Culture & Conversation Maternity and Birthing

In ‘Like a Mother,’ a Truly Feminist Pregnancy Book for the Nerd in You

Carrie Murphy

Author Angela Garbes has a way with the odd scientific facts about pregnancy, but ultimately wants you to know that you're still yourself while gestating or parenting.

Being pregnant in America can feel like a minefield. People navigating the social, cultural, and medical aspects of pregnancy find conflicting information, confusing advice, and pressure when making decisions about care. Guides to pregnancy, too, can be heavily biased and judgmental: on the “best” ways to bond, to give birth, to feed, to nurture. I’ve been a doula for the past six years, so I’ve read literally dozens of books related to pregnancy and birthand finally, I feel I’ve found one that’s truly feminist.

Angela Garbes’ Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, released last month from HarperCollins, is the evidence-based, open-minded book that U.S. pregnancy culture needs. Frustrated by the lack of intelligent guides to pregnancy and increasingly fascinated by what she was learning about the biological aspects of parenthood (check out her viral 2015 article about the mind-blowing properties of breast milk), the mother of two and former food writer set out to write the book she wished she had when pregnant and as a new mother.

As such, the book is full of compassionate advice and delightfully strange, fascinating scientific facts. Who knew about the “wondrous and gruesome” way the placenta infiltrates the body and the beautiful process of microchimerism (in which fetal cells, even those of fetuses that aren’t carried to term, can inhabit parental bodies for a lifetime)?

Like A Mother is an accessible and rigorously researched book that provides information to parents on everything from miscarriage to postpartum recovery—with no agenda or moral slanting. So often in our culture, pregnancy, birthing, and mothering options are limited and coerced. Sometimes this is through the medical system itself (such as when people cannot access legitimate medical options, such as vaginal birth after cesarean). Sometimes it’s through ideology and social judgment, which run rampant at baby showers and on curated social media feeds. In this fraught climate, Garbes’ book is a true feminist accomplishment that puts trust and agency back with women and parents.

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Rewire.News spoke with Garbes about her book’s blend of personal experience and research, the need for feminist policy in the United States and real inclusion of women of color, and why pregnant people should trust themselves.

Rewire.News: One of the things that most impressed me about Like A Mother was how you were able to use your personal experiences to frame the research and evidence without ever being preachy. That’s such an accomplishment in today’s parenting culture, which feels rife with this idea of “This is how I did things, so you should too!” or cherry-picking evidence to justify needs or choices. How did you decide to make the book a blend of the personal and the evidence-based? How did you ultimately balance it?

Angela Garbes: I never set out to write something that was solely about my experience. The book was never intended to be a memoir and it was never intended to be a book that is like, “This is a vision of birth.” The way I saw my personal experience was that it was less important that everyone knew my story [which includes experiences with miscarriage, abortion, a cesarean birth, and extended breastfeeding]. It was more that I felt that my experience could be an emotional access point for people. So even if their experience is different from mine, they could identify with the feeling or relate.

I always wanted it to be a resource to people because that’s what I wanted for myself when I was pregnant. A lot of people think that the traditional pregnancy guidebooks are valuable in their own way, but many of us are like, “OK, I’m going to a little bit suspend my critical mind because this is all there is.” But often, even if it’s not a book that speaks to us directly, we read it anyway. That experience of separating myself and pressing pause on the way I would normally read any book, that didn’t sit right with me. And so I thought, “Well there’s got to be another way to do this. There have to be people who want some of the things that I want, who think these books are lacking the same things.” That’s how I approached it.

Rewire.News: I appreciated that Like A Mother never felt like “I’m the expert, and this is my interpretation, and so this is what you should do.” Your book sort of seems to be saying, “Here’s the info, make a good decision for you, I trust you.”

AG: It has to be acknowledged that in many instances it’s hard to trust yourself. Sometimes that can be a huge challenge, but I want people to feel like they can when they are pregnant. The difficulty in trusting yourself is that we, as people, want simple answers. But the truth is so much harder to talk about. The truth is that there are no easy answers. What’s going on inside of you is one of the most complex, transformative things that’s going to happen to you in your life. So if someone’s trying to give you the simplest answer, it’s not a lie exactly. But it’s not the whole truth.

Rewire.News: Today’s climate around mothering, particularly around pregnancy and birth, can be fear-based and infantilizing. I think that ultimately this limits people’s choices and agency and makes the experience much harder in a myriad of ways. Why do people feel like they’re losing their autonomy when pregnant, or that they aren’t entitled to agency around these choices and decisions? How can we get to a culture of respect and acceptance of autonomy around reproduction?

AG: I believe storytelling is really powerful—it’s very powerful when you feel that you can tell the truth about your experience. That can be really transformative and radical. And I think, truly, that we see stories about pregnancy and birth as niche because women’s stories are generally devalued. They’re seen as “motherhood lit” or “chick lit” or whatever.

But actually—pregnancy and birth are universal. Everyone’s been born. This is life and death, basic stuff. I think if we created more room for those stories, a little more room for people to share and to have our understanding of pregnancy and motherhood be wider, more nuanced, more inclusive, I think it begins there.

Policy is the other part of it. To give family leave, to make sure that maternity care is guaranteed—which I also see as including abortion access. Female reproductive health, to cover that completely, is key. And we’re so, so far from that.

Rewire.News: There is now pressure for paid family leave, there is new attention on maternal mortality (especially regarding racial disparities) and understanding that these issues are truly part of reproductive justice. How do you think feminism could get even more inclusive of these issues that have to do with access to care—not only care, but true choices in care—as well as advocating for better social support for families?

AG: We’ve made a lot of progress, but I think there’s a level of reflection that needs to happen in the feminist movement, which is “OK, who has the mic right now?” The main beneficiaries of feminism have been white women. Any progress for women is great, but now, it’s just smart (along with being right) to include more diverse voices. Women of color should be making decisions. We need women in positions of power. Tammy Duckworth, in 2018, is the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. I mean, that’s wild. That says a lot about why we don’t have family-friendly policies in this country—who’s been making the decisions. And this is far from my experience, but we should also be including people who are not within the gender binary. That’s the sort of feminism that I think is important.

Rewire.News: Your book also addresses urgent issues of racial disparities in access and treatment, as well as discrimination in maternity care, access to postpartum care, and more. Do you see any progress in that area?

AG: You can’t ignore the fact that Serena Williams, the greatest athlete of our time, a celebrity and millionaire who has access to the best care, almost died after giving birth because her health-care providers didn’t listen to her. So I think, yes, we are making progress, but we still have so far to go.

If you look at just representations of breastfeeding in popular culture, for example, it’s almost always a white woman. I feel hopeful, but I definitely am not delusional. Personally, I have really good health care, I have a wonderful doctor, and it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not always certain that I’m being seen fully for who I am in health care, as a Filipina. It was really important for me to have a doula who was a woman of color for my first pregnancy, and it was so difficult to find one. I live in Seattle where there’s lots of doulas, and it was still really difficult to find someone.

Rewire.News: What do you hope pregnant people will take away from Like A Mother?

AG: I would tell pregnant people (and this is because this is the thing you’re going to come up against a lot), “Yes, your baby is important, but you are never any less important than the baby.” So as a pregnant person, you’re still yourself. The sublimation of the mother as the standard—I reject that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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