Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Third World Green Daddy 70: Postscript (and postmortem) on pregnant reading

A big part of what motivated me to write my last Third World Green Daddy blog post on what I've been reading during my wife's pregnancy was another book that I didn't mention in the blog.  It's called "Expecting", by Gordon Churchwell, and is about a man's experience of his wife's pregnancy.  I also picked it up at my office's "library", which is a bookshelf where people leave books they're finished with and don't want to keep.  I thought it would be yet another way of really getting into the moment of my wife's pregnancy.

The book started out mildly entertaining, but not quite what I was hoping it would be.  The author is by his own admission a self-absorbed consumer living a yuppie life in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  So a lot of the themes he touches on seem less universal and relatable, as one man reading another's experience of manhood and pregnancy, and more the idiosyncratic whinings of someone very much defined by his rarified, hard-to-relate, super-bourgeois New York City context.  He and his male friends seem universally peeved to be distracted from their professional and leisure pastimes (art, corporate achievement, long-distance biking, etc.), and thus see their gestating babies as a threat to their high-income, low-responsibility lifestyle.  They are pissed off at their wives, who are all self-absorbed uber-mommies, living every cliche to a T as they lose all interest in life outside of their own uterus.  Very little of this was relatable to me--I mean, if you really don't want a baby, just don't have one.  It's no big deal.  The attitude that most resonated with me was a pithy, throwaway (but well-executed) description of a proverbial Mexican peasant family:
Peasants in Mexico don't think like this.  Pregnant!  Happy!  Celebrate!  Another baby?  We'll have four sleeping in our bed instead of three.  We'll feed them.  We'll work harder.  We'll make more tortillas.  They have a very different attitude about life.  Children are treasures.
Aside from the condescending and racist overtones of this characterization, I found myself much more on the same page as these peasants, not as the hypereducated "East Coast liberal" caricatures that seem to actually populate the reality the author lives in.  Frankly I think a bit of benign neglect, both toward their own self-image and pastimes, as well as toward their future kids, who will surely become yet another manifestation of their self-absorbed way of living, would do well for all of these parents-to-be.

Throughout the book, Churchwell calls for more recognition of and assignment of a male role during pregnancy and childbirth.  I can get on board with this in theory, but the author just keeps whining about not being the center of attention, at the same time as he doesn't evince much actual interest in the pregnancy in the first place.  So it's really not a good-faith call for more active male recognition coupled with more active male involvement in pregnancy.  He's wanting to get, but not willing to give.  It's more like when white folks complain about being marginalized when people of color mention any of their own concerns.  You know, life just sometimes isn't all about you.  I have to say I never went through this feeling of resentment toward my wife and kid, though I admittedly was not surrounded by self-righteous, self-centered, neurotic people as the author seems to have been.

To me, a practical man as Churchwell claims to be would get involved in the practical logistics of choosing a hospital, weighing different childbirth options, stocking up on diapers and strollers and bottles and all the other accoutrements of childrearing.  This is a role that a man is perfectly capable of fulfilling, and at least for me it made me feel a "part" of the pregnancy.  Or if he were into art, he could make art for the baby, or play music for it in utero.  Just make a role for yourself, and do it.  However, in the hyper-analyzed world that the author lives in, maybe you can never be satisfied with your role, because you end up simply consuming stereotyped roles for everything you do, or analytically criticizing those very stereotyped roles.  For instance, Churchwell speaks of fathers' going to prenatal visits as if it's some sort of virtue signaling, a declaration of being "with-it".  But can't you just be interested and concerned about the progress and health of your fetus, without trying to either fulfill or defy some pre-defined stereotype?  Again, doing this type of stuff would seem to offer precisely what Churchwell wants--a way for a detail-oriented, technologically and scientifically astute, assertive man's man to contribute his strong points to the pregnancy.

Lastly, Churchwell has a latent derision and misogyny underlying everything he writes.  He is scornful and disgusted by how his wife looks and acts, and his first instinct is always to dismiss the concerns of pregnant women or their advocates.  I assume he's trying to come off as witty and iconoclastic, but it comes off like when white supremacist internet trolls try to be daring by saying racist things.  In the end you aren't being witty or daring, or challenging the politically correct status quo.  You're just contributing yourself now to a shitty, oppressive state of affairs that you are too self-absorbed to even realize exists.  The author speaks with reverential deference toward an idealized, objective scientific establishment whenever a specific medical procedure is in question, and has difficulty understanding what the big deal is about episiotomy and things like that.  He begrudgingly comes to understand the concerns of those who would question some of the obstetrical status quo, but only after the evidence becomes insurmountable for him.  Otherwise, he can't fathom why someone (female) might not want people probing them with metal implements or slicing their 'taint with a razor.   These concerns all seem pretty straightforward to me, without much need for cerebral equivocating.

By the end of the book he sort of comes around.  On the one hand, Churchwell offers some fascinating and well-researched histories of medicine and childbirth, as well as an in-depth exploration of the (circa 2000) latest research on the physiological changes that take place in men and women during pregnancy and parenthood.  Seemingly aided by this, Churchwell gets more interested in his wife's pregnancy by the seventh month or so, and takes on a less self-centered voice.  So I ended the book on a positive note, appreciating his exploration of how having and raising children changes us profoundly, not only emotionally and mentally, but even with an endocrine, physiological basis underpinning it all.

In researching this blog post, I learned that Mr. Churchwell died shortly after his book was published.  This made me waver on even writing the post.  I don't want to disparage the dead, and the more I thought about my response to the book's mediocre early passages, the more I thought it probably wasn't even worth critiquing.  Then I found an article about his ex-wife, who found out that he had been carrying on multiple affairs while they were married.  This confirmed for me that I might be on to something with my detection of a certain self-centered misogyny in Churchwell's work, and that it might indeed be worthwhile to comment on it.  Indeed, it made me wonder as I read that what seemed to be such a frank, tell-all account of his life was really hiding a huge part of who he was, the same part he successfully hid from his wife and daughter until his death.  I can relate to this--not the unfaithfulness part, but the way in which whatever we write or share of ourselves is inherently an incomplete picture of our entirety.

But again, the real clincher for me is that Churchwell redeems himself in the end, both as a writer and a father, by getting beyond his initial pettiness and egotism and exploring some truly universal themes of how parenthood changes both men and women from the people they were before.

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