Raising a Rare Girl (Heather Lanier)

Reviewed by Ona Gritz

Years ago, while pregnant with my son, I burst into tears after realizing that the salad I’d just devoured from a local takeout place had been dressed in wine vinegar. “Fetal alcohol syndrome,” I sobbed to my then-husband, though I didn’t really believe the trace amount of fermented grape in my dinner could harm my forming child. What upset me was my dropped vigilance. I—who meted out the tuna sandwiches I craved to the recommended twice monthly, took the highest end brand of natural prenatal supplements, walked the long way around my desk at work to avoid emissions from the back of the computer—had forgotten, through my entire meal, to worry. What did this say, I found myself worrying, about the kind of mother I’d be?

From the moment we’d decided to try for a baby, I poured all I had into boosting the health of my child-to-be and strove to protect him from all perceivable harm. I was, though I couldn’t have articulated this before reading Heather Lanier’s stunning memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, attempting to make a “SuperBaby.”

“I swallowed capsules of mercury-free DHA to help grow my SuperBaby’s brain,” Lanier tells us in the book’s opening pages. “I filled my grocery cart with organic fruits and veggies, letting our monthly food bill consume a quarter of our income… I never once reclined on a sofa because I’d heard the position could…dramatically increase my chances of having a C-section, which would rob my baby of certain vaginal bacteria that was beneficial for reasons cited in academic journals I couldn’t explain.”

Voice is always what hooks me when I pick up a memoir and Lanier’s is witty, self-effacing, and infinitely relatable. More than that, she’s a beautiful writer, a poet by training, whose prose is lyrical and flawless. Lanier is a list-maker, she mentions early on, and her lists in the book are poetic gems.

“And there she was, my daughter, this product of wheatgrass and self-hypnosis and free-range eggs, of hope and risk and love and a maddeningly loud biological urge.”

While books with such lush and polished language often sacrifice momentum, Lanier’s memoir is hard to put down. At its heart is Fiona, a girl born frail and tiny enough to make the medical team “palpably anxious.” But while her development is slow and uncertain, Fiona’s story is propulsive. From the moment this four-pound, twelve-ounce girl with piercing dark eyes enters the world in these pages, her progress matters to us deeply. The same is true of her mother’s evolution.

What Lanier and her Zen-monk-turned-Episcopal-priest husband learn in the coming months is that Fiona has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, a rare chromosomal difference that accounts for her diminutive size, heart murmur, and developmental delays. With this diagnosis comes the possibility that their girl might never walk or talk, is likely to have dangerous seizures, difficultly eating, and an intellectual disability that could range from mild to severe. Thankfully, for Fiona and for us, her mother responds to this news with two internal voices. The first, born as we all are in a world that values both normalcy and mastery, perceives Fiona’s difference as damage and would fix every one of her daughter’s cells if she could. But the other “…as ancient as the first nanosecond of the universe, [says] simply, She’s good, and she’s whole, and she’s holy.”

There is much to admire about this book, its pages filled with disability history, etymology, modalities in special education, not as asides but woven naturally into Lanier’s exploration of the world she now inhabits as Fiona’s mother. She even offers a glimpse into her reading life—Montaigne, Pema Chodron, Emily Rapp Black—and embeds a writing lesson into the text. But above all, Lanier’s memoir is a spiritual journey. The story of a self-proclaimed over-achiever who, through loving a daughter whose health is precarious and whose abilities are slow to reveal themselves, must learn to let go of the myths of certainty and control.

“What if my daughter had a significant place in this world precisely by living in the body she’d been given? What if the busying world—and its obsession with gross domestic products and increased profit margins and on-chart development of children—had it all wrong… Maybe the point was not to be SuperHuman but ultra-human. Ultra as in very, as human as humanly possible.”

Not since Martha Beck’s 1999 Expecting Adam have I encountered a memoir on mothering that is so soulful and instructive, so wise and wisely beautiful. Lanier speaks of praise songs and it strikes me that Raising a Rare Girl is exactly that, a praise song not just for her daughter’s life, but for life itself, with its griefs, its lessons, and its many messy joys.

Lanier suggests that the purpose of parenting might have nothing to do with legacy. It may not be about the future at all. Maybe, she says, “It’s to be leveled. To be brought to our knees with a love we have no choice over… requiring such self-sacrifice that we, once and for all, empty ourselves of our ridiculous egos, let them pool on the floors beneath us, and surrender to the sloppy, drooly, inconvenient, aching needs of another.”

I believe she is right. I was leveled by this book.

Title: Raising a Rare Girl
Author: Heather Lanier
Publisher: Piatkus
Date: 2020

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About the Reviewer

Ona Gritz’s books include the poetry collection, Geode, a finalist for the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, a memoir. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York TimesThe GuardianRiver TeethThe Utne ReaderPloughsharesThe Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. A longtime columnist for Literary Mama, Ona’s nonfiction is listed among Notables in Best American Essays and Best Life Stories in Salon.