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?
Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?
—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
Standing athwart the evident passage of a year, shuddering, “No.” Never have I claimed to be well-read; I exhibit reading behavior. Taking honest account of it feels akin to my book of the year 2017, Alissa Nutting’s “Grub Street Diet,” wherein she wrote, “I like texture more than flavor.”
Because I tend to read what’s in the vending machine. At the end of this Year in Reading installment I will award the 2018 Achievement in Vended Prose from among these ruffles, puddings, and cool, ranch-flavored corn crunches: Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer; KellyMom and Lucie’s List; the indistinct voice of Maggie Haberman and coauthor; half a dozen servings of sportswriting for my health; “TFW” Patricia Lockwood has been assigned a review; “Russian meddling”; Rotten Tomatoes audience reviews for “research”; Babycenter’s “My Baby This Week” emails, a little on the nose; NYT’s “Sunday Routine” or, “Roast a chicken to graze on for the rest of the week—what’s wrong with you?”; Janet Malcolm and “SJW garbage”; Zadie Smith and r/Relationships (where peevish 21Ms ask nicely that their girlfriends lose weight); tweets urging newspapers to use the word “lie” in their headlines; Elif Batuman’s “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry” as read aloud by my mom; the epic of heterosexuality that is Allison Benedikt and John Cook’s entry in “Our One Fight”; buzz for A Star Is Born so I’d know just how seriously I was supposed to take it when I went to see it alone.
I read about unaffordable cities and segregated schools, every time. Because it’s up to us not to want what we want.
A Year in Words Mattering
“Words matter,” it is said tragically, because of the damage they can do even when strung together incompetently. Words matter because people believe them. I believed Caitlin Flanagan’s “I Believe Her.” And Jia Tolentino on the front lines of male anxiety: “He would ask me if I didn’t think it was dangerous to lump all these things together, and I would try to find the words to say that the fear of things being lumped together does more to lump them together than all the speaking up.”
But if words matter in that good writing still affords deep human pleasures, this was the year of the Taffy Brodesser-Akner profile. On Goop, GP in the flesh, and the price of feeling improved: “We are doomed to aspire for the rest of our lives. Aspiration is suffering. Wellness is suffering.”
(Pause.) The nominee in the category of Words Mattering: Sarah Miller’s “The Movie Assassin.” Clip:
Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?
This “butterfly flaps its wings” scenario differs significantly from the one about the housing bust, fentanyl, and the alt-right because it imagines instead street riots over the critical consensus regarding Minghella’s Best Picture winner. And yet I found it plausible: to pinpoint a time when the culture fell out of its delicate balance; when it stopped being serious, and at the same time, lost its sense of humor. Does the edgy joke overtake the country in a timeline that includes the English Patient Riots of ’96? I don’t think so.
A Year in Nothing Mattering
Here’s the thing: I read what you read. I read apologies. I read testimonials and denials. I read evenhanded appraisals, self-congratulations, and baseless claims. I read the takes and the takes read me. So I can’t be alone here: I hate reading anything about Trump; I hate reading anything that doesn’t take place in a world where the giant novelty scarecrow came to life, outperformed polling in the upper Midwest, and governed on white identity. My loyalties lie with a presiding anguish. Traister, Cobb, M. Gessen, Bouie—I regret to inform you that what cannot be allowed to stand, stands.
I read all criticisms of Facebook, rooting for the articles to break through the supposedly salient issue of digital “privacy,” as if, in the end, small fighters could fly preposterously to a central engine and destroy it. I read a tweet about the privilege of deleting Facebook (practically synonymous with Internet access in some countries) approximately 15 seconds before news of its role in the murderous expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar. I’ve thought about it every day since.
At times, reading felt like perpetual debate prep. Bari Weiss’s “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web”—you read it, I read it, we looked upon our friends who had not read it with envy and then resentment—the arrogance! To make us read it for them! (To salvage that rare good tire out of the tire fire, try Amia Srinivasan, “Does anyone have the right to sex?”) We tend to think of reading as exemplary, enriching. What is the opposite of that? 2018 was a banner year in abject reading—hostile, morbid, “social.”
I tried and failed to not read amorphous content by those dedicated to the defeat of people like me in rhetorical combat. Day and night they worked to flatten us in the post-lecture-Q&A-session-before-the-raucous-university-audience of their minds. I take it that I find there to be no biological differences between women, men, squid, and cauliflower; I want to repeal the first amendment; I am unable to disagree in a civil manner. And if you believe that, Reader, fuck you.
There is no nomination in the category of Nothing Mattering. Nobody deserved one.
A Year in Making Certain That an Infant Is Breathing
“The cube is fun for everyone,” sings the cube. The cube’s fine reviews did not mention the sounds it made.
However problematic it may be to lay my incapacity at the feet of an infant, I have found it difficult to read and work. (I didn’t get into Knausgård—this is not a defense of the wage gap.) Little known to the unparenting, those manuals one promises themselves that they’ll read in dire preparation for what otherwise, it is said, cannot be prepared for, are virtually unreadable lists of number-ranges in reference to behaviors and bodily functions in the zero to six rough months at the start. Even now I am left with the feeling that I did not read what I had to, only what I could: the Boards, over-the-shoulder Slack, the newsletters (Laura Owen’s I’ll Be Right Back, Emily Gould’s Can’t Complain), and Bringing Up Bébé, the only parenting book to make an argument (the galling superiority of the French style. “Le Pause,” I say to the baby. “I have spit up,” he says, or more precisely, does not say).
For advice on gender roles in parenting, Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: “My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female.” Sure, I’m there. On the spiritual logic of procreation, the great and generally acute Heather Havrilesky: “Have a baby. Then have another baby!”
Parents themselves I like. In their own way, they keep pace with troubled times. I see them everywhere, their progeny swathed in Big Muslin and reclined in Uppababys, and I try to respect and dignify them, as I would anyone who publicly admitted to a willful mistake.
An honorable mention for first story, first sentence, goes to Lauren Groff’s Florida: “I have somehow become a woman who yells…” But the nominee in the category of Making Certain That an Infant Is Breathing is Meaghan O’Connell, And Now We Have Everything. Clip: “For the first few weeks I was always expecting to catch the baby, somehow, mid-death.”
The lights are off; it is hard to tell.
A Year in Reading IRL
The sheer scale of the irony of the Internet! The techno-polymorphic way forward turned out to multiply our envy, streamline our anger, tease our anxiety, and make an independent sense of value—the very sense one would have to have to ably exist with the Internet and within it—seem like snobbery or, what’s worse, performative contrarianism. We know for sure that our reading habits, books culture, and journalism literary and otherwise were upended by five companies that gave no aforethought to what it might do other than earn them market share, but the distinct effects of this gerrymandering our minds is an open question.
My wife and I “read the Internet,” which is a casual way of saying we barely read anything about everything. My wife would read the Internet while nursing. I would read the internet in line at Trader Joe’s, where I am able to go on civil weekday afternoons to buy eggs and rolled oats and some other bullshit. Or is it that we read everything about nothing? Before the baby was born I read all day, but didn’t have much to say about it save for an over-cultivated sense of what other uncompromising people would have to say. We were never right about anything, but what chance did we have? The technological distillation of both reading and writing is pressing again and again that button that says we’re just as different as everyone else.
But late at night, in the lulls between tragedy and farce, the writers do their affirmations; that genres other than Speculative Mueller are not only viable but necessary: Fiction! The post–personal essay! I must confess that I find these songs of relevance to be well-meant but off the mark. There is no principle that makes writing essential to the reader. Truly necessary writing is defined by scarcity, anomaly. At the same time, I don’t mean to lionize “failure,” now a euphemism describing a kind of moxie-building pre-success. It’s just that a piece of writing almost never works.
It is not as though culture cannot continue now that children have been caged, but if form and subject matter have narrowed for writers as their readers’ moral imaginations are strained to a breaking point, then so be it. There is no accounting for the era that does not find the culture diminished. This is going badly for all of us.
So badly indeed that it is with a renewed sense of unexpectedness that we find the culture alive and well. My 2018 Year in Reading Award goes to Caity Weaver, taking it upon herself to personally taste-test one of four new flavors of Diet Coke, Diet Coke Feisty Cherry:
A better name for this drink would be “Diet Coke Psychotically Violent Cherry.” After sitting open for hours, the potency of the feisty black pepper flavor diminished not one iota. It is sobering to sip a soda and realize while every day I inch closer toward death, the soda is only growing stronger, smarter, and more powerful.
Hearing so often as of late that words matter, one could get the impression that they don’t. But what if they did, to anyone or anything? If words are to matter, our problems only deepen. Words mattering is the problem. The language will never achieve wellness. If anything, the present moment has made plain our insufficient disillusionment; it is not now, nor has it ever been the case that if words mattered, there’d be nothing left to do but tell the truth.
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