03 Jul

Book Review: Life After Birth, by Kate Figes

Kate Figes seems to make a living writing about how awful things are. According to her, birth is awful, and motherhood is awful, and if you haven’t done either of these things yet, this book is pretty certain to put you right off. Reading it during pregnancy would be an extremely bad idea.

In keeping with the genre, Figes presents her rationale, which is that motherhood is difficult and lonely and nobody tells you that beforehand. Here she is in good company; Rachel Cusk‘s slightly depressing motherhood memoir comes to mind. In fact so many authors have written about how nobody tells you how awful motherhood is, that I’m starting to suspect that it might not be true.

Despite the age (2000) of my edition, Life After Birth sets out the context with an explanation which remains topical today, explaining how birth has become so safe for women, that the focus is now almost exclusively on the wellbeing of the baby (see our review of Optimal Care in Childbirth for the bang-up-to-date, academic version of this). However, in a tone of thin sarcasm, most of the book delves into all the things it is possible for a mother to do wrong, and presents motherhood as unfeminist and slightly idiotic.

On the front cover, a quote from The Times describes Life After Birth as a manual; but it would be disingenuous to describe this as a manual, since nowhere does it contain suggestions, strategies or support for the wide range of unpleasant experiences she describes. What comes across is a series of rather peevish attempts to justify her own feelings and decisions; for example in her attempt to debunk the well-evidenced attachment theory on page 63, and her language when referring to authors with whom she clearly disagrees, namely Deborah Jackson (“Leaving a child to cry himself back to sleep apparently teaches him to be resigned to his impotence” – my emphasis – p.117) and Sheila Kitzinger, who “believes” that certain babies are more likely to have sleep problems (p.119). It’s a shame she doesn’t adopt this same circumspect tone when advocating homeopathy to aid recovery from a Caesarean birth, on page 32.

Each chapter contains enough references to give the impression of academic authority, and these hang together with a long string of generalisations and personal anecdotes, rendering the whole thing fairly meaningless. For example, pregnant women “are unlikely to have close friends who are also pregnant.” (p.143) and “Women on the other hand find themselves suddenly defenceless and dependent on a man they may not altogether trust.” (p.145).

Reading this makes me feel sad for whatever complex awfulness this woman went through in her relationships when she became a mother, but it is hard to identify with much in this book, even having been on my own rollercoaster of motherhood only a few years ago. Naomi Stadlen shows that it is possible to be honest and realistic about motherhood without painting an entirely bleak picture. As for Kate Figes, the positive aspects of motherhood finally get a whole paragraph on the last page, but I’m afraid these fears of “being labelled ‘selfish,’ ‘immature’ or ‘not fit to be a mother,'” (p.245) are far from universal, and if these are your fears, this is not the book to help resolve them.