October 2005

Jen Crispin


Impending Birth

As my due date is now in a matter of days (at the time of writing this, two, to be exact), it is impossible to predict how much time I will soon have for reading, much less writing intelligently about anything that I've read. So it's a good thing that I've actually read several pregnancy and parenting books in the recent past, so that I might have something to talk to you about in what might be my last column before an indeterminate hiatus.

First, the actual "expert advice" pregnancy books. The publishers at Da Capo Press were kind enough to send me seven titles from their Brazelton Way series, written by doctors T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow. Unfortunately, these short subject guides are far from my favorite format of advice book, as they tend to be long on quick answers but short on the theories behind them. For instance, Sleep, the first title in the series that I read, Brazelton and Sparrow frequently refer to co-sleeping in a family bed as ill-advised, but only hint as to a possible reason why. Personally, if I'm going to be advised not to do something, I'd like to have a little bit of explanation. Also, these single-issue books are frustrating when the whole basis of "The Brazelton Way" is his touch points theory, which is that advances in development in one area may cause what looks like setbacks in another. For instance at about seven months, a child who has just learned to creep or crawl may stop sleeping through the night because every waking moment seems a new opportunity to explore, which is much more interesting than soothing itself back to sleep. For those parents who are only interested in getting their children to sleep through the night, this tidbit of information may be entirely satisfying. Myself, I'd rather see the child's development laid out as part of a larger picture.

My final criticism of the Brazelton books has nothing to do with the format and more to do with the writing itself. Although the authors subscribe to the common practice of referring to the infant as a female in one chapter and a male in the next in order to avoid using the pronoun "it" or defaulting to male throughout the entire book, there is a casual sexism and heterocentrism to their writing that I found a trifle irritating. There are entirely too many examples of "the mother does this for the baby, but the father does this." While I'm sure these statements may be true for many parents, they are certainly not true for all. Also, while many parenting books that have been written recently provide some token of inclusion for non-traditional families, the Brazelton books never allude to any possibility that the child may be parented by anything other than a married heterosexual couple. A small sin in the eyes of many, I'm sure, but it seemed lazy to me.

What I found far more engaging recently were stories from actual parents, rather than medical experts. Given this column's name, you all should have seen this coming, but I absolutely loved Breeder, a compilation of essays edited by Bee Lavender and Bookslut favorite Ariel Gore. If you're the sort of person who believes that single welfare mothers are responsible for most of the ills of our society, this is probably not going to be your favorite book of the year. (But then again, that sort of person probably isn't likely to spend a lot of time reading a website called Bookslut, either.) However, if you're interested in the stories of mommas who aren't likely to be profiled in Parenting magazine anytime soon, this is the book for you. Gore and Lavender do an amazing job of getting all the bases covered in this compilation -- single moms, married moms, gay moms, adoptive moms, moms on fertility treatments, teen moms, immigrant moms. Moms of autistic children, moms of uncircumcised boys, and moms who look up to find their baby playing with their vibrator. There is such a diversity of experience represented here that one can hardly help but feel that no matter what your situation, whether you're living off the grid or on welfare, whether you had to take a break from college or move to the suburbs, that somehow, everything will be alright -- that you can be a good momma without expensive diaper creams or even a permanent address. That's a pretty powerful message, and one I think that every potential, future, or current mother ought to hear.

Finally, despite being warned off in the foreword, I dove into Inconsolable, by Marrit Ingman, a tale of postpartum depression and raising a baby that seems to be allergic to the entire world. Somehow, perhaps foolishly, when I read that Ingman didn't recommend the book to pregnant women with no history of mental illness, I decided to take it as a challenge. A few chapters in, however, and I was filled with such a sense of dread and foreboding that I was stifling violent impulses at work and retreating from the world as much as possible -- a condition I attributed to the book only after it took a turn for the optimistic and my irritability also seemed to begin to lift. Ingman paints a bleak picture of the reality of postpartum depression that is difficult not to be drawn into. Fortunately, however, once her depression begins to lift, her sarcastic wit and renewed faith are just as infectious.

While Inconsolable is primarily a memoir, Ingman also does her best to educate the reader on the current thinking about postpartum depression. Even more helpful is the list of resources she includes at the end of the book on everything from postpartum depression and suicide prevention to child allergies and dealing with an infant with reflux. But what is perhaps most amazing about Ingman's book is that despite how harrowing much of her story is, she manages to leave the reader with both a sense of hope and a call to arms. The call being for mothers to support each other, rather than cut each other down for choices that we don't know the reasons for. (The breast-feeders versus the bottle-feeders, the co-sleepers versus the self-soothers, those who use cloth diapers versus those who use disposable, and on and on and on.) If mothers felt like members of a larger community, rather than being isolated by their individual choices and circumstances, perhaps the incidence of postpartum depression could be radically decreased. And isn't that something worth working for?

Shortly it will be time for me to put all this theory to practice. From making it through labor to surviving and trying to be a good mom on whatever amount of sleep my infant will allow me, every opinion I've developed after all of this reading is about to be put to the test. Hopefully I will come out the other side intact enough to be talking to you here again soon. Wish me luck.