Oh mother

My husband’s feet were braced against the wall next to my hospital bed and he pushed with all his might on my lower back during the contractions. Our baby was positioned face up toward my belly button, giving me intense “back labor.” His hands became red and swollen from many hours of providing this counter-pressure. I had never loved him more.

That was in 1971, when allowing the fathers into delivery rooms had become common. But in the 30 years since I became a mother, our nation has not become more enlightened about “the blessed event,” or more committed to supporting women through this rite of passage.

So it was with gratitude that I read Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, wherein Naomi Wolf blends her well-recognized insight as an investigative journalist, feminist and social commentator with intimate revelations about her own pregnancy and first months of parenthood. In a month-by-month narrative, Wolf candidly admits her ambivalence on formerly clear-cut issues, such as abortion and female self-sufficiency. She also taps into an ancient source of information—women talking honestly with each other about such matters as birth technologies, support and education for labor, post-partum depression and societal indifference to the real needs of mothers.

Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth (1991) was a best-seller, published in 14 countries. It was followed by Fire with Fire (1993), which deals with political empowerment, and Promiscuities (1997), which explores girls’ sexual coming of age. With Misconceptions, she is again putting herself on the line to advance public debate on a “sacred” topic, one right up there with apple pie.

Wolf notes in the very first paragraphs of her book that “motherhood, as miraculous and fulfilling as it is, is also under-supported, sentimentalized and even manipulated at women’s expense.” She believes that the American hospital scene has become subtly coercive, corporatized and driven by fear of lawsuits. Over time, what was once the province of nurturing and patient midwives is now “a series of medical interventions that involve routine anesthesia, fetal monitoring, frequent C-sections, routine episiotomies and time pressure overall.”

Wolf discovered that the hospital personnel who taught her pre-natal classes systematically prepared couples for the kinds of interventions that the hospital preferred. She learned that revenue for screening tests account for 50 percent of total birth revenue. She also found that healthy, middle-class women in their 30s and 40s in private hospitals have about a 50 percent C-section rate, while the same-aged, healthy women in public hospitals have a C-section rate of 10 percent to 15 percent.

Wolf quotes insurance figures showing the high financial benefits of often-unnecessary procedures. Perhaps the most controversial of her claims is that medical interventions depend on what the market will bear.

Even with compassionate, knowledgeable and hands-on support throughout labor and delivery, once the baby is in the house, Hallmark card sentiments of motherhood give way to an accumulation of disappointments. Wolf and the women of her generation, with their full-on careers and egalitarian relationships, experienced a loss of selfhood, the transformation of their marriages, and a decline in status in the larger society that was wholly unexpected. It is in disclosing the intimate details of their despair and compromise regarding childcare, breastfeeding, household tasks and sexuality that Wolf blends most poignantly her research statistics and personal stories.

In the end, and despite Wolf’s “Mother’s Manifesto” in the epilogue, the author and her circle of friends found themselves trading equality for certainty, and leaving behind their expectations in exchange for family stability and love.