In the early 1990s, perched on a log by a remote lake waiting for a limnologist with whom I had a love/hate relationship, I started reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. With incongruous waders over his grungey flannel shirt and faded cargo shorts, the limnologist scooped up hundreds of microscopic animals in a huge net, while I read about how patriarchy fought women breaching its power structures by pushing impossible standards of beauty to which they could never measure up. For women entrapped by the beauty myth this meant that instead of working out how to finally smash that glass ceiling, they were more interested in just working out. Finding myself both persuaded and frustrated by her writing, I also started to develop a bit of a love/hate relationship with Naomi Wolf.
Some weeks later while watching Oprah - ahem! I mean, of course, studying for exams - I saw Ms Wolf hawking her book on the show. I felt just as vexed as I’m sure she did when Oprah’s audience offered the radical insight - to profound applause - that she didn’t need to worry about the beauty industry because she was so beautiful already. To her credit, she tried to alter the terms of this response and point out that it didn’t matter what people thought of her relative attractiveness, ‘beauty’ was not an intrinsic value but a normative culturally-constructed standard against which women were measured and found wanting. The audience remained skeptical.
I duly read her next two books as they came out: Fire with Fire: the New Female Power and How to Use It and Promiscuities: the Secret Struggle for Womanhood (or a Secret History of Female Desire). Once again, they contained interesting material and provocative arguments. But once again, I came away somewhat unsatisfied, not least because of her increasing use of purple prose to make her points. My abiding memory of these books is cringing over a sentence - I forget from which book - where she proclaimed that male sexual attention was ‘the sun in which she bloomed.’ Presumably meant as a riposte to the spectre of 1970s radical feminism, it just felt embarrassing.
So Naomi and I parted ways from the late 1990s: I went to Japan, she kept right on blooming and eventually became a mother. Her book on that subject, Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected Journey into Motherhood came out in 2001. A decade later, as I too have followed in her footsteps and become a mother, we have met again for a catch-up. So how does Misconceptions measure up?
Her writing is still a mix of the purple, the personal and the political. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that, of course. There were passages I vehemently agreed with, particularly those relating to the medicalisation of birth, and the shifts in identity of new mothers. But there were also many I found superficial, anecdotal (not in a good way) and untheorised. The sections on work and childcare were particularly thinly sketched: her survey of a handful of other mothers she knew (i.e. white, upper middle-class, urban professionals ... in her neighbourhood) gave an extremely skewed picture of how women negotiate (or not) the return to work. This basically boils down to having a nanny.
In a a couple of brief sentences, she mentions that other middle-class woman use day-care, and the working-class nannies themselves rely on low-paid babysitters for their own children, but these experiences are not really explored. While Wolf acknowledges the racial and class divisions between the nannies and the ‘working mothers’, she only narrates her discussion with one nanny, and this feels a little like a guilty afterthought. In a book that is so avowedly personal as well, she does not discuss her own work and childcare arrangements, nor put her own marriage under the spotlight in the way that she does those of her friends (spoiler: all the so-called feminist husbands are really bastards. From her descriptions, it sounds a bit to me like they were bastards all along. Here’s a sample:
‘Here’s the secret, Naomi,’ he said. ‘All the husbands I know are good guys. They honestly want things to be fair in their relationships. They are hands-on dads, and they want their wives to be happy and fulfilled. But when it comes down to it, there is no way they are going to sacrifice a career opportunity .... Bottom line? We know they won’t leave us,’ he said. ‘A: They love us. B: Because of the kids.’ (p 225)
But I digress.)
More powerful were her sections on pregnancy and birth. Here, she does examine in detail her own experiences of birth and what they showed up about the high intervention rate of births in the United States (scary!) and the way in which births can be manipulated for the financial benefits of the hospitals and medics in attendance. Hospital protocols, rather than the woman and baby, stipulate how long women will labour for, and the alarmingly high rate of caesareans (accompanied by epidurals, and other interventions) is a nice little earner for all concerned in a user-pays health system (big cheer for socialised medicine!).
After her first traumatic experience, Wolf sets out to explore the other options, talking to natural childbirth advocates, midwife practitioners, and women-centred obstetric practices. For her second birth, she takes the middle route: an obstetric practice with hands-on midwives who work in partnership with doctors to deliver babies. Avoiding the highly medicalised and de-personalised route she went the first time, and eschewing a drug-free birth as overly masochistic, she argues for a middle way between medicalised hospital births and natural home births, with midwives and doctors working together to provide the best outcomes for mother and baby.
This cri-de-coeur - ‘why can’t they all just get along?!’ - struck a chord with me. Throughout my pregnancy, I felt like I was in an invisible tug of war between the medical profession and midwives focussed on natural childbirth.This is partly because a) I had a stupid GP who told me midwives were dangerous and b) I chose a midwife who practised, and was an advocate for, natural birth. I have written before about how I didn’t appreciate being treated as an object (a car!) by my initial doctor, nor was I that thrilled about hearing repeatedly how midwives had won a law-change so they could practice autonomously from my midwife. After having read about Wolf’s experience (women still giving birth on their backs ... and in stirrups!), I now have much more understanding of what the midwives had fought for, and am grateful they did manage to get that law-change. At the time, however, I couldn’t have cared less. Like Wolf, I wanted the focus to be on me and the baby, with both doctors and midwives working together, and not feel like I was having to choose the winning team (and hoping like hell I picked the right one).
In the end, I did see a lot of doctors, and had a range of interventions. But, throughout, and afterwards, I had the support of my midwife, who was fantastic. I only wish I hadn’t spent nine months feeling so pulled in different directions, not really knowing what was what nor who to properly trust, before I was actually pulled in different directions by my own birth experience.