There’s an ocean of books, magazines and websites devoted to pregnancy but so many of them prey on the vulnerable first-time mother, instilling a sense of fear about every aspect of impending parenthood. That’s why Brigid McConville’s newly-published On Becoming a Mother feels like a gasp of fresh air after swimming underwater.
Many women have an irrational fear of infertility encouraged by media scaremongering, Clearblue fertility-testing products and all the writers and professionals who make a living out of telling us that we probably won’t be able to conceive. Not without their help, that is.
Once we’ve managed to overcome our anxieties (and actual, rational obstacles) and become pregnant, we’re told how to eat, dress, exercise, work, give birth… the list goes on.
And then after the birth the new mother will inevitably be inundated with advice and suggestions about how to look after her baby. She’ll be told whether or not to breastfeed, how to respond to her child’s cries, how to put the baby to bed.
This barrage of information removes us from the wholly natural process of conception, pregnancy, birth and early parenthood. It stands in the way of our instincts; persuading us to listen to everything but what our intuition is telling us.
As a director of the White Ribbon Alliance; a maternal health charity organisation working to secure safe births for women across the world, Brigid hears horrendous, heartbreaking stories about women dying – unnecessarily – in childbirth.
Her day-to-day job involves working to bring these numbers down and keep pregnant women and new mothers safe. But on this journey, she’s also been introduced to many different birthing customs practiced around the globe.
And so this is the premise of her book: sharing the positive, beautiful, intriguing side of pregnancy, birth and motherhood.
I read through the 272 pages last night in one sitting.
Made up of poems, anecdotes, descriptions of cultural customs, a letter to an unborn baby and tips from Brigid about yoga, meditation and how to enjoy pregnancy – the book is an homage to women. But most importantly: it is non-judgmental.
On Becoming a Mother was emotional to read, mostly because up until now I’ve heard so little about the magic and miracle of making and birthing a baby. For every one positive story, there are hundreds of negative stories – and unfortunately these are the ones that tend to stick.
In my first NCT class, we went around the circle sharing our anxieties about the next five weeks and what we might learn in the class. Every single woman said she was scared about the birth. Though I feel open-minded and excited (and, actually, not scared) it troubled me that everyone felt that way. And I’m sure it’s largely down to stories they’ve been told and books they’ve read. I’ve been very selective about who I’ve listened to and the books I’ve picked up for that very reason.
On Becoming a Mother isn’t scary. It’s enlightening, inspiring, educational and really quite beautiful. It’s given me so many new ideas about the birth – from the commonly-held belief that opening windows, untying knots and removing jewellery will help the flow of birth and prevent the umbilical cord getting caught around the baby’s neck (this makes perfect sense to me), to different positions to try during labour.
Also, stories about the way pregnant women are treated in other cultures fascinate me. They are cherished, even worshipped, and expected to rest and be looked after – often until 40 days after the birth. That is so far from how pregnant women in the UK are treated. Suited men on the tube avert their eyes so that they don’t have to give up their seats for pregnant women. We’re expected to work right up until the birth, and to go back soon after.
But then in the UK we have many antenatal and birth options that aren’t available to those women in other parts of the world. And these options make me feel safe. So, it seems, we can all learn something from each other.
I’m also reading Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés – about the wild spirit of females that has somehow become lost under domesticity and layers of expectations – and Brigid’s book compliments this perfectly.
I love this quote from Estés:
‘For some women, this vitalizing “taste of the wild” comes from pregnancy, during nursing their young, during the miracle of change in oneself as one raises a child, during attending to a love relationship as one would attend to a beloved garden’
And On Becoming a Mother is brimming with real-life stories about exactly that: the wild, natural process that leads from conception to parenthood.
So I hugely recommend both books to women who are fed up with being scared of their bodies and pregnancy and birth and parenthood and want, instead, to marvel at the magnificence of the female form.