The book Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting) is based on Melbourne writer Monica Dux’s research and personal experiences around pregnancy and those first bleary months of baby-rearing.
For all the talk about pregnancy and motherhood, Monica felt there was something missing from the public conversation. Over coffee she told me, “I wanted to talk about pregnancy, I wanted to talk about the labour of it. It’s hard work.”
With earthy chapters entitled ‘Puke’, ‘Poo’, ‘Down there’, ‘Jugs’ and ‘Luck’, Monica gets straight to the point when it comes to the hard work of mothering. Building on her love of research, Monica combines her story with statistics, the history of previous generations, and what challenges confront women today.
There are hilariously funny and surreal moments – such as when Monica develops terrible morning sickness during her second pregnancy, and her son responds by continuously drawing pictures of her vomiting. Or the time she inadvertently mentioned the size of her labia one morning on national TV.
Jokes aside, some readers have been surprised by Monica’s honesty throughout the book. “I didn’t even think that I was writing a book that would scare women,” she said. “I thought I was just writing a book that was funny … because [pregnancy] is funny.”
Every chapter is littered with one liners and amusing anecdotes, but it doesn’t detract Monica from her main point: the unwritten rules and stress women go through while pregnant or looking after their newborn.
Part of this was challenging the traditional battle lines of ‘good mothers’: the debates about bottles, breasts, dummies, swaddling, sleeping, schedule, crying/not crying, and anything anyone has ever had an opinion on.
When it comes to the fear and judgement that many feel in the early days of motherhood, Monica said her experience made her “look back and think ‘I can’t believe this was an issue, and I can’t believe I was in a social situation where we all judged’… and I think we do judge in so many different ways”.
The fear of being a bad mother, she feels, is focused on almost inconsequential details, rather than the truly damaging things that can happen to children.
“Everything you do today is seen as having this profound long term consequence, which it doesn’t,” she said. “Long term consequences are when you don’t feed your child or keep it warm and safe. It’s like we’ve lost the fundamental notion of care and mothers get all these bombardments of little sense … as in ‘you’re not going to have a genius if you’re not showing the right colours to them’.”
Along with judgement, Monica believes our expectation of mothers can be isolating and damaging.
“Today there is a really persuasive idea that pregnancy is a time when you should glow and you should feel in control, you should feel marvelous and wonderful,” she said.
“There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect today. There’s a real ideal and it’s all about control, that if you do all the right things – you exercise, do Pilates and all of that – it will all be fine. It’s not like that.”
So, she says, the book is “calling out the bullsh*t for what it is”.
For example – calling out the expectation that women must hide the work and stress involved in being pregnant. “We act like what must drive us forward is love and joy, and of course we love our children and of course they bring us joy, but it’s hard work,” she said
Given that the stereotype of pregnant mothers is one of blissful serenity, it can be hard to express fears about pregnancy publicly. But what Monica wanted to say most was “my body is growing an alien and I have to sh*t it out of my vagina and it hurts and it’s hard and it feels like sh*t. [But] we can’t say that.” Most pregnant women, she argues, are trapped into “smiling for two”.
As Monica writes, “We experience negative emotions for a reason. Yet, these days pregnant women are rarely told that their confusion, their anxiety, their fear and their anger are not only well founded but may be worthwhile. Dismissing these emotions with banal suggestions like ‘pamper yourself’ denies women the dignity of their experience, making them feel guilty for not being on top of it all.”
In one chapter, Monica recounts the sadness and horror of a miscarriage. With many women shy of sharing their experiences, Monica’s account is an unflinching and intimate portrayal of loss. In sharing her story, she’s able to explore the history of miscarriage and other people’s experiences.
Perhaps it’s the silence that prevents parents from embracing the changes that are to come. “We don’t prime parents to be parents,” she said. “We prime women that motherhood is the achievement of a woman’s life … and it’s the most exciting thing she’ll ever do.” When that message gets sold so brightly and loudly, it can be hard to express the funny, the slightly messy and sometimes sad aspects of growing a family.
Do women know what they’re facing? “I think we tell women [pregnancy is] more wonderful than the reality of it often is, or we tell them how hard it is but no one listens,” she said.
Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting) is published by Melbourne University Press and is now available in book stores.