June 2006


This is a very personal account by feminist writer Naomi Wolf of the modern experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood in the United States. The author’s analysis of healthcare practice, mothers’ rights and social attitudes is interspersed with descriptions of her own experiences and those of other mothers that she has known and interviewed. Reading it was a deeply thought-provoking and an emotional experience.

She takes an honest look at the image of pregnancy as a time of unalloyed, peaceful, joyous anticipation: and acknowledges what all mothers know but do not allow themselves to say, that this image is a sugar-coated half-truth. The other side of pregnancy, especially a first-time pregnancy, is that it is also a time of darkness, grief and fear. With the birth of a new life and the forging of a mother, comes the death of the care-free indepdendence we used to know. On top of that there is the fear for our baby, the fear of the future, the impossibility of knowing how we will cope with this huge burden of responsibility. There are bitter spasms of regret and a mad desire to rewind and change our fate rather than face the seemingly insurmoutable challenge of coming to terms with it.

Then there is the way that pregnant and labouring mothers are treated by the healthcare system. Despite the myth that pregnancy is a special time of great joy and reverence, antenatal care is often compassionless and bleak. You feel like you are on a production line, where emotion and worry are not taken seriously – and, indeed, are thrown at us as a chastisement. “You shouldn’t let yourself get so upset – it’s bad for the baby!”

With regard to labour, Wolf describes and condemns the “birth industry” (worse in America because of the profit motive, but not absent even here where there is no profit motive but still plenty of desire to seem heroic and avoid legal actions).

The demands of hospital protocol, driven by profit and lawsuit avoidance, mean that women are frequently subjected to interventions that are medically unnecessary. It is profitable and heroic to intervene, because doctors get paid more and get more kudos, for a “difficult” high-tech birth. More subtly, there is the production-line time pressure – get the woman in, get the baby delivered, get them both out. Time pressure leads to interventions (from induction to episiotomy and Caesarean) that are designed to speed labour up more than to meet genuine need.

These practices are based on a need to save costs, but also reinforced and justified by a belief that labour is safest when it is quickest, that allowing labour to draw out merely extends the period of risk. I guess this stems from the image of labour as a condition to be treated, rather than what some midwives call “a natural cycle of wellness”. Certainly it does not stem from any credible research because all the credible research appears to point in the opposite direction – that the high-speed, high-tech birth has (at least in normal cases which do not present special risks) if anything worse outcomes for women and babies than the low-tech, natural approach that allows women to labour at their own pace.

Wolf goes on to dicuss the experience of motherhood, especially new motherhood.

She exposes the appalling frequency with which poor aftercare and a lack of support lead to postnatal depression.

She talks about the difficulties women face in the labour market, and the way that it is always the mother who has to take a professional hit, always the mother who has to be flexible, deal with childcare, work part-time, compromise her own aspirations. Always the mother, never the father.

She describes how strong, feminist women (like her, and like her friends) find themselves renegotiating their marriages from a position of weakness. The source of that weakness – the baby. Husbands know that, for the sake of the baby, their wives will not leave them. They know that they can do more or less what they want, they can continue to work and socialise just about as much as they did before: they are now the breadwinners and they can call the shots. They can do all this, and leave their wives, the mothers of their children, to burn out with the new demands upon them, confident that, for the sake of the family, their wives will not walk out.

In an epilogue, Wolf tries to imagine what the world might be like if women and motherhood were truly valued, truly treated with the reverence to which society currently pays lip service at best. Her “Mother’s Manifesto” sounds quaint – but not because the world it envisions would not be possible, desirable or workable. Just because it is painfully obvious that her dream will not come true.

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Goosebumps, as I discovered when I went to see if I could find it, is not a book. It is a collection – and quite a big collection at that – of scary stories aimed at children up to about the pre-teen years. As such, I’m not sure how it got onto the Big Read list which was supposed (I think) to be individual books.

Anywho, I had no intention of reading the lot so I picked one more or less at random, hoping it would be representative…

The Werewolf of Fever Swamp

Grady and his family move to live by a swamp, so that his father can study swamp deer. Weird and scary things start to happen – howling noises at night, animal carcasses found ripped to shreds, a missing neighbour. Cassie, the girl who lives over the road, keeps saying there is a werewolf and everyone else says that Grady’s new dog is the culprit. Grady is determined to exculpate his dog and find out what is really going on.

I get the feeling that, for the targeted audience, these books are great. They certainly seem to be very popular. But I’m afraid to say that they are, if this example was anything to go by, pulp fiction, trash novels, penny dreadfuls. Whatever you want to call them.

Written to a formula, with frequent and obvious use of hooks and other devices, this book held little to interest the grown-up reader. Sorry. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t. My quality test for a children’s book is to ask myself how many times I could read it. With this book, the answer was “No more than once”.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I actually bought this one, from a local bookshop (cheaper than Amazon!) I thought it would be the sort of thing that my library of children’s books was missing. I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t better, so I’m not sure if it will stay!

This is one of those nineteenth century books for children written by one of those authors who feel children should never be faced with anything but pleasant and happy thoughts.

There are two marginal characters who are a bit unsympathetic – an aunt who is slightly weak and a little selfish, and a housekeeper who is rather cross and not very good with children. Everyone else is goodness personified it seems.

The worst challenge to face the little, sweet-natured, vivacious heroine is that she is taken away from her beloved grandfather in the Swiss mountains to stay with a lovely, amiable family in Frankfurt. They are lovely and amiable, but Frankfurt does not have the snow melting in the bright green grass, it does not have the sun kissing the mountains goodnight with pink caresses… so Heidi pines away hoping that nobody will think her ungrateful for being sad in such a lovely and amiable place, but all the time very homesick and hoping that dear, good God will come to her aid send her back, joyfully, to her mountain home.

Will God be good to her? Will he? Oh, the suspense…

I really can’t imagine how this book ever got into the top 200, because I just don’t see what appeal it could have to anyone. It’s just too sweet and gentle, there is too little of any interest and no sense, even at the end, that anything has really happened.

Oh well. At least it wasn’t actually painful to read.

Here’s an Amazon link.
Got mine from the good old library.