Recently, in the LA Review of Books, Lily Gurton-Wachter discussed her observation that there is a dearth of literature about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, saying:
We have a rich, challenging, and complex canon of war literature… The same cannot be said about a literature of pregnancy or childbirth or parenting, though these are also extreme experiences that stretch our understanding and push us beyond comfort or even comprehension.
While I won’t go quite so far as to analogize pregnancy to combat, I agree with Gurton-Wachter that motherhood — however it happens — is a transformative experience. My pregnancies were terrifying, so much so that it was almost a relief when the doctors wrested the little beings from my body at 26 weeks for my twins and 34 for my singleton. Since then, parenting has had its lows and its highs, from the helplessness and fear I felt while watching my twins struggle to survive in the NICU to the joys of sharing my favorite children’s books with them and collaborating with them on an Anne of Green Gables-based writing project that reflects our heritage and community.
The experiences of motherhood are life-changing and deserve to be discussed and memorialized in writing. I’m sure we can all think of a few books that focus on the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood — Gurton-Wachter mentions what she calls “the emerging literature of new motherhood,” including Eula Biss’s On Immunity (2014) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) — but it seems literature (of the “literary” and “serious” variety) has largely avoided these subjects. I haven’t seen empirical research on the issue, but Gurton-Wachter’s observations are certainly plausible when, as she notes, “most philosophy and literature has, historically, been written by men.”
A dearth of honest literature about motherhood would also reflect our societal norm of silencing women by censoring our bodies. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are inherently tied to women’s bodies, a subject that is taboo because our society ascribes a sexual meaning to it (at least in the United States).
We’ve come a long way since the days of women “wearing wool all summer long” (19th Century), breast cancer being described as a “disease of the chest wall” (1950s), and school districts forcing female teachers to leave the classroom as soon as their pregnancies were showing (which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1974), but censorship of the female body is a cultural norm that simply refuses to disappear entirely.
- Despite the proliferation of laws protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, women are frequently forced to do it in a bathroom or not at all;
- Even though the non-sexual exposure of breasts is legal in many places in the United States, women are often arrested when they they bare as much skin as a shirtless man;
- Many women are so embarrassed about menstruating — a natural process without which the human race would cease to exist — that they go to great lengths to hide tampons en route to the bathroom; and
Additionally, new mothers venture into the public sphere at their own risk:
- Mothers who want to express milk in the workplace — which, in many (but not all) cases is their right under the law — often face resistance from their employers;*
- “Mommy bloggers” are shamed for discussing their parenting experiences on social media (there are genuine concerns about the privacy of children, but such concerns should not silence women who have found an appropriate balance for their families); and
- Just this week, Donald Trump shamed a mother who brought a baby to one of his rallies, saying, “I love babies. I hear that baby cry, I like it… What a baby. What a beautiful baby. Don’t worry, don’t worry. The mom’s running around, like, don’t worry about it, you know. It’s young and beautiful and healthy and that’s what we want [But then saying, less than two minutes later…] Actually I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here … I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand. That’s OK.”
Clearly, for mothers to get the respect we deserve, our society must change how it views our bodies and our roles in society. It’s telling that, even among one of the supposedly most educated and sophisticated groups of people, i.e., the publishers of serious literature, there seems to be a hesitation to address one of the most common and fundamental human experiences. Hopefully, filling in the “motherhood gap” in the literary record will be a step in the right direction. I’m going to keep an eye out for these books.
*This is one of many examples of how our modern workplaces fail to acknowledge and accommodate the reasonable needs of working parents, but I won’t go into that subject right now.