What To Read When You’re Expecting

A young mother-to-be finds wisdom—and friendship—in books.

I was the first among my friends to get pregnant, with an unplanned but much-desired baby, and I felt, or suspected, that I was living out a sort of naïve fantasy. I felt like I was in a race against time, with the countdown beginning as soon as I peed on a stick. I had only nine months to figure out what I was getting into. Nine months to consume as much media as possible to prepare myself for the great unknown.

I got a stack of the usual aspirational advice books—What To Expect, Dr. Sears, Ina May—and tried to buttress myself with knowledge. Months into this project, brimming with statistics and medical terminology, I felt no better; an expert, sure, but still terrified, still staring off the edge of a cliff.

I admitted this to a friend, and she wrote back: “Whatever you do, do not read Dept. of Speculation.” I closed my laptop and walked out the door and to the bookstore to buy it, furious with the idea that she might be enjoying, recreationally, the sort of knowledge that I needed to integrate into my understanding of the world. I knew motherhood would by default be a sentimental education. What I needed first was an existential one.

I read the book that same day. Then I read an interview with Jenny Offill, where she recommended Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, and all the attendant internet warnings about how bleak it was. It was exactly what I needed, I figured. I only had a few more months to rid myself of delusions. Let the scales fall from my eyes. I special-ordered it from the bookstore. I gathered books like these around me as if for nourishment. The darker the better, I thought, imagining all the things that were being kept from me. Helen Simpson. Sylvia Plath. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. The Still Point of the Turning World. Far From the Tree.

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Reading these books was like having the conversation I wished I could have been having with other mothers, but I didn’t know any. These books, those authors—Rachel Cusk, Paula Bomer, Elisa Albert, Adrienne Rich, the list goes on and on—were a simulacra for the thing I longed for: that moment in conversation, especially with someone you’ve just meant, when things really start getting somewhere. When, after enough nervous chatter, the tenor shifts into something more candid. “Real.” One of you steps out on a limb, cautiously, keeping watch on the face of the other, to make sure they’re game. “Oh, we’re doing this, okay,” I usually think, on the rare occasion I’m not the one who gets there first. We sit up straighter, both of us, and then lean forward over the table, fidgeting with straws and silverware but coming alive with the thrill of conspiracy.

Sometimes I’m certain that the book versions of this type of conversation are the only books I want to read. There needn’t be the same wildly specific glint of recognition. I am more thinking about the part where someone ventures out on a limb, saying what previously felt unsayable, whether because it was too vulnerable or improper or just inarticulable. And then, whether the reader can relate or not, they feel forgiven, in a way. For being human.

Sometimes I think, why else would you read, much less write?

Then I had my son, and despite my existential education, I felt like I was drowning in cognitive dissonance, in unmet expectations, in the despair of the unsayable. I thought back to the dark mom books I’d read and felt a sort of grace, but still the frustrating alienation. From myself as much as anyone. Whether it was true or not, I felt like I had no one I could lean over the table to in corroboration; I felt like I didn’t have the ability to take that first step. No one to stir their drink and, stabbing at the ice, say everything was hard and sometimes she wondered if she’d made a huge mistake. No one to be scared with. No courage to be the one to say it: What have we done?

Only through sneaking away from the baby to write could I step out on my limb and articulate what needed articulating—at first to myself, and then later to other people—could I find a way to, it felt like, rejoin the world.

It took a while, and it took my writing through it, but soon these conversations started happening again. Women in baby-and-me yoga, other parents I connected to online, friends-of-friends I was blessedly introduced to—I found myself falling into intimate conversation with near-strangers all the time. We would drop so quickly, and with such urgency, into a shared confession. What we shared with each other was unlike anything I read, and so starkly different than what passed for casual, acceptable conversation. Hating your partner, pissing yourself, hyper-vigilance, engorgement, self-hatred, exhaustion.

The answer to “why no one talks about this” is fairly obvious to me. No one wants to be the weak one, the petulant brat, the naïve fool, inept, indulgent, selfish—there’s a list of adjectives we inflict on each other in the service of the status quo that’s just as long as its counterpart of praise (honest, brave, relatable).

The risk of being accused of these things when you first step out on the limb, whether it’s in conversation or in writing, is one so many of us would rather sidestep. Having been there, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to sidestep. I will say though, while I’m over here, talking shit with my people, that the risk starts to feel really small when you’ve felt the rewards firsthand. On the other side of risking foolishness, you’ll find art, relief, friendship, intimacy. Never has conversation between women—gossip, you might call it, or maybe literature—felt more like salvation.

Featured Image: Matt McCarty; Author Photo: Kelly Searle



MEAGHAN O’CONNELL‘s writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Longreads, and The Billfold, where she was an editor. She is the author of And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband and young son.

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