Monica Dux is not only a charmingly guileless story-teller but also a thoughtful, feminist one, so she might just be the perfect writer for a pregnancy memoir. Dux will just as willingly delve into the unbearable grief of her miscarriage (which is the stand out chapter of the book), as she will into the messiness of her successful home water birth. And then with equal candor, she will explore subjects like her post-childbirth vulva, masturbation and farting. Dux’s unrelenting honesty and good humour, combined with her difficult-to-stereotype blend of mothering experiences, makes for a liberating read for mothers-to-be who are only just beginning to realise the true rigidity of the institution they are entering.
However, I have one little bone to pick with this book and all of its ‘humorous honesty’ and that is that it makes much of the author’s weight gain and how unappealing she found this aspect of pregnancy to be. For many women Dux’s complaints will represent a chance to break free of the eternal pressure to be ‘glowingly pregnant’ but for others of us it feels perilously close to reinforcing the kind of body image issues we’re hoping to finally escape now that we’re knocked up and temporarily out of the game. Some examination of our society’s misogynistic contempt for the maternal figure would be a valuable addition to a book like this one. For every mother who finds her pregnant body impossibly uncomfortable there is one like me who found it a source of wonder and liberation.
All the same, in exploring her feelings about her pregnant body, Dux makes some valuable broader observations about the mixed messages we receive during pregnancy:
I was told that I was too fat, which was bad and a threat to my baby, yet I was also expected to love and celebrate my extra large body. If I didn’t do this then I might be mentally ill, a victim of body dysmorphia. Which sums up the paradox of modern pregnancy very nicely: the competing pressure we all feel to be happy, smiling and serene while at the same time fending off a growing list of threats and perils.
One of the strengths of Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting) is the way it so clearly identifies the contradictory pressures on new mothers – be natural, but don’t let yourself go. Speaking of hypocrisy, there’s also an excellent discussion in the book of the duplicitous game of ‘bad mother’ confessions that women sometimes play in mothers’ groups where the information they share is really slyly designed to enhance their own reputations as good mothers. But this is the difference between a feminist author like Dux, and a less nuanced writer – Dux is ultimately forgiving of the ‘bad mother’ game because she understands that while this behaviour silences us, it is also really about mothers coming to terms with the pressure of the ‘selfless mother’ expectation that is on all of us.
The book is, at times, a curious mix of research and personal anecdote. Some topics get more of one treatment than the other and occasionally I found myself wondering why particular topics were selected for the book and not others. For instance, why an entire chapter on afterbirth but no chapter on how parenthood rearranges your relationship with your partner? I guess the obvious answer is that this is a book about the aspects of early motherhood that surprised Dux, not me.
But her love of research and analysis is one I share. Dux delivers an intellectually stimulating pregnancy memoir that will delight readers who have been thoroughly switched off by the original What To Expect When You’re Expecting pregnancy bible. Without a doubt, one of the big strengths of the book is the way in which topics are framed against their historical context. Subjects like breastfeeding and bottle-feeding, and also men’s changing role in childbirth, meander through some very thought-provoking history before each settling on the same point. You shouldn’t take any of what you’re experiencing personally; there’s a reason why you’re feeling like you’re failing whichever path you choose – it’s because of the crappy, sexist legacy still hanging over motherhood.
In accordance with disclosure guidelines, please note that I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher.