It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Survey Says…

Thanks to everyone who responded to my quick survey the other day.

Okay, now that the results are in, I can let you know why I was asking…

I am reading a fascinating book by Susan Maushart called The Mask of Motherhood. Its subtitle is telling: “How becoming a Mother changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn’t”. (We do?)

I am enjoying this book enormously. I am not, not by a long chalk, agreeing with everything she writes. In fact, at page 130 of 247, I have disagreed with far more than I’ve agreed with. But is in interesting? Oh, lordy, yes! My brain cells are just buzzing with ideas and responses.

In chapter three, “Labouring Under Delusions”, she discusses – surprise! – labour. She seems to feel that when women speak to other women of labour, they are almost uniformly positive about it. They soft-pedal the pain, they whitewash the worry, they seek to soothe and reassure – all at the cost of leaving women hugely unprepared for the reality.

Labour, she claims, is horrific. That is Reality. “The reality was this: childbirth was torment–not because my mind or body was doing it wrong, but because it was doing it right.” Though she admits that there are women out there who have positive labours, she seems to admit these mostly as a theoretical possibility, and even then, a tremendous abberation from the norm. Additionally, she seems to believe that if a labour is painful, it is by definition negative; that a positive experience of labour requires a largely pain-free labour.

I disagree with all that. Even where I don’t totally disagree, I’m tossing corrolaries up all over.

However, it did get me thinking. Now, my experience of pregnancy was positive, all three pregnancies. Apart from those long, weary last five weeks or so, I loved being pregnant. I loved the changes that overtook my body, I loved the movements inside, I loved knowing that I was making a whole other human being inside me. Awe-inspiring. I’m sure I was boring as hell when I was pregnant, I was so taken up with the whole thing…

But the stories other women told me! They were awful! Maybe there were some positive ones in there, but they were few and far between. I heard tales of 3 day-labours, of 4th-degree lacerations (the tears that go right through from vagina to anus), of babies whose lives were in the balance, of pain and fear and blood and tears.

However, our woman Susan, who had truly rotten pregnancies, heard nothing but tales of sunshine and fluffy bunnies. What gives?

Perhaps, I thought, it’s to do with the woman’s mindset. Perhaps, because I felt so generally positive about my experience, I only took note of the negative labour tales, because they jarred me. Perhaps Susan was doing the same – hearing only the positive stories, because they jarred so with her pregnancy experience.

So, off to you with my two questions, and I discovered…

no such correlation.

Oh, well!

Of the 50-odd of you who replied to both questions, the breakdown was thus:

A. Positive Pregnancy, Negative Tales: 18
B. Negative Pregnancy, Positive Tales: 7
C. Positive Pregnancy, Positive Tales: 14
D. Negative Pregnancy, Negative Tales: 8

(The half-dozen or so of you who heard no labour tales were not included in the tally.)

If my hypothesis had been proven right, A and B would have had the most votes. C and D would have had least. Clearly that isn’t the case.

(I do note, though, that women who generally liked their pregnancies reported more labour stories than women who didn’t – positive and negative. Kind of suggestive, I think.)

I realized when I read your comments that “horror stories” was distracting. I should have stopped at “generally positive” and “generally negative”. Your comments also indicated a nuance – an important one – that my simple questions missed: a tale focussed on doctors and hospital procedures, and how to manage that minefield is not exactly a tale of labour, in that it isn’t focussed on the woman’s bodily experience, but on externals. This information is not what I was after, but I hadn’t thought to make that distinction.

This is so interesting!

I have been reading this book for over a month. Every weekday morning I’m spending at least a half-hour at it, and I’m a little over half through. Why such a snail’s pace for this voracious reader?

Because I rarely get through a single paragraph without jotting something down, without copying out a quote or writing a response to an idea.

I may not agree with all (or even much) – but I am loving the reading.

Think, think, thinkety, think….

July 16, 2007 - Posted by | books, individuality, parenting, pregnancy and delivery


  1. I miss so much when I get behind on my blogging and bloghopping!!
    I did not read your prior request so I did not respond but I do find this interesting (especially being pregnant again with #3)!
    I am taking the kids to my parents’ tomorrow but will try to check in and will have to check out this book as well!

    Comment by LoryKC | July 16, 2007 | Reply

  2. Hmm, very interesting! I might almost have hypothesized that people don’t tell the “horror” stories to the woman they know is already having a negative experience with pregnancy, and are happy to tell the “horror” stories to the woman who’s having a positive pregnancy to make sure she knows how lucky she is.

    Basically, I think (that people think) the positive stories don’t make for very interesting storytelling. LOL

    Comment by BookMama | July 16, 2007 | Reply

  3. Very interesting!

    I may have picked the wrong category. I selected 1b, because I much prefer not being pregnant. However, I did have a “generally positive” pregnancy.

    Comment by Lady M | July 16, 2007 | Reply

  4. Hmmm… that does sound like really interesting reading! I am kind of surprised and saddened though that she sees labor as something “horrific”. She must have had a really awful experience? So much so that it almost sounds like if one had a positive labor she thinks one might be sugar coating it. But I guess one woman’s “horrific” is another woman’s “not as bad as I thought it would be”.
    I am so glad you told us the reason behind the poll, I was so curious!

    Comment by Allknowingjen | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  5. You should try the book I mention here


    Comment by mo-wo | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  6. This reminded me of a woman in my mother’s group who started off her labour story with: “My sisters told me it’ll be easy, just like a really bad period pain. When I felt the first contraction, the first thing I thought of was that THEY LIED!” For hubby, my first (non-epidural) labour was horrific–much more so than it was for me. I also found that mothers my age were more likely to tell me horror stories than those of my mother’s age, who were more likely to be nostalgic about the entire thing.

    Comment by Kat | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  7. Hmm. Interesting. I always wonder why people with a view so skewed feel a need to write “non-fiction” about it as if it were applicable in general terms rather than writing it as a personal experience. From what I have heard and seen, every pregnancy is different, even for the same woman, and every woman has different experiences and feelings about it. It seems awfully presumptuous to write about it from your own point of view as if it is THE TRUTH. I would never suggest that just because I never got all glowy and thrilled with my nascent state that it meant no one else did, any more than I would say that because I didn’t have any serious complications, everyone complaining about hemorrhoids and vomiting must be exaggerating. Yeesh. Balance, anyone?

    Comment by kittenpie | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  8. Normally I read through your blog for interest sake, not thinking to actually engage in the discussion because the topics are not ones that impact a childless person, but this one got me thinking.

    From the male point of view, and specifically a male who has been discussing having children with his wife who has never had children, this is a very worrisome topic. Consider the fact that if you love some one, you want to keep them from all harm, and certainly not cause them harm, but what are you doing by attempting to have children. In reality we know that pregnancy is a choice that must end with the woman’s choice, and my wife wants to have children. The problem for over caring husbands is if pregnancy is horrific, then the decision to engage in the process of having children, sets up this nasty mental conflict, sometimes compounded by the labour process, which sometimes sees wife cursing husband. I guess it is appropriate that husband goes through some mental torment considering what the poor woman has to endure. In the end the ultimate parent control (not birth control) is the human mind, the more it can imagine the harder the decision to become a parent is.

    Comment by Bill | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  9. Okay I am convinced there is a plot being hatched against me in cyberspace to keep me thinking about parenthood.

    I just finish this comment and then surf over to Jack’s Random thoughts Blog and What do I find but this article.

    aaahhhhhh !

    Comment by Bill | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  10. Bill,

    Some of the women here might call me crazy, but I am under the assumption that most women have spent a lot of time considering what being pregnant is like. If your wife is willing to do it, then you have overcome most of the battle.

    I’ll readily admit that as the father/husband it can be distressing watching but at the same time the population is not shrinking which I think says something.

    Comment by Jack | July 17, 2007 | Reply

  11. I’m curious about what she says after chapter 3. Because my feeling about labor, and what I told my friend who was worried about it, was that labor is a day. Or maybe a little more. It may be a miserable day, a really awful painful day, maybe even a horrific day, but it’s a day. And at the end (god willing) you’ll have a baby. So yeah, it’s no fun, but it ends.

    Now, what I consider the shock of motherhood, the part nobody warns you about sufficiently, is how having a baby changes your life forever and ever. This starts with the long recovery period for your body after labor (to me, that’s the part nobody warns you about) – the bleeding, the painful bowel movements, the stitches if you need them, the really long time until you feel normal down there again.

    And then beyond that, what nobody can really warn you about, is the upheaval of a baby in your life, the effects of long-term sleep deprivation, adjusting to a life in which your needs feel like they come last, when even taking a shower takes advanced planning. But they don’t try to warn you, generally, except about the sleep, and you can feel ashamed of feeling resentful about being a mommy.

    Sorry, that got long. I had post-partum anxiety after my baby was born, which I think was 70% please let me sleep, 20% am I doing this right? and 10% my god, when do I get a break? Not that I don’t love it, and now my kids are 6 and 2, but wow, it was a shocker at the beginning.

    Comment by Lynn | July 18, 2007 | Reply

  12. Lynn brings to light a really good tangent–post partum feelings.

    And INAMP, what about the women who had horrible pregnancies (mine was one continuous barf fest) and a relatively great labor (it was–he was out in about five pushes, no tearing, no skidmarks, no stiches, no drugs)? I was lucky with labor being so easy, and my child latched and breastfed very well.

    However, afterward, I had post-partum depression, which very few women talked about prior to labor. I chalk mine up to severe sleep deprivation (at one point I was delirious and speaking nonsense, a doctor had to intervene). I hadn’t heard any specific horror stories about PPD, and therefore no seed was planted in my head, but yet I experienced it. And that’s after a relatively easy labor.

    Any ideas?

    Comment by Micaela | July 18, 2007 | Reply

  13. Lory: Congratulations! Yes, do read the book. It’s a less traumatic read, I’m sure, for a woman who already has a couple of pregnancies/children under her belt! Whether it’s a validating read or an exasperating one will undoubtedly depend on the experience you had with yours.

    BookMama: I think you’re right. Horror stories are much more dramatic and exciting. That they might scare the crap out of a poor pregnant woman? Who cares? But apparently, women don’t hear horror stories when they’re pregnant. I guess it was just me…

    LadyM: No, you picked the right category! If you didn’t like being pregnant much, that’s what I was after. Just because it all went ‘by the book’ doesn’t mean you have to like it!

    AllknowingJen: In fact, she says that though her pregnancies were horrific, her labours were great. (Once she realized that they were supposed to be torment. That was a very freeing notion for her.)

    Which only emphasizes a corollary point: an ‘horrific’ experience is entirely in the mind of the experiencer! What she described was horrific to me – but she didn’t perceive it that way at all. Yet my experience of childbirth seems to fit right into her idea of awful – even though to me, all three labours were great.

    mo-wo: Another to add to the list. Thanks.

    Kat: She knew they lied with her first contraction? Poor thing! Her sisters probaby didn’t lie – that was probably how they experienced it. Where they went wrong was in assuming their experience was universal, and would apply to this woman, too.

    Kittenpie: That’s what struck me. Just because her pregnancies were awful, doesn’t mean that the women who delight in it are delusional, or in profound denial. Similarly the adjustment to motherhood.

    As the book progresses past pregnancy and labour, though, I’m finding myself more and more in agreement with her ideas. Not entirely, but a long chalk, but we might be up to 50% agreement!

    I just finished the chapter “Penelope Leach meets Godzilla: a Chaos Theory of New Motherhood”, (doesn’t that make you think of that old short – Bambi Meets Godzilla?) and am moving to “Lactation Intolerant: the worst of Breast is Best”. THAT should be fun!

    Bill: I think, if/when your wife becomes pregnant, you shove the “over-caring husband” into a ditch somewhere. He will not be much use. Yes, you may certainly be a sympathetic one, and fetch her glasses of water and crackers in the first trimester, and help her lace her shoes in the last one, but…

    I once had a fellow in a prenatal class who often said that he wished he could spare his wife this ordeal, that he wished he could do it for her. He was sincere, loving, and well-intentioned, but the message he was giving, whether he intended it or not, was that he didn’t think she was capable. He didn’t think she had what it took. He didn’t think she could cope.

    Obviously, this is not what a pregnant woman needs to hear. A certain portion of pregnancy is a drag, for sure, and labour can hurt like hell – but pregnancy has its manifold joys and labour is a day (or so) in your life. You get through it. Some women get through it on a surge of power and pride; others duck their heads and get through it by gritty determination. But get through it they do – and then, think of the stories they’ll have for the next woman!

    Jack: Some women even enjoy being pregnant, and a smaller percentage also enjoy labour. You never know.

    But love it or hate it, it’s what women are designed (biologically) to do. Best to dispense with the hand-wringing and let them get on with it, if that’s what they’re about to do!

    Lynn: That’s exactly what the chapter I just finished was all about. Basically, she says that today’s professional woman approaches motherhood as another item in the daytimer, a task to be done, a challenge to be risen to, an item to tick off a list. What hasn’t occurred to many in a meaningful way is that it never goes away. Motherhood, once begun, will (god willing) last the rest of your life, and it changes you forever. I’ll bet the “normal” you’re back to now isn’t really a whole lot like the “normal” before children, is it?

    Micaela: “INAMP”? That’s a new one on me.

    I had a great first pregnancy, followed by a textbook, 16-hour labour. And yet I had mild PPD with my first. Sleep deprivation certainly played its part, though mine was nowhere near as severe as yours.

    In fact, I don’t think there’s much correlation between the stories a woman hears and the type of birth experience she has. Her labour depends on her physiology, the size and position of her baby, the skill, creativity and compassion of her birth attendants, the procedural attitude of the site where she labours, and her own attitude, desires, and expectations. All of these factors together, not any one of them singly.

    Comment by MaryP | July 20, 2007 | Reply

  14. “the message he was giving, whether he intended it or not, was that he didn’t think she was capable. He didn’t think she had what it took. He didn’t think she could cope.”

    Definitely not the case here. Being condescending to M either by appearance or on purpose would not work, she would see right through it. Beside I’m the one that thinks she can, she’s not so sure. I’m not at all a misogynist, M knows that, I’m just really squeamish. (I know you’re going to call me a wimp for that one) 🙂 I just hate the idea of PAIN. 😦 You know me well enough to know how I respond to pain, mine or anyone else’s.

    D cuts her head playing hockey and who freaked out? 🙂

    Comment by Bill | July 20, 2007 | Reply

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