A Pregnant Pause: Reading About Motherhood

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told, besides my husband, was my friend’s mother, Claire, who is a doula. The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “slave” and refers to a birthing professional who is devoted to the mother—or to both parents,— and ensuring her holistic well-being during the antenatal months, through labor, and into the “fourth trimester.”

Claire insisted on sending me a book. It arrived in the mail a few days later: Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey, another Melbourne-based doula. The subtitle interested me: Savvy Choices for Normal Birth.

A “savvy woman,” the book purported, understood that there was “power in women’s bodies,” and that it was necessary to “be on guard, defensive and second-guessing all the time about what the agendas are for suggesting particular procedures.”

These agendas and procedures, Dempsey continued, ranged from artificial induction of labor, to pharmaceutical pain relief (the infamous epidural), to extraction of the baby with forceps and vacuum induction. The alternative to these various interventions, the author stated, was to embrace birth as an ecstatic experience and revel in the female body’s capacity to produce oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which is essential in the laboring process.

Was I a “savvy woman”? I shut the book, terrified that for some reason, I wasn’t.

Over the following months, Dempsey’s book would sit mostly unread under a pile of other books, all pertaining to pregnancy, labor, and motherhood, that I’ve read in lieu of relying on the scant pamphlets provided me by the Australian medical establishment. Having moved hardly two years ago to this remote corner of the world, with my mother and sisters and friends back in North America or Europe, these books were really all I had.

When Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood came out in 2018, I immediately read it. I did so because I like her work—I would have read her latest book if it had been called Bicycles or Turnips. But as I followed the main character, nervously flipping a coin and hoping that fate would randomly decide whether she, at 37, should have a baby with her live-in boyfriend, I understood that unlike this narrator, I was not undecided about whether to become a mother. For whatever reason, I never have been. Whereas Heti’s narrator wonders aloud (via her iChing coin-flipping methodology) whether a female artist should have children—
But I don’t care about my genes! Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art?

yes

Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?

no
—I, for some inexplicable reason, have always felt that motherhood and creative work will somehow go hand-in-hand for me.

And yet, I still had no idea how to be pregnant. I knew that What to Expect When You’re Expecting was considered the “bible” of pregnancy around the world, so I found a copy. Originally published in 1984 (the year I was born, my mother’s fourth pregnancy, and the only one where she accepted the use of an epidural, as she was 41 years old and the obstetrician basically told her she had to use it), the 530-page tome assumes that the newly-pregnant woman knows nothing, and therefore offers information from multiple angles on every possible topic of concern: vitamins; birthing locations; weight gain; single motherhood; alcohol consumption; preparing for labor; and in the third (and current) edition, a new emphasis on partner communications.

I flipped through it, and somehow found the page on “Emergency Delivery If You’re Alone”—i.e. what to do if your baby decides to come very quickly and you don’t have time to go anywhere and only you and your partner are around. Using an exacto knife, I removed this page from the book and attached it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Step number one: “Try to remain calm. You can do this.”

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable,” my husband said with a pale face when he saw the page. I assured him it was just in case of an emergency.

At 13 weeks of pregnancy, I boarded a plane to Europe. I’d planned the month-long trip before getting pregnant. In Slovenia and then Italy, I promptly ignored all the dietary cautions I’d read in What to Expect and ate raw milk cheese, salami, and crudo at every chance, washing it all down with modest sips of wine.

By the time I got to Berlin, the last stop on the journey, I was finally showing, but not much. But emotionally, I was in a state—I realized that this trip was my last solo hurrah—ever. I blurted out to one friend over Syrian food in Kreuzberg: “I have always wanted to go to Berghein.” Because she’s not a native Berliner, my friend didn’t roll her eyes dramatically, but instead volunteered to meet me there the next day, for a morning rave. At 9 a.m., I arrived to the ugly beige warehouse that houses Berlin’s most notorious nightclub. I waited nervously to be judged by Sven, the legendary guard. He barked at me to remove my sunglasses, then briefly scanned my outfit—I’d worn the black shift dress that another friend had gifted me secondhand, swearing it had gotten her through pregnancy. I was allowed in, and located my friend at the espresso bar downstairs. We danced for hours, completely sober, and I placed my hand on my belly, smiling at the thought of one day telling my child, “I went out dancing when I was pregnant with you!”

As I do on every trip to Berlin, I visited the magazine shop Do You Read Me?!, in Mitte. In their tightly curated book section, I found a series called “Vintage Minis” that prints short works by famous authors on mundane subjects. I purchased one, called Making Babies, by Irish novelist Anne Enright, and read it on the plane back to Australia.

Enright does not make any attempt to provide guidance on pregnancy and motherhood. To the contrary, she herself seems to be fumbling along, and she narrates all of her anxieties, annoyances, discomforts, and elations from the first trimester onward. In the grocery store, Enright battles cravings: “Starvation is no joke, especially when you have been eating all day.” She fears, even becomes convinced, that something is wrong with her baby, it must be deformed, until the first ultrasound proves otherwise. And Enright discovers, as I did, that being pregnant is a discursive state—a woman’s body becomes a blank page, upon which others can project their own morality.

“A pregnant woman is public property,” Enright writes. “I began to feel like a bus with ‘Mammy’ on the front—and the whole world was clambering on. Four women in a restaurant cheered when I ordered dessert. A friend went into a prolonged rage with me, for no reason at all. Everyone’s unconscious was very close to their mouths. Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not social, or political, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless. It was also most unfair.”

The second trimester is a time when hormones charge the body. Reading Enright’s words, I felt very emotional. Everyone was judging me, I felt—judging my body and consumption, already making me out to be a bad mother before the child was born.

Once the baby has arrived, Enright chronicles the months in terms of “Development (the baby)” and “Regression (me),” almost like an advice book that carefully outlines each stage of pregnancy in terms of sleeping, eating, bodily capabilities, etc. We see Enright struggling to hold it all together (her emotions, her career, her marriage) as the baby takes it all in stride. At five months, she goes back to her smoking habit and gets very tipsy whenever possible. At six months, she feels that her life is essentially centered upon literal shit. I, too, gave up smoking when I became pregnant and reading, I started to wonder whether I’d crave cigarettes not long after my baby is born. I also questioned my environmentally driven vision of using cloth diapers.

As time went on, I reverted to the advice books. After all, I was going to have to breastfeed this child and keep it clean and fed, all of which seemed like pretty high-stakes things. A friend lent me her copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, and it became my cornerstone.

Gaskin is a beacon of sanity in a world of hypermedicalized child birthing. After one birth in which a doctor used forceps, followed by a traumatic premature birth on a bus traveling though Nebraska (the baby did not survive), Gaskin became motivated to provide better birth experiences for women. In 1971, she and her husband founded one of the United States’s first outside-hospital birth retreat centers, called The Farm, in Tennessee. Over the decades, Gaskin and her coterie of midwives delivered thousands of births, and she became the foremost expert in natural childbirth. I read her book from cover to cover, absorbing every single one of the birth stories with gusto I usually reserve for binge-watching Netflix.

With confident Ina May by my side, I felt equipped to write my “birth plan,” in which I voiced my intention to avoid, unless medically necessary, every kind of medical intervention ranging from induction to episiotomy to C-section. And I finally felt comfortable telling my doctor that I would not be taking the gestational diabetes test, which involved fasting for 12 hours and drinking a sugary solution, since I had no risk factors and plenty of qualms with the methodology.

At around 20 weeks of pregnancy—halfway through—I remembered that a book called Bringing Up Bebe had been a huge bestseller in the U.S. Being a Francophile, I rushed out to get it. In this 2012 book, Paris-based American journalist Pamela Druckerman offers anthropological insight on French childrearing culture. Every time Druckerman debunked another classically American, overly risk-averse stipulation, whether about pregnancy or childbirth, and cracked the code on what the French were doing, I felt like cheering out loud. Her approach showed expert journalistic slyness and cultural sensitivity—French mothers insisted they didn’t let their babies “cry it out,” but when Druckerman pried more, these mothers explained that they briefly “observed” their babies crying just for a few minutes, before acting. French childrearing was different, I came to think, because it emphasized the well-being of broader society (a child must be well-educated because it’s better for everyone; a child must go to daycare because it’s important to the family as a whole that the mother works) rather than obsessing over a child’s achievements and plotting its entrance to Harvard at six months. Druckerman, I thought, you’re my hero.

Three friends who live in Europe, who were also pregnant, shared photos on social media featuring a nice new hardcover book called The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. They seemed excited about it, so I ordered it. The author, Heng Ou, applies her family’s knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and cooking to postnatal care for the mother. About half the book is recipes, including super food smoothies, bone broths, soups, and stews—apparently, after birthing it is important to warm the body—and I noticed one recipe, in particular, called for Chinese red dates, which according to the author “bestow amazing postpartum benefits.”

I tried to picture myself going to the Asian markets to find these red dates and preparing such a stew. Even without a baby crying on my hip, it seemed like a lot of work. I lay the Forty Days book on the shelf along with my other aspirational cookbooks such as Bar Tartine’s.

At 31 weeks of pregnancy, this stack of books sits neatly on a shelf. I have stopped reading any of them; instead I prefer to delve into the latest Rachel Cusk essay collection and Ben Lerner’s new novel. I’m not sure a book could make me a better mother than I am already destined to be. But at least I do know that I’ll raise a good reader—and maybe one who likes late-night dancing to house music.

Image: Toa Heftiba

Women in Clothes: A Collaborative Endeavor


1.
Sipping Champagne at my kitchen table on a hot August night, I flipped through the fat book, Women In Clothes. There was my little blurb, which made me cringe only a little to see in print, in which I talk about how, after my boyfriend telling me I needed to dress better, I went out the next day and spent $250 on clothes. My confession was right there alongside other similar personal confessions from over six hundred women around the world. Women In Clothes is a crowd-sourced, multi-form anthology consisting mostly of survey responses from regular, everyday women (like me) as well as from famous intellectual-artsy women (including Lena Dunham, if you needed me to even tell you that; you’ll find Eileen Myles and Roxanne Gay in there, as well). The survey answers, which are cleverly organized, are supplemented by essays from and transcribed conversations between similar such intellectual-artsy women, and wonderfully minimalistic and eclectic photo essays made up of personal collections, ranging from nail polish to handmade guitar straps to ear plugs.

Women In Clothes is the result of a collaboration between authors Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, and visual artist Leanne Shapton. It is a striking endeavor in that it is, as mentioned before, verifiably “crowd-sourced” and contains no input from anyone who could be considered a style icon, although a former fashion model and a prominent fashion critic are amongst those who contributed survey responses. The book is, in this sense, a truly contemporary item, representing an age brought along through the Internet’s dominance, in which all opinions are valid, and sharing private thoughts and practices is acceptable.

Right away, I enjoyed the book’s overall light-heartedness, its tiny glimpses into people’s metaphorical and physical closets, and its whimsical and eye-pleasing artwork. Then I flipped to an interview with human rights journalist Mac McClelland, and read, on page 174:
And H&M, oh my god, I can’t even be in an H&M, I feel like I’m having a heart attack in there. It smells like . . . To me it smells like diesel or something—gas fumes and textile chemicals. Urban Outfitters—I have the same thing. Every time I walk in there I’m just like, oh my god, it smells like plastic and chemicals and bad news and bad politics and I just (laughs) I don’t want to be there.
I paused, looking down at my outfit, which consisted of two summer staples: an Aztec-print tube top from Urban Outfitters, and a striped skirt from H&M.

2.
In cities like New York, a capital of both the fashion and art worlds, there is no limit to how well-dressed a woman can be—and not just fashionably so, but also and perhaps of greater import, uniquely and singularly so. It’s a competition to be at the height of stylishness, and yet appear to have risen there almost effortlessly. Despite this competitive veneer, however, when prompted for fashion advice, women may extend solidarity. Occasionally, minding one’s own business on the subway, a tap on the shoulder will interrupt.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I ask where you got that?”

The information will be received with a grateful smile—unless the store named is someplace expensive, like Anthropologie, in which case there might be a slight roll of the eyes.

If fashion is divisive, then literature may be the opposite. It creates camaraderie. Female authors I have never met, or have brushed with in New York, are in my imagination my colleagues, as if we are somehow expressing different facets of the same contemporary voice. Reading a work by a female author that relates to the world you live in is like having a therapist who speaks to you in poetry: it doesn’t make things necessarily clearer, but it makes them beautiful and interesting. (Of course, such bonds may exist only in my imagination; one well-known female author whose work I admired—and who contributed to Women In Clothes—not only ignored my e-mails seeking her advice on a project, but seemed physically pained when I tried to speak to her about it at a magazine party.)

Last fall, I saw a co-worker who I didn’t know very well on a lunch break, reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I ran over and hugged her, so glad that she was sharing this magical literary treat. Had she been wearing the same dress as me, the reaction would have been much different: a snide glance instead of a hug.

3.
A pivotal scene in How Should a Person Be? occurs following a trip to Art Basel Miami during which the narrator, Sheila, purchases the same yellow dress that her best friend Margaux has just decided to buy. Back in Toronto, Sheila receives an e-mail from Margaux confessing that she is upset about the incident. She has even decided to give the dress away.
4. i think it’s pretty standard that you don’t buy the same dress your friend is buying, but i was trying to convince myself that maybe it was okay to buy the  same dress your friend is buying. you know, trying to think about it positively, hence the “we’ll wear them in our music video statement from me.”
Sheila and Margaux are not just any women; they are intellectual-artsy type women. They consider themselves serious—and often mention how glad they are to have found each other, “a girl who was as serious as me.” In a September, 2013 article in the New Yorker about Eileen Fisher, Janet Malcolm leads with this confession: “There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected.” And yet the message of Women in Clothes is clear: daily fashion choices are incredibly important for most women, often involve an incredible amount of anxiety as well as a good deal of creativity and resourcefulness, and ultimately consume a good deal of our time, energy, and emotions—regardless of whether we exist in a style-conscious setting or not.

Reading Women in Clothes, I became interested in how it was a collaborative endeavor. How had a subject that I felt created anxiety and divisiveness amongst women—as it does in Heti’s novel—been channeled into a creative endeavor? How had it become something shared not only between the three editors—as well as various collaborators who worked closely with them in analyzing the surveys (Mary Mann) and designing the book (Kate Ryan)—but also by hundreds of everyday women, like me, who had become involved in its making? I reached out, via e-mail, to the book’s editors.

The project’s birth was rooted in its absence, when Heti sought and could not find a book that would explain “what women thought about when they shopped, when they put outfits together,” she wrote me. “All the books I found approached dressing from the outside, not the inside. They were so image-based, or else about a specific stylish woman, like Audrey Hepburn.” Upon this realization that the book she wanted to read did not exist, Heti began e-mailing her friends, asking them “What is your process when getting dressed in the morning?”Heidi Julavits replied with some thoughts, suggesting the subject could become a book; the next thought was to include Leanne Shapton. The three began communicating over e-mail, over time incorporating other online collaboration programs into their process: Google Hangouts, Skype, Dropbox, and Google Docs.

At a certain point, the three women convened in a Toronto hotel for several days of what Shapton dubbed “book camp,” which, Julavits wrote me, “involved basically not sleeping for three days, and at one point ending up on the floor in bathrobes eating room service soup at midnight.” All three women stated that the process of making Women in Clothes was somehow transformational on a personal level, and that collaborating resulted in a work that was greater than the sum total of each individual. “I think the book is a million times smarter than any one of us, individually. We filled in each others’ gaps,” wrote Heti. As Shapton put it, “Like a swimming medley relay ream, we each had a strong stroke, and then brought opinions and support to the others.”

I suspected that producing Women in Clothes may have made its editors more aware of their own fashion choices. To this, Julavits shared a story that took place when she and Heti were having a drink at one point during the early stages of the book. “I was tired and not feeling very chatty, but I was very actively checking out and admiring her dress, which was a vintage nightgown. We parted ways, and she wrote me a bit later to say, ‘I went home and changed out of that ridiculous dress.’ I realized that she’d misunderstood my close attention for criticism, and it made me also realize that I want to be more vocal when I see a woman who’s looking great.”

Only a week before my e-mails with the editors, I had sat in a coffee shop, my attention distracted from their book by a woman sitting near me, conversing with a friend. Everything about this woman was perfect—her oversized necklace, her silky white tank top, her casual, baggy black pants, her minimalistic make-up. She saw me eyeing her, again and again. But I said nothing. Who knows how she took my glances—perhaps as praise, but also perhaps as criticism. And these glances happen so regularly on the subway, in shops, on the street. They are, it seems, part of the secret language of being a woman—the way we constantly judge ourselves and others based on superficies and artifice.

Can a book like this counteract these tendencies, likely instilled in many of us through too much time in our teenage years reading fashion magazines, which told us how to dress and what to look like? Can it, furthermore, make us think twice before we purchase clothes that implicate us in a web of human rights violations via factories around the world, and move us toward slightly more sustainable enterprises (I won’t even get into the whole American Apparel situation here, but let it suffice to say that many humanitarian companies do exist). A book like this can probably do that work, to some extent. But what it really makes me want to do is create art in a collaborative fashion—to find ways to work with other women rather than against them. I am jealous of the editors of Women in Clothes not because they have cool clothes or great hair, or perfect bodies. I am jealous, and admire, that they found a way to work together to create something a little bit revolutionary, and then shared the experience with so many people, giving us the opportunity to contribute in ways small and large.