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Politicizing Motherhood and Childbirth


At Public Books, literature scholar Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan reviews Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by US journalist Angela Garbes. As Srinivasan notes, Garbes’s book politicizes motherhood in a crucial and refreshing way, examining the cultural, economic, and medical factors that make childbirth and childrearing more risky and costly than it has to be. Here’s an excerpt:

Garbes’s writing participates in a larger corrective movement to do justice to women’s experiences, a movement that includes Ali Wong’s comedy; Kiran Gandhi’s menstrual activism; the social media campaign #ShoutYourAbortion; Maggie Nelson’s memoir of queer pregnancy, The Argonauts; Kate Manne’s philosophical analysis of misogyny, Down Girl; and Lili Loofbourow’s writing on subjects like female sexual pain. Mainstream outlets are finally paying attention to the appalling US maternal mortality rate, by many accounts the worst in the developed world. This year, ProPublica and NPR’s series “Lost Mothers,” which covered topics like the disproportionately high maternal mortality of black women in America and health policies across states, was a Pulitzer finalist.

I started Like a Mother a few weeks after having my second child and wished I could have read it years earlier. Had I taken in Garbes’s poetic description of the placenta (“meaty, like a juicy, raw pot roast … shimmering and bloody as a fresh wound … a carnal version of satellite photos of river deltas”), I would have looked more closely and reverently at mine. If I had been more knowledgeable about my body’s transformations in my first pregnancy, I might have prevented certain injuries in my second. When I had my first child, at a progressive Berkeley hospital, nobody mentioned the likelihood of abdominal muscles separating or the possible implications of cervical tearing. I’d never heard of postpartum incontinence until a yoga-teaching colleague confessed that after birthing her daughter, she couldn’t jump for fear of leaking urine.

It’s not just that we’re ignorant about these body traumas; in the United States, we are expected to “sacrifice and [suffer] … in silence.” There’s a whole chapter in Like a Mother about the neglected pelvic floor. “You probably know someone who has torn their ACL,” Garbes writes, indignant. “As part of their ACL recovery, patients are put on a program of physical therapy that includes multiple phases of exercises that can last up to six months. This is the standard care that the roughly two hundred thousand people receive who experience an ACL injury each year. There is no such standard protocol for the treatment of pelvic floor disorders, which affect up to 1.3 million of the 4 million American women who give birth annually.”

Image via Public Books.