Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy

In the introduction to Like a Mother, Angela Garbes writes, “This book is not meant to be a traditional pregnancy guidebook with advice on what or how to do things,” but after reading each of its chapters closely, it’s still unclear to me what it is intended to be. As best I can figure, a food writer got pregnant, had a baby, had some friends who had some babies, wrote an essay about breastfeeding that went viral, and got a book deal. She then wrote about all of the things that bothered or intrigued her along the way. The result is a journalist’s stream-of-consciousness, including personal experiences, research, anecdotes, and opinions. It could have worked, and in a few places—most notably the chapter featuring microchimerism—it does. But the vast majority of Like a Mother lacks coherence as it covers factual and theoretical ground already well-trodden by others (including Emily Oster for the former and Judith Warner for the latter).

like a mother

“We hear almost nothing about the emotional landscape of the postpartum experience: the alienation from your own body, the massive identity shift,” she wrote, and I wondered under what rock Garbes lived before becoming pregnant. Lots and lots of ink has been spilled on that topic. The same goes for revelations like how presumptuous people are toward pregnant women, the frequency of miscarriage, the imprecise nature of due dates, and how ludicrous it is to expect abdomens to “bounce back” weeks post-birth. “Why don’t we talk openly about the fact that while there is much joy in becoming a parent, caring for a young child is also grueling, sometimes depressing work?” she wrote, and I screamed back at the pages, We do! Yes, these are important topics of conversation, but they are not rare among women of childbearing age who frequent the internet. Her assertion to the contrary made it difficult to give the book the benefit of the doubt, to hang in there through seeming non-sequiturs and storytelling that sufficed but didn’t grab.

It’s a shame, because Like a Mother contains a good deal of valuable commentary. The nitty gritty of pregnancy and birth could still be talked about much more openly, especially IRL and in front of men. There are many right ways to have a baby.

Birth is “both a normal, everyday occurrence and a significant medical event.” Amen.

“In pregnancy, developing babies are of the utmost importance, yes. But so are mothers.” And similarly, “It is easy for mothers to focus our attention away from our own needs and onto those of our tiny, helpless babies—after all, they will only be this young once. But we will never be this young again, either.” Hear, hear.

“For the many women who have uterine fibroids and have undergone surgery to remove them, a C-section may be the safe, natural option. Labeling unmedicated vaginal birth as ‘natural’ creates a false binary.” Sing it, sister.

And, as the crowning example of Garbes’s capacity for crisp insight, we have: “Would-be mothers are no more or less virtuous than any other person, but our expectations for them immediately shift when pregnancy enters the picture.”

She also makes three notable policy recommendations. First, “[i]f we’re telling women that they should breast-feed exclusively for six months, then we should give them—at minimum—the same amount of paid family leave.” Second, enough women experience pelvic pain and pelvic floor disorders after childbirth to justify a physical therapy protocol similar to the one in place for ACL injuries. Third, more research needs to be done on women’s bodies, including placental function. I wish Garbes had gone deeper with that last big point though, researching—rather than just asserting—how much the lack of knowledge reflects sexism as opposed to the unlimited frontier of science, particularly when impacted by latent Puritanism. Do we know more, for example, about the prostate? About the biomechanics of male pleasure?

She’d be precisely the person for that job, since Garbes can hang with the best of them when distilling little-known biological information. Her description of the clitoris left me intellectually panting. She brought the placenta alive: “It’s a carnal version of satellite photos of river deltas—small and large tributaries, all reaching from remote corners to fill the powerful stream that is the umbilical cord.” And breasts receive the same treatment: “Hundreds of alveoli cells gather into grapelike bunches called lobules, and groups of these lobules come together to form a lobe. The average breast is made up of twelve to twenty lobes, which are spread throughout the breast like the petals of a flower. Milk ducts act as plumbing, transporting milk from their respective lobes. These ducts meet up, and milk from various lobes mix together and continue traveling to the nipple, where the liquid can exit the body.” She also shows unique strength at addressing sexuality without squeamishness: “Just as I reached my first postpartum orgasm, breast milk sprayed—and I mean sprayed like a fire hose, not a garden hose, not a gentle trickle from a tap—out of both of my boobs, hitting our pillows, our headboard, and my husband’s face.”

And I very much appreciated Garbes’s perspective as a woman of color, wishing for more passages like the following:

I’ve spent my entire nonpregnant adult life in a body with large brown breasts, a soft, round belly, and plenty of curves—a body I have struggled to see as beautiful, and sometimes even acceptable, in a culture that overwhelmingly celebrates people who are thin and white.

***

It’s a reality many of us have to contend with at some point: that what happens to us at the end of pregnancy and childbirth may look different because we look different from the average white woman.

That’s a lot to like about a book I found incredibly frustrating and difficult to finish. Perhaps at the end of the day, it’s Garbes’s editor with whom I have a bone to pick. Or maybe Like a Mother is specifically for people who have never been pregnant or read other material on the topic. Either way, with the exciting subtitle, “A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy,” I thought the book would soar. Thanks to the wandering nature of that journey, for me, at least, it did not.

[A version of this review originally appeared in Golden Gate Mother’s Group Magazine.]

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