Book review: Wolf's 'Misconceptions' is whiny, disjointed

  • Article by: Katy Read
  • Star Tribune
  • September 15, 2001 - 11:00 PM

It sounds like Naomi Wolf had a miserable time becoming a mother. She encountered brusque doctors, nosy strangers, patronizing guidebooks. She labored in a cramped, fluorescent-lit delivery room, was subjected to medical procedures she'd hoped to avoid and finally was wheeled, panicky and confused, into a chilly operating room where her baby was delivered by Caesarean section. Later, as a new mom, Wolf suffered depression, boredom, isolation and the contempt of a society that undervalues the work that mothers do.

'Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood' is filled with vivid descriptions of the indignities, slights and outrages that can accompany childbirth, most of which Wolf seems to have endured personally. Her book is sprinkled with valid points that many moms would be glad to see expressed.

So it's too bad that Wolf's presentation of them is so disjointed, skewed and, well, whiny.

In her bestselling first book, 'The Beauty Myth,' Wolf wasn't content just to criticize the culture (in that case, for its overemphasis on women's looks), but went further, envisioning an improbable conspiracy designed to keep women in their place.

Here, too, she suggests that something sinister is afoot. Teachers in childbirth classes pretend to give helpful information but harbor 'a hidden agenda' to promote invasive medical procedures. Labor pain is among taboo topics that women 'intuit they must not speak out loud in our culture' -- leaving first-timers surprised, supposedly, to discover that childbirth hurts. Overly rosy images of motherhood are a plot 'to keep women from thinking clearly and negotiating forcefully about what they need ... to mother well.'

Her tone implies she's blowing the lid off something, but too often Wolf comes off sounding self-centered and petulant. It's one thing to argue that American obstetricians perform too many C-sections -- another to accuse them vaguely of not doing enough to 'nurture and value pregnant women,' as though they form one insensitive monolith.

'It would make sense that the happiness of pregnant women should be of paramount importance in the medical care given them,' Wolf writes. 'Yet hospitals and doctors (not to mention policy makers) seem to ignore or downplay the possibility that the mother's state of mind is important in determining the medical outcome of a birth.'

More substantive complaints are undermined by evidence so one-sided that it compromises what might be sound arguments. Obstetricians aren't allowed to make their own case. They appear in 'Misconceptions' only when they're being rude to Wolf, their patient -- as when her first doctor, a woman with 'perfectly coifed suburban hair,' curtly dismisses Wolf's questions about C-section rates and episiotomies.

Midwives, on the other hand, are granted plenty of space and unquestioned authority. Wolf's doctors told her she had the C-section because she was experiencing 'arrested labor,' but Wolf quotes a midwife hooting that 'there is no such thing.' We're supposed to accept on faith that midwives know best.

Maybe they do. But 'Misconceptions' might fail to convince skeptics. 'The context in which you gave birth was not a context you could trust,' another tells Wolf. 'My goal as a midwife is to create a context you can trust.' If only Wolf, as a writer, had done the same.

-- Katy Read writes for Family Money, Real Simple, Parents and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis.

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