So many words have been written about being pregnant and becoming a mom. Could anything more be left to say? Entering trodden territory, Seattle writer Angela Garbes finds a fresh path in her new book, “Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy.”
A product of Garbes’ search for relevant information when she was pregnant, the book is a lively, unsqueamishly original examination of how the body transforms itself during pregnancy and childbirth.
What does the placenta look like? How do breasts make milk? Is there a benefit to the birth canal being close to the anus? What happens to the pelvis during delivery, and can the poor muscles there ever recover?
Answers to these excellent questions are accompanied by other fascinating facts that arise as Garbes inspects her subject with a feminist’s eye. For example: How did the classic lie-on-the-back-with-feet-in-stirrups position become the default posture for delivery? The answer made me gasp.
The book originated as an article published in 2015 by The Stranger, where Garbes was a staff writer. Called “The More I Learn About Breast Milk, the More Amazed I Am,” the piece begins, “To produce breast milk, mothers melt their own body fat. Are you with me? We literally dissolve parts of ourselves, starting with gluteal-femoral fat, aka our butts, and turn it into liquid to feed our babies.”
The author brings the same frank, funny voice to the book, where amazement about breast milk abides.
The author brings the same frank, funny voice to the book, where amazement about breast milk abides. Consider this: The mother’s body responds to her baby’s daily needs by changing the composition of milk accordingly. How? Garbes consulted Katie Hinde, a biologist at Arizona State University:
“According to Hinde, when a baby suckles at its mother’s breast, a vacuum is created. Within that vacuum, the infant’s saliva is sucked back into the mother’s nipple, where receptors in her mammary gland decipher it.”
Garbes brings a similar scrutiny to the placenta, the organ that connects mother to child, bringing in oxygen and nutrients, and removing waste. She describes its hefty, complicated anatomy with gusto.
“The maternal side of the placenta, which alters and fuses to the strong, muscular wall of the uterus, is made of pulpy red blobs. After detaching from the home it carved out for itself, it looks appropriately meaty, like a juicy, raw pot roast. It is as shimmering and bloody as a fresh wound. The fetal side teems and crawls with thick scarlet and blue veins and arteries. It’s a gnarly tangle of bound and naked blood vessels.”
While the placenta serves the life inside the womb, the vagina offers a gift during delivery. Garbes quotes from the book “Missing Microbes” by Dr. Martin Blaser:
“[R]ather like a glove, the vagina covers the newborn’s every surface, hugging its soft skin as it passes through. And with that hugging, a transfer occurs. The baby’s skin is a sponge, taking up the vaginal microbes rubbing against it. ... The first fluids the baby sucks in contains mom’s microbes, including some fecal matter. Labor is not an antiseptic process.”
Forget about saggy bellies and stretch marks — Garbes turns her focus to a more important and neglected body part: the pelvic floor.
After the wear and tear of bearing and delivering a child, the body clearly is not the same as before. Forget about saggy bellies and stretch marks — Garbes turns her focus to a more important and neglected body part: the pelvic floor.
There’s a lot to the structure, but this analogy gives you the picture: “When it’s in optimal condition, the pelvic floor, like the floor of your house, is straight and flat. But, after childbirth, it might be sloped. If the floor in your apartment is crooked, you can still live with it, but furniture may start to slide around a bit. The same is true for your body and organs.”
Garbes talks to a Seattle-based physical therapist, April Bolding, who advocates that women routinely get physical therapy post birth to restore their pelvic floor.
Garbes argues that “Just one postpartum appointment focused on the pelvis could save money and time ... down the road. Armed with a few personally prescribed exercises, women could begin dealing with problems that, left unaddressed, could lead to incontinence, chronic back pain, and other conditions that will eventually require treatment.”
“Like a Mother” isn’t all physiology and biology. Much of the first quarter of the book is a lamentation of society’s judgments on pregnant women.
“Like a Mother” isn’t all physiology and biology. Much of the first quarter of the book is a lamentation of society’s judgments on pregnant women, of all the things they’re told they should and should not do. Eat this, not that. Don’t consume alcohol or caffeine. Exercise, but don’t overdo it. Etc.
Garbes talks of practices that developed “usually at the whims and desires of men,” some of which are followed to this day. Case in point: The flat-on-the-back birth position came into vogue in the 17th century, “when French king Louis XIV, a bit of a voyeur who enjoyed watching childbirth from behind a curtain, commissioned the construction of a special viewing table so he could get the best angle possible.” Ugh.
Traditionally, in all cultures, women guided other women through birth. That changed in the early 20th century with the rise of medical schools such as that at Harvard, which, Garbes writes, “enrolled mostly upper-class white male students.”
At that time, “nearly half of all babies born in America were delivered by midwives, most of them working-class immigrants and black women,” she reports. “This figure was deemed unacceptable by members of the emerging gynecological and obstetrical community.”
The upshot is that “Pregnancy, once an ordinary part of a woman’s life, is now a medical condition that requires supervision by experts.”
Garbes does not advocate going back to the way things were before the advent of obstetrics and gynecology. “[M]any of us have benefitted from it,” she acknowledges. Her message on this point and overall is that there are many valid ways to gestate and deliver a baby, not merely one way.
Check out the full Nov. 7 - 13 issue.
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