Kelle Hampton: "The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful"

Kelle Hampton, the author of the eye-opening new memoir, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected, left for the hospital to give birth to her second child with “everything just — perfect,” packing not only the birth music, the blankets she’d made herself, the baby’s coming-home outfit, a special nightgown, and a crown for the baby’s big sister, but also hand-designed, beribboned favors to pass out to visitors. Yet the moment her newborn daughter, Nella, was placed in her arms, Hampton’s concept of perfection altered in an instant: Though ultrasounds had signaled nothing unusual, Nella was born with Down syndrome.

Hampton writes with bracing, brave honesty about her initial response to Nella’s condition — “I think I cried for seven hours straight. It was gut-wrenching pain” — and her struggle to find hope, joy, and an expanse of possibilities in what first seemed to bring only sadness. As on her blog, Enjoying the Small Things, the journey Hampton records in Bloom becomes a call — and not only to parents — to rethink our concepts of perfection, discover our capacities for resilience, appreciate the family and friends on whom we depend, and, yes, find beauty where we may not have noticed it.

We asked Hampton, via email, about Bloom and the experiences and impulses that inspired it. It may be typical of the author that she immediately turned the task of tackling our questions into an event worthy of celebration, writing, “I’ll put some good music on tonight, light a candle, grab a beer, and completely enjoy the process.” — Amy Reiter

The Barnes & Noble Review: One remarkable aspect of your writing is your knack for tapping into emotions, both your own and your readers’. Has motherhood — and particularly Nella’s birth — made you more connected to your emotions?

Kelle Hampton: I feel emotions very intensely. Expressing them is another story. I think we’re all conditioned to mask certain emotions because we think they won’t be accepted or they’re “too much.” Motherhood definitely compelled me to express emotions more freely. The depth of love, the fear of losing, the need to protect, the unearthly joy — it was too much for me to contain. That’s why I started writing more. And writing something I was thinking seemed more acceptable than saying it out loud. Then with Nella’s birth, there were these contrasting emotions that were so difficult to deal with — grief, fear, sadness, shame. But once I expressed them through writing and realized other women related to them, it gave me the freedom to express myself in a way I had never done before.

BNR: Bloom, like your blog, uses photos and text to tell your story. Why did you choose to combine both elements?

KH: The book is a testament to my journey that first year, and writing and photography played equal parts in my healing and perspective shift.  Because the book deals with Down syndrome, a condition that has many negative stereotypes, the photos are a powerful way to showcase the beauty of these children and the beauty Nella brought to our family.

BNR: Early in Bloom you mention a book you read shortly before Nella’s birth, Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which spoke to you of “the power of challenges — how living a life of comfort does nothing to make us grow, and how hard times shape us.” But you also say you couldn’t fully grasp Miller’s message until you went through your own challenges. Can we learn life lessons from books or only from our own experiences?

KH: I’ve thought about this question a lot, especially from a parent’s perspective, because we make efforts to keep our children from pain and to give them happiness. No one wishes heartache for their child, and yet I know a lot of my happiness and contentment today comes from challenging experiences and sadness in my past. I think we can learn a lot from others’ experiences, and books give us an opportunity to do that. But life without any pain is unrealistic, and the great thing about reading books and learning from others is that when we do go through hard things, we’re more equipped to handle them and don’t feel quite so alone.

BNR: I initially assumed that, before Nella’s birth, you’d led a life without much difficulty. But then you discussed challenges you faced during childhood, in particular the breakup of your parents’ marriage when your father, a preacher, came out as gay. Did those childhood challenges help prepare you for those you’ve faced as a mother?

KH: My siblings and I talk about this a lot — the fact that we are so grateful for our past, even though it has a lot of pain, because it made us tough and definitely more compassionate. Once I started writing those chapters from my past, it really hit me how much those painful memories created a foundation for later challenges in my life. Does that mean someone who had a dreamy, heartache-free childhood is at a disadvantage for handling hard times as an adult? Not necessarily.  

It’s important to me, as a mother, not to shield my children from life’s more disheartening realities but to bring awareness to them in a way that gives my children both a sense of gratitude for what they have and the motivation to bring positive change to their world. I want my girls to know that life isn’t going to be without pain, but I also want to equip them with love and confidence and a perspective that allows them to face these challenges when they come.

BNR: You learned fairly early in life to embrace difference. But still you struggled at first to embrace the ways Nella was different from the daughter you had envisioned. How has your sense of “perfection” changed since you had Nella?

KH: I’ve definitely shifted my views of perfection away from image and more to inner happiness, and that shift has taken away so much pressure and allowed me the freedom to really be myself. That, in itself, is happiness.

BNR: After Nella’s birth, your close circle of girlfriends — your “Net,” as you call them — stayed with you, giving you incredible support. What do you think is the secret to having such close female friends?

KH: I think women’s friendships get a bad rap in the media. They’re portrayed as catty, jealous, and unsupportive. That saddens me because I know how amazing it is to be part of a group of women where you find love and support. I think women have high expectations for each other, and sometimes we are inclined to run or drop a friendship at the first sign of drama. I embrace my friendships with the understanding that because we are all women with fiery personalities, big dreams, and a hell of a lot of passion, some drama is inevitable.  

You have to approach it with compassion and forgive mistakes, because we all make them. Of course, yes, you also need to make choices to surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you, who challenge you, who bring good energy. Those who don’t aren’t worth exhausting efforts.  

Secondly, if you want close relationships with friends, you have to be vulnerable. I know how much it means to me when a friend admires me enough to call, crying, asking for help or trusting me with an intimate conversation. Likewise, I want to do the same and reach out to my friends, revealing my own vulnerabilities. My friends are great for shopping, laughing, or going out for drinks, but the best, most beautiful moments I’ve experienced with them are far more serious. And when you experience heartache with a friend at your side, it is bonding in a way that can’t be forgotten.  

BNR: Do you think women can support each other in ways that men (even husbands) cannot in tough times, and particularly those involving parenting?

KH: As much I support equal rights for men and women, there are certain gifts women possess that men don’t naturally have and vice versa. Even though Nella is [Hampton’s husband] Brett’s child and he, of course, was the only one who could sympathize with that personal parental loss of receiving her diagnosis, there was something so comforting that came from my friends — women who understood, in a way Brett couldn’t, the emotional aspect of the end of a pregnancy, a mother’s expectations, the ideal birth experience.  

BNR: You write that you knew immediately, before anyone told you, that Nella had Down syndrome and worry that you didn’t show her enough love at that moment. We all sometimes feel a disconnect between the mother we want to be and the mother we fear we are in a particular moment. Should we even have a concept of what makes the “perfect” mother? Does that give us something to strive for, or give us only impossible standards we’ll never measure up to?

KH: I think we all have this imaginary version of the perfect mother we want to be. There is a quote I love about the fact that there is no way to be a perfect mother, but there are a million ways to be a good one. I try to focus on that, to know that when I try my best, acknowledge mistakes, follow my instincts, and remind myself of what’s most important, that is perfect parenting.

BNR: I wonder, too, about the dangers of our expectations for our kids. If we have a preconceived notion of who they should be, we may fail to appreciate them as they are. That’s a lesson you say you’ve learned. Is it something you feel is important for all mothers to learn?

KH: Yes! I’m learning it with Lainey [Hampton’s elder daughter] just as much as with Nella. I’ve been challenging myself not to push Lainey to be a leader all the time. I have a preconceived notion that kids need to be leaders, not followers, and my husband recently reminded me that we do not need to tell our children to be leaders; we need to tell them to be themselves. It makes us all happier — to sit back, to lead by example, to accept what we are given, and to love our children no matter what path they choose to take in life.

BNR: Motherhood can be a touchy topic. Some of the emotions and responses you talk about in the book are bound to incite strong responses — mostly positive, but perhaps also negative. Were you afraid, writing about such personal topics, that you might be misunderstood and attacked?

KH: When I first published Nella’s birth story [on her blog], I discovered right away that being honest about touchy things is not always well received. It was good for me to read responses, even those “Oh my God, what kind of mother would say they want to run away!?” remarks. It initiated a personal process for me of challenging myself to write what’s true — in a respectful way, of course — and not to change my writing to cater to other people.  

BNR: Did you ever find yourself pulling back? Or did you just write through those concerns?

KH: There were parts that I went to write and stopped to ponder the effects first. And, most always, I proceeded, hoping that people will understand this is my journey. Memoirs are personal, and not everyone is going to shake their head “yes” to every line, and that’s OK. The other side is that it has been incredibly fulfilling to read e-mails from women who have said, “Thank you for saying that. I felt it too, but didn’t want to say it, and you make me feel normal for admitting it.”    

BNR: Do you worry about how your kids will respond to what you write when they’re old enough to read and understand it?

KH: What I wouldn’t do to have my own mother’s thoughts and photos and words and things that inspired her preserved from when we were little. I hope my children, through reading everything I’ve written — the good, the bad, the beautiful — will always read between the lines and be inspired by the constant truth of “Wow, she loved us. She celebrated life.”

BNR: One of the things you consider is how much you let your sense of how society perceives you shape how you feel about yourself. Was writing this book a way of shaping your own identity — and taking charge of your own narrative?

KH: I can’t begin to explain what writing this book has personally done for me. I owned every word I wrote, and as I typed it, I believed it even more. Empowerment — that’s what it is. I realize how much stronger I am, how much more effective I am in living purposefully, when I take control of how I feel about myself, my family and raising my kids, write it down, and put it out there for the world to see.

BNR: It sounds like writing is deeply therapeutic for you.

KH: There’s something mysterious and enlightening about the space I give myself when I write. It’s when I take all those loose philosophical/emotional thoughts I’ve had throughout the week and weave them together. I learn a lot about myself. I face my pain and struggles head-on, and I overcome them through the process of expressing myself. And, for me, when I write I’m going to do something?  It’s even more powerful than saying it. When I write, “I’m going to rock this out,” it’s almost as if I hear the band in the background with each letter I type. I feel motivated, eager, excited. I’m inspired in a way I can’t explain. Writing is powerful — and it doesn’t cost near as much as therapy does.

BNR: Is it the same with photography?

KH: After taking pictures for a while, you begin to look at life a little differently, continually scanning landscapes, people, situations for that “framable” shot. In those first days, taking photos of Nella brought light to her beauty and made me recognize how perfect she was — the new, wrinkled skin on her fingers, those sparse rows of tiny eyelashes, her soft cowlick of silky hair. And it went beyond Nella as well. When I thought my world was this depressing reality, I’d pick up my camera and see the opposite — oh look, a sunset. Vivid blue skies. My child holding an ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles. A dimpled smile. My husband rocking his new girl to sleep. I never stopped taking pictures of these things, and it sinks in after a while: Look for the good, and you will find it.  

BNR: What are you most hoping readers will take away from Bloom?

KH: Life is full of challenges. But life is also as beautiful as you create it to be.


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