After reading all she could about pregnancy and motherhood, nothing prepared Cristy Clark for the truth. She wishes she'd had a copy of a new book to shed light on what lay ahead ...
When my daughter was three days old, I remember sitting in our rocking chair while she slept on my shoulder. The sun was streaming in through the windows and I was overwhelmed with love for this gorgeous little bundle. Had I changed out of my grubby tracksuit pants and put some concealer under my eyes, we probably could have posed for one of those photos - you know, the ones where the new mother gazes blissfully at her baby, radiating pure joy and fulfilment?
To be honest, though, my emotions did not totally reflect this idyllic scene. Instead I felt utterly shell shocked and more than a little panicked. My body was sore, all over, from the trauma of labour. I was more sleep-deprived than I had imagined was possible. And it was slowly dawning on me that I was going to be responsible for this incredibly demanding person for the rest of my life. The relative freedom of my former life flashed before my eyes, and I was frightened I’d just made a terrible mistake.
Worst than all this, I felt guilty. None of these emotions resembled what I’d expected to feel when I finally held my much-desired baby in my arms. I was horrified that I was failing to be the blissful new mother, just as I had completely failed to glow in pregnancy. I’d read everything that I could get my hands on about pregnancy and motherhood, but nothing had prepared me for this. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected.
These unexpected experiences are the subject of Monica Dux’s new book, Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting). With a light and humorous touch, she tackles what she describes as "the bizarre, weird, messy, creepy stuff that happens to you when you get pregnant, give birth and become a mother." Monica lays out some of the "ugly truths" about pregnancy and motherhood. She describes herself as scowling through her pregnancy; of being overwhelmed by nausea and vomit; and of being confronted with bloating and weight gain that left her feeling "like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole to a place where I was transformed, again and again, until I’d forgotten what shape and size I’d originally been".
In the wrong hands, a tour through the more unsavoury aspects of pregnancy, birth and motherhood could be fairly depressing reading, but Monica’s writing is funny, self-deprecating, and endearingly honest. While she touches on the issues that silence women from sharing these experiences, such as the societal insistence that pregnant women be perpetually blissed-out, Monica treats them in a largely personal manner. While at times I wanted the book to delve further into the political issues around pregnancy and motherhood, ultimately its strength lies in the fact that it doesn’t. Instead, the memoir format makes it the kind of book that almost anyone could relate to.
I particularly related to Monica’s experience of feeling pressured to be a "Happy Gestator". As she argues, the experience of pregnancy is "profoundly weird and disruptive", but sometimes it feels as though we don’t have permission to be honest about this fact. The problem with this is that we don’t get to reap the benefit of talking about the more confronting aspects of pregnancy (and I don’t just mean the physical ones). Pregnancy and motherhood can dramatically alter your identity; while there are incredibly rewarding aspects to this change, it can also be distressing.
Fortunately, it seems there has been a shift in attitudes towards these issues. The recent explosion of personal writing about motherhood has opened the space for women to be more honest about the experience of motherhood. Things I Didn’t Expect is a welcome addition to this new conversation, which, until now, has largely occurred online.
After reading the book, I asked people on Twitter to tell me what shocked them the most when they became pregnant or had kids. In response, people spoke about being confronted by the physical aspects: awful pregnancies; leaking, rock-hard breasts; the physical trauma of labour. But they also spoke about the identity shift that takes place through pregnancy - for example, one mum mentioned feeling utterly useless after losing her work/life identity, and being flippantly described as "decommissioned".
Of course, people also commented on the high notes of parenting, of feeling shocked by the intensity of love they felt for their children, and their surprise at how much they enjoyed the company of their kids. But in contrast, others spoke about the isolation of new motherhood, of having no idea of "how deep the hours in the late afternoon could be".
The issue of guilt came up too, as one mum reported her surprise at finding a lot of care and play to be quite tedious, and of feeling guilty that she didn’t find it fulfilling. Her comment was met with a chorus of similar sentiments, with many other parents remarking that they were so pleased to hear that other people felt the same way.
These are great conversations for us to be having, and I wish I’d had more of them before I became pregnant with my first child. At minimum, I wish I’d had a copy of this book.
What do you wish you’d known before you became pregnant? What was it that took you by surprise?