Becoming a mother is like crossing a great divide. You spend nine months in a bubble of your own making—sights and sounds seep through, but faintly, as if nothing could be as real as the rumbles and gestures emerging from your very person. The body is talking to you, insistently, nauseously, hungrily, giddily, alerting you to its needs and rhythms, all but blocking out the workaday world. And then one day, birthday, you hit the wall and you’re on the other side of the looking glass again. Stunned and exhausted, you watch your childless friends carry on with their hectic lives while you move in slo-mo, a butterfly caught in honey. You wait for your old life to reclaim you, to suck you into its lockstep. And you struggle with the words to explain the strange expedition you’ve just been on.
As Carole Maso writes in The Room Lit by Roses, pregnancy is “most people’s only contact with the sublime.” A novelist whose oeuvre (The Art Lover, Defiance) brims with drama and epiphany, Maso gives us a beautiful and surprising guided tour of creation.
Maso dandles language on her lap: amniotic means lamb in Latin, she tells us, and “placenta in Latin means cake.” Explicit descriptions of the birth process tend to freak out even the most thick-skinned of characters—just try mentioning mucous plug, amniotic fluid, or leaky breasts in a crowded room—but Maso perceives pregnancy as anything but icky. Turning biology and chemistry into poetry, she celebrates every microscopic development (“Stretched out she might fit on a thumbnail now. I like to think of her stretched out and floating in there on a little raft”) and begins to grow emotionally attached:
The cells multiply, the code is passed, and she is made. When the four-day-old cell cluster arrives in the womb, it is made up of three dozen cells. Closely packed together they are known as morula—from the Latin for mulberry. My beautiful mulberry girl.
A woman over 40, a writer who has always pushed ideas of motherhood aside in favor of her work, a lesbian whose partner of 20 years has prayed for a baby, Maso voraciously watches over this pregnancy. She refuses to take the “miracle of conception” as a truism, stripping away the cliché until only wonder remains. “And so it is possible to say,” she writes on Day 33, “when asked what have you been doing—made two human feet today.”
Like The Room Lit by Roses, poet Lia Purpura’s pregnancy journal, Increase, fashions gestation as a (pregnant) pause, conducive to deeply interior thinking. The complex activity beneath the skin, the fatigue and exhilaration, force Purpura to slow down, and the diary format allows her to trace every micromoment as it unfolds. “Stay in,” she writes. “I want to keep you as close as thought. . . . I have come to know you in your silence, hidden behind this heavy curtain I am.”
Purpura has a metaphysical bent, but her prose can seem dense and overwritten compared to Maso’s. An exhaustive description of exhaustion starts out promisingly: it was “so profound, so narcotic, that surveying my thickening body, it seemed to bypass that larger mass and go to work directly on the brain, sending from an isolated control station an all-points bulletin of torpor.” But hundreds of words later, Purpura has provided more than anyone could want to know of her tired bones. Maso’s wry sense of humor keeps Roses free of such leaden, self-important moments. Of the scarf suggested on her labor supply list, she wisecracks, “Doubt very much I am going to wear a scarf around my head during labor. The last thing I want . . . is to look like David Foster Wallace.”
Buried within both books are admissions of enormous ambivalence. For even the most independent women, motherhood still carries the threat of subjugation. Purpura writes that feminism taught her “never to say . . . that by becoming pregnant I was partaking in a primal event. . . . The notion of my body as the site of a primal event could be used against me, I was told. As could any intrinsic quality ascribed to women: intuitive powers, earth-motherhood. . . . ” Maso’s concerns are phrased in a more dramatic way: “Have I subverted myself after all in typical feminine fashion and at the most crucial and last moment?” Her joy at being enceinte is troubled by memories of her own oft pregnant mother, who “always seemed to me exhausted, burdened.” Coming to terms with the violent, irreversible change she is making in her life, Maso realizes that she is keeping a journal “to have a record of the person I was before she [the baby] ever existed.”
Pregnancy inspires feelings of reverence, disgust, pity, awe, and fear not just in the woman who carries the load but in outsiders too. Pregnant Pictures, by Sandra Matthews and Laura Wexler, tackles our discomfort with the myths and realities of the gestating body from a visual perspective. Illustrated with a wonderful range of images—from photos by Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, and Joel-Peter Witkin to family snapshots to pictures from medical journals, maternity clothing catalogs, and glossy magazines—the book surveys the many ways pregnant bodies are portrayed: propaganda tool, grotesquerie, goddess, spectacle, receptacle, icon.
The accompanying text, though sometimes dry and academic, skillfully unravels the hidden politics behind the imagery. For instance, the Depression-era photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration portrayed poor rural pregnant women as “noble but anxious” in order to “increase the public’s willingness to support [Roosevelt’s] social service programs.” (FSA photographers Lange and Arthur Rothstein both altered the composition of photographs “to show fewer children” and so garner more sympathy from the average taxpayer.)
Some of the most fascinating sections of Pregnant Pictures depict the collision of public and private spheres in the pregnant body. As the technology for visualizing life inside the womb improved, the mother became a backdrop for the real superstar: the fledgling fetus. Pregnant Pictures traces the cultural changes—from mother as passive baby-machine (one fantastic image from a ’50s instructional manual shows women identically clad in white underwear, their identities obscured for propriety by identical white masks) to mom as post-feminist bombshell. The 1991 Vanity Fair featuring a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover, which was sold throughout the U.S. in a plain white wrapper, inspired a flood of copycat photos and cleared the way for such ur-moms as Cindy Crawford and Madonna to shake their bare bellies in public without shame. An article by Julian Dibbell in the current issue of Artbyte about the proliferation of online preggo porn suggests that the unveiling of the pregnant body is progressing apace.
It may be OK (even profitable!) to put your babyfied body on show these days, but pregnancy is still a mystery to most. When spoken of at all, it’s more likely to be discussed in the most superficial and practical terms: the sorry state of maternity wear, the length of the labor, or the dreary aftermath that requires extra hours at the gym. All three of these books provide a glimpse into a hidden world and offer intelligent meditations on this culturally loaded experience, which lifts women off the plane of mundane existence in a way few other life experiences can—it is a nine-month-long event both sublime and profoundly physical.
The eerie, Cronenberg-esque physical effects of pregnancy—often played down by the modern woman at pains to reassure the world that she is in control—are described in the two journals with varying degrees of astonishment and nonchalance. “One came as a pressure, another as jostlings, like being pummeled from within,” writes Purpura of some pre-birth pains. “I remember thinking Is that my spleen the child’s found? I remember his foot wedged under my rib: impossible to bend forward.”
In the end, Maso’s self-portrait best captures the tangle of awe and freakishness that is the pregnant woman: “We are two hearts, four arms, four legs, two brains, four eyes in one body. . . . I don’t know how I’m supposed to walk around and go to school and eat like an ordinary person. As if I were not strange enough already—now, this eight-chambered heart.”