There's been a lot of buzz lately about Angela Garbes' new book Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy — and rightfully so! It's a refreshing addition to the overcrowded market of pregnancy guides that guilt and prescribe and breed resentment. Lots of readers (parents and birth workers alike) apparently think so, too; Like a Mother currently has a 4.34 out of 5 rating on Goodreads, received a glowing review by DONA, and snagged Garbes an interview with NPR! Of course I had to check it out.
So, here's my breakdown of the best features and potential weaknesses of Like a Mother, including a brief exchange with the author herself:
My take on Like a Mother
First of all, I’m starting this relationship with Garbes on a great note. Why? This quote:
"When we don't know and appreciate our bodies — when we feel disconnected from their inherent cycles and rhythms — our power, rights, and choices are more easily taken away from us" (9-10).
And this one, too:
The goal for the book is immediately clear, and it's one I can wholeheartedly get behind. (If this quote doesn't light a fire in your heart, you might as well stop reading here.) Garbes' goal gets a million out of 5 from us. But a book cannot succeed on one good tribute quote alone, so I used the following criteria to judge the overall quality of Like a Mother.
Relatability and first-hand experience
Garbes' own experience of the transition to first-time parenthood, in all its reproductive and emotional complexity, is the driving force of the book, and she has a knack for making it both personal and nearly universal. She expertly weaves together her own reproductive journey with evidence, observations, and other forms of knowledge in a way that makes the reader feel seen and heard, even if they don't share Garbes' exact obstacles or choices. Some may criticize Like a Mother for relying solely on Garbes' experience rather than including a wide array of birthing people, but the depth she achieves because of this tradeoff is well worth it. She earns a 5 out of 5 here — you won't struggle to see yourself represented here, like you might in so many other books in this market.
Bonus points for her love of Pregnant Butch because, as you might remember, I am all about A.K. Summers and their raw visual exploration of pregnancy in a marginalized body. You'll have to read Like a Mother to see why Garbes appreciates this text, too!
The sources Garbes uses are diverse, up-to-date, and informative. She also chooses to draw from woman-identified people as much as possible, and provides solid critiques of evidence and practices that have excluded or oppressed vulnerable populations in healthcare. Her own background as a woman of color is clearly influential here, and the book is strong on discussions about health disparities, maternal mental health, and gaps in postpartum care. Even a birth worker can learn from this book because of the unique facts and perspectives that Garbes digs up. Her research, interpretation, and writing skills impressed me as a qualitative sociologist with a PhD, so she gets 5 out of 5.
Bonus points for her (evidence-based) love of doulas:
"While many nurses provide great care for their patients, favorable outcomes are higher when a [birthing person] is supported by someone [they] choose [themselves], and when that person reports to no one but [them]" (134).
Form and readability
This is where Garbes shines. Her goal with this book was to investigate questions that were left unanswered as she made her way through pregnancy and birth, so the book is oriented around a series of inquiries and their sometimes-unsatisfying but very important answers. She very artfully weaves evidence and experience together and makes research easily digestible. This isn't a pregnancy "how-to" book by any means — it's an exploration of her transition to parenthood told in a narratively interesting way. All the stars here.
This book is valuable for several reasons:
It challenges the current monopoly of white and masculine voices over birth stories, birth knowledge, and birth ritual. The voice Garbes brings is so, so important and needed — buy a copy of this book (if you can) to vote with your dollars for what type of content you want to see in this market (hint: this is the type you want to see, trust).
It empowers through education and to education. Garbes brings evidence and knowledge, but she also makes a key point that doulas practically have tattooed on our foreheads: empowered birth is based on informed consent. Garbes encourages pregnant people to learn their options and use their voices, which I am all about.
It opens conversations instead of shutting them down. It's not prescriptive, nor is it guilt-inducing or mother-shaming in its education. Garbes owns her experience and encourages readers to own theirs and, more importantly, to share theirs. (The volcano, remember?)
5 out of 5, would recommend to birth workers, current and future parents, marginalized people who are thinking of reproducing, and really anyone that wants to understand what doulas do and why we do it.
On placentas: most doulas wax poetic about this amazing organ (myself included), so seeing an entire chapter devoted to examining and appreciating their wonder makes me happy.
On breast/chest milk: another complex meditation on a unique and magical part of the human body. Garbes seems fair to those who can't or don't choose to nurse their children, but I would be interested in hearing from people with that experience before I really give too much praise here.
On pelvic floor health: I care about this a ton (obviously!) and Garbes doesn't disappoint in her exploration of this nifty little basket of organs and their big impact on a person's health and wellbeing.
On race: she draws frequently on her background as a woman of color and complicates the black/white binary that is often created when discussing race (especially around reproduction).
On sex after giving birth: a major #realtalk section where Garbes describes her emotional and physical responses to intimacy — breastmilk showers and all — in her changed body, mind, and spirit.
On body politics:
"Before I became pregnant, I had worked hard to love, or at least accept, my body. I had always suspected it was a little too round, dark, and much for this world, but by age thirty-six, I saw its beauty, appreciated its strength, learned to trust and listen to its particular thirsts and appetites" (172-73).
On motherhood more generally: the concluding chapter describes motherhood as "an unfolding," which is a beautiful way of holding space for the complexities of this major life transition.
One big caveat...
I disagree with Garbes on one major thing: language.
Although she discusses gender variance and LGBTQ+ family-building, she chooses to use gendered language (mother/woman) to refer to those birthing a child. I emailed her to ask if she would like to comment before I published this blog, and she wrote me back with enthusiasm that same day. Here's the full text of her response, for you to interpret as you'd like:
"Thanks for reaching out, and for spreading the word and enthusiasm for the book — really means the world to me. And thank you for this question — it's an important one and I appreciate the opportunity to address it: It was always important to me that I acknowledge and include gender diversity and a discussion of how people of all genders give birth. As a woman of color, I am personally aware of how mainstream feminism and conversations about pregnancy and parenting leave many of us out. So I couldn't write a feminist book on pregnancy that did not include people outside of the gender binary. But your criticism of my reliance on the words 'woman' and 'mother' is fair — and appreciated! Writing and publishing this book was a balancing act incorporating my perspective, the perspective of other parents and care providers, as well as the input of my publisher. As a writer, I know words have meaning and that the ones we use matter. While I am working to be more expansive and inclusive in my language (not just with gender, but also with terms such as 'pregnancy loss,' which I prefer to 'miscarriage,' as well as 'natural' childbirth, which is applicable to all birth!), I am always still learning — and trying to do better."
I am certainly grateful to Garbes for responding so politely and promptly to my inquiry, and am glad to have opened up a conversation about the importance of language. And, it turns out, I strongly agree with her about how we label things like "pregnancy loss" and unmedicated birth.
The only other weakness of the book is potentially its size. At around 230 pages of content, it's light compared to other books in the same market. This could be a bonus — many pregnancy books are hefty, dense tomes laden with statistic after statistic — but I found myself wanting more. Maybe Garbes still has some unanswered questions she would like to explore? I would run right out and buy her next book for certain!
Publication information: Garbes, Angela. 2018. Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy. New York: Harper Wave.
From Garbes' website:
I'm a writer based in Seattle, Washington, where I live with my family on Beacon Hill.
My book Like a Mother, essays exploring the emerging science and long-standing cultural myths of pregnancy and motherhood, was published by Harper Wave in May 2018.
I was the staff food writer at Seattle newsweekly The Stranger. I am available for freelance assignments and editing projects.