Whether you decide to dive into the world of books on pregnancy, childbirth, and brand-new parenthood while waiting on a baby or after it’s very much arrived, here are a few new (or just new-to-me) books that might be exactly what the doctor (or midwife, or you, yourself) ordered.
Not everyone will relate to everything in each of these books. I think maybe that’s the whole point. Trying to articulate the raw, messy, simultaneously heart-wrenching and heart-warming experience of pregnancy, and childbirth, and new parenthood is as challenging as the experience itself. Sometimes as beautiful. Maybe always as fraught. In pregnancy and birth and learning how to live with the newest humans in our midst, we seek answers. We turn to friends. Or family. Motivated by schadenfreude or sincerity or simple curiosity, we log onto forums with perfect strangers. We see if we can find our own independent footing, while also trying to find common ground. Some people join parenting groups. Others don’t have the time (or the stomach).
The truth, of course, is that everyone’s experience of pregnancy and birth will be uniquely their own. When I was pregnant and preparing for childbirth, I found comfort in the stories of my own mom and in those told by midwives like Ina May Gaskin. I won’t disavow the comfort those stories brought me now, but I can appreciate with hindsight that my comfort was also borne out by my experience. Had I not experienced childbirth in the ways that I did, I can imagine I’d have a different relationship to those stories now. And despite the generally uncomplicated nature of both of my births, the experiences still left me reeling. I guess what I mean to say is that even though nearly everything went according to “plan,” I still felt like my world had cracked open. I still felt raw and tender and vulnerable in ways I hadn’t anticipated. And I felt all of that at the very same time that I felt brave, and strong, and capable, too. When it comes to telling the stories of pregnancy and birth, more is more. We don’t need just a few voices, we need an entire chorus. To that end, here are a few more voices.
(When we buy books, we choose to support our local bookstores—Stories Bookshop, Books Are Magic, Greenlight Bookstore, and Community Bookstore, to name a few. I’ve provided links below to where you can find these titles online or in your own neighborhood bookstores.)
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell
I started reading Meaghan O’Connell’s essays after Faye was born. We had—as far as I could calculate it—given birth to our first children just weeks apart, in the same city, and at the very same age. Our stories of labor and delivery didn’t have much in common, save the infant and mother in need of care at the end of it all. Overlapping and divergent particulars aside, I felt buoyed by her candor, comforted by her honesty, relieved by her irreverence, and grateful for her companionship insofar as a person can claim as a companion someone they’ve never met, in real life or otherwise. This book of essays came out just a few weeks ago and it’s excellent. There are so many perfect passages, but this is one of my favorites:
“‘I mostly can’t wait to breastfeed again,’ she tells me.
‘What?’ I say.
‘Oh, yeah,’ she says, ‘I loved it. That’s basically why I’m having another kid.’
‘Wow,’ I say. ‘Huh.’ Wait, did I like it too?
With stuff this big, almost any way of looking at it can be true. We all talked like we were going to eventually reach some grand conclusion, some correct stance, but in fact it was different for everybody, impossible to pin down. Was childbirth traumatic or transcendent? Was pregnancy a time of wonder and awe or a kind of temporary disability? Were we supposed to fit our lives around our children or fit children into our lives? My feelings changed every minute, depending on my mood and on the company I kept. It felt essential, though, to keep asking the questions.”
Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes
If you’re pregnant and looking to hear from someone who’s interested in nuance more than answers, read this. It’s so encouraging and such a far cry from the infantilizing, scolding tone that I often associate with books on pregnancy. It weaves research with personal story and broaches all sorts of subjects that don’t always get the attention they deserve: miscarriage, recovery, pelvic floor rehabilitation…being a human being. It comes out May 29, but you can pre-order it wherever books are sold. I especially appreciated this passage:
…When it comes to pregnancy, we can’t seem to tolerate [nuance], in part because messages we receive over and over are free of nuance, free of discussion. The weight of the responsibility is intense. This is often the first time in our lives that our choices physically impact the well-being of another human being. That is sobering. It makes us crave simplicity in a state of being that is inherently complex. I don’t blame anyone for wanting certainty, but the truth is that there is little.”
Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood by Erica Chidi Cohen
If you’re someone still hoping to find order in the chaos, this is the manual I’d recommend. Erica Chidi Cohen is a doula and founder of Loom in Los Angeles. Her book can help to guide new parents through just about any question they might have about pregnancy, birth, and most-poignantly, recovery. It’s hefty, which means a whole index worth of subjects for scanning in the wee hours of the morning when you might most need a helpful voice to guide you along. No matter what path your birth takes, there’s comfort to be found in this book. In Cohen’s words, “conformity, competition, and comparison don’t belong in the birthing space or dialogue.” More of a resource than a story, this is my choice for anyone feeling overwhelmed.
Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage Into Motherhood by Molly Caro May
This personal narrative dives straight to the heart of some of the more unspoken, messy, and just plain tender moments that might pepper—or permeate—a parent’s postpartum year. I’m very sure I wouldn’t have wanted to read this book when expecting my first child, but I cherished the raw recognition it offers to new parents who might suffer from postpartum depression, or rage, or really any feelings that don’t fit into a neat narrative of birdsong and rainbows post-birth.
“Because we are a culture focused on the singular act of birthing, no one tells you what comes before or after birth. Not really. How can they? It’s different for every woman. There may not be one narrative. However, there is one truth. Before and after are not times where all you do is glow. These are passages full of rocks and caverns and shards of light. Maybe we protect the uninitiated women (and men). Maybe we hope they won’t lose themselves like we did. Maybe time passes and we forget what we wanted to tell them in the first place.
Maybe we are scared to put the words baby and hardship in the same sentence.”
Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words by Kimberly Harrington
If you want to take a breath and snort and laugh, and—okay, I admit it—also cry, just do yourself a favor and snuggle up with Kimberly Harrington’s new book. It’s mostly about parenting past the newborn stage, but I think any soon-to-be or deeply entrenched parent will find moments of recognition in these pages. I especially liked her take on the working and stay-at-home mom conversation:
“Stay-at-home moms, working moms, all moms, we are allowed to be proud of our choices and to question them; sometimes all in the same day…We have all been left so adrift by our society, our culture, and our government when it comes to the first five or six years of a child’s life. We are left to sort it out for ourselves, to cobble together our individual plans. No wonder we take all of this so personally.
If you don’t believe me, ask yourself the last time parents were shamed for sending their kids off to elementary school. Why would they be? There is a societal and governmental expectation that all children should attend school; that education is necessary for a child’s development and that schools play a critical role in any community. School has our support. Imagine if there was a societal and governmental expectation that all children should attend a quality preschool or daycare program? Imagine the freedom and peace of mind it could offer all mothers, stay-at-home and working-outside-of-the-home alike. Imagine.”
+ I haven’t read all of the books covered here, but I appreciated this essay, In a Raft of New Books, Motherhood from (Almost) Every Angle by Pahrul Sehgal.
+ If you haven’t been following along, the New Mom series by The Cut has been terrific.
+ I’ve mentioned it before a few times, but for working parents—and everyone—out there, I really loved the Longest Shortest Time series called It’s a Real Mother.
+ Finally, please tell me you’ve watched Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife.
In case you missed it:
Anything else? Would love to know what anyone else has read and loved.