Book review: It Sucked and Then I Cried. . .
I just finished Heather Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita (2009). Many people already know Heather’s name from her blog, dooce.com; I confess that I hadn’t at first put two and two together, and I picked up the book blind, cheerfully thinking something like, “Oh, a new book on birth–boy, it sounds pretty negative, but I’ll give it a go anyway.” Nevertheless, I quickly figured it out.
Here’s the bottom line: if you like Heather’s scatalogical focus and find her blog charming and amusing, then you’ll likely think the same about the book. If not–like me–then you may not be the biggest fan of this book.
Heather is indeed quite negative on pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and motherhood; it’s hard for me to know how much of what she says is honest and how much is just there to be funny. For example, are we really supposed to believe her when she states that “[o]ne thing no one ever told [her] about was that once [she] became pregnant [she] would experience a constant urge to go pee” (10)? I think an increased urge for urination is one pregnancy effect that even the much-maligned WtEWYE (which, interestingly, this book resembles in places) covers.
This claim of ignorance about bodily, and later emotional, processes–as well as disappointment and horror when her ignorance is finally dispelled–is a recurring theme in Heather’s book. She goes on and on about how painful breastfeeding was, claiming that no one prepared her for difficulties on that front either, and constantly making the leap from her own particular experience to generalities: “Everything I’d ever read about breastfeeding had to have been written by a man with no tits, because everything said that as long as the baby was in the right position it wouldn’t hurt to breastfeed. THAT WAS A LIE” (82-83).
Of course pregnancy, labor, breastfeeding, and new parenthood vary widely from woman to woman–a good midwife (who Heather never seems to have seen) would work with her client to educate her–and encourage the client to educate herself by referring her to some reliable sources–so that she was informed about all the possible dimensions of this marvelous journey. And yes, pregnancy and all the rest are difficult for some women–clearly no one should gloss over those difficulties or pretend that the post-partum period (which a big portion of Heather’s book is devoted to) is easy.
I think that Heather’s book has possible value in its (completely and utterly) unvarnished depiction of one woman’s particular experiences, but honestly, there are other books around that accomplish this same function while being both more optimistic and better-written. One that comes immediately to mind is Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year; when I read this book a week or so after giving birth, I found it the best, most realistic book I had ever read on motherhood. Another great book (now sadly out of print) is Phyllis Chesler’s With Child: A Diary of Motherood–An Intimate Account of Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Mothering, which is simply the most insightful, beautiful, poetic text I’ve ever read on the child-bearing year. Both of these books don’t gloss over the messy, painful, difficult times, yet are much better, more informed reads (despite their age) than Heather’s.
I’ll leave you with a quote from With Child just as a taste of how I think Chesler captures the bliss and paradoxical emotional turmoil that is many women’s experience in the early post-partum period. The speaker is of course a mother talking to her new baby:
“I dream of your sudden death. The stopped breath. The violent choking. The mysterious convulsion. My fear paralyzes me. . .
“Only you can comfort me. By remaining alive. I dread your cries. I crave them.”