By Joanne Rendell
Web Exclusive - September 22, 2008
Over the last few years, the publishing industry has given birth to a new genre: mommy lit. Jennifer Weiner's Little Earthquakes, Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic and Baby, Jane Green's Babyville, Emily Giffin's Something Blue, and Risa Green's Notes from the Underbelly (to name a few) have arrived in bookstores with their glossy covers and tales of pregnancy and contemporary motherhood.
Whether the authors like it or not, their books have been given the moniker mommy lit—usually by reviewers who see such works as an offshoot of the 1990s' phenomenon, chick lit. Lizzie Skurnick made the connection clear in her New York Times article, "Chick Lit, the Sequel: Yummy Mummy". Skurnick argues in her piece that the new outcrop of mommy lit books take the 20-something heroines of chick lit past (think, Bridget Jones) and show them "settled down with Mr. Right" and swapping "their stilettos for Bugaboo strollers."
Such generalizations about the new genre are to be expected. After all, mommy lit's foremother chick lit was often stereotyped as shoe-obsessed, materialistic fluff. In her introduction to the polemically titled short story collection, This is Not Chick Lit, Elizabeth Merrick went as far as to say chick lit "numbs our senses" and "reduces the complexity of human experience."
It wasn't surprising that mommy lit would face similar attacks. It wasn't surprising either that these attacks are often ill-founded, just as they were with chick lit. Some chick lit did depict women buying shoes or "20-something singles" yearning for Mr. Right. However, not all chick lit did this. For example, one the most popular chick lit authors, Jennifer Weiner, debuted with Good in Bed, a book about a plus-sized heroine learning to live with and love her weight. Jane Green did something similar in her bestselling novel, Jemima J. Even Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary, often seen as the chick lit prototype, was not as one-dimensional as reviewers have sometimes made it out to be. The novel is a clever play on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, as well as an original and funny portrayal of life as a 30-something single woman.
In spite of the variations and richness of the genre, reviewers had fun stereotyping chick lit as vacuous fluff. Reviewers have had similar fun with mommy lit. Popular blogger, City Mama, boiled down the mommy lit formula to the following:
First, start with one thirty-something, Jewish or WASP, NY/NY area, former-high- powered-job-having mother. Add some meddling grandparents, a bitchy, non-child-having best friend, and a nice (usually slightly hippified) best friend.
Make sure two to three pages cover guilt mom feels for going back to work coupled with realization that dad does the stay-at-home-thing better.
[...] Make sure at least one page is devoted to describing the closet full of size six or eight designer clothes into which mom no longer fits.
Sometimes mommy lit books do indeed have these features. Jennifer Weiner's Little Earthquakes has a meddling mother-in-law and a character trying to juggle her high-powered career with new motherhood. In Notes from the Underbelly, Risa Green's protagonist has a bitchy best friend who is described as having "no life outside of work" and who doesn't understand "this obsessive need of everyone to procreate."
But mommy lit, at least in my reading of the genre, seems much more nuanced, rich, and varied than these depictions allow. There are stories of desperately trying to get pregnant (Babyville), stories of women loosing babies to SIDS (Little Earthquakes), stories about women getting pregnant with men who want nothing to do with them (Something Blue), or husbands cheating on wives who have just given birth (Little Earthquakes). Even Shopaholic and Baby, which is consciously and ironically more frivolous and materialistic, still deals with very real issues such as the insecurities women face during pregnancy.
To generalize about the kind of stories mommy lit tells is to be ill-informed. It is also another sign of the way books for, about, and by women are too often the object of ridicule or dismissed as escapist fluff.
However, this is not to say all is perfect with the genre. One unfortunate trend within mommy lit is the portrayal of childbirth, which in almost all cases is a highly medicalized affair. C-sections, fetal monitoring, epidurals, and obstetricians abound. And when natural birth is mentioned, it is nearly always portrayed as an option which never works or is the birthing choice of kooky celebrities.
Emily Giffin's Something Blue starts out with the line "I was born beautiful. A C-section baby, I started life out right by avoiding the misshapen head and battle scars that come with being forced through a birth canal. Instead, I emerged with a dainty nose, bow-shaped lips, and distinctive eyebrows." This perfect C-section-born baby becomes the stunning Darcy Rhone, the main character of the book, who ends up giving birth to twins and who describes being "downright euphoric" when she receives her epidural.
While Giffin's book starts with C-section story, Risa Green's Notes from the Underbelly (now a television series for ABC) ends with a perfectly healthy, low-risk protagonist going into hospital for her planned C-section. After reading about labor and delivery, the character felt "sick to her stomach" and the thought of her vagina being "all hangy and stretched out" was just too much to bear. Her doctor puts up little resistance when she suggests the planned C-section and agrees pretty quickly, "it's your body."
Weiner's Little Earthquakes follows three pregnant women. Becky is adamant she will have a natural birth. She claims to have read all the "natural, have-your-baby-at-home-or-in-a-nearby-field" books, yet she does not have a midwife lined up and the midwife option isn't even mentioned. Becky ends up having an emergency C-section. The two other women in Little Earthquakes both have very medicalized hospital births. One enjoys the "warmth and then the blessed numbness" of her epidural, while the other is traumatized by an "awful" delivery, which includes a nasty episiotomy and a blood transfusion.
In some of the mommy lit books which have come out of the UK, natural birth does get more of a mention than those in the US, however, the women who choose such a natural birthing plan are portrayed as wildly rich or celebrity crazies. Sue Margolis' Gucci Gucci Coo, for instance, describes the clients of a private natural birth clinic in London as a "megarich Kabbalah" who want to pay for "£10,000 birthing pools" and who hire "shamans (along with doulas) to be present at the birth." Such women also eat "their own placentas."
Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic and Baby presents natural birth in a similar way. When Becky Bloomwood, the heroine of Kinsella's Shopaholic series, becomes pregnant, she is desperate to employ Venetia Carter—a sought-after obstetrician whose celebrity clients give birth in pools strewn with lotus flowers. Carter turns out to be an ex of Becky's husband, and throughout the book, attempts to lure him away from their marriage. In Kinsella's book, natural birth is not just the domain of kooky celebrities with too much money; it's also peopled by wife-steeling birthing professionals!
Of course, both Kinsella and Margolis' books are tongue-in-cheek. But it's telling of our current birth zeitgeist that they choose to poke fun at the natural birth arena rather than the more medicalized domains of labor and delivery. Shopaholic and Baby ends with Becky rejecting the "bitch" Carter and having a hospital birth with a mainstream male obstetrician, whom her husband recommends, in attendance. Interestingly, in the final scenes of Gucci Gucci Coo a baby is born naturally outside of a hospital. In fact, this book offers the only non-medicalized birth I came across in the mommy lit books I reviewed. However, the birth happens in the middle of a busy terminal at Heathrow airport and is thus a traumatic, unplanned, and far from enviable event.
The predominance of medicalized birth in mommy lit is not really a surprise. As the recent documentary The Business of Being Born makes abundantly clear, medicalized birth is now the norm in our society. Even if the genre is simply reflecting what is going on in the mainstream, it is nevertheless unfortunate to see mommy lit either completely overlooking natural birth or poking fun at it.
Popular culture is not just a mirror, it also shapes who we are and how we decide to live. Mommy lit will no doubt be read by a whole slew of expectant moms and in many cases will have some impact on decisions they make about having their babies. I'd say it's time for some diversity in mommy lit's birth stories.
Joanne Rendell is the author of The Professors' Wives' Club (NAL/Penguin, Sept '08) - a novel which does contain a natural birth scene. Joanne's article, "A Homebirth with the Terminator" was a web exclusive on Mothering last year. Visit her website at www.joannerendell.com