After having kids you start to see your friends in a few different camps. There are the friends who don’t relate at all to parenthood, and don’t seem interested in it, and when you hang out you talk about other things. They tend to like every Instagram you post that isn’t of your baby. I don’t mind this — I like having this type of friends. Then there are the friends, usually old friends, who are interested and squeal-y about your kid because he’s your kid, because they know you well and it’s funny to see your face on a baby.
Then there’s a third group — friends or acquaintances, usually the same age or a few years younger, usually in a long-term relationship but not always. They don’t have kids (they might not even be sure they want kids), but they are gripped by the question and the possibility. I was one of those people: the “baby-curious” people. These friends will comment enthusiastically on each baby photo. They will ask you about your birth plan, or if your kid has reached certain milestones. “Are you going to keep your placenta?” they wonder. “Are you going to do baby-led weaning?” “Cloth diapers?” “Cry it out?” They focus on the things they’ve read online late at night, but what baby-curious people really want to know is this: Is it worth it? Will it ruin my life? Will it fix my life? Will it make me happy? Will it break me? Will it make me want to run away?
The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes, and I think they are all very legitimate. We should be asking them all the time and without shame! Rather than discussing what type of produce represents your fetus each week of pregnancy, perhaps we should be immersing ourselves in a sort of deep spiritual exploration, a parental existentialism. You can figure out your sleep philosophy if you need to later. But to let the question of parenthood sit on the horizon, just waiting to shake up your life? To try to pretend you don’t care? To not think about it, to “be chill,” to avoid the subject and focus on anything else and say that you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it, if you come to it? I felt the same pressure, too, to treat a huge thing like it’s nothing, and I am declaring it ridiculous.
And like all big life questions, the best way I know to grapple with the baby question is to read about it. And watch Netflix documentaries. And read the entire internet. Here are some recommended starting places, for those of you so inclined.
Getting a Life, short stories by Helen Simpson
Afraid your life will turn into a quietly devastating domestic drama, one in which you cuttingly narrate the slow diminishment of your relationship, your dignity, your figure, but none of your sense of humor, your ambition, your rage? Have I got the book for you! These short stories set in and around London feature brilliant, stymied, loving, desperate women in fucked-up, complicated relationships. Read this book and know that to strive and to flail are totally standard. Tell yourself, “This won’t be me, I won’t let it happen,” and if it does anyway, at least feel known.
Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman
You may be familiar with this book, a memoir that spent months (years?) on the best-seller list and has been referenced in nearly every article on “parenting styles” since it was published in 2012. Druckerman is an American expat in Paris who, as the subtitle explains, “Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” and brings back the good news. The wisdom of French parenting being more or less, “If you make a schedule, draw strict boundaries, expect your child to act like a tiny adult, and expect yourself to be the same person, everything will be okay!” It’s a very quick and entertaining read, one I recommend downloading to your phone and using to reassure yourself you won’t turn out like a character in a Ferrante novel. Once you actually have the baby you’ll be like, LOL. But never mind that, focus on the possibilities! You’ll only breast-feed every four hours! You’ll wear high heels to the playground! Your toddler will make you yogurt cake!
Nine Months, a novel by Paula Bomer
Paula Bomer’s writing is dark, sharp, and hilarious (in other words: I am here for it). In this novel, her narrator is a Brooklyn mom and thwarted artist who is just dragging herself back to personhood when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant again. Cue nightmare. What follows is every (many?) mother’s escape fantasy: The main character drains her savings account, throws out the car seats and her cell phone at a rest stop, and spends most of her pregnancy on a solo road trip, sitting on a hemorrhoid pillow, trying to figure out, or remember, who the hell she is. If you fear that embedding yourself in family life will make you want to run away, then this book is sort of a thrilling reminder that if you REALLY wanted to, you could. And if you fear that motherhood will make you any less of a complicated, candid, frustrated, bold human being, look no further!
Babies, directed by Thomas Balmès
This French-made documentary follows the first year of a baby’s life in four very different places: Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. There is no narration; it’s literally 80 minutes of a camera trained on babies, watching them live their baby lives. They cry, they eat, they … sit there, they crawl, they explore, their parents move in and out of the picture. I imagine this film would be a good thing to watch high, or maybe hung-over. It’s oddly soothing, and depending on how much wonder and awe you have at the ready, either boring or fascinating (much like early parenthood). The experience is a little like standing for too long in front of an exhibit at the zoo, if the exhibit were a sweet little bourgeois San Francisco baby, fussing over errant strings on her banana (the most haunting scene of the entire doc). Parenting-wise, the reassuring takeaway is that babies can crawl around yurts in the mud unsupervised and still be pretty much fine.
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
Everyone reacts differently to their own particular hormones and pregnancy circumstances, but to have life gather itself together inside of me in a way I couldn’t control or at least monitor constantly left me panicked. I was all too aware of the fragility of life, that we were all going to die, that I was at risk of losing everyone I loved at any moment, etc., etc. I was poised for tragedy at every turn. My answer to this was to read about it.
Reading Elizabeth McCracken’s beautiful memoir about losing her son to stillbirth — and coping with it, and then having another baby, and all the emotional and intellectual stuff that comes with that — is incredible. McCracken is a National Book Award winner and a Guggenheim recipient; lady can write. If you want to face your anxieties head on, with grace and compassion but no sugarcoating, then bear witness to this thing that probably won’t happen but does happen (in the U.S., the rate for stillbirth is 1 out of 160 pregnancies) and read this book. It’s hard and sad and scary but real.
Labor Day, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon
The birth story is one of my very favorite internet genres. There is a built-in story arc, complete with the rising action of labor, the conflict and then climax of getting the baby out, and characters who leave the story changed. It’s high stakes, it’s fraught, there’s plot, there’s cultural baggage — when written well, it’s the perfect setup. Obviously, the quality is all over the map but I don’t read many without crying.
This anthology of “true birth stories by today’s best women’s writers” (accurate!) lets you read all about how women like Cheryl Strayed, Heidi Julavits, Edan Lepucki, and Lauren Groff lived through this wild, emotional bodily experience. Reading birth stories won’t tell you much about parenthood itself, but when thinking about making the leap, it’s a reasonable point of fixation.
Though you may not have had the occasion or excuse to search for it yet, there are many childbirths available for your viewing pleasure/horror on YouTube. If there is something pathos-laden featuring bodily horror on the internet, I will certainly consume it, so I won’t deign to recommend you avoid these. But I will warn that — should you try to hide by sitting in the other room in the dark and watching with your headphones on — you will still give yourself away when the baby’s head begins to crown and you let out little involuntary yelps and screams.
Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives, a documentary directed by Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore
This documentary is a great introduction to the midwife among midwives, the famous Ina May Gaskin, and the history of her midwifery practice — which still exists on what’s left of “the Farm,” a hippie commune in Tennessee, started in the ‘70s. The film features plenty of radiant couples in braids and beards, channeling strength and vulnerability, women kissing their husbands while in extreme pain as Ina May reminds them to focus on “opening” and sends them off on walks in the woods to overcome emotional blocks and have orgasmic births and so on. It’s amazing.
After you watch the movie, you will probably be curious about the books. I had Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth on my nightstand throughout pregnancy, and found it very soothing — dare I say “empowering”? This and her other book, Spiritual Midwifery, share story after story of women giving birth in uncomplicated, joyful ways. There are also some great black-and-white photos of, like, baby heads sticking out of hippie vaginas that you can group text to your friends.
“The Longest Shortest Time,” podcast hosted by Hillary Frank
And if you’re imagining a birth experience that looks nothing like the naked ladies in Ina May, may I direct you to this very smart podcast, “The Longest Shortest Time.” It has weekly episodes (they go up at 3 a.m. for those of us up in the middle of the night) that feel like group therapy for new parents, in the best way. The general theme of the podcast and the growing internet community that’s come out of it (my favorite/only mom group on Facebook) is something like, “How to be happy human people in the world who are also parents raising small children whom we love?” The ultimate question!
Episode 28, in which Hillary more or less confronts Ina May about the way the natural-childbirth movement made her feel even worse about her less-than-ideal birth experience, was my intro to the podcast. Nearly every other episode I’ve listened to has me sitting down for a second so I can sob quietly — but in a good way! They just did an episode called “Should I Have Kids?” which is smart, compassionate, and not judgmental.
Make no mistake, everything gets tidily resolved by the end of the hour of this BBC/PBS drama, and I am obsessed. Get a sort-of education on East London in the 1950s, and remember that women used to have babies in their beds while their husbands ran around town looking for a phone booth. In its four seasons the show has cycled through every complication imaginable, but in the end everything turns out okay. Babies get switched, but then switched back. A baby dies, but there is a surprise twin. It’s like a television show that flips through your brain’s Rolodex of Bad Things That Could Happen and resolves them one by one. Through the magic of historical fiction, you can even give your limbic system a workout over (mostly) defunct complications: polio! illegal abortion! workhouses! “Ah thank God things are so much better now.” But are they, etc. The show plays all of the drama out for you neatly, written just well enough that it’s not distracting but not so well it’s genuinely troubling. It’s a cozy PBS drama about the reproductive health of poor women and there are nuns on bicycles and secret lesbians and great accents, plus there are a few births per episode that show just enough fluids and yelling to make you feel like the portrayals are realistic. *hands slimy baby to sweaty mom* Cue tears.
People with kids love to allude to the hellish chaos that is the first few months of parenthood with a trailing-off, sinister laugh, but it’s rare to see it truly captured. Anne Lamott was single and 35, already an accomplished writer, when she got pregnant, and she details the physical, logistical reality of the newborn days and the year that follows with humor and grace and terrifying accuracy.
A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk
This memoir was a bit of a scandal when it was published in 2001, and many people find they can’t relate to the darkness, or aren’t in a place where they want to, which I totally understand. That said, when I think about this book, I tend to imagine it in a halo of light with angels singing all around, and while I wouldn’t give it to a pregnant woman unless she has a dark streak, I would recommend it to anyone feeling mired in parenthood and guilty about it. In an interview last year, writer Jenny Offill called it “a secret handshake among new mothers.” It captures the emotional fallout — the isolation, the struggle with identity, the day-to-day tedium — painfully well. If you don’t think you want to have kids, this is a great way to validate your decision (lol?) and feel some empathy for your friends who do go that route.
These two novels have been like life rafts to me. They’re both written in the first person, and feature new mothers whose equilibrium is totally fucked. They both are struggling with their work, their relationships, their new life, and are more or less trying to put themselves back together after the storm. It is a great relief to read these experiences, fictional or no, by brilliant women who have clearly been emboldened by the experience of motherhood. Broken, in certain ways, too. Albert’s Ari has a little more slow-burning rage, and she veers a little more political, while Offill’s nameless narrator skews more to the unmoored. Both are scarily incisive, and will make you want a drink, make you feel hopeful, make you want either to not have kids or to have them and then hide away so you can think it all through. Both books go a long way toward destroying the image of mother as overly sentimental, put together, self-immolating. Thank God.
“The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” Cheryl Strayed
This Dear Sugar advice column ran on the Rumpus in 2011, and I’ve thought about it so much since then that I forget it started outside of my brain. Strayed, now famously the author of the memoir Wild, also a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, has two kids, the first of which she decided to have at age 34, without really knowing if it was the “right” thing to do. That there is no real right thing, especially when it comes to the baby question, is as frustrating as it is comforting (if not more so), but it is true. If you want to have a baby, have one. It will be wonderful and hard. If you don’t want one, I envy you and the life you might live, hard and wonderful, too, I’m sure. If you don’t know, read this column, I guess, and think about your parallel lives.