How Ms Conception was conceived
I suffered from depression and morning sickness in the first trimester of pregnancy and postnatal depression once my babies were born. I also had hideous bouts of candida and mastitis when I first began breastfeeding, and nipples that were so cracked, they looked like a homeless person’s toes. Too much information? Sorry, but that’s just a little taste of what women have to go through.
And it’s not like my experiences were anything out of the ordinary, or even that bad. I had beautiful, natural water births attended by my mid-wife and doulah. I breastfed both my kids for over a year and after that they were given only organic food. I remember going to one Mom’s and Tot’s class and my child was not allowed to have any Nik Naks. Because they had preservatives in them.
Yes, I was a complete and utter pain in the arse.
A natural birth and lactation fascist.
One girl even left our mom’s group because she wanted to give up breastfeeding and she was frightened of how we would all react. But the universe had the last laugh when my kids both turned out to have eczema and asthma. I was furious. I had breastfed, given birth naturally – in water - with no drugs. To a four kilo baby. Spent hours sieving organic pears to make baby food. It was so not fair.
What also wasn’t fair was the lack of support from the men in our circle towards their partners. We all worked, but the kids were seen as being our responsibility. The men chipped in when they felt like it. But if there was a social occasion, or a trip Overseas, there was never any debate about whether one of the guys would go. Of course they would. That’s what men did. And the women would stay at home and look after the kids. That’s what women did. It was, in some ways, a very conservative group and in addition to being the natural birth and lactation fascist, I was given a much worse title: I was a feminist.
I wasn’t at this point having the jolliest time at work either. Ironically, it was the women at work who were the least supportive. There seemed to be a prize for the woman who was the least maternal, the toughest, the one who could give birth, hand her baby over to the nanny and be back at her computer four hours later. I tried to buy into all of this and failed. That was when I realised that motherhood definitely was a competition, and I wasn’t winning.
You see, I didn’t believe that it was necessary for a scriptwriter to be available twenty-four seven, and over weekends or that it was completely acceptable to trash someone else’s work, that you had to break someone down to build them up. I decided to express these thoughts to a few of my colleagues, but it was like I had mentioned that I liked having sex with small animals. Not a welcome observation.
At the same time all of this was going on, I was doing my master’s degree in writing. As one does when one has a small child. I badly wanted to rant about all these things that felt so not fair, plus my supervisor was waiting for the first two chapters of my novel. It seemed like the universe was trying to tell me something. And so I began to write what would eventually become “Ms Conception”.
Extract from my MA Research Report:
Eating the Afterbirth: An Exploration of the Myth of Motherhood
The problem, as Susan Maushart sees it, is that giving birth has become a kind of performance for women, ‘“a testing of their maternal mettle”’ (as cited in Wright, 2001: 126). In previous generations women were just grateful if the baby was born alive and without any birth defects. Now the type of birth itself has been given a disproportionate significance and involves rigorous preparation ranging from twice-daily perineal massage to prevent an episiotomy to the drawing up of a birth plan to avoid unwanted medical intervention. Different types of births are also considered to be “better” or “worse” for the mother and particularly for the child, depending on whether the literature concerned is pro-natural birth. For example, the “What to Expect” books clearly are not big fans of home births and suggest that women should rather seek out the natural birth unit at a local hospital (Murkoff et al 2002: 16), whereas the opposite is true of Ina May Gaskin’s guide where the majority of births are home deliveries.
But no matter where the self-help books stand on the natural birth continuum, they all like to present women with an image of the birthing mother who is in control of her situation. According to Maushart and Wright, the reality of the situation is not so much about choice as it is about chance:
Recognizing the lottery of childbirth might be scary for some simply because it means we have to admit to ourselves that we do not control it, but at the same time it also frees us from the trap of seeing childbirth as a test or performance. (Wright, 2001: 127)
Maushart also rails against the rhetoric of the antenatal education classes which assign such weight to the actual birth, forgetting that it is just one or two days and that ‘“motherhood is forever”’ (as cited in Wright, 2001: 126). The classes would do better to place more focus on coping mechanisms for new parents, with particular regard to breastfeeding which, as Maushart insightfully points out “is not merely an ‘option’ but a way of life.” (as cited in Wright, 2001: 127). “For most women new to breastfeeding, a shower is an accomplishment”, says Wright (2001: 127), but women are given little idea of the commitment it entails in the self-help books or antenatal education classes.
There is also the mistaken notion that “breastfeeding comes easily and naturally to all women” (Wright, 2001: 127) as propagated by what Naomi Wolf in her book “Misconceptions” calls the “lactation fascists” (2002: 229). The “breast is best” brigade that Wolf refers to take an almost evangelical approach to breastfeeding, so much so that they tend to regard formula as the elixir of Satan, and mothers who choose to supplement as his emissaries. Wright comments on what she refers to as the “breastfeeding contract”:
Yes, on the surface, everybody gains: baby gets the best nourishment; mother does not have to prepare bottles; and both enjoy the unique bonding experience. But breastfed babies also tend to sleep for shorter durations, increasing their mother’s fatigue, and breastfeeding is, for a significant number of women, a very painful experience. (2001: 127)
The less congenial aspects of breastfeeding, including conditions such as thrush and mastitis are, for the most part, breezily dismissed in the self-help books as only affecting a small minority of new mothers and fortunately being of a short duration. Any advice given seems to be somewhat superficial and does not fully acknowledge the fact that some of these conditions are arguably as painful as the labour itself.
Unfortunately the message implicit in the rhetoric of the antenatal education classes and the advice books is that from the moment of conception, the mother’s rights and needs are seen to be secondary to that of the foetus/child. So much so that Helena Michie compares the image of the free-floating foetus from the Right-to-Life’s “The Silent Scream” to the pictures and subtext in the pregnancy advice books:
The rhetoric of liberal advice culture, with its benign gestures toward working women and its repeated invocations of female autonomy during the process of birth and labour, produces a fetus and a pregnancy eerily reminiscent of the one at the visual and emotional center of Right-to-Life propaganda. (1997: 67)
The woman as an autonomous individual ceases to exist the day she falls pregnant. It’s little wonder then that, as Ann Oakley points out in an article on postnatal depression, “four fifths of women in our society are depressed after birth, about a third most or some of the time” (1993b: 203). The “What to Expect” once again sugarcoats the experience by using the term “blues” instead of “depression”: “Roughly 60 to 80 per cent of all new mothers find themselves feeling at least a little blue at least occasionally during one of the happiest times of their lives” (Murkoff et al, 2002: 411). This description merely serves to trivialize what women have to cope with in those first few weeks and months post-partum.
Dr Paula Nicolson, in her book “Postnatal Depression – facing the paradox of loss, happiness and motherhood” says that the new mother should be allowed the space to grieve for the loss of self; indeed the grief reaction she experiences is normal and healthy (2001: 26). Nicolson argues that:
Postnatal depression needs to be re-conceptualised as part of the normal experience of most women when they become mothers. […] Women and men have to understand the consequences of motherhood in the context of Western industrial life in the absence of kinship networks, in the face of financial struggle, gender inequalities and gender power relations in the family. (2001: 179)
Perhaps de Beauvoir’s gloomy portrait of motherhood is not so far off the mark after all, even though it was written over fifty years ago when women were accustomed to less freedom, financial and otherwise, than they are today. The dilemma that women still face now is that: ‘…babies have an absolute need to be mothered but mothers, however “maternal” they are, only have a relative need for their babies.’ (Oakley, 1993a: 199)