A Motherhood Movement

A brief book review on Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood by Naomi Wolf

This book would have been meaningless to me if I had read it before my daughter was born. In Misconceptions, author Naomi Wolf brings “real talk” to the idea of motherhood, dispelling the “Goddess Myth” that typifies our contemporary American perception the effortlessly nurturing, glowing, Hallmark-card mother. Of course, we don’t know how far that myth is from truth until our little one actually arrives, and we can feel it for ourselves.

I remember something my Mother-in-Law said to me on her first visit to Boston to meet my five-week-old daughter. She held Rose, peaceful and sleeping, and looked at me with tearful eyes. “Can you even imagine your life without her?” I felt so guilty about my internal reaction. Sleep-deprived, stressed to the maximum about nursing troubles and a scare about Rose’s heart, I was a zombie. I remembered the days before Rose was born fondly, and I wanted to return to them.

Wolf’s framing of motherhood as a complex negotiation of joyful gifts and sharp losses speaks to the mother trying to cope with the vast chasm of difference between the cliché of motherhood and the actual experience of it. The world of motherhood is full of the unimaginable gift of precious life, yes, but to receive them, we face so many deaths: the death of our solitary selfhood, our bodies as our own, our carefree identity, our marriage as it was, and our status in the workplace. And as if that weren’t enough, Wolf explains, American women are not adequately prepared for birth and new motherhood; we are undersupported—psychologically, emotionally, and financially; and our medical establishment makes birth unnecessarily mysterious, and even physically and psychologically harmful.

So what are we to do?

· Books, classes, and support outlets for pregnant women should focus on the elements that actually influence an infant’s well-being: the mother’s feelings about the pregnancy, the mother’s relationship with the baby’s father, and the father’s tenderness to the mother.

· We should take initiative to educate ourselves on the truth about the birthing industry. Wolf questions our assumptions that the hospital is the safest place for labor, that fetal monitors help protect the baby, that modern hospitals are conducive to birth, and that hospital staff offer the support we need. I should note that Wolf hasn’t convinced me to have my next baby on Ina May Gaskin's farm, but that is likely not her goal. She has convinced me to ask more questions, and not to be shy about probing for the truth about all of my options.

· We should talk with our partners and the members of our support system about the realities of motherhood. “Balance” in life after baby usually means that the woman’s life becomes more flexible. Rather than just being accepted as an unspoken truth, Wolf’s book urges us to question that, and at least to recognize that and make choices and concessions consciously, speaking up for ourselves if it doesn’t feel right.

· We should question our assumptions of what makes a “good mother.” In the moments where we feel like a “bad mom,” interrogate the proof you have for that, and trace it back to its source. I’m a bad mom, because I’m bottle feeding instead of nursing. I’m a bad mom, because my baby was born with a health condition and it must be my fault. I’m a bad mom, because I’m resentful of my baby today. How have you built the worldview that ties these ideas together? Exclusively nursing = good mom. Only a perfectly healthy baby = good mom. Radiantly blissful goddess = good mom. These are myths created and perpetuated by our society, and it is up to us to question them, challenge them, and dispel them.

· We need a motherhood movement, Wolf says. Six months off for each parent, with usual pay. Guaranteed flextime when we go back to work. Corporate benefits such as onsite daycare. We need to be mothered ourselves. Forty days of extra help and extra hands. Scented baths. Chicken in sesame oil. And self-forgiveness.

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