Seattle author Angela Garbes takes on pregnancy culture in her new book, “Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy,” from the hierarchy of the “natural” birth to the relative risk of drinking a glass of wine.
What can you really expect when you’re expecting? Upbeat lectures on doing the best for your baby. Tips and tricks! Weekly updates comparing the fetus to a poppy seed/grape/lime/pineapple.
There’s a deeper hunger out there, as Angela Garbes found, to know what’s really happening in the “vast, internal world” of mother and child.
The Seattle food and culture reporter got a taste of that when she wrote about breast-feeding for The Stranger, composing a poignant blend of research and wonder that included nutrition and immunology and notable phrases like “gluteal-femoral fat, aka our butts.”
The article from the new mom went viral, becoming the most-read in the paper’s history. That led to a broader new book: “Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy” (Harper Collins, $24.99).
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It’s eye-opening because pregnancy is so disorienting, all-encompassing but transitory, one of the rare new stages the body encounters as an adult (assuming you’ve escaped serious illness). Then it ends so dramatically there’s no time to process its physical and emotional wallop — and as for that wallop, Garbes nails it when she writes that “pregnancy brings about the birth of not one but two new beings.”
During her own first pregnancy, overwhelmed by well-meaning but nuance-free best-sellers, she found comfort in a graphic novel titled “Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent In Drag.” As a butch lesbian, author A.K. Summers led a vastly different life, but offered an emotional undercurrent Garbes’ own “leaky, weary” self could appreciate.
If Garbes has goals to change that pregnancy culture in America, a big one is that more mothers of all types might feel cared for, and fewer will feel alone.
“I would love for people to read this book, for mothers to read this and think, ‘I’m not the only person who’s going through this or feeling this,’ ” Garbes said from the Beacon Hill home she shares with husband Will, 3-year-old daughter Noli and newborn Ligaya.
Beyond that, “I certainly want people to learn. But I also want people to have their perspective expanded slightly.”
Both pregnancy and research enlarged her own perspective considerably, leaving her with two children and one book — a very personal mix of memoir and investigation including miscarriage, the relative risk of drinking a glass of wine, “microchimeric” fetal cells, parenting roles and placentas (the one that joined her to Noli was, post-birth, steamed lightly in a Dutch oven lined with fresh ginger, lemons and sliced jalapeños).
“I think of (the book) as work that is hugely driven by my own curiosity, and by the lack of information that was easily available to satisfy that curiosity,” Garbes said. “The science is out there, but it’s in labs, it’s in journals, it’s in institutions. But it’s just not out in the public the way I think it should be.”
The science is sublime. I especially appreciated, oddly, learning how much we still don’t know about the high-stakes path to parenthood. But what got me was Garbes’ regard for mothers as people in their own right, rather than the hosts or self-sacrificing caregivers they’re conditioned to be.
“When I was writing this book, I kept thinking, ‘Who gets left out?’ Women are always left out of the conversation, nonwhite women even more so,” she said.
As a food writer, Garbes had sought out smaller categories of under-the-radar people, chronicling a family dinner of whole fried catfish and a Seattle-wide search for Laotian pork sausage, skewering the lazy phrase “Asian fusion” and introducing the city’s leading black chefs.
The focus fit in with her own history.
“Because I’m brown, because I’m Filipina, because my parents are immigrants and I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania that was mostly white, I learned pretty early on that we were different …” she said.
“But I didn’t shrink away from who I was, I just sort of grew into it.”
Before taking on a job at The Stranger she had actually quit writing professionally, enrolling instead in a graduate program in public health.
“The goal was to work with immigrant communities and help them come up with diets that were culturally appropriate but also healthy.”
That science background helped focus her lens on bodily issues beyond eating, to ask why men’s torn knee ligaments get treated more aggressively than women’s pelvic-floor injuries, to consider how new parents might be similar to the clawless crustaceans known as slipper lobsters. But it took her own experiences to see that “It was never my body’s job to be perfect, just to keep me alive. I did not fully understand this until it was also what kept someone else alive.”
Noli was born by C-section after a difficult and dangerous labor, giving Garbes firsthand opinions on the strange hierarchies society suggests for “natural” births.
“The baby comes out of your body. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Does it matter, really, how?” she said.
Yet she understands the sting of bodies that don’t always operate as hoped or expected. And in a book of 231 pages that covered semi-graphic sex, postpartum poop, children’s genitalia, and spraying breast milk, her reaction to that core issue might have struck me the most:
“Hating my body remains a waste of time. At some point, just for the purpose of survival, I chose, deliberately, to focus on all the things my body did right, what it did so well on my behalf. Everything it tried to do.”
Strange how radical such words feel, and how right.
Angela Garbes will speak with Lindy West at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, at The Summit on Pike, 420 E Pike St., Seattle; Cost: $5; https://townhallseattle.org/event/angela-garbes-with-lindy-west