Reading, Reviews

Book Review: Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes

When I first saw my mother-in-law after telling her that I was pregnant again, she gave me a book. My in-laws are big givers of books, which I don’t dislike at all. This book was by a woman that she’d heard interviewed on NPR about a piece she wrote about the intricacies of breast milk, and is titled Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, by Angela Garbes. The author is a woman who had her first child at the age of 36 after suffering multiple losses, including one right before she got pregnant with her daughter, and while pregnant, spent a lot of time researching best practices for pregnancy and child-raising. She found that there is not only a lot of conflicting science, but cultural aspects of the investigation of that science. So she wrote a book about it.

First of all, I’m sure plenty of people have heard of Expecting Better, Emily Oster’s simultaneously controversial and lauded book about how pregnant women can drink alcohol if they want (it’s actually about learning how to make your own decisions in pregnancy, but for some reason, people mostly latch onto the alcohol thing). I read that book when we first decided to start trying for a baby and found it immensely informative (albeit not entirely so on the one topic that actually comes up every single day for me). But Garbes’ book isn’t about statistics or studies, really. Yes, she talks to some renowned experts on the subjects she covers, but ultimately, her aim is to place pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care in a broader cultural context.

Her book really speaks to me as someone who gets fascinated by a subject and wants to learn everything about it. Her treatment of breastfeeding and human milk shows this nuance. Plenty of sources are quick to point out that the concrete evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding tend to fall away when researchers attempt to correct for the confounding effects of socioeconomic status (i.e., a lot of affluent women breastfeed because they can take the career hit that it can cause, but their babies probably do better because they’ve been born to affluent women). But she goes deeper, investigating the actual research into the constituents of human milk itself and the mechanisms of breastfeeding that could have positive effects for a baby. She still completely acknowledges that modern formula is absolutely healthy and there isn’t any proof of the benefits of breastfeeding, but it’s interesting to see beyond studies of the overarching effects of breastfeeding on a baby.

She treats other topics similarly, from placentas to kegels. Through it all, the main thread is acknowledging that women are integral from this process, and yet their role sometimes gets ignored in favor of focusing all attention on how the baby is doing. When studying anything related to pregnancy, whether it’s induction or soft cheese, people tend to focus on how it will affect the baby, rather than looking at the whole picture. Garbes makes sure we keep in mind that the mother is a part of this, not just a vessel.

And this is so important. From her early chapters on loss to her later chapters on the transition she felt after bearing a live child, she stays connected to her own journey and changes as a proxy for the changes the reader might be feeling. I know that I have had some trouble struggling with the fact that, while my family and friends are largely supportive and excited, most of them are excited for the baby, and seem to see supporting me as tangential, especially when discussing plans for visiting after the birth. Interestingly, the ones who ask me the most about how I’m doing are the ones that have gone through this themselves, particularly the recent mothers.

On the other hand, while I’m still a person in my own right, I appreciated Garbes’ willingness to put into words the feelings of loss and rebuilding of identity that comes with pregnancy. Particularly as I near the end of my pregnancy, I’m starting to realize that just as our life will never be the same, I will also not be the same as a person.

So I think this book is a great read, particularly for someone currently pregnant. I actually found it interesting to read it multiple times during my pregnancy, the first time right near the beginning, and again as I neared delivery. While it provides some really interesting information, it is not primarily a “how to baby” book, but instead a seamless marriage of information, context, and personal narrative that helps the reader think about her own place as a mother in society.

NB: Links are non-affiliate and I haven’t been provided any incentive to review this book. All thoughts are my own.

Reviews, Trying to Conceive

Review: Circle + Bloom Natural Cycle Fertility Meditation Program

I’ve mentioned before that I used this meditation program while we were trying to conceive after my miscarriage last fall, but I’ve never sat down and written out my thoughts on the program. I thought I’d share that here.

I first started my meditation practice in college, over ten years ago, when a course I was in led me to join a local Zen Buddhist group. I maintained a semi-regular zazen practice from that time on, even meeting up with a couple Zen groups in the DC area after I left college and moved back for grad school. As a practitioner of zazen, I always kind of looked down on guided meditations, but when we first started trying to conceive, I found I was having trouble sleeping and turned to guided meditations on the Insight Timer app to help.

After my miscarriage, we spent a couple months trying in a more casual way, but after a few disappointing months, I was starting to find myself in an odd mental space. So I started looking into ways I could feel like I was taking control of the process. I started tracking fertility signs again, I found an acupuncturist, and I decided to try the Circle + Bloom meditation program. The program is normally $59 through the Circle + Bloom website, but I found it through this site for $34. It’s 29 recordings, one meditation per day for a 28-day cycle, plus one extra for right around ovulation. The Circle + Bloom website also offers a free fertility relaxation meditation so you can see the approximate format and quality of the meditations before paying for any of them. The free meditation is about a half an hour long, while the program meditations are 15-20 minutes each.

Each meditation starts with a guided relaxation. One of my favorite things about this program is that the guided relaxation was different each time. Throughout the 28-day program, it seemed like they cycled through about half a dozen different guided relaxation visualizations. One of my favorites was the visualization of a screen passing through your body, filtering out things that weren’t serving you, whether mental or physical. But I mostly enjoyed that I didn’t get too “used” to any one relaxation visualization as it was a different one each time. The relaxation was my favorite part of each meditation, as I really did feel totally relaxed. I tended to either lie down to listen to the meditation, or else recline in a comfortable chair or on the sofa. I usually covered myself with a blanket, at least loosely, especially if I was on the sofa and wanted to make sure my cat didn’t try to steal my earbud wires while I was meditating.

From there, each meditation is distinct, focusing on a new process in the body as you progress through the month. At the beginning, when you start out on Day 1, the program focuses on the hormones that are being produced in your brain to regulate your menstrual cycle, and later signal ovulation and other processes. I really liked these visualizations, as they gave me something concrete and even scientific to focus on each day, rather than some vague affirmation about my body. As the 28-day program goes on, you learn about how the different hormones effect different physical changes in the body, which I found fascinating.

Each meditation closes with a mental component of addressing something that could be affecting your emotional or mental health as you go through the month. These include general anxiety about the process of trying to conceive to feelings of closeness with your partner. It’s a nice way to close each meditation and left me feeling relaxed and hopeful. I found that I always felt better ending the meditation than I did before I started, and even found that the level of relaxation could help get rid of a mild headache or even mimic the effects of a nap when I was feeling tired that day. I didn’t always have time to do my meditation first thing in the morning, so it was nice to have the break in the middle of my work day, or even in the evening between work and rehearsal.

One thing to note about this program is that it is very obviously intended for people with no known health problems. It was great for me because the meditations encouraged you to think of your body and strong and capable, without any physical impediment to conception, but this seems like it could be a problem for anyone who knows they have a physical issue with fertility. They do offer separate meditation programs for people with PCOS or people using assisted reproductive technology, so perhaps those programs are more considerate of the fact that the “my body knows what to do” affirmation may not work for everyone.

Finally, the one thing I cannot speak to is how the program would work if I hadn’t conceived right away. I happened to conceive the first month I used the program, though I doubt it was because of the program. I don’t know how I would have felt to have gone through the visualizations of conception and implantation if I had ended up getting my period that month. I do know that the meditation helped me not obsess over conception during my two-week wait that month because it gave me a set time to meditate on my fertility, and then I was more easily able to let it go for the rest of my day. If you’ve tried this program and not conceived right away, I’d definitely welcome any comments about how you felt in the months when you didn’t conceive. I do feel like the program meditations are good at providing empowering visualizations without being judgmental about your body, so I don’t think I would have felt like I’d “failed” to visualize things well enough if it “hadn’t worked.”

All-in-all, I found this a thoroughly worthwhile purchase, even just for the one month. I considered purchasing the meditation program for pregnancy, but my inherent fear of another miscarriage made me nervous about buying anything for my pregnancy before I felt like I was “safe” and at this point, I’m nearly halfway through and it almost seems like a waste. But I do really enjoy Circle + Bloom’s meditation programs and would recommend them to someone thinking about a mindfulness program for fertility or general health.

NB: I am not affiliated in any way with Circle + Bloom and have not been provided with any incentive to give this review. The program was purchase out of my own pocket and all thoughts are my own.