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How to Have a “Feminist Pregnancy”

Written by Erin Feher

Photography by Victoria Gloria

Like so many women, when Angela Garbes learned she was pregnant, she immediately started seeking information on how to make the healthiest choices for her unborn child. But too often, the advice she found in books was at once inconclusive and admonishing. “If you’ve ever leafed through the pages of a pregnancy guidebook, you know what I am talking about—the subtle (and not-so-subtle) finger-wagging implicit in even the most innocuous-seeming advice,” she muses. So, Garbes, a reporter by profession, set out to dig up more concrete information—a process that empowered her, informed her, and inspired her to write a book: Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy. So, what exactly is a so-called “feminist pregnancy?” We complied ten of our favorite takeaways from the book as a primer for embarking on your own totally empowered parenthood journey.

Quit With The “Bad Mom” Jokes
The sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes self-congratulatory label is just another way of reinforcing unrealistic expectations, says Garbes, “You are a ‘bad mom’ if you have the occasional glass of wine during pregnancy, experience anxiety or ambivalence about having a baby, look forward to having an epidural, feed your baby formula, or take a pull off a joint once the kids are in bed because children are exhausting. The cultural standard is so well established that we even joke about it, proudly proclaiming ourselves ‘bad moms’ when we stray from these expectations. We are trying to reclaim a term that we’d be much better off abandoning.”

Get Schooled In Science And History
What do you know about the 1970 landmark court case Cleveland Board of Education vs. LaFleur? (Hint: It ruled that the school acted unconstitutionally when it placed a teacher on mandatory maternity leave once she started showing because “her pregnant body would alternately disgust, concern, fascinate, and embarrass her students.”) How about the backstory of fetal alcohol syndrome? “We owe it to ourselves to learn, to demand science and evidence, to seek out the full spectrum of information as it exists now,” writes Garbes. You know what’s more empowering than buying a “Breast is Best” t-shirt? Learning all about the 150 oligosaccharides in human breast milk that can’t be digested by infants, but exist solely to feed the microbes that populate a baby’s digestive system.

Demand To Be Heard By Your Doctors
“We should insist that medical professionals and scientists listen to us, the people on the front lines having the babies. Our bodies are telling us new information and giving us clues every day. ‘We are volcanoes,’ wrote the American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. ‘When we as women offer our experiences as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.’ My hope in writing this book is the same as Le Guin’s: ‘That’s what I want—I want to hear you erupting.'”

Don’t Be Distracted By The Mommy Wars
“I believe we all want to make the conversations around pregnancy and motherhood as inclusive and encouraging as possible. But because women don’t all receive the support we deserve, we often find ourselves dividing along arbitrary lines about the choices we make: what we drink (or don’t drink) during pregnancy, how we give birth, how we feed our kids, where we let them sleep, and so on. While all of these things are important in day-to-day life, they are not the problems or issues that have kept American women down for centuries. …The problems we face are much bigger: a culture in which men hold nearly all of the legal and economic power; a society in which whiteness is considered the norm and superior to other races and cultures; and economic system that relies on, but does not adequately value, domestic work that is performed overwhelmingly by women (or, if you prefer: patriarchy, white supremacy, and American capitalism).”

Listen To Your Mother
Or the other women in your life. “Women have grown, birthed, and raised babies with the benefit of knowledge passed down through generations of other women. For centuries, in every culture around the world, midwives guided birth. They were mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors—older women who had no formal training other than decades of firsthand knowledge and experience. They advised laboring women on when to move, rest, or push, offered physical and herbal comfort, delivered babies, and tended to mothers and babies in the days and weeks after birth. They understood pregnancy and birth as significant but normal events in the lives of women, not illnesses or conditions that needed to be treated.”

Embrace Your Body’s Evolution
“I wonder why we need new mothers to look like we did before we had babies. Why we push ourselves to ‘get our bodies back.’ My body will never go back to what it was; it’s made a person, travelled to another dimension, and given birth to another world. The journey has left more than a few marks. I want to embrace that. …We look externally to control what is inevitable, what is ordinary. Or maybe we look to the external as a way of giving order to the disarray inside us. Either way, physical changes are natural and they follow their own timeline. I think of the caterpillar, brown and soupy in its cocoon, awaiting its big moment. A world full of slow transformations. Coral, bleached of its colors by rising ocean temperatures, doesn’t pretend to be unaffected by its nature. Rocks, worn into smooth submission over years by tumbling water, don’t deny what has happened to them.”

Learn About (and Pay Attention To) Your Pelvic Floor
“These are the muscles our bodies use to hold and remove waste, to support our organs, to reproduce. This is our seat of power: where we experience ecstasy and vulnerability, where we conceive, grow, and pass our children into the world…the pelvic floor is both an essential guardian and gateway, yet we are taught virtually nothing about its anatomy or function. …In the long, messy, fluid- and excrement-soaked work of childbirth, the muscles of our pelvic floor can take a massive beating. It is believed that one in three mothers sustain pelvic floor injuries while giving birth.”

Be An Advocate for All Women And Their Birth Choices And Outcomes
“Today, feminism means supporting women in whatever method of birth they want. …Aside from a baby’s exit from the body, there is no single experience that makes a birth ‘complete’ or ‘normal’ or ‘right.'”

Acknowledge That You Have Been Monumentally And Irreversibly Changed
“In medicine, microchimerism refers to a body’s harboring of cells or DNA that are genetically distinct from itself—genetic material that developed in the body of another person. …Emerging science reveals that most likely all of us have at least a few cells from our mothers—and, astonishingly, other people, including maternal grandmothers, and possibly older siblings—in our bodies. Throughout pregnancy, our cells commingle, crossing borders—the placenta, the blood-brain barrier—that were once thought to be impenetrable. The reality of microchimerism requires us to reconsider the the concept of ‘self’ entirely. We are never alone, we never have been… The idea of being constituted by others goes against the myth of America’s rugged individualism. Our culture praises personal achievement and fulfillment, but places much less value on paying attention to and caring for the needs of others. Parenting requires that you put someone else’s needs ahead of your own. We are made up of others, we are changed by others, and we need others. The obliteration of your old self can be disorienting and disheartening, but it can also be a source of great power and transformation. Mothers understand this.”

Don’t Spend Too Much Time on the Internet
“Every article we click on through Facebook and Twitter, every Google query we type in, and every Instagram post we ‘Like’ trigger algorithms, so the information and images we see are constantly being custom fitted to our interests…When pregnant friends have asked me for advice about things, I tell them, only half-jokingly, to never look on the internet.”

You can buy Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy via Bookshop, Amazon, and wherever books are sold.

For more on having a mindful, informed pregnancy (and parenthood) journey, check out this list of Mother-approved books on a variety of motherhood-themed subjects, as well as ace info about maintaining pelvic floor health, and 20+ things your friends and family can do to support you as a new mother.

This article was originally published on March 4, 2019.

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