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.


14 thoughts on “Misconceptions

  1. What a lovely piece of writing (like the title’s wordplay), and how it all floods back. Hovering around the room, wondering what exactly I was supposed to be doing in a state of total unpreparedness. It’s not just mum-to-very-soon-be who is unprepared for the event or the future. Hope new term starts well and continues so and congrats on your wedding anniversary (belatedly).

  2. I first read MISCONCEPTIONS a few years before I got pregnant and at the time thought it was so interesting as a foil to WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING et al. I reread it when pregnant and also read pertinent bits aloud to my husband – interestingly, he was not keen and found it a bit of a one trick pony. I still thought parts were useful, although the book I found most useful when preparing for birth was BLOOMING BIRTH: How to get the pregnany and birth you want by Lucy Atkins and Julia Guderian (written by a woman and her doula).

    I completely agree that post-birth support is a serious issue. In Sri Lankan culture, the mother of the woman usually comes and stays for 3 months post-birth, not to look after the baby but to cook and clean and give advice if asked for. My mother-in-law came for 6 weeks and then after a three day gap my parents arrived from South Africa for a month. Across the board (except for my yoga teachers) people here groaned when I mentioned all the parents would be coming, which I find interesting. I would not have survived without their help. But then the cultures we come from expect the extended family to support and assist, and certainly post-birth the focus is on letting the new mother rest as much as possible and bond with the baby (my MIL cooked every meal for the entire time she was here! After she left I was lucky if I got a handful of nuts in!)

    This part of Kent is not too bad. Our health visitors organized a first-time parents group that met for a couple of months for sessions covering weaning, baby massage, music, teething etc. We decided to continue meeting socially afterwards and that has been a great way of supporting each other. Sorry this post is so long, but as you know my small person is only 4 months old, so all this is close to my heart! Thanks for an interesting post.

  3. a lot to think about here, especially as S. and I prepare to start a family. If i’m being honest, I don’t really know what to expect if we have a child, other than what I’ve read/watched/witnessed. How that transformation will work for me, I have no idea!

  4. As one who is childless by choice I don’t know that I have much to offer. I can say, though that one of the reasons we decided to not have children is because we did not want to give up our lives to raise a child. We’ve been accused by family members of being selfish. I don’t think it was selfish at all. Both my husband and I worked so hard to, in a sense, parent ourselves into healthy adults that we did not have the desire to parent a child. I do think that pregnant women and new parents need more practical and truthful support and not just have to rely on the assistance of friends and family.

  5. I saw a big difference in childbirth education and medical interventions between my first pregnancy, in 1996, and my third, in 2004. I was happy to have the epidural and had an uncomplicated hospital birth the first time around, so I saw no reason to do anything differently the second or third times, but the level of awareness of other options was so much higher as I got older. There was readily available education about home birth options, water birthing, doulas, midwives, no-drug options, hypnotism for labor, and so much more. Also, I just don’t think anyone can really be prepared for what it’s like to give birth, or to have an infant. My husband and I would shake our heads when anyone asked what it was like to have a new baby–there’s just no way to describe how profoundly your life changes. I used to say becoming a mother was like being an ox and having the yoke put on, or an unbroken horse being saddled–I felt like I had to completely put myself away and give myself over to the baby.

    I believe that telling the truth to mothers-to-be is a good idea, but there’s no real way to tell it! How do you explain the nearly unexplainable? And in this country (the U.S.) there isn’t a lot of institutionalized good support for new parents–we form our own parenting groups, figure out how to find childcare, create neighborhood babysitting coops, all on our own.

  6. I think you are right that it needs to be more clear to potential mothers how much their previous lives will be destroyed by having children. Like Stefanie, I am childless by choice for that very reason. Some people want their lives destroyed, and that’s fine, they want to rebuild a new life with a new person in it. But there is such a romanticization of pregnancy and babies and motherhood that I don’t think young women especially realize what a huge commitment it is, how many years they will spend caring for a stranger instead of for themselves.

  7. Bookboxed – I remember one of the (few) classes we attended when the midwives herded the husbands into a separate room and told them to discuss their feelings about the way their partner’s bodies were changing. You’ll be lucky, I thought. When we got home I asked my husband if they’d really talked about that and he said, of course not, we discussed what cars we all had. So yes, partners are often not quite ready for the baby to arrive either! Nice to hear from you. Equiano – four months already? Goodness me how time flies. But coming up to a lovely age there – I remember my baby being incredibly cute from about 4 months onwards. Very interesting your husband didn’t like the book much – I’d love to know whether the NY Times review that panned it was written by a man. I know just what you mean about help – the first five weeks I had my husband, then my mother, then my mother-in-law, then my sister-in-law to stay and I really needed them! I’m actually very impressed by the good networking and care you’ve found since birth. That sounds very helpful. And thank you also for your comments on helpful reading. Courtney – You know exactly as much as we all did then! But it must be hard to think about an event that in prospect looks so enriching as having potentially dark and negative consequences. I think motherhood takes you to the extremes of every emotion, good and bad, and that you inevitably run the whole gamut of experience. If you have good teamwork with your partner, a network of supportive friends and family and can hang on to your sense of humour, you’ll be perfectly fine. Stefanie – I’ve never considered the choice not to have children as a selfish one – far from it! I think the most unfortunate thing ever is to bring a child into the world who isn’t wanted. It’s something children are highly sensitive to and from which they find it hard to recover. Having a clear sense of what makes a good life for you is a fine, sensible thing and helps you make the right decisions. Gentle Reader – how interesting! And yes, it’s fourteen years since I was pregnant and I’ll bet things have changed enormously. And isn’t it difficult to explain to people what the change is like? Your image of a saddled horse is a fine one. I do remember feeling just deeply dismayed when I realised the extent of self-sacrifice and responsibility that had suddenly arrived and that would now never go away. It’s difficult if there aren’t organised groups but very good if you can create your own (probably better if you can find the energy). I do wish I’d known more people going through the same thing. It does help. Oh – thank you very much! How kind, and I hope you do visit again. Nicole – I do think that the prospect of childcare is romanticised and that it is very hard to envisage the extent of the commitment. if I had been able to experience the future and see what that first year had in store for me, I would never have found the courage or determination. But then I also have to say that once my son passed the toddler stage I found the whole experience much better, and ultimately very rewarding. But it’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.

  8. I asked this book through B-mooch but am still undecided as to whether I’ll read it. Depending on the people I talk to, they react to the story of my recent birth experience as uneventful or horrible. I guess I wasn’t truly ready for what happened, somehow too little and too much informed at the same time. Experience and information are simply not the same thing and improving the second does not mean that the first will be automatically better. I guess it’s a matter of accepting to not be in control for once (and from now on).

  9. As is common for me, I didn’t read the book but I have opinions. First of all, I came of age in the 1970’s when the first Our Bodies, Our Selves book came out as very controversial. Empowering women? Oh My! There was the whole movement of nurse-midwives which was positive and an enormous flood of pregnancy and birth books from cuddly to down-right scary. We had the pick of them, so no one can say they were unprepared about the various options and the frequent lack of control during labor when a natural birth is suddenly three epidurals in a row, fifty hours of the cervix stuck and finally a c-section. Seeing it in the mirror? She could have easily not looked. I asked my spouse to look into my eyes and not at what was happening to ground me. I asked the nurse to talk to me. Anything but look. So Naomi Wolf’s woes sound like her usual whining about the special suffering she has encountered in book after book after book. I find her unbearable.

    The only issue I do agree with is the postpartum issue of the emotional life of the mother and the care of the child. Pediatricians are useful. Figuring out what to feed my first baby was a mystery. And my severe post-partum depression sobbing and sleepless for five whole days in the hospital was dismissed as “baby blues.” I insisted on having my baby in the room at all times and refused to sleep for fear of the baby being stolen. No one send a psychologist or social worker to see me. I was both depressed and manic out of my mind. After five days, we went home and I was still crazy. I decided I no longer need sleep at all, a blessed event. I was irritable but managed to mother, then managed to return to work, manage to work with no one noticing anything except I’d gotten too thin.

    Post-partum depression needs to be diagnosed while the mother is in the hospital. It can be deadly if not. And training on childcare, most especially nutrition, should accompany as a separate visit all monthly pediatric checks. Well mother, well baby.

    But childbirth? It’s hell for most. The lovely spiritual births are in the vast minority and most women are setting themselves up for failure expecting that.

  10. What wonderful questions here, Litlove. It strikes me that it might interesting to investigate two possibly opposing structures: the couple as the seemingly perfect support structure for a woman about to give birth versus what I think I hear you suggesting – a support structure for women that is built outside, or at least, in addition to the couple. I think we rely very heavily on the image of the new parents-to-be as a unit, that those two individuals, bound as they are in the upcoming event, need to be cared for and taught to care for each other as the birth approaches. Which is good, I’m not disputing that. But maybe that isn’t the most accurate representation of what’s actually going on. It sounds like it might also be useful for us to recognize that a pregnant woman goes through the actual event quite alone (and in many circumstances the next 18 months to 18 years as well – if her day-to-day life compared with her partner is the most altered) and that by shifting our focus to that reality, we might be able to put in place some truly helpful structures.

    Some of what you suggest made me think of tribal social structures, where women live more in groups and the young mothers learn from the women around them who have already gone through the experience. Our couple-oriented society seems to have moved around from that.

  11. Argh. This is such a big topic and contains elements of so many others. I can’t help thinking part of the problem is an expectation people seem to have that you can somehow design your childbirth experience. Women used quite routinely to die. That doesn’t mean medical intervention is advisable on the scale we’re seeing; it just means women might do well to keep a sense of perspective as they’re writing out their birth plans…

    Ditto the issue of “giving up your life” to raise a kid. I really do feel, strongly, that my personality came into its own when I had children. I grew up. Give up my life? What kind of expectation would this be, that you could do a huge thing like become a mother, without the rest of your life changing to accommodate it? Sure, women need child care and help in the house and to still go out and have friends, etc. But one thing that struck me was the resentment I encountered from friends who had no children, that they were accusing me of having “given them up,” when I didn’t want to – or couldn’t, because I was breastfeeding – go out clubbing or to book launches etc. To them, that friendship was all about the leisure activities – playing, in fact. Well, life is bigger than that, but our modern culture does seem to reward the Sex & the City view of things. And this view is irrelevant enough – in fact – that it takes the debate into a side alley rather than addressing the real issue, which is how to accommodate and grow with the changes, not how to avoid them.

    Just my fly-in-the-ointment contribution!

    On the other hand, I was lucky, because all three of my births were fine (I say “fine.” Sure it hurt. A lot. But it turned out that my history of terrible period pains was better preparation than I’d ever anticipated, & then it ends). I come from a big family and was already comfortable taking care of babies. And just as well, because I was left on my own, husband working all the hours God sent, no mother to help out. I did feel isolated, depending on those post-natal friends I had nothing else in common with; and yes, my husband failed to understand; and my mother was not in a position where she could drop her own life and come running. I was looking after my toddler in the house when my second baby was two days old! Looking back – madness. But you do what you have to do. I think there should be more organised support for new mothers. But then, if society takes the idea that you should somehow be able to have a baby without it utterly changing your life, why be surprised if it also fails to realise that you need practical help? It was the hardest work I have ever done; I was angry a lot of the time. But I didn’t kid myself that it was having the babies that made it hard.

  12. Well, your discussion of childbirth and raising a child only confirms my decision to remain childless, I must say! Why in the world would I choose to go through that? 🙂 Okay, I can see why people do it … but still … I think a part of why I’m not interested in children of my own is that I’m the oldest of seven and so got a good glimpse of what it’s like to raise a child. Not that I know, really, of course, but the glimpse I got was pretty powerful.

  13. Smithereens – well there’s a story that some of us (definitely me) would like to hear one day, when and if you can face it. I think what you say about experience and information is spot on. Would it help to put a woman in a virtual reality chamber and allow her to experience a simulation of birth? I don’t expect anyone would ever have a baby ever again. What you say about control is also accurate. But I think motherhood is really odd in this respect – mothers have almost too much control (potentially) over their children and then again, as the child grows they have to realise how little control they possess. It’s just plain odd.

    Querulous Squirrel – poor you – my heart went out to you reading this. It sounds like you had a truly ghastly time in the aftermath of your baby’s birth. I do wonder to what extent events can be redeemed because pretty much everybody goes through the same thing. I’m struck reading your comment about the distinction that’s quietly there between birth as a bad experience one might be able to expect and which is widely recognised and reflected back to the mother, and post-partum depression which isn’t permitted or is at least held out of the frame of reasonable expectations. I wonder whether the key to all this is isolation – becoming a mother is a very isolating experience, and it’s the extra ‘bad’ experience of being abandoned that breaks a woman’s spirit. You clearly needed to be ‘seen’ in your desperate state, and seen with loving compassion – my goodness, who wouldn’t need that? And I do think that it’s in being not seen any longer as individual women with their own needs and anxieties that mothers get the most raw deal.

    Verbivore – what a fantastically insightful comment that is. I think you are spot on. Partners are every bit as flummoxed by birth as mother’s are, but they often have the opportunity to escape the intensity of the early years, which can lead to bad feeling all round. New mothers need extra mothering themselves while they make the transition to a new and very demanding job, and sometimes partners are just ideal at doing that, and sometimes less so. In either case, a strong support network of family and friends is essential, I think, to a new mother’s wellbeing. How to ensure such a network? Ah, there you have me. I don’t know. But if I were a fairy godmother, it’s what I’d give as a gift at every christening.

    Msbaroque – welcome to the site – how very nice to have you visit, and leave such a fabulous comment. I remember being asked what my birth plan was on several occasions and my answer was always ‘to survive’. I wasn’t quite sure what else I could hope for. It’s wonderful to hear a woman say she came into her own through mothering – hope for us all! And you clearly did it on the strength of your grit, determination and sense of humour (I lost mine for about four years). I know just what you mean about a gulf opening up between myself and my childless friends, not least because I was pretty much the first person to have children for many a year. It is exactly that gulf of incomprehension that it’s difficult to know how to negotiate. Reading your comment I also began to wonder about that maternal Dunkirk spirit that is perhaps the prime quality you are obliged to develop when you have children. It makes me think of the way that criminals are fiercely moral, but with a moral structure of great eccentricity – ‘robbing from the rich isn’t a crime but an ethical necessity, but I’d never steal from a mate, that just wouldn’t be right’ etc, etc. I feel that mother’s develop an equally eccentric code of stoicism – ‘it’s fine to chew on the furniture so long as the children don’t catch me at it’ etc. What we survive, and survive intact, is seen as something anyone could do (or maybe even ought to do), which might risk discounting the cost to sanity, happiness, whatever, that it took to get through the experience. Well this is an awfully long-winded way of saying that mothers are tough on themselves and sometimes tough on each other, and whilst I might get mown down by the school gate, I think I’ll keep waving a banner that suggests lots of compassion, starting with kindness to ourselves. I will be coming over to visit your site, by the way, of which I have heard nothing but extravagant praise!

    Dorothy – lol! I know, I worry that if the truth of childcare is widely broadcast, the future of the race will be in doubt! But then again, once I’d got through the early years it turned into an experience I would certainly never want to have missed. But I was not the eldest of seven and I cannot begin to imagine what that must have been like. I would not be at all surprised if you were still enjoying the feeling of having space to be yourself. It’s a very precious commodity!

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