baby proof: what to read when you’re expecting, part II.

May 16, 2018

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 BookshopBooks Are MagicGreenlight 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 
(Amazon/Indiebound)
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 
(Amazon/Indiebound)
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  
(Amazon/Indiebound)
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 
(Amazon/Indiebound)
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  
(Amazon/Indiebound)
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.”

Other things

+ 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:

What to Read When You’re Expecting, Part 1.

Anything else? Would love to know what anyone else has read and loved.

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20 Comments

  • Reply Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 May 16, 2018 at 11:50 am

    We struggled with infertility for a long time before having our three children, and I read and re-read and then recently read again the collection of essays “Maybe Baby” from Salon / Lori Leibovich. I really enjoyed candid essays by parents/would-be parents/absolutely-not parents concerning whether or how or why (not) to parent. It simultaneously reinforced my desire to parent and helped me imagine a child-free life if we were not successful.

    I didn’t think “This is Forty” was funny until after I had kids. I’m also turning 40 this summer, so that might have an impact, too.

    I imagined myself to be (and believe I am) the sort of mom who borrows both from attachment parenting to some extent and to a bit more hands-off/Montessori-style parenting with a dash of French parenting thrown in. I read essays before baby and even once I had my first babies by child psychologists with enough detachment to take in the information. So many of the articles are presented as “this is why you have to do it this way (or else)”, even when written from a “gentle” parenting perspective, but in the throes of parenting three very young children, I find most of these articles excruciating now. I think it’s worth mentioning that gentleness to ones children is certainly critical, but not at the expense of gentleness to self.

    I’m excited about O’Connell and will look into her stuff. Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 16, 2018 at 11:51 am

      Yes, indeed.

  • Reply Katie May 16, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks for this! Not sure if it’s been mentioned before on this site, but I’ve been looking for a book for my husband that is all about the REALNESS of a woman’s experience in pregnancy, birth, and post pregnancy stages. He’s pretty attuned to what I’m going through at the moment because in addition to all the joys I share, I feel like he should be aware of the aches, the pains, the limits, the exhaustion. He doesn’t get a free pass just because he’s not carrying/birthing our baby! So far, I’ve only found books geared toward the mothers so they know what they’re going through, but, I really want something written for the partner ABOUT the mother that’s REAL and raw and doesn’t make everything sound all glow all the time. Any thoughts? Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 16, 2018 at 1:17 pm

      I do honestly think that reading any of these books would be a super helpful thing for a husband to do. I think a book written for male partners/husbands would also be great (James and I took a Bradley method class when I was pregnant with Faye and read the quite old-fashioned Husband-coached Childbirth. We found it helpful, but not enthralling…). Personally I think men reading books written “for” women by women wouldn’t be so bad of a place to start.

      • Reply Lauren May 16, 2018 at 8:25 pm

        Erin, I became interested in the Bradley Method after reading your blog, and when I was pregnant my husband and I took the class. It was a total game changer for our relationship at the time, and it helped him feel like he both understood what was happening and had an important role in the process. I agree that it was so helpful, even though the materials have not kept up with the times.

  • Reply Sarah Ann May 16, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    Hi Erin,
    Any suggestions on what to read as I transition into having a one year old? There is so much sudden change that I am feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to teach kind hands, etc.

    Thanks!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 16, 2018 at 1:44 pm

      Can’t say that I read much myself at that stage, but I really love the Unruffled Podcast from Janet Lansbury, which I think has great advice even for quite little guys!

    • Reply Alexis May 16, 2018 at 3:34 pm

      Sarah Ann – To your one year old reading question, I recommend “Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting” and “No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame” – both by Janet Lansbury. They are quick reads and offer simple and kind guidance for dealing with all that comes with parenting those small and determined humans. l(Her podcasts and articles are great too!)

    • Reply Jennifer May 22, 2018 at 7:52 am

      I highly, highly, highly recommend ‘How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen’ by Joanne Faber and Julie King. It gives you the tools to navigate life with a toddler (my son’s only 2 and a bit, so I can’t speak for beyond but I’m willing to bet they’ll really help, based on my experience so far). This basically sums it up: “Kids are exhausting. Little kids are exceptionally exhausting. For me it’s more fun when we’re all tired and cheerful, instead of tired and irritable. These tools all help you achieve the former.”

  • Reply MM May 16, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks for putting this together! I loved Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Catherine Newman’s Waiting for Birdy.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 16, 2018 at 1:46 pm

      Loved Operating Instructions, too! Haven’t read Waiting for Birdy!

      • Reply rebecca May 24, 2018 at 12:17 am

        Wating for Birdy! I read it so many times when I was pregnant, including while in labor.
        Such a treasure.

  • Reply stephanie May 16, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    Currently enjoying Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, a series of micro-essays on babies in literature and the mental rearrangement of having a baby yourself; also enjoyed Eula Biss, On Immunity, which took the issue of whether-or-not to vaccinate as a jumping-off point for a whole lot of thinking about privilege and choices; and post-baby, I also found a whole new appreciation for the sleep-training scene in Little Women and the way Meg and John Brooke have to find a balance in their parenting approach : )

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 16, 2018 at 4:01 pm

      Loved Little Labors so much! Have not yet read On Immunity! Must revisit Little Women!

  • Reply Brianna May 17, 2018 at 7:07 am

    Fascinating comment about “protecting the uninitiated” – which includes the childless – and “hardship”. It is possible to have a level of intelligent empathy such that what is not experienced is highly imaginable. That some people, like the Buddha, who named his baby son Fetter, can conceive of both the pleasure and pain of raising children and still choose with great awareness to pursue enlightenment instead of parenthood; no protection is required.
    No one with any compassion would truly seek to withhold the truth of parenting, these books are great, and anyone lacking the intelligence or empathy to know what to expect needs much wisdom not a protected ignorance bubble.

  • Reply Lindsay May 17, 2018 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for this great post. And to the commenter who shared a couple of selections more relevant to people dealing with infertility, as so many people I know have had to. Any conversation of new parenthood and childbirth feels incomplete without recognizing this experience too.

    At least one of the quotes you included brought tears to my eyes, and I’m several years into parenting and all done with childbirth. I remember in the early years as many of my friends had our first kids, we would talk about childbirth and pregnancy, but then life moved on. I still feel like it bears more processing, as easily the most intense experience of my life so far. But, in the thick of parenting now, where do I make time for not just reading, but actual reflection? Maybe someday…

  • Reply Natalie May 24, 2018 at 7:20 am

    I loved Great with Child when I was pregnant, especially when I was feeling those first time mama-to-be jitters. I also used Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn in our Confident Childbirth class and found it to be full of helpful, matter-of-fact information and not judgmental (or condescending) like other text book style options.

  • Reply Anna G May 27, 2018 at 7:41 am

    After Birth by Elisa Albert is searing and hilarious and wonderful. I read it while I was a week overdue, in about 5 hours! It would be an interesting one to revisit now that my little manny has turned one….great list, need to get cracking! x

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE May 27, 2018 at 8:59 pm

      Yes! On my first list! Loved it!

  • Reply Claire August 6, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Bit late to this one and you may no longer remember since your second will be graduating any day now 😉 – but I wondered if you have any recommendations on books to read to a first child about a new baby coming along / becoming an older sibling? We have many of the books you have recommended and my two-year old daughter just loves them – Julian is a Mermaid ignited a huge mermaid passion for her, tied in with perfect age for fancy dress I think! Many thanks for any suggestions and sorry if you’ve put this somewhere already…

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