Funnily enough, I’ve spent most of my life looking for the magic substance that, once sucked up, makes all my problems disappear. It would be awesome if opiates weren’t cause for horrible consequences, but alas, no such luck. Sleep is good, and “Wake me when it’s over” would be my mantra if it wasn’t for my stupid “what if I miss something?” fear…


SusanHenderson June 10, 2008 at 7:39 pm

I’m going to remember the name Lucia Davies because that is a mesmerizing, frightening, well told story. Thank you for being here and for watching the video.


maryanne Stahl June 14, 2008 at 9:27 pm

I didn’t know you were born at Stanford. My son is receiving his MS in Computer Science from Stanford ttomorrow. And I’m not there. And so I click on here and there it is.


SusanHenderson June 16, 2008 at 8:30 am

Time goes so fast, doesn’t it, MAS? I’m glad you’re here.


patry June 22, 2008 at 8:34 pm

The theory that your birth story is somehow a metaphor for your life is particularly fascinating, and made me think about the one my mother tells: The day I was born she spent several hours on the beach, then ate two pieces of the best blueberry pie she ever had at a friend’s cottage. When my father took her for a ride on a bumpy road in his pick-up, she went into premature labor. What the delicious blueberry pie, or the long hours at the beach has to do with it has never been clear, but in my mother’s mind, those are essential elements of the story. Now I’m beginning to understand…

p.s. Your son is amazing!


SusanHenderson June 24, 2008 at 7:49 am

Patry, I love that blueberry pie is central to the story of your birth. xo


SusanHenderson June 24, 2008 at 7:56 am

Hey, everyone,

Did a phone interview yesterday with a very cool reporter from The National Post. I think the article runs tomorrow, so I’ll link it when I see it. Mr. H and the boys are in Ecuador today and Galapagos tomorrow. I couldn’t join them because I have to finish these book edits. It will be the longest I’ve ever been away from my kids. Not easy. But damn it, this book will be done before they come home. That I know.


Jordan Rosenfeld June 24, 2008 at 5:45 pm

I’m WAY late to this game and that’s because I just gave birth two weeks ago to my first child–a boy. Giving birth changes the whole birth story concept for me…every year I’d listen to my mother’s tale of how she gave birth to me–the long labor, how I cried when my head came out and my body was still inside–and it was this simple, sweet story. giving birth–mine was a difficult one that almost resulted in c-section–has changed everything. There isn’t a single thing about my life that is the same after this experience. I am curious how it will translate into my writing whenever I get back to it.



SusanHenderson June 24, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Follow this link for news about two former LitPark guests, Danny Gregory and Tommy Kane:

Also, Aurelio wrote a great article recently but I lost the link. Aurelio, can you swing by and give the link to that pdf?


SusanHenderson June 24, 2008 at 7:34 pm

That’s one lucky kid!

And if you guys want to see how cute he is, just pop over to Jordan’s blog:


SusanHenderson June 26, 2008 at 12:16 pm

I’m about two weeks behind with mail and such, so just wanted to let folks know I’m working hard and I’ll be in touch as soon as I can. Having a good writing day, so I’m going to stick with it as long as the fire is there. Mr. H and the boys have been emailing from the Galapagos. So far, they’ve been swimming with sting rays, sea lions, sea turtles, and, um, hammerhead sharks the size of Green-Hand. I’ll probably put some photos up next LitPark post, which will be the first Monday of July. The only benefit at all of having the house to myself, besides not feeling guilt when I work too long a day, is that I can crank up DMX and Ja Rule, which usually draws a lot of eye-rolling around here, but it all helps me write. Okay, that’s all. Soccer folks: I’ll be there Sunday; sorry I skipped last night. And meant to link to this yesterday:


dvidallamer97 July 5, 2008 at 6:51 pm

I came here by way of aimeepalooza. I Love your blog almost as much as I love the fact that your sixth-grader is playing keys to The Doors wearing Mandela’s prison number. I had the opportunity to read some things here that really have my interest. I think I am an instant fan. I look forward to more.


SusanHenderson July 6, 2008 at 6:58 am

Thanks so much for coming by and leaving such a sweet note. (And thank you to Aimee for sending you here.) If you come back tomorrow morning, you can answer the new Question of the Month and see how crazy it gets around here.


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