Review of "Misconceptions"

By Naomi Wolf
Doubleday, 2001
Review by Samantha Brennan, Ph.D. on Jun 22nd 2002

            Part-expose, part-autobiography, Misconceptions is Naomi Wolf’s account of pregnancy, childbirth and the early months of motherhood.  Wolf, the feminist author of The Beauty Myth, Fire with Fire and Promiscuities, turns her attention in this book to the latest stage of her life and examines the contours of that life from a feminist perspective.  Writes Wolf, “I intend to show how the experience of becoming a mother, as miraculous and fulfilling as it is, is also undersupported, sentimentalized, and even manipulated at women’s expense.” (p. 2) Wolf’s research consisted of keeping a journal during her pregnancy, observing the participants in new mothers’ groups and interviewing women about their birth stories.  Part I, Pregnancy, devotes a chapter each month to Wolf’s experiences of the pregnant state. If pregnancy feels like it goes on far too long, then this book accurately captures the spirit of the beast. Part II, Birth, focuses on the experience of giving birth in an American hospital and Part III, New Life, chronicles the first months of motherhood. 

            I found Wolf’s account of pregnancy in Part I overly sentimental which is sort of odd given that Wolf complains about the sentimentalizing of pregnancy.   For example, Wolf became pregnant while using birth control. So, was this an accidental pregnancy? Wolf thinks not. She writes, “For fifteen years birth control had never failed me; and then, when my heart and body longed for a baby, when I was newly married, when it was finally safe–birth control failed me. Was this baby “planned”? Technology did not plan this pregnancy; indeed, technology planned against it. It seemed my heart had planned it.” (p. 16) Wolf goes on in this vein attributing the pregnancy to “mother love, the mother wish” that was powerful than the chemistry of birth control. Isn’t it a more reasonable explanation that once pregnancy is a less disastrous result, perhaps even a welcome result, that one is less careful with birth control?  Wolf also recounts the emotional turmoil of pregnancy as well as the expectation on the part of the others that pregnant women should be in a blissful state the entire nine months.  In contrast, Wolf describes her own fears about the impending birth of her child. These fears include an obsession with mortality and the reality of death, a fear of losing one’s own life and self in the baby and in the role of mother as well as concerns about one’s changing size and shape.  The combination of internal focussed thoughtfulness with external scrutiny and judgement that is part of pregnancy in our culture is well captured by Wolf’s account of pregnancy.

             It’s difficult to believe that Naomi Wolf’s book Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood was written after the year 2000. In many ways it reads like the sort of first person exploration of women’s experiences written in the 1960s and 70s. It’s not surprising that Wolf finds commonalities between her birth experience and that of other women.  What is surprising is that this is news to Wolf.  She writes, “When I was pregnant for the first time, I did not know–nor did my friends or the bright, self-directed women I interviewed–that we were entering a kind of tunnel of experience dictated in large measure by money and institutional politics that presented itself as the medically-objective best practises of prenatal and childbirth care. We thought that the birth stories we recounted to each other, whether easy or difficult or even traumatic, were ours alone, just fate or luck of the draw.” (p. 21) That women’s experiences are shaped by the politics of the world in which we live and that as a result women share many experiences ought not to be an eye-opening revelation for a feminist. Haven’t we moved beyond this point?  Sadly it reads like a book that could have been written 20 or 30 years ago for two other reasons as well, neither of them positive. First, not much has changed about the way childbirth occurs in North American culture in the past 30-40 years.  Wolf notes there is a very thin veneer of woman-centred language, a consumerist ploy to appeal to placate pregnant women in the approach of many US hospitals. What this covers up is the routine medicalization of childbirth from IVs and epidurals to episiotomies and c-sections.  New technology geared at prenatal testing only makes pregnancy more like a medical miracle and less like a routine, natural event.  Second, it seems Wolf herself either didn’t read earlier feminist work on childbirth in advance of giving birth, didn’t believe it until she had the experience for herself, or somehow, naively, thought that the world had changed more than it has.  What I found most implausible about this book is that according to the story it tells, Wolf, a feminist and a writer, didn’t do enough research.  It’s not as if the books weren’t there for the reading.  Wolf reports reading Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Birth during her first month of pregnancy and being alarmed at its reports of soaring c-section rates, needless forceps interventions, routine epidurals and episiotemies.  Wolf then went on to question her obstetrician about her hospital’s c-section rates and received only vague answers. Shortly thereafter Wolf switched to a midwifery practise affiliated with a hospital unaware that all the real decision-making power rested with the hospital rather than the midwives. (In the subsequent birth of a 2nd child Wolf finally has a better birth experience after “firing” an ob/gyn, and finding a midwifery practise she liked.)   Barbara Katz Rothman’s In Labour: Women and Power in the Birthplace was published in 1982. Wolf cites Rothman but that book talks about the dangers of the “bait and switch” approach many hospitals use, such as offering alternative birthing rooms when the main action almost always takes place in a more clinical operating theatre.  Wolf also talks about one of my favourite pregnancy and childbirth books, Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery.  But Spiritual Midwifery is also very skeptical about the possibility of a good birth in a hospital environment.

            In both its strengths and weaknesses, Wolf’s book kept reminding me of that other great book about the loneliness and social and intellectual isolation of middle and upper class mothers, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Unlike Friedan, Wolf is aware of the limits of theorizing from her large house on a lonely no-sidewalked boulevard in the Washington suburbs. She realizes that there must be different experiences, different models of motherhood somewhere. But that impulse to reach out doesn’t take her far enough, I don’t think. She does interview her baby’s nanny and she recognizes that her experience of caring for the baby alongside a nanny is radically different from women who live in crowded urban or rural environments in which there a large number of mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers all caring for children together.  Like The Feminine Mystique, Wolf is at her best writing about the lack of emotional well-being of the women in a particular social role. For Friedan, it was the intellectual isolation of well-educated women left in the suburbs.  For Wolf, it’s the 30-something first-time mothers who share her expectation that the work and rewards of mothering have changed since Friedan’s era. The material on post-partum depression is a fascinating mix of personal experience and journalistic investigation. Wolf’s experience of depression includes the difficulties of being home alone with an infant after a c-section. Two weeks after the baby’s birth her husband returned to work and three weeks after the birth Wolf writes that she had “slid into a chronic field of grief.” (p. 208)  The depression worsened as Wolf experienced the social isolation of being at home with a baby in suburban America. The material which details Wolf’s depression has a raw feel to it as the story is told of how our society fails to support new mothers and the structure of our neighbourhoods makes parenting more difficult than need be.  Instead of help with the tasks of parenting and the support of knowing that post-partum depression can be normal, some of Wolf’s new mother friends received prescriptions for anti-depressants.

            Who’s the book for? Here I feel more positively disposed towards Wolf’s project. Young women today may be very much like Wolf. They might not believe so-called 2nd wave feminist critics of North American childbirth practises but they might believe Wolf.   Young feminists might likewise be surprised to read of Wolf’s mixed reaction to life at home with baby.  Like many couples, Wolf and her husband found themselves leading very different lives.  For solutions to the problems of shared work and parenting that Wolf presents, readers ought to have a look at Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies and Bargaining Power by Rhona Mahony. (1995, Basic Books).  Mahony’s thesis is that modern men and women, with egalitarian ideals, don’t just “find themselves” replicating the traditional division of household labor.  Rather, the traditional male breadwinner/female home and childcare worker is the result a series of choices about education, work, and children that people make.  Thus, Wolf’s choice to be a writer (the ultimate in flexible jobs) and her husband’s choice to have an extremely demanding career make it almost certain that when they have children Wolf will take on more than half of the work associated with home and child care.

            The final section “A Mother’s Manifesto” sees a return of Naomi Wolf, the feminist activist.  Although there was much about this book I didn’t find compelling, I liked very much the goals Wolf lays out as necessary if our society is to honour “the truth of mothering.”  These include flexible work hours, paid family leave, affordable health care, on-site daycare, and dramatic changes to the “birthing industry.”  Wolf thinks these goals ought to be the basis of “Motherhood Feminism.” Wolf also thinks our society needs to care more for children by providing better playgrounds, toy lending libraries, and community play centres. She concludes: “It will be e revolution when we don’t just say that mothers are important. It will be revolution when we finally start treating motherhood and caring for children in general as if it truly were the most important task of all.” (p. 287).


© 2002 Samantha Brennan


Samantha Brennan, Associate Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, The University of Western Ontario, Canada               


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