Several years ago, my husband and I tucked our infant son into his car seat and drove to a state bar conference in the mountains. The first night, over cocktails, a trial lawyer from Charlotte stood in the middle of the floor and entertained a small crowd with the details of his most recent court victory. The story was engaging, a harrowing tale of corrupt witnesses, incompetent jurors, cretinous judges and one brave lawyer--the narrator himself--who rode the white horse of justice, triumphed over wickedness and won his client a huge verdict.
At the end of the story there was a lot of congratulatory back-slapping, and I remember standing there thinking, Hey, Bucko, you think that's something? I just gave birth. You wanna hear about that?
Every birth is a two-fold creation, producing both a baby and a story. It is a woman's occupation, in the months before and after delivery, to string together the narrative of her pregnancy and birth: the morning sickness and baby showers and odd cravings, the cranky nurses and cold stirrups and itchy stitches. I can't quite figure the intense need for this except that the experience happens in an other-world, a pit of joy and torment and stardust and primordial slime so dreamlike it must be recorded quickly, or else forgotten.
Some pieces of the story are the sole province of a particular pregnancy and birth. I duly noted my own chapters: How, throughout my first trimester, I threw up every time I looked at the flannel bed sheets with the little blue sheep on them. Or how, in the last stages of birth, I was horrified to hear myself howling like White Fang. Or how, when my son was two weeks old and sleeping on my chest in the TV room, I was forced to choose between waking him up to get the remote or watching an hour of World Wrestling Federation. I chose the wrestling.
Some of the story, though, comes to you from other sources--relatives and friends, the perfect stranger who shoos you and your newborn out of the frozen foods section saying you are sure-God going to give that little baby a chi-ill. And, of course, from the advice manuals that crowd the bookstore shelves. I read all the usual gurus: T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Spock, Penelope Leach, Richard Ferber. From them I learned what to pack for the hospital, how a cervix ripens, where the fontanelle is, and why my baby's umbilical cord looked like a hairball.
All these books were reassuring and cheerful, eager to help out when your bottom is sore and the baby's crying and you don't have one stitch of clothing that doesn't smell like last month's carton of half-and-half. When you have reached your wit's end and it is 9 o'clock in the morning.
They are also delusive. I remember reading Louise Erdrich's account of life with her newborn, how the baby cooed in a pearly bassinet while its mother sat at a desk and wrote a book. After the birth of my first child I couldn't sit on anything for six weeks except the inflated doughnut they gave me at the hospital. And if my baby sensed me doing anything self-gratifying--eating a cheese sandwich, for instance, he became apoplectic. Writing a book with a newborn in the house seemed as probable as joining the space program. I looked at Erdrich on my bookshelf and felt betrayed.
This betrayal is the subject of a new book by Naomi Wolf, Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood. Wolf, you will recall, was credited with resuscitating the feminist movement in the 1990s with her bestseller, The Beauty Myth. Now, having gone through pregnancy and birth, she takes on the childbirth "industry" in order to write a new story, one that reveals the hard truths about motherhood. She begins with two premises: First, in the absence of nurturing social rituals to help women in our culture through their pregnancies and births, the whole ordeal has become the domain of the medical industry. And, second, the politics of that male-dominated domain are, from the feminist standpoint, preglacial.
Unimpressed by the natural childbirth movement of the 1970s, Wolf argues that during pregnancy and childbirth, health-care professionals and advice manuals take advantage of a woman's vulnerability and uncertainty, manipulating a perfectly natural process with drugs and forceps and surgery and formula--essentially excluding women from what would otherwise be the most powerfully personal experience of their lives. The goal--or at least the result--is that women are once again treated as children, offered cuddly maxims and half-truths about a complicated and difficult situation.
Surprisingly, Naomi Wolf is Exhibit A in her own argument. Though thrilled with the promise of a new baby, she experiences anger, rage, sadness and powerlessness nearly every step of the way. She is subjected to unnecessary procedures that make her feel confused. Her belief in the mind-body-spirit connection of childbirth is poo-pooed. Doctors and nurses and childbirth instructors say a lot of bone-headed things to her. One obstetrician, impatient with Wolf's questions about medication, tells her, "You may think you can do without an epidural, but my dear, one good contraction and you will be begging for the injection like virtually everyone else."
(The point, I guess, is that if someone as smart and famous and wealthy as Naomi Wolf gets this kind of treatment from her pricey Washington, D.C. doctors, we can only imagine the horror stories of the average American woman. I didn't buy it, though. My own doctors, here in Rubeville, N.C., would have committed hari-kari with their own amnio needles before treating their patients that way.)
Wolf's mistreatment continues through her hospital tour and blood screenings and childbirth class. The birth itself is a medicated C-section nightmare, and being home with her newborn turns out to be a horror of depression, pain, loneliness and boredom. (Wolf's husband, the baby's father, is curiously absent. He goes for a jog after learning she's pregnant and never really returns.)
As if things aren't bad enough, Wolf finds herself facing a wrenching psychological predicament--the possibility (a knife to her feminist heart) that, at least in some purely bio-evolutionary way, women are here to have babies. That, once we are pregnant, our senses are honed almost exclusively to the protection and care of the infant. That the sound of a fetal heartbeat drowns out all the noise we make about our careers, our freedom, our selves.
Caring for her new baby, and feeling overwhelmed, Wolf very nearly cries uncle on this last point. Is very nearly swept under by the tide of hormones and exhaustion to conclude that her own attempt to hold onto her old life, and her old self, is the real source of her grief.
In the end, though, Wolf gets her second wind and rallies. Her "Mother's Manifesto" chapter is a bullhorn cry for society to make the necessary changes. She demands better flex-time and family leave, more on-site daycare and HMO-supported midwifery. She calls for a coalition of parents and caregivers to set the national agenda, an agenda of better health care, neighborhood toy banks and work/home spaces developed by private-public partnerships. This she says, will be the new story: "Motherhood Feminism"--the answer to every bone-headed doctor, every cold stirrup and itchy stitch.
Sometime after the new year, on one of those cold, snowed-in afternoons, I watched a TV show about the bush people of--where was it?--someplace in the Brazilian outback. One of the women in the community, pregnant with her first child, serenely marked time as her husband built a birthing hut. She was not distressed by what was happening to her, did not feel anger, rage, sadness, powerlessness. She squatted in the dust, calm and still. She had surrendered.
Mothers in our culture, many of us anyway, never surrender. Which is OK. We don't live in the bush. We live in two-story transitionals and have careers and ambitions. We prize flat stomachs and firm bosoms. We long to be successful, self-possessed and self-reliant. We do not long to squat in the dust. In short, we have selves, and those selves will not be denied.
The trouble is, babies and children won't be denied either. At a recent parents' meeting, my son's kindergarten teacher tried to explain why many 5-year-olds fall apart when they get picked up in the afternoon. "They miss you," she told a group of us. "They want you to be with them, and they are going to make you pay for every board meeting, every teleconference, every hour you spend apart from them."
I agree. Children need their parents. My children need me so much I sometimes feel I'm standing chin-high in a river of starving minnows. I also agree with Naomi Wolf: Women deserve straight answers about the pain, exhaustion and insanity of motherhood. Post the agenda of the Mother's Manifesto and I'll be the first to write letters to my representatives. The thing is, though, no amount of societal change is going to ease Wolf's essential grievance, a grievance many mothers understand all too well. Her lament is not for her career or her lifestyle or her body--with enough money and resolve she can more or less have all those things back. What she really wants is her old self, the one that existed before a baby came along to take over the lease of her womb and her life. That's the crucial struggle. Wolf's postpartum pain radiates less from her nether region than her unwillingness to surrender. As mothers, she complains, we are "no longer the brave, free girls we once were."
True enough still, motherhood offers a few compensations and epiphanies, some of them so fabulous you find yourself reaching for the white flag, struck with the realization that no job, no acclaim and no income bracket can compare with your very own sleeping infant. Then the baby wakes up crying, and for about two minutes you wonder if it's possible to hang yourself with your own dental floss.
Women are frequently called on to remember the biblical Eve and her price of pain. I wonder, though, if in becoming mothers we aren't much more like Job, stripped of all that we know and left listening for an answer from the whirlwind. It can be a long time coming, that voice, and you won't find it in a book. Then one day when you are dog-tired and spit-up-upon and raggedy-edged, you hear it, those two crucial syllables: Mama.