It’s taken me awhile to review this book, which I received from the publisher over a month ago. It’s not one for speed reading; not a dip-in-and-out guide to pregnancy like the famous tome its title parodies. Things I didn’t expect when I was expecting is an engrossing, layer cake of a book. Each chapter offers slices of Dux’s personal experiences with pregnancy and birth alongside historical research, literary references and humorous anecdotes. It’s like the good old ‘box of chocolates’ – you never quite know what you’re going to get as each part of the story unfolds, but you’ll definitely find something you like.
Dux is a writer and social commentator whose first book – The Great Feminist Denial – unpacks popular debates around women’s rights and rhetoric. This book does a similar job on pregnancy, examining how something as natural and inevitable as the continuation of the species has become so loaded with politics and contrasting opinion that parents are at a loss as to how to get it ‘right’. Dux breaks the experience of pregnancy and birth into digestible chunks with evocative chapter titles like ‘Puke’, ‘Blokes’ and ‘Down There’. And if you thought Kaz Cooke was candid on matters of a medical nature, you ain’t read nothing yet; you’ll be drawing a map of Dux’s vagina by the end of her chapter on the unspoken impacts of childbirth on a lady’s nether regions. I found this candour confronting in some places, which only goes to show how censored and conservative we continue to be in terms of women’s health and women’s bodies. We are numb to bare boobs on TV, for example, but messy, lactating, breastfeeding boobs? A whole other story. So much writing on motherhood revolves around wistful observations of maternal wonder, or black-humoured self-deprecation. Dux takes a different angle asking how our social conditioning (over thousands of years) has gotten us to where we are today in our treatment of, and discourse around, pregnant women and mothers. It’s a colourful, confusing and contradictory ride!
Each chapter begins with stories from Dux’s own pregnancy experiences. The personal then becomes political as Dux sits subjects like breastfeeding, mothers groups, and the role of the father within historical contexts, reminding us that everything we now think of as normal or correct in a Western pregnancy and birth is only relative to the times we live in. You are probably aware that fathers have only routinely attended births in Australia since the ‘70s, for example – but I didn’t realise that even male doctors were prevented from attending births for most of history. How did obstetrics become such a male dominated field? You probably agree that it’s only right and proper for the modern father to participate in and support labour and birth. But this development is highly unusual and recent on a global scale – many other cultures see birth as a woman-centric process and there may even be some real benefits to women ‘owning’ the delivery of their own babies.
Historical context and an understanding of dominant discourses at a given time or place can take us much further than merely what did or didn’t happen in ‘the olden days’. The heated breast vs bottle debate, for example, is not entirely about what’s ‘best’ for a baby – but what working women could physically manage at different points in history [and I’m talking about medieval farm workers as much as modern corporate achievers] as well as the commercial influence of formula manufacturers. Throw into the mix notions of the ‘done thing’ [Dux is fascinating on the topic of wet nurses for the upper classes], biased research released in the vested interests of various parties, and the potent persuasive power of mother-guilt through the ages. It is fair to question how exactly we got from being supportive sisters to battling harridans throwing about terms like ‘mummy wars’ and ‘breast Nazis’? Turn your outrage towards the patriarchy, my friends, not each other!
Having said that, one thing I really enjoyed in this book is the deconstruction of the idea of the supportive sisterhood. We are lead to believe that, once upon a time, there was an all-loving, all-knowing ‘tribe’ surrounding the birth of a baby and that we’ve irreparably complicated life with all our modern what-nots. It’s true that women in the past may have had (or been allowed) more hands-on experience with birth and more direct access to breastfeeding or childrearing mentors – but do you think they weren’t still judging each other? We could drop in on any remote community or hop the Tardis back to some golden age and we’d still find women saying ‘She’s doing it all wrong’. Dux presents some amusing historical examples.
This book is packed with pop cultural references alongside the more weighty research; a recent example is the breastfeeding hoo-ha surrounding the book and TV series The Slap. It covers topics like ‘Down There’ with humour and graphic detail, and others like ‘Luck’ [tackling miscarriage and infertility] with honesty and sensitivity. Dux’s writing is lively and accessible – and even the parts I found irritating or disagreeable opened my eyes to different perspectives on issues and debates. These are topics I’ve read or heard about ONE MILLION times since having a baby and Dux gets a major back pat for writing something original in this domain.
What I didn’t expect when I was expecting is published by MUP, and I thank them for my review copy made available via NetGalley.