Child-rearing manuals cropped up with a vengeance in the latter half of the twentieth century after Dr. Benjamin Spock produced Baby and Child Care—the all-time best-selling book in American history, second only to the Bible, despite advice such as “Enjoy him” and “don’t be afraid of him,” and remember, “feeding is learning.” (Grrrrr.) Now there are thousands of self-help and baby-care schmaltz books (many of them poorly disguised as mother-rearing tracts), and since I found out I was pregnant, I’ve been reading my way through genetics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, anthropology, literary criticism and new age kitsch to answer the question: What does it mean to be a mother in the twenty-first century and how the hell do I do it?
I started with Adrienne Rich’s manifesto Of Woman Born (Norton, 1976). What a springboard! Rich’s book is still the most comprehensive history of motherhood—both the institution and the experience—that I could find. It was a bombshell when it came out in the ’70s and it still is.
In Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (Doubleday, 2001), the American feminist Naomi Wolf cleverly deconstructs the American birthing industry, citing harrowing numbers: for instance, one in three childbirths in the U.S.A. is a Caesarean, and the American medical establishment would lose some $1 billion per annum if the rate were closer to that of other industrialized countries. She also argues that the feminist movement does not have to deny the fetus as human-in-utero in order to advance abortion rights.
Nine million parents have read the step-by-step guide What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Arlene Eisenberg (Workman, 1996) since it first appeared in the 1980s. It covers the basics on physical and emotional shifts during pregnancy and identifies symptoms to watch out for, but it’s occasionally a Spockian nightmare: “Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, ‘Is this the best bite I can give my baby?’”
The Complete Book of Mother and Baby Care (Reader’s Digest, 1992), compiled by the Canadian Medical Association, presents advice in four-week blocks, starting with conception and ending at Week 40, with a full-colour photo of a nude model all a-belly at each stage. It’s clear, practical and only moderately patronizing, although all the models here (as in other books) look like Sunday school teachers.
Mothers Talk Back (Coach House, 1991) by Margaret Dragu, Sarah Sheard and Susan Swan, is a great Canadian take on motherhood: interviews with mamas who defy tradition simply by telling their stories. “Who was this fat, miserable shrew who spent all her time in playgrounds or cooking, shopping, cleaning, wiping up poop, worrying, rocking, soothing?” Dragu writes in the introduction. “I was so tired . . . and on top of that, I was invisible.”
The British author Kate Figes, in Life After Birth (Viking, 1998), has drawn on her own experience and some meticulous research to produce a cleverly written treatise on adjusting to motherhood: emotions, exhaustion, sex, friends, and family life—including post-baby blues, ambivalence, isolation and other new-mom struggles.
Expecting Baby: 9 Months of Wonder, Reflection and Sweet Anticipation by Judy Ford (Conari, 1997) is a weird meditation on pregnancy in a saccharine, Jesus-loving voice. Judge this book by its cover, please: pastels and clouds, an Ann Geddes baby, a stork. Or by the foreword: “After a particularly confusing day, I opened Expecting Baby . . . Judy’s tender words freed me.” This one is milky pablum for the mother’s soul and should be banned from shelves.
The Hip Mama Survival Guide by the American welfare activist Ariel Gore (Hyperion, 1998), on the other hand, is a refreshing switch for moms who don’t wear polyester frocks or worship Newt Gingrich. Gore offers splendid attacks on the right-wing family values crusade in the U.S. along with punchy advice on every- thing from hormones to political action to family court. It’s a witty, brutally honest, mama-in-the-trenches read with a trunkful of radical tricks.