A few weekends ago I had the wonderful opportunity to finally finish my reading of Naomi Wolf’s (2001) Misconceptions: Truth, lies and the unexpected on the journey to motherhood. Part III of the book was filled with too much to talk about in just one post, which is why I am going to finish my review in two parts.
While the final section of the book is consistent with the honest, well-researched and insightful chapters that precede it, I was a bit disappointed in the feelings that settled on me after turning to the final page. And I must clarify, my disappointment had everything to do with me and not the book. It literally was a “it’s not you, it’s me” sort of situation!
I guess I was hoping that in reading this book the innate mothering desire that so many women describe would arouse itself inside of me. Yet, I closed the book sad because I didn’t feel that mothering desire. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe reading a book that is bare and true about pregnancy, is still not enough to convince me, or rather, move me to the mothering stage at this point in my life. Nonetheless, I can say that because of this book, I feel as if I’ve been given the inside scoop on matters many woman never hear about, even after multiple child births.
In the chapter “Behind the Birthing Room” Wolf speaks about “two doors”: the hospital approach to childbirth and the naturalist approach to childbirth. Rather than pick a door, Wolf gives a solid description of the two, and a hopeful call to action that involves “a birthing culture that unites the best of the worlds without the ideologies on the two extremes” (p. 203). Although I believe in the merits of a natural approach when it comes to one’s health, I also find that some women who choose this door tend to look down on women who do not. They often feel as if they made better choices for their children and for themselves. If a home birth is right for one woman and a hospital birth right for another, is either one right? Is either one wrong?
Part III entitled New Life is not just about the baby’s life, but more so the new life Wolf experiences as a new mom. She tells of an encounter at a party where someone asks her what she does for a living. She writes about how she makes the “mistake” of saying she is currently a stay at home mom, which is followed by a quick dismissal by her acquaintance, as if she no longer had anything to offer to the conversation. She describes this experience and many others as “social demotion”, and lists the culprit of such demotion as mothering.
As a side note, as someone who writes, advocates for and spends hours a day researching menstrual culture, this “social demotion” is not just privy to moms. I often revert to telling people I work in women’s health rather than sustainable menstrual femcare, which even still carries little weight for most people.
For Wolf, the demotion she feels leads to another feeling, guilt.
I like to describe guilt as both a feeling and an emotion. Simply said, it’s a state we often occupy by default and by choice.
After returning to work, and not surprisingly, losing track of time, Wolf shares how she is late for a feeding. While she confesses to feeling extremely guilty for being late for her child, she also confesses to feeling irritated stating:
“I was crying because I could not win. Because, as a worker, I was turning away from my work at exactly the most important moment; yet at the same time, as a mother, I had already stayed too long at the fair” (p. 211).
This narrative describes a very hard reality for many people today. I say people because Wolf’s later describes how “mothers” are not just those who have children, but anyone who cares for someone else, a child caring for a parent, a friend caring for a friend, nurses, doctors, social workers, the list is endless. The feeling of having a dependent, of sacrificing your time (and often energy) to give someone else what they need, is a mothering (nurturing) trait. And the guilt, well that comes without an invitation. While Wolf doesn’t offer a concrete resolutions to these challenges of New Life, I believe it starts with women, being honest, advocating for a new social norm and simply being empowered by whatever stage in life they are in.