Childbirth is sometimes treated like a specialty interest for women, like ceramics or cross country skiing. You know the contours, vaguely, but you wouldn't seek out information unless you were thinking about doing the thing yourself. Obviously, when it comes to motherhood, this is deeply dumb: Someone gave birth to each of us, probably while in a lot of pain.
I didn't realize how little I knew about it until I read Meaghan O'Connell's wry, brutal And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, which catalogues the fear and anxiety of pregnancy, the agony of the birth itself, the c-section scar, the sore nipples, the exhaustion, and the months of "rolling around in the human condition."
"We were in the middle of what felt like an ongoing emergency. Like someone was playing a practical joke on us," O'Connell writes. "Endure the car crash of childbirth then, without sleeping, use your broken body to keep your tiny, fragile, precious, heartbreaking, mortal child alive. Rock, sway, bounce, pace, sing, hum — [my husband] Dustin did anything to keep him from crying but it always came back to me, my swollen breasts, nipples scabbed over, milk dripping everywhere and the baby flailing."
For O'Connell, love is mixed with constant fear: "[W]ith every sleepless night, the world [became] full of sharper and sharper edges ... anything seemed possible. Any horrible thing." She and her husband didn't just create a life: "We created a death."
O'Connell is also writing against the persistent tropes of motherhood: "Who wanted to be a mother, anyway? A mom is a relationship, not an individual ... Moms nag. Moms are stressed out. I know it's all internalized misogyny and guilt and bad public policy but I still can't really get around it."
She details, too, the unrelenting toll on her body: "My entire middle section ... looked like a balloon that had been deflated but also, somehow, was full of wet dough ... It bore no resemblance to any version of myself I'd ever seen." Her milk comes down as she tries to work: "It was like needing to pee emotionally." And her sex life withers: "Sex struck me as not just repugnant but quaint — the province of naive people who had too much time on their hands. People who didn't have children."
So much of pregnancy language is euphemisms about paths and journeys, flowers and rivers. O'Connell thinks that obscuring the reality only serves to make women feel guilty for suffering: "What if," when talking about giving birth, "instead of worrying about scaring women, we told them the truth?" O'Connell asks. "What if we treated women like thinking adults?"
The memoir industry runs increasingly on the unique, the superhuman, and the grotesque. People climb mountains, escape kidnappers, visit heaven and report back. But And Now We Have Everything shows how the most normal thing in the world — having an ordinary, healthy baby after an ordinary, healthy pregnancy — means being visited with all possible extremes of pain, fear, and love. O'Connell renders this normal and horrific experience real, in both emotional sweep and brutal particulars. The questions she asks is simple: What is it like? And this joyous, useful, grim book tells it straight: "F****** awful."