The other night, my daughter and I were curled up in my bed reading The Story of the Root Children. This is a picture book from the early 20th century (the author, Sybille Von Olfers, was born in 1881 and lived to just 1916). At 9 years old, this book is well below her reading-level, but the story is magical and thus we keep coming back to it as a reminder of the changing seasons and the life that breathes underground even after everything is frozen. These moments are pretty rare, now that she’s capable of reading books like The Cursed Child on her own, and so when she brought me that book to read even though it was long past her bedtime, I happily obliged.
When my daughter was tiny, I read to her often. There were books everywhere, mostly cardboard, and I made it my mission to teach her from the moment she could talk that words had power, that words appeared on pages alongside pictures, that she could speak them and understand them and share them. We started with the alphabet so that she would learn to recognize the individual letters. We moved on to simple words, like “cat,” and I hoped she would recognize its image even if she couldn’t sound out the letters by themselves yet. Favorite books included Goodnight Gorilla, That’s Not My Pirate, and all of Eric Carle’s infamous stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Grouchy Ladybug. Another story that I loved (and still love) is The Legend of Sleeping Bear; the first time I read that aloud I sobbed through the ending. My heart swelled with pride when she began to imitate my reading aloud. Eventually, her performance turned to actual comprehension, and soon enough, she was reading on her own.
I got pregnant when I was just 21 years old. While some people are married and settled down at that age, I was most certainly not, and as a young woman (who looked even younger than I was), people seemed to think I was absolutely clueless. Maybe they felt pity toward my green Starbucks apron stretched over my growing belly, my messy hair pulled back to expose my stretched ears. I did have one customer bring me diapers and a gift card, a gesture of kindness (not pity) that I will always remember. If you have ever been pregnant, you’ll sympathize with my plight: everyone had advice to share, especially book recommendations. What to Expect When You’re Expecting is practically the pregnancy Bible, and it was shoved into my arms with great excitement. I politely declined, however, and as my pregnancy continued, my heart filled with vitriol toward the entire maternal health care system in our country.
Despite what most people may have seen, or thought, when they saw me, I was not entirely naive. Sure, I had all the wisdom that 21 brings (which isn’t much compared to what I know now in my thirties), but I also had community. Ever since dial-up internet was a thing, I had found places for myself online, a means of connecting with others who shared aspects of my own identity. I embraced email, forums, and blogging. At that time, I was an avid Livejournal user, and had joined a due date community for women who were expecting in July of 2007. Livejournal works similarly to Reddit, in that you can participate in communities, but it is different in that you also maintain a blog of your own that can be customized, like Tumblr. You can also create a profile where interests function like tags, and you can build a friends list of people you follow, and people who follow you back. Like Facebook, your Livejournal posts could be set to public or private. Though I had started out seeing an OB-GYN for prenatal care, frustration with that provider led me to consider the nurse-midwives through Planned Parenthood, who I saw until 33 weeks into my pregnancy. At that point, thanks to research I had done through Livejournal and a post with photos of a homebirth in an apartment, I switched care to a homebirth midwife and a doula. Naturally, this decision was met with criticism, but I felt confident that the information I had gathered online was sufficient and proceeded with my plans to give birth in my own living room.
Through the connections I had made online, I also discovered a different library of books about pregnancy and raising children. Ina May Gaskin became my new literary hero, with books like Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and Spiritual Midwifery. While What to Expect When You’re Expecting covers various questions about nutrition and safety, as well as a traditional hospital birth experience, it felt sterile compared to the vibrant storytelling in Ina May’s books. Perhaps most important, Ina May’s books had pictures of actual women in actual labor birthing their actual children. No staged or hand-drawn images there. And that, ultimately, was what prepared me for what I was about to endure. I needed to see what it looked like, and I needed to hear from other women who had been through it. I didn’t need to be told not to eat soft-serve ice cream or soft cheeses, I didn’t need any more seeds of fear planted in my already-anxious mind. I needed honesty, I needed something raw, I needed to be intimately aware of what my body was experiencing. I needed some real noise to drown out the monotonous drone of medicalized, procedural birth.
I realize I sound like a bit of a radical here. I don’t have any qualms with hospital births, and I think in some cases, medical intervention is absolutely necessary. This was true for me – after my daughter was born, at home, in my living room, I went to the hospital for stitches. She was a big baby, but she was born healthy and strong. I do believe that hospital births can be positive and autonomous, especially with the help of a doula, but that wasn’t the path I took at that time.
I also realize that my title may be a bit misleading: I did, in fact, read while pregnant. I read often. I read as much as I could get my hands on. But I read intentionally. I chose not to read most of the mainstream literature because it didn’t feel right. It made me feel shame, for being pregnant without a marriage and a stable job. It made me feel as if my body had been taken over by not just another being, but by an institution, and I wanted to push back against that. I suppose I am thankful for the naivety I had at that time, because I truly believed I could do anything. The books I read and the online communities I belonged to during my pregnancy were some of the most formative experiences I had as a new mother. They helped me come into my own as a woman, and shaped the values I carry with me today, as the parent of a now-4th grader. Both books and online spaces are prioritized in our home as a means for connection, for communication, and for acquiring knowledge. I hope that my daughter realizes this, and is able to pass it along to her own family (be it blood or otherwise) someday.