CULTURAL MYTHS, CUSTOMS, AMBIGUITIES, AND MISCONCEPTIONS OF WOMANHOOD, PREGNANCY, AND MOTHERHOOD
If some enterprising salesperson were to create a pregnant woman’s coloring book aimed at the North American market, it would surely come packaged with a box containing nothing but pastel crayons with names like Blissful Blue, Perfect Pink, and Mother’s Mauve. No Black Cloud, Blue Funk, or Red Rage in that crayon box! And the mothers outlined in the book for coloring would all be smiling serenely, gazing lovingly into the eyes of their partner—an equally blissed-out expectant father—and, of course, looking nothing less than beautiful.
If that sounds like the Hollywood image of pregnancy, it is certainly the one that’s been sold to Western women, and that Western culture has naively bought into. For the majority of women, it is probably even a fair approximation of the truth. It is not, however, the image of pregnancy that I see every day. And if we look a little more closely at the myths and mixed messages that have historically surrounded fertility, family, and femininity not only in our society but in cultures throughout the world, we can see that—as is so often the case with the images Hollywood has for sale—this is one that may have been meant for viewing through rose-colored glasses.
To begin close to home, let’s take a quick look back at the history of our own North American culture as it has grown from a mainly agrarian to a mainly technological society. In times past, when we tilled fields, worked the land, and subsisted mainly on what a single family could produce for both sale and sustenance, children were important assets. As farmers, ranchers, or even local shopkeepers, we needed those extra hands to work alongside us and help to support us. Fertility and motherhood were, therefore, valued as well, and a woman’s primary role, aside from taking care of the family homestead, was to produce and nurture children. “Mother” was a prized and universally recognized job title.
I know that for many modern women, reading about the difficult and often isolated lives of those pioneer and farm wives will immediately bring to mind the now-classic advertising slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby!” And indeed we have. But that also begs the question “Where have we arrived?” In many ways, of course, the lives of twenty-first-century women are dramatically better. And it’s certainly true that, from a medical perspective, obstetrical care is better and more universally available than ever before. But what about the lives of mothers, and even the value we put on motherhood itself?
For the majority of Western women today, motherhood, rather than being a primary function, has become no more than an add-on. Even those of us who truly yearn for children, who unwaveringly wish for the chance to be mothers, are unlikely either to perceive motherhood as our only goal or to have the luxury of enjoying it as our only job title.
In a technologically driven society, pregnancy is too often perceived as an interruption of or an addition to other, more valued activities. At best, we are ambivalent about where pregnancy and motherhood belong on our list of priorities. “Stay-at-home mom” and “mommy track” are terms that have entered our vocabulary with a kind of stigma attached. Women who choose (and have the luxury of choosing) to opt out of the job market or limit their career path in order to spend more time with their children are often marginalized by and isolated from their working peers. Those who choose to pursue both career and motherhood, on the other hand, are often made to explain or justify their choice to those who believe they “should” stay at home. And for the majority of women who simply do not have a choice, pregnancy and motherhood present financial as well as logistical burdens that can be overwhelming.
In fact, throughout history and across cultural boundaries, woman’s unique ability to bear children has put her in the position of being both worshiped and feared; it has been her source of power and her burden, a blessing and a curse. Religion and mythology, which brim not only with female fertility figures such as the Buddhist Kwan Yin, the Hindu Lakshmi, and the Egyptian Isis but also with seductresses such as Lilith and Diana, reflect this dichotomy. Even the Virgin Mary, the most universally recognized mother figure of them all, is not only blessed to be the mother of the Christ, worshiped as the intermediary between the human and the divine, but also born to bear the burden of becoming the Mater Dolorosa, the mother who weeps for the loss of her only child and the sins of humanity.
This ambiguity or dual nature inherent in the concept of “womanhood” is also reflected in religious and cultural issues related to women’s bodily functions. The Orthodox Jewish community, for example, considers a menstruating woman unclean. She is forbidden to have sexual relations with her husband and required, when her period is over, to immerse herself in a ritual bath not once but three times to ensure that any lingering impurities are washed away. Here we can see the duality that exists between woman as the bearer of children and woman as temptress: if she is menstruating, she cannot become pregnant, her potential for motherhood is temporarily negated, and so for her husband to have sexual relations with her during this time would be to give in to her powers of seduction—to be, in a sense, defiled by her.
Similarly, in traditional Hindu culture, women were considered both inferior to men and, at the same time, capable of seducing them away from ascetic contemplation and spiritual purity. Only through motherhood did they cement and ensure their power base through their almost total influence over their children and the household.
In these and other traditional cultures, motherhood not only endows women with a kind of retrofitted purity but also initiates them into a special company of women. In many communities throughout Asia, Africa, and South America women generally give birth surrounded by other women, and following the delivery there is a traditional period of confinement during which both mother and child are tended and nurtured by women.
In many cultures, there is a special birthing place set aside, which only women can enter, and very often—such as among the women of Yemen, the Gbaya of Congo, or the Seri Indians of Mexico—that can mean as many as fifteen female friends, neighbors, and family mem- bers in addition to the midwife present to witness the birth. Even in Elizabethan England, men were banned from the birthing chamber while female friends, relatives, and neighbors, known as “gossips,” were invited to attend. Some, in fact, might spend days or even weeks after the birth attending the mother in her room.
This “lying-in” period is still practiced in many cultures. In Cuba, for example, the new mother and her infant remain inside the home for forty-one days, during which time women from the family and the community are responsible for taking care of them. In India, women are not expected to return to their normal household chores for more than a month. Bedouin women stay home for forty days, are not allowed to cook or do housework, and are expected to rest and eat well. In China the traditional period of confinement is one month, in Malaysia it is forty-four days, and among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria it is one lunar month, during which time the mother is relieved of all chores, given special foods, and nursed by her own mother or an older sister.
Although these are certainly periods set aside for mother and baby to bond (in most instances the infant actually remains in bed with the mother and can nurse at will) and for the mother to recover, they also mark another rite of passage—from girlhood to womanhood or, seen from another perspective, from seductress to saint. It should be pointed out, in fact, that in at least some cultures, the period of confinement is also considered a time of repurification following the “pollution” of childbirth.
But how do such practices relate to pregnancy and motherhood in our own culture? Again, I think it is enlightening to examine this question from more than one perspective.
On one hand, although the vast majority of modern Western women deliver their babies in far more sterile conditions, we also miss out on the benefits to be derived from the closeness and care of other women. For the most part, we give birth surrounded not by those who are necessarily closest and most caring but by paid professionals and coldly beeping machinery. Our “lying-in” period in the hospital is barely twenty-four hours, after which we are sent home to cope as best we can. We might have a mother who is both able and willing to help out, but even if we are so lucky, her stay generally lasts no more than a week or two. We might be granted maternity leave by our employer, but we generally spend that time in relative isolation. Our period of transition is spent not being coddled and cared for but in 24/7 on-the-job training. We are expected either to know instinctively how to mother or to learn the ropes by reading books as we muddle along. At the same time, we are undergoing another important—and not necessarily happy—transition with relation to our own sense of self.
It’s hard, when we’re usually exhausted, still overweight, and often bedraggled, wearing a nursing bra or wiping formula from our clothing, to remember who we were just nine months before. In fact, many of us are undergoing our own personal reassessment and seeing ourselves as no longer seductive, if not quite as saints (although from time to time we might consider ourselves deserving of sainthood).
The messages we receive from the media may suggest that we ought to be self-confidently sexual when pregnant—like Brooke Shields on the cover of Vogue
or Demi Moore, nude and in full body paint, adorning Vanity Fair
. Then, having given birth, we ought to be “ready for our close-up,” as coiffed and composed as Gwyneth Paltrow, as skinny as Sarah Jessica Parker, as coolly elegant as Catherine Zeta-Jones. But do these images really make us feel better about ourselves, or do they just remind us that we are somehow not living up to expectations? Perhaps we’d be better off if, like women in earlier times and more traditional cultures, we had a clearer picture of our new role and place in the world. We’d certainly be better off if motherhood, in and of itself, were looked upon with the kind of dignity and respect it is shown in other cultures.
But then again, is this not just one more of the mixed messages women constantly receive about their value as bearers of children? Even in societies where the mother’s role is recognized as intrinsically worthy of respect, girl children—the future childbearers and mothers, it should be pointed out—are afforded second-class status. In some parts of India a boy baby is still welcomed as a future helper and contributor to the family’s wealth, while a girl, assuming she is even allowed to survive and remain in her family of birth, is looked upon as a burden and an additional drain on the family’s income. And in China the government-mandated one-child population-control policy has led to a precipitous decline in the ratio of girl to boy babies. Indeed, in that country, where for centuries male offspring have represented continuity of lineage and financial support, the abortion or infanticide of girls has created a situation where there will soon not be enough young women to produce the prized male heirs of the future. And the legacy of this centuries-old gender bias is still seen, at least ceremonially, even in Great Britain, where the birth of a male heir to the throne is greeted with a 101-gun salute while a female heir rates no more than 21.
We need to ask ourselves, then, what emotional and psychological effect all these conflicting images of femininity, myths of power, and messages of value (or lack thereof) might have on women, whose sole unique, biologically endowed capability is to bear and nurture children. Yes, of course, we want to think of conceiving and bringing a new life into the world as an occasion for joyous celebration—and for the majority of women, it is.
For a significant minority, however, who may have subliminally internalized the ambiguities inherent in the way society views motherhood, who may themselves be unconsciously ambivalent about the role they are about to take on, or who may become suddenly and glaringly aware of the life-changing transition they are about to undertake, pregnancy and childbirth can—and do—create the perfect emotional and biological climate for the onset of negative thoughts and feelings that lead to anxiety and even major depression. In the pages that follow we’ll be looking at the many ways in which societal pressures and expectations, internal stress, and women’s unique biology may come together to color a pregnancy in shades of gray and black.
I believe it’s time to take off those rose-colored glasses and look at a picture of pregnancy that may not be as pretty as the one that’s been painted by the media but which is, for too many women, sadly more realistic. Until we are willing to do that, we are unwittingly sentencing these women to continue hiding in plain sight, unable or unwilling to admit, perhaps even to themselves, that their experience of pregnancy is not what they’ve been taught to expect, and that what appears to be so joyful for others is for them a time of sadness, fear, and confusion. These women need to know that it doesn’t have to be that way, that there is help, and that they cannot and should not be embarrassed or afraid to get the help they need. Indeed, this book is filled with the stories of women who have
come out of hiding, and who have, as a result, turned a potentially devastating experience into one that not only was manageable but also ultimately did bring them the joy of bonding with a happy, healthy baby.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Pregnancy Blues by Shaila Kulkarni Misri, M.D., F.R.C.P.C.. Copyright © 2005 by Shaila Kulkarni Misri, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.