Do you remember the first time you had a real talk with female friends about sex, feelings, or bodies? One of the reasons Sex and the City, for all its issues, struck such a chord with its viewers is because of just how purely and raunchily it addressed all three. Breaking into an honest place about the nature of the female experience can be upending and uplifting at once. It could happen at age 13 while listening to music in your bestie’s room or at 42 over a couple of bottles of rosé.
The feeling of female solidarity is a powerful but elusive one. It’s probably partly why the new-this-year Angela Garbes book Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy is making such waves. I am 42 and don’t have children, but even my childless friends are recommending it to me.
It is an instantly seminal book. Garbes wrote a 2015 piece titled “The More I Learn About Breast Milk, the More Amazed I Am” which went viral and became the most-read piece in the history of Seattle newsweekly The Stranger. “The nutritional and immunological components of breast milk change every day, according to the specific, individual needs of a baby,” she wrote, thrilling at the fact of this thing she’d learned about the power of the female body.
Like a Mother showcases Garbes’s intellectual curiosity as much as it does her empathy. Unlike a lot of the popular pregnancy books on the market, it neither lectures nor endorses. Primarily, it educates. She’s not afraid to talk about the rawness of her own labor, which didn’t go at all according to her birth plan, nor the pain of her two miscarriages, which she details here. She busts into the nitty-gritty of her own sex life, her C-section, and the things that kept her marriage strong after the birth of her first child. (Hello, chore wheel!)
To break a book as essential as this one—I would rank Garbes right alongside Naomi Wolf, Germaine Greer, and other feminist writers—into mere bullet points would be to do it a disservice, largely because of how personal, funny, and sisterly its author is in her writing style. But she is also an extraordinary researcher and reporter, with a thorough bibliography of every study she cites. It’s worth briefly summarizing a few of the mind-blowing points she makes, although there are so many more that it’s worth checking this book out yourself.
The data on drinking alcohol while pregnant is problematic
Yes, the Mayo Clinic writes that “there is no amount of alcohol that’s known to be safe to consume during pregnancy,” and the CDC would echo that “[a]ny amount of alcohol during pregnancy is harmful.” But it’s fascinating looking at the research and timeline that got us here. As recently as 1977, public health officials suggested that expectant mothers have no more than two alcoholic beverages daily, writes Garbes. By 1981, the surgeon general was recommending that even those considering becoming pregnant abstain completely. Because testing the effect of alcohol on pregnant women is unethical, it’s difficult to discern whether, say, a drink a week actually has a negative effect on a fetus.
Garbes notes that author Emily Oster, a data-driven economist, examined the original research, and found what she called “overinterpretation of flawed studies.” Oster—who is not, it’s worth mentioning, a physician—concluded that occasionally drinking alcohol was probably fine.
This is a personal choice, and it’s worth reiterating that many doctors, including The American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend against drinking any alcohol at all.
Constant caretaking can shorten labor and lower C-section rates
Doulas—people, typically women, certified by an international association who provide support throughout pregnancy and labor—have been having real, positive effects on birth, studies show. (This article is a great deep dive on New Orleanian doulas.) Garbes writes that “continuous, nonjudgmental labor support and care” can produce lower C-section rates, less use of pain medications, fewer vacuum-assisted births, and shorter births, by 40 minutes on average.
“Due dates are bullsh*t”
Garbes cites the American Pregnancy Association in that only about 5% of babies emerge on their estimated due dates. Five percent! It feels about as likely as winning Plinko on The Price is Right. She suggests it’d be more accurate to anticipate a four-week window for a baby’s arrival.
Don’t say, “You can try again.” Say, “You will recover.”
Pregnancy loss—so common and so frequently not talked about—can be a source of massive grief for women, who sometimes spiral into anxiety and depression. Though it may be tempting to offer a woman who has miscarried the encouragement that she can try again, writes Garbes, according to Kristen Swanson, RN, PhD, an expert whose Theory of Caring has been adopted by hospitals nationwide, one should instead tell a patient that she can recover and work through her loss. For a woman who has just miscarried, the last thing she might want to consider is trying again.
A third of us have a pelvic floor disorder
Here’s a fun one! A full third of us have a pelvic floor disorder, which can cause pain during sex or incontinence—especially when you sneeze, laugh, or work out. Good times. Eighty percent of the women this affects are moms. In France, writes Garbes, new mothers routinely get physical therapy to strengthen their pelvic floors, which is subsidized by the government. Garbes cites a physical therapist who thinks we should have routine physical therapy starting at six weeks postpartum in America, too.
So if you’re experiencing this less joyful side effect of motherhood—or of being a woman—know that, as is true of so many things, it’s not just you.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.
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