"If your child needs socking, sock him!": How reading about pregnancy almost ruined me

My helpless descent into the wormhole of literature — online and off — written for moms-to-be

By Lydia Kiesling

Published September 20, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Years ago, I took an Arabic class during which our instructor would often say about this or that of our garbled sentences: “You can say it that way, but it’s not good style.” Even in our most basic statements, he urged us always toward style. I found something very elegant about this — even if you didn’t have the correct tools, style still mattered. Since then, “good style” has come to represent to me all the things about human civilization that make it seem like it’s worth the trouble. Good style is a long passage from “Dance to the Music of Time.” It’s a poem by Sharon Olds. It’s the ramshackle symmetry of an Ottoman mosque. It’s pooling the regiment’s money before marching into battle, so that everyone can have a share if you die.

Pregnancy, like most things that happen exclusively to women or are understood to be their province, exposes the pregnant person to a lot of things that are emphatically not good style. Obviously any person, regardless of gender, who aspires to some form of urbanity will lament aspects of new parenthood, which ushers in a regime of cloying songs, egregiously-colored plastics and inane books.  But these, at least, are temporary things, and things appropriate to their intended audience — babies need baby songs and rattles and footie pajamas, not Proust. Pregnancy, though, is a special category of the parenthood experience.  Finding yourself on a website called Can Mommy Eat? makes you feel as though good style had vanished for good, not only from your life, but from the universe.

Thanks to the Internet, I approached pregnancy in a state of tense, preemptive defensiveness shellacked with a brittle and unconvincing veneer of savoir faire. Needless to say, it is common for young, educated, liberal women such as myself to read provocative things about womanhood, feminism, pregnancy and sex online. We are exposed to debates vis-a-vis attachment parenting, drinking while pregnant or maternal age many years, often, before we ourselves become the receptacles for new life. Prior to pregnancy, Jezebel comments prepare you for the kinds of rabid arguments that people have about breastfeeding and sleeping with the baby in your bed. Prior to pregnancy, it is likely that you disappeared down an online rabbit hole and read something like this:

“Thank you for writing about this. It seems there is so much judgment in the attachment parenting community toward anyone who lets her baby cry that people are afraid to even bring up the subject. I certainly haven’t been brave enough to talk about my experience openly…”

Bitches be crazy, you thought, and simultaneously condemned the society that makes the bitches be that way (and swore your daughter would never know the word “bitch”). But you still promised yourself that you wouldn’t be crazy like that.

Even with your pop-culture feminist warrior’s preparation, you still have questions and concerns. You google, and look in the books that people give you. “Is it normal to have…[pain in upper butt] [bleeding gums] [the fetus bunched over to one side]?”  “Can you [get diarrhea] [die] from too many [carrots] [grapefruits]?” At the same time, your experience in feminist spaces has taught you that there are no easy answers to any questions about pregnancy — that they are all political. You are prepared for misinformation, propaganda, infantilization — the judging of choices and the removal of your agency.

The combination of preemptively spoiling for a fight — feeling, correctly, that women are expected to put up with a lot of garbage — and being legitimately terrified of doing something to make the fetus fall out of you, leads to a mental and emotional state that is basically the opposite of good style. It means that you, a person who had hoped to read the novels of Robert Musil, or “Ship of Fools,” or “Ulysses,” before she died, is instead spending precious hours reading about the specific kinds of parasites that live in sushi or whether, when it arrives, you should wake the baby up to feed it or let it sleep or let it cry. Knowing that there are no right answers, you nonetheless seek the right answer. Ambiguity and cognitive dissonance, so known and familiar to you from your beloved novels, become profoundly destabilizing, even while the ironclad certainty of the internet mothers who say “Why would you even take the risk?” annoys you to your deepest parts, because it is sanctimonious, which is the opposite of good style.

There is almost no talking to a person like this, even when the person is yourself. My mother finds me very annoying when I tell her that I am reading something about pregnancy or parenting, or when I express anxiety about some aspect of same.  She tells me that she wishes I wouldn’t read “all that stuff.” Parents in her generation didn’t have “all this stuff,” neither the extravagant cascade of special baby crap, nor the terrifying pregnancy books. She tells me this all the time, forgetting all the other times when she told me how profoundly bewildering and difficult she found the experience of birth and new parenthood to be, or indeed, how her own mother drove her back to their small-town hospital and left her there for a few hours the week she was born.

(People from previous generations also love to tell you how silly the food and alcohol restrictions are. And oddly, even though I believe them, and am myself often in a rage about the needless precautions and scaremongering, this refrain really annoys me too.  “Look how well we all turned out,” they seem to imply. There is no polite response to this, when you are in the grip of pregnancy madness. Tell me more about your amazing generation, I want to say.)

My understanding of pregnancy and parenting books was that they are a (possibly regrettable) invention of Dr. Spock in 1946, and that prior to this, parenting advice was limited to leaving your crying baby to cry because cuddling was spoiling. But digging around my local university library, I found that, whether or not my parents and grandparents had them, there were certainly books (Ann Hulbert has documented this history in “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children”). I borrowed a pile of books with hilarious titles like “Your Best Friends are Your Children” (1951) and “Better Home Discipline” (1953). The former title informed me that parents, or mothers, have been dealing with advice-related parenting angst for the better part of a century: “Parents need a champion. ... Yesterday it was ‘Honor they father and they mother.’ ‘Be seen and not heard.’ ... Today the pendulum has swung too far. ‘Parents, honor your child.’ ‘Never mind about yourself—you’re the past. ... You owe him everything.’”

The book proceeds to promise help for the confused, maligned parents, who “find no guide in their selection among the experts who contradict each other and often even themselves. Those unqualified air their views as freely as those who are qualified. Thus a parent today reads an article titled ‘If Your Child Needs Socking: Sock Him!’ and tomorrow is disconcerted by the headline ‘Corporal Punishment Proved Useless’!” (It’s a trap!  I want to tell the sepia-toned readers — all parenting book authors start out this way, mentioning the multiplicity of methods so as to position themselves as the fortress of reason in the storm.) But ultimately, I found the books surprisingly reasonable and charming: “Children, even angry impertinent children, can be controlled as effectively and far more pleasantly by a clever answer than by punishment.  A 10-year-old boy writes: ‘I called my mother a rat.  She said, ‘Welcome to the rat family.’ I felt sorry.’”

I think that fretting about pregnancy is perceived by the rugged earlier generations as a form of martyrdom at its most pitiable, and at its least, one of self-indulgence. But pregnant woman are, I would argue, uniquely vulnerable to a range of bad things, things stretching from exposure to unstylish garbage, to actual bodily threats. Women can be charged with murder for the poor outcomes of their pregnancies. Women can have their babies taken from them for making the wrong choices about their care, whether they are still inside of their bodies or, like the woman who sent her child to the park because she couldn’t afford childcare, out of them. In these circumstances, it seems irresponsible not to inform yourself about the things that are happening to your body, and that will happen to your child when he or she arrives. The more you know, and all that.

My healthcare provider is a billion-dollar one-stop-shop HMO where, for better or worse, you feel yourself palpably in the grip of many highly-engineered processes. In my second trimester, I noticed that, without being consulted, I had been scheduled for a “wellness” appointment following my regular OB checkup. I dutifully took the extra time off work and went, without my husband, to the appointment. The appointment took place in the office of a woman who turned out to be a very kind therapist, who asked me how I was feeling and if my husband hit me and if I used drugs. I answered all of her questions and we had a nice chat. “Does everyone have this appointment?” I finally asked, when I felt a decent interval had passed. No, it turns out. But I did, because I wrote on my OB’s pre-pregnancy questionnaire that before becoming pregnant, it was my custom to have between 4 and 7 alcoholic drinks per week.

The therapist asked if I had been drinking during pregnancy. I told her, truthfully, that I had abstained in the first trimester and that since then I had had three sips of wine on two occasions. I asked her if this was okay, even though I felt pretty certain that it was, or I wouldn’t have done it. “We don’t condone even sips of alcohol,” she told me, her brow furrowed. She then gave me more than two dozen xeroxed handouts, each of which she explained in detail, outlining the very things that I had already read, from many sources, about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I missed an additional hour of work.

In my mind and on the bus, I spoke to her in the voice of an adult woman, courteous, with good style, and I told her that I had already read these things she was giving me, along with many others. I asked her about the links between Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and malnutrition, and we enjoyed a frank exchange between two adults about the way this issue is approached in different places and by different providers. In reality, I took the handouts, and told her I understood, and I tried not to cry. “Am I on…a list?” I asked her before I left. “No, no,” she told me cheerfully.  “I think you’re a benign case.” (What if I had been malignant? How much more work would have I missed? Would they have taken my baby? It’s not crazy to wonder—this is why people lie to doctors.)

This is also why they embrace a certain kind of pregnancy book which I think of as the neoliberal pregnancy books, for no particular reason other than neoliberalism, like pornography, is one of those things that you know when you see, and that it seems to have something to do with being able to get the answer you want if you can pay for it. These are books that tell a certain kind of person — a person like myself — what she wants to hear, which is that they are fine and should do what they feel like doing anyway. These are the books like Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing up Bebe,” which tells you that you can raise a civilized child and be both a mother and a human being (basically, that you can have good style), and Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better,” which tells you that you can drink wine and eat sushi. The latter has been, obviously, more controversial. I find both of these books comforting, even though I still spent an unreasonable amount of time worrying about listeria (which, it turns out, was likely not on my ham, but was all over my peaches and plums).

“Your Best Friends are Your Children” cautions that parents, “finding no answer, do as we all do. They believe what they want to believe. They follow the leader who confirms their own opinion. ... But there is no security in it, no serenity of conviction to support a parent through the many crises of child rearing. The more conscientious the parent, the more troubled he is likely to be, the more variable in his approach to the child, the more anxious or the more belligerent.”

There is no solution to the problem of maternal anxiety. For me, every week that passes, the more relaxed I feel about some things, the more anxious about others. As I write, another writer is undoubtedly documenting her own singular sense of wonder and madness at the new life growing within her. And horribly, another front-page photo will appear, of someone’s broken baby lying on a bombed-out beach, and drive home the supreme irrelevance of peaches and plums or formula vs. breast, and call into question the validity of the whole human enterprise. But if you are very lucky, your own baby will kick you from inside, and for a moment you’ll feel something like they tell you it’s going to be, something like, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

In the weeks that remain and the years to come, god grant me the serenity of conviction, and, in its absence, good style.

Lydia Kiesling

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