The Magazine

Feminism's Children

A wolf in wolf's clothing.

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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Primary among those "stories," as it happens, is Wolf's own. From the opening of chapter one where she finds herself praying (at a chic wedding in Italy) that she is not, in fact, pregnant, to the closing "Mother's Manifesto" calling for flex time, on-site day care, expanded playground babysitting, and just about anything else that makes it easier to separate mothers from their children (i.e., "better, happier parenting"), this book documents the author's profound ambivalence about her own experience of pregnancy and childbirth. What lies between the covers is a wide-ranging monologue of complaint about almost every aspect of pregnancy and birth, including pregnancy handbooks, weight gain, cesarean sections, episiotomies, cold hands, 1980s medical-office architecture, maternity clothes, suburbia, childbirth classes, hospital decorating schemes, obstetrical checkups, fetal monitors, anesthesia, diaper bags, park benches, and much more.

Wolf's unhappiness over what motherhood required is real enough. Other women, for example, suffer morning sickness; Wolf was "sick daily until my child was delivered," at times "throwing up five times in seven hours." Other women find that pregnancy makes them more sensitive and emotional; Wolf gets "cursed with what felt like a sixth sense to detect death and decay." Other women dread their confinement on the delivery table; only Wolf looks back at herself "strapped down as if on a crucifix." Likewise, life with baby quite naturally makes many women feel tied down; but who else would write, "I feared I would be chained forever to our bilious couch, sucked on all day by a hungry newborn, like Prometheus chained to a rock"?

And, perhaps inevitably, where other women get what used to be called the "baby blues" (the days immediately following birth when profound hormonal changes, combined with fatigue, leave many women low in spirits), Wolf's post-partum turns out to be only the beginning of a prolonged tumble into an abyss, a depression that--despite her "crazy love" for her baby--"did not lift," she reports, "until six months later."

It is this part of the book, when the pain and uncertainty of childbirth itself are over and a healthy child has been delivered to the author's arms, that catapults "Misconceptions" from ordinary Boomer ingratitude into territory thickly pathological. For despite her extraordinary advantages--a healthy baby, a hardworking husband, a big suburban house, the money to afford help, a rewarding career she can continue at least part-time--Wolf simply cannot rally to maternal happiness. The house is "cavernous"; the help, morally problematic. The playground is uncomfortable, the driving onerous, and her career, to her evident shock, is on the back burner while her husband's is not. Moreover, while she does love the baby--and Wolf's prose on this subject certainly rings true, albeit constantly qualified by complaint--even weeks after childbirth she "still had a hard time thinking of her by name" because "of my emerging depression and because of my trauma-slowed sense of understanding her fully as a child."

THIS CATASTROPHIC EXPERIENCE of motherhood, Wolf further reports, is widely shared among her contemporaries--or it would be, if only "the taboo against voicing our fears and bowdlerizing our experiences can be broken." "I wish someone had told me how unbelievably bloody and violent [birth] would be." "I wish someone could have let me know I would lose my self in the process of becoming a mother--and that I would need to mourn that self." "I feel that there is this intruder in the house who is never going to go away," one of the author's friends tells her. Like her, "many women I talked to" also appear to have had traumatic deliveries (or what Wolf calls "ordinary bad births"). Most experience "a sense of acute social demotion that came with motherhood"; even worse, "all around me, no matter how much the couple adored the baby and one another, the marriages were in upheaval." At one point, Wolf produces a long list of negative feelings ("I feel so ugly," "I feel so nervous," "I feel like a failure," "I cry all the time," "I feel so ashamed," etc.), informing us that "most of these feelings were shared to some extent, at some time, by me, and by most of the new moms I knew."

Exactly how awful are the experiences of these women? One "walks the street wondering what's the easiest way to kill myself." Another is in therapy. Most profess sexual unhappiness, and several continue to look awful even months and months after their babies are born. Motherhood has pushed them to the brink, perhaps beyond. "There were times she had to walk right away from her shrieking Daisy, go into her bedroom, close the door, and pray, just to keep from harming herself or her daughter," Wolf reports of one.