I shouldn’t really review a book when I’m halfway through reading it, but Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions has raised so many interesting questions in my mind that I want to think them through. Naomi Wolf strikes me as rather an intriguing person, after the early success with The Beauty Myth, a couple of respectable, if quieter, books and a very glamourous marriage, it seems that lately she has been passing through her own personal wilderness. I’ve just read online she’s been through a divorce (which surprised me as they seemed such a happy couple), that must have happened about the time she had all the controversy over her account of being sexually harassed by an elderly maestro of academia (was it Harold Bloom?). It did seem odd to dredge the event up out of the murk of the past, and it makes me wonder as to her state of mind at the time. Then there’s been the book about going through a midlife crisis and building a tree house with her father (must get hold of that, out of sheer curiosity) and now the revelations that she’s talking to Jesus, which people seem to think is odd because she is Jewish, as opposed to being odd for its own sake. What to make of such midsummer madness? Of course it could be down to the strange pressure of celebrity that exerts a force like the weight of the ocean on deep-sea divers. Not only living your life in the public eye, but also using it as material for books can’t be an easy exercise, not when those books are political polemics calling for widespread social change, in any case. No chance of reconciling yourself to the insufficiencies of past or present there. But reading Misconceptions makes me think that the force of celebrity exerts nowhere near as many newtons per square meter on the soul as does motherhood. Misconceptions details Wolf’s difficult pregnancy, her traumatic labour and (though I haven’t read it yet) the painful adjustments she needed to make to come to terms with her new life. What Wolf probably hadn’t realized by the time she published the book, was how long that stage of intensive motherhood lasts. In retrospect parents feel that the decade or so of full-on childcare wasn’t such a huge chunk out of their lives, but at the time it can seem quite significant. Coming up for air after the worst of the sleep deprivation and the poverty of free time is over can often lead to a case of the mental or emotional DT’s.
But I’m running at a tangent here to the book itself. In the sections I’ve read so far, on pregnancy and labour, Wolf is fundamentally opposed to a) the culture of fluffy, cuddly googoo-ness that surrounds early motherhood and that sugar coats the cyanide center of the pill. There’s no two ways around it; becoming a mother in the current culture means giving up pretty much every selfish, relaxing, pleasurable, me-oriented part of a woman’s life, and this for at least eighteen months. It’s not easy and it’s an adjustment women have to make more or less overnight. Wolf is also opposed to b) the lack of information and intelligent compassion that surrounds giving birth, or at least the tendency to rapid surgical intervention that is at its worst in the health-insurance dominated, litigation-fearful hospital world of the USA. In both of these cases, Wolf wants women to have The Truth presented to them; a kind of societal recognition of what women must sacrifice in becoming mothers, and a medical acknowledgement of the excruciating pain of childbirth, so that they can plan and prepare themselves sufficiently. So here’s where things get interesting, because we have to ask ourselves, are such goals feasible? Having read Wolf’s account of her progression to motherhood, I can quite see why she should want them. Her labour, in particular, sounds horrific. Wolf never felt she was getting candid answers from her medical practitioners, and ended up having the epidural and then the caesarian section she most wanted to avoid. It seems to have been brutally accomplished, not least because no one noticed she could see a reflection of what the surgeons were doing from where she was lying. That’s enough to upset anyone.
But… but… much as it is far from my normal policy to advocate any form of denial, I am not entirely convinced that women can ever be prepared for the pain of childbirth. Wolf confesses to being terrified as her due date approached, and so I recall vividly, was I. I remember finding a postcard of a stick woman with a huge bump lying on a primitively sketched bed and the words in a bubble ‘I think I’ve changed my mind’. It didn’t strike me as funny, only appallingly prescient. If someone had taken me to one side and said, look, love, not to beat about the bush or anything, but if you think of those soldiers in bygone civil warfare, having their legs amputated in field hospitals to one side of the battle, and triple the pain, you’d be more or less approaching it…. I don’t think I’d have found it helpful. The only thing that kept me going as my son’s birth drew closer was the mental image of the wide array of anaesthetizing drugs the hospital had on offer. I quite agree that the hospital’s advice to bring tapes of soothing music or favourite pictures or objects from home is also somewhat wide of the mark. Although having something to smash at the height of a contraction might possibly prove cathartic. I do think, though, that it would be a good idea to coach husbands (or any other birthing partners) on what it might actually be useful to say when the moment for a supportive comment arises. As my sister-in-law approached the transition stage, legend has it that my brother cheerfully said to her: ‘Aren’t you lucky your body is designed to do this?’ If she hadn’t been otherwise preoccupied, it would have been fortunate indeed that there was a casualty department just down the corridor. Ah, writing about birth I can feel myself lapsing into the Dunkirk spirit, three-parts black humour, one part stoicism. Giving birth is a huge design flaw in human beings, and one that certainly not enough time or thought has gone into mitigating. But women do tend to just get on with it, and this is their glory and their downfall. If more women called for better medical support, more choice, more information, better preparation, it might just happen. But the result of giving birth is a project that seems far more important to mothers than their personal experience of the medical profession, and so the urge for political solidarity is somewhat lost.
There are similar difficulties with preparing women for what lies after the birth. Telling parents-to-be that their life is about to end is not considered good form. People are encouraging, sympathetic, polite, because if you told the truth, it’s likely no one could believe you. In fact, I don’t know that it’s possible to explain to a childless couple what the transition to having children is really like, and I’m supposed to be relatively good with words. And after all, everyone’s experience is different, and no two babies are alike. I don’t know. I do think that there’s vast room for improvement in the preparation that pregnant women undergo – I remember lots of classes you could attend on childbirth, nothing at all on what to do with that baby once you got it home. I think there could be much better support networks for new mothers, with a real effort being made to educate them on early parenting and to put them in touch with other mothers whom they might actually continue to like once the initial ignorance and bewilderment of new motherhood has passed. And I also like the idea of a ritual for pregnant women, one that intends to endow them with luck and tolerance and a readiness for change, one that blesses them with a higher power, a deeper force. It’s as least a big a change as marriage or death and wrapped up in as much power and primitive mystery. As the crucible of love and loss, the crossover from maiden to motherhood might make for a rather beautiful celebration, particularly if you got to lie in state while it happened around you. But how could you begin to introduce such a thing to our scientifically-minded Western material society? I’ve been writing for far too long here, so I’ll wrap this up by saying that Wolf’s call for changes is a brave and determined one. I certainly concur that improvements could be made for the sake of women who have to move from a career-minded ideology to a selfless, nurturing one with only the trauma of birth as a rite of passage, but the demands Wolf makes only seem to my mind to emphasize how difficult it is to alter society when the power of the commercial world is not behind you.