Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood

Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood

by Naomi Wolf


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In Misconceptions, bestselling author Naomi Wolf she demythologizes motherhood and reveals the dangers of common assumptions about childbirth. With uncompromising honesty she describes how hormones eroded her sense of independence, ultrasounds tested her commitment to abortion rights, and the keepers of the OB/GYN establishment lacked compassion. The weeks after her first daughter’s birth taught her how society, employers, and even husbands can manipulate new mothers. She had bewildering post partum depression, but learned that a surprisingly high percentage of women experience it.

Wolf’s courageous willingness to talk about the unexpected difficulties of childbirth will help every woman become a more knowledgeable planner of her pregnancy and better prepare her for the challenges of balancing a career, freedom, and a growing family. Invaluable in its advice to parents, Misconceptions speaks to anyone connected–personally, medically, or professionally–to a new mother.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385497459
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Naomi Wolf is the author of the best-selling The Beauty Myth, which helped to launch a new wave of feminism in the early 1990s and was named one of the most significant books of the twentieth century by The New York Times. She has since authored several other books, most recently Vagina: A New Biography. Wolf is co-founder of The Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, an organization devoted to training young women in ethical leadership for the 21st century. The institute teaches professional development in the arts and media, politics and law, business and entrepreneurship as well as ethical decision making. She lives in New York City with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Afterword to the Anchor Edition

The book you have read is the frankest possible account I could write about the struggles—as well as the joys—of adjusting to pregnancy and new motherhood. Misconceptions ends with the birth of my first baby, and an epilogue describes the birth of the second. Since the book was first published, so many readers have asked me heartfelt questions that I’m glad to have a chance to answer them in this new afterword.

My journey toward motherhood was at times a bumpy one; at certain moments it shook my very sense of self. For me, it was important to tell that story raw, unvarnished by retrospection. I lifted the dark moments as well as the light ones straight from a journal I kept at the time, and did not shy away from describing what I felt when I felt it. I wanted to be honest about the challenges of the journey—brutally honest, some would say—for two reasons. One is that so many people told me that time and love soften your memories of what you experience when pregnant for the first time, and I wanted the book to be unmediated by the mother love that would now never let me write about pregnancy—or remember it—the way I lived it. The other reason is that I wanted to write the book I could not find on the shelves when I was pregnant and a new mother—the book that would reassure me that I was normal and that my struggles were part of the preparation that many of us share as this amazing and humbling, and also ferocious and unnerving, force takes over a life.

When I describe my pregnancy, for instance, I ask, Who will I become? As it turned out, with motherhood I became a wiser, more patient, and I hope more compassionate person. In some ways motherhood is the best thing that ever happened to me. But when I was pregnant I did not know how that could be, and I believe it is important to honor the questions of the pregnant woman as one identity makes room for another, “mother” identity to be born.

One question readers have asked with some urgency is: What happened next? After the book ends? Meaning, I believe—Did it all work out? Readers who are pregnant or readers who have just had new babies want to know what life after my tough adjustment period has been like for me.

I owe them quite a lot of reassurance. Like the mothers I interviewed, I found the entry into motherhood a wild and sometimes overwhelmingly difficult rite of passage. Yet, the view from the other side is far more serene. The ending has been truly a happy one. Like besotted parents everywhere, I am, of course, hopelessly in love with our two children. As in any love affair, you think the details of your own love relationship are unique, your own beloved beyond compare. If I were to describe the firm conviction I have that there have never been two children more marvelous than our two, you would, if you were a parent already, of course understand, even if you couldn’t agree because you felt the same way about your own children.

With the perspective of time and distance, as well as so many rather worried questions from pregnant women, I want to clarify that my subject is the journey of pregnancy and new motherhood, not the destination of being a family with children. My focus is the treacherous waters between the shore of being not—yet—a—mother—(there is not even a word for it!) and the solidity of readjustment, as well as the knock-out, who knew, what-was-my- life-before-I-met-you love, that awaits the new mom on the other side. Still, I feel more strongly than ever that new mothers and new parents are best served by knowing what the dangers are—and knowing how best to traverse them. New mothers, new fathers, and new grandparents, too, have told me that they feel better prepared to welcome a baby, or better able to prepare someone they love to welcome a baby, by learning of or being reminded of, that difficult passage. All the readers who contacted me heartily agreed that a woman is not a mother just because she has had a baby, a mother is not born when a baby is born; a mother is forged, made.

Though hundreds of readers who passed the book to their friends seem to have felt it captured aspects of their true experience, other voices took issue with what I had to say. One common early complaint was that I—along with the women I interviewed— was “whining.” If complaining about something that is difficult or taxing, or expressing fatigue, loneliness, or sadness, or even at times feeling overwhelmed and sorry for oneself and saying so, is “whining,” we are certainly sometimes doing that. The complaint fascinates me because in the interviews I did for the book, once it became clear that I was open to hearing about the negative as well as positive emotions of pregnant women and new mothers, I could not stop the well of complaints from overflowing—and these were sane, stable, loving, reasonably well-adjusted women who loved their children and their men.

When Oprah recently devoted a show to new mothers who were encouraged to express both positive and negative feelings about their experiences, the post-show response broke records. Women clearly welcome the opportunity to express the full range of their opinions. My original premise has been confirmed: there is a taboo against the very idea of complaining about anything relating to motherhood. Not, as it turned out, that there is nothing legitimate to complain about, but, it appears, because complaining about motherhood is a subversive and destabilizing act.

Because if mothers complain, what next? Next they will be demanding flextime and maternity benefits, equal help from men, and reform of the medical system. I am glad to say that that taboo is gradually lifting. Misconceptions is part of a wave of books and articles, fiction and nonfiction, even a documentary, that dare to show the shadows as well as the light in the image and reality of motherhood.

Some critics have been concerned that the women here illustrate majority, not minority experiences. To that charge I plead guilty. I wanted to assess the experience of birth and family life that most women in America would have. In our country, eighty percent of women call themselves middle class. Ninety-eight percent give birth in hospitals; eighty percent have medical insurance. I did indeed piece together my aggregate of birth experiences from this core group. I should have been clearer that this was my intention. The births of women who are not in a hospital or who are not insured are different enough from the mainstream experience that the subject requires another approach and another book. Similarly, some have objected to the fact that most of the new parents I look at in Misconceptions are men and women in a marriage. I look at men and women in marriage, with a new baby, not because I want to slight lesbian mothers, single mothers or teen mothers, but because I want to write about men and women in relationship with one another, to look at new mothers and fathers in families and how their gender, when a new baby comes, can wrench them apart. The issues facing lesbian couples, single mothers, and teen mothers may be even more complex, but I respect the diversity of women too much to shoehorn very diverse situations into one argument; these families, too, deserve a book of their own.

What has changed since Misconceptions was published? In the wave of all these new voices, we have begun a long-overdue conversation, in which we can tell a bit more truth than we used to feel was permissible. Has there been wholesale reform of the medical complex that drives US women into terrible births? No, just as wholesale reform did not attend exposés by Ina May Gaskin or Jessica Mitford, or, more recently, by Henci Goer or T. H. Strong or Sheila Kitzinger. Some of my critics wondered why I didn’t educate myself, but in forty-eight states you still can’t find anything substantive about the record of your hospital or your doctor. You still can’t get the decent information you deserve about a specific hospital or doctor’s amnio outcome rates, C-section rates, epidural rates, episiotomy rates, or about your midwife’s decision-making power in relation to her OB, or about the duration of labor you will be allowed by the hospital’s protocols. The data is concealed; it is not available to you as it was not available to me, even though I consistently asked for it. If you don’t live in Massachusetts or Hawaii, good luck finding the C-section rate of your hospital on the Web. Those who charge that you can “just take responsibility for your outcome!” are in a state of denial about what is, in effect, a conspiracy of obfuscation and concealment. It serves the powerful AMA very well, and keeps pregnant women disempowered.

But Misconceptions has had one very concrete effect. As I have heard from word of mouth as well as numerous letters and e-mails, readers of this book have sometimes mid-pregnancy-been moved to change care providers. Many have fled to birth centers and independent midwives, or learned what questions to ask a prospective OB to get a clearer sense of whether they will be treated with dignity during their child’s birth. I hope that they have had better, happier births than they otherwise would have. I have also heard that women and men have been inspired to prepare a better support system for the postpartum time, as well as to lower expectations of themselves (“I realized I shouldn’t expect to be superwoman!” is a classic remark) and to talk through and negotiate in advance the kinds of things that can be a stumbling block after the baby arrives.

One change is perhaps the most important one of all, because of the many thousands of lives it could help if it takes flight. There is a list in this book—a “motherhood agenda.” Critics—notably The New York Times—dismissed this as pie-in-the-sky list making for a world of supports for mothers that will never arrive. I am proud to say that in September 2002, a mothers’ lobby, called MOTHERS for Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights, was founded with just such an agenda in its sights. Thousands of moms have signed on, and they are up and running. Thus we can hold our leaders’ feet to the fire for what mothers, fathers and babies really need; and together, we moms can change the world.

Reading Group Guide

Bestselling author of The Beauty Myth

"Ultimately, Misconceptions offers the possibility of a freer, more compassionate road to parenthood for women and men." —Peggy Orenstein, author of Flux

The introduction, discussion questions, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf's demystifying take on motherhood and childbirth.

1. Our nation has the highest postpartum depression rate in the developed world. Some people might argue that the rate is a direct result of our equally high rate of C-sections, while others might wonder if the rate stems from better reporting, or from doctors being more willing to make the diagnosis. On the other hand, many doctors are perhaps too willing to lump postpartum symptoms, whatever their cause or most appropriate treatment, under one convenient (and conveniently dismissable) umbrella. Discuss this and other instances you might know about, examining how a diagnosis of postpartum depression, or the condition itself, affected you or people you know. Why do you suppose the incidence is so high in this country, and so much lower in others?

2. “It was one thing to experience a loss of self in a prefeminist culture that at least assigned a positive status to motherhood… it is very different to lose a part of one’s very sense of self to motherhood in a world that often seems to have little time, patience, or appreciation for motherhood.” (page 8) Discuss this assertion in light of Wolf’s claim that motherhood has been sentimentalized in our culture. Explore the ways in which a charming, rosy picture of pregnancy and parenthood might trivialize this challenging experience. End your discussion with a quick look at maternity clothes.

3. Wolf writes touchingly and persuasively of the loss of self experienced by women who bear children. Considering that the notion of “self” is itself culturally flexible, try to define “self” as Wolf might define it, and take a look at how the author’s own definition of the term shifted over the course of her pregnancy and new motherhood.

4. Part of what makes this book so worthwhile is the author’s keen insight into aspects of her readers’ lives, aspects that readers themselves might overlook or take for granted. One such insight has to do with the “fatalism” Wolf felt upon purchasing a pregnancy test, fatalism being “something that people in my cohort scarcely ever feel—a sense of events moving beyond one’s control.” (page 15) While some readers might be of similar cohort, others might be more accustomed to the spin of the unexpected, the unalterable press of forces outside their control. Describe what you feel must mark the biggest difference between the two sets of people. What is it that most assures that one person’s life might be free of fatalism while another person’s life seems to depend on it?

5. Discuss the “will and longing” that Wolf feels played a role in her conception while on birth control, and on the conceptions of other women, many hitherto infertile, whose stories are included in this book. (page 16) Would you be more inclined to ascribe such events to the “dark,” “medieval” undertow marking Wolf’s appreciation for the mysterious aspects of our being, or to physiological, scientific phenomena not yet entirely understood? Clearly, Wolf herself entertains both views, holding the light of folklore to the light of the scientific, and vice versa. Where do you stand? How do you choose to make sense of the things that spook you?

6. Describing the “absent-faced, white-coated” staff in the “bowels” of the “vast, squat” facility where she went for her sonogram, Wolf indulges any writer’s instinct to select a vocabulary that will advance her messages and themes (for starters, decode the “blond concoction” worn by the technician.) (page 27) Now find other passages in MISCONCEPTIONS where such skills are most apparent, and take a minute to assess the influence on you.

7. “Something irrational happened,” Wolf writes, “a lifetime’s orientation toward maternal...over fetal rights lurched out of kilter.” (page 28) Discuss the several shifts in her political thinking that accompanied Wolf’s pregnancy, and describe similar shifts that may have accompanied yours if you have ever been pregnant. Do you consider such shifts to constitute a loss of self? Why? Why not?

8. Wolf is one of our most articulate and philosophical thinkers on issues concerning women. Yet not until she herself was pregnant did she begin to feel that it was “brutal to be content with a feminism that was content to fit into [a] traditionally masculine definition of accomplishment.” And as she readily attests, only then did she realize that “true revolution would come about only when we demanded that the world conform to our needs as women.” (page 121) What does this tell us about the prospects for the child care system in America?

9. Pregnancy, birth, motherhood—not only are such topics lightning rods of controversy and debate, but they are conceived of differently by members of various cultures. What’s more, an individual is likely to have conflicting, sometimes contradictory feelings about these subjects at various times in her or his life. Therefore it is to be expected that any book or work of art about pregnancy and motherhood might contain ambiguities, placing one sentiment in unlikely juxtaposition with another, or entertaining what might look like mutually exclusive ideas. Do you find such ambiguities at play in Misconceptions? If so, did they increase or decrease the author’s credibility? In what way do they serve the integrity of her work?

10. Test your memory of the facts and theories presented in Misconceptions:
-Name two labor practices that Wolf feels increase the likelihood of a C-section.
-Why do hospitals insist on the use of fetal monitors even when such monitors have been shown to have no conclusive benefit?
-What’s the difference between “arrested labor” in the eyes of a hospital and in those of a midwife?
-Exactly what is an epidural and what does it accomplish?
-Describe a typical hospital labor as it occurs in the U.K.
-What is an episiotomy and why do hospitals encourage them?
-Some C-sections save women’s and babies’ lives, but some are medically unnecessary. What are the risks presented by C-sections?
-According to the proponents of natural childbirth, what causes the pain of childbirth?

11. Even prior to labor, some women actively elect to have C-sections. For what reasons do you imagine a woman might make such a decision?

12. In Wolf’s estimation many forces, chief among them the medical establishment, the insurance industry, and the legal industry, unite in urging women to go through labor quickly and “efficiently.” What are some of the other institutions that you feel exercise significant influence, undue or otherwise, on women in labor?

13. American doctors have “medicalized” normal delivery processes while labor classes have prepared women for what hospitals promote as “routine intervention,” Wolf convincingly observes. Might it be said that American medicine treats death in a similar fashion, applying uncalled-for technology to that phase of our lives as well? Have we been conditioned to expect “routine intervention” whenever we find ourselves in a hospital? How does this differ from what you know of medical practices in other cultures?

14. “Most birthing and postnatal care settings...leave out the womanliness in the woman.” (page 196) Discuss.

15. Wolf’s insight into the inadequacies of most playgrounds is an eye-opener for those of us who take for granted such inadequacies without bothering to question or challenge them. What should the ideal playground include? Now imagine a gift shop for babies and new mothers stocked by Naomi Wolf. List some of the merchandise, keeping in mind the quote from above.

16. How do you suppose your grandmother would react to this book?

17. How might things be different if men were the ones to bear children?

18. After she and her husband became parents, “a shocking gentleness engulfed us,” Wolf writes, describing how it felt to become a member of the cult of unconditional love. (page 142) Note that gentleness is not often called “shocking,” nor is it considered to “engulf.” Wolf’s use of phrases like these helps us all to understand the nature of a feeling that might otherwise go unnamed. Discuss the “shocking gentleness” of parenthood as you know it.

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