No woman, in the annals of history, has ever really been pregnant. Until now. No gestation has been more fraught with meaning, so filled with unexpected and profound discoveries, so laden with policy implications, so deserving of a second-by-second account, as that of Naomi Wolf. And no woman, until now, has ever noted that the medical industry is a tad technocratic when dealing with pregnant women. Expanding the narcissistic trajectory that was implicit but subdued in her earlier work, Wolf has now produced a book so utterly solipsistic that it is hard to imagine what the point of entry would be for any reader, pregnant or not. Though she worries obsessively throughout the book about how her impending motherhood is causing her to "lose her self," only a few pages into it we wish she had. Seldom do accounts of pregnancy and childbirth in the American medical system actually make you feel sorry for the doctors and nurses who had to attend to the mother. Until now.
Wolf's previous books were afflicted with their own share of self-absorption and "eclectic" musings. The strong feminist critique of the beauty industry in The Beauty Myth (1990) has been devolving into an increasingly faux feminism of the "me too" variety, accompanied by fantasies of other times and cultures allegedly more woman/girl friendly than our own. Though Wolf continues to agree that patriarchal practices have played a role in maintaining women's inequality, she has become, over the past decade, less inclined to think that men themselves have anything to do with patriarchy. In Fire With Fire: The New Female Power (1993), Wolf effused about a "genderquake" that supposedly occurred after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and "led women into becoming the political ruling class." While a bit overoptimistic on this score, Wolf argued for "power feminism" and rightly criticized the media's neglect or distortion of feminist issues. (She also thought feminists should publicize widely that one woman in nine carries a gun.) But in her chapter "Plagues of a Movement" and indeed throughout the book, Wolf criticized second-wavers as ideologues who promote "victim feminism" and require "loyalty oaths," reinforcing, to her own lecture-circuit advantage, the very media stereotypes about feminists she claimed to debunk. In Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (1997), Wolf explored the construction of female sexual desire by brewing a concoction whose ingredients included her own "coming of age" story, tales of Zunis, Mesopotamians and Taoists, and various "say what?" claims. To wit, Wolf asserted that Anne Frank's sexual awakening was less fraught than her own because Anne just had her fantasies in the attic whereas Naomi had to contend with a cultural barrage of conflicting messages. In Misconceptions, Wolf takes on another topic of particular concern to feminists and literally remakes it in her own image.
The book opens promisingly enough. Although this trail has been trod for at least thirty years by women as diverse as Ellen Peck, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Maushart and Barbara Katz Rothman, to name just a few, Wolf pledges to offer an updated exposé of the misinformation surrounding pregnancy and childbirth and a critique of the overromanticization of motherhood. And although Ann Crittenden, most recently in her powerful book The Price of Motherhood, has exposed our country's Neanderthal public policies surrounding mothers and children, we should always welcome another voice that condemns how undersupported mothers are, especially by their workplaces and the federal government.
But maybe not this voice. What is most pernicious about the book is the way Wolf gushingly contributes to the pervasive postfeminist narrative according to which women inevitably move away from feminism once motherhood approaches. After her relatively tough-talking introduction, we find ourselves in Italy with "ex-models" at a "wedding celebration" of a friend of Wolf's "whose fiancee was the doyenne of a certain group of hard-living glitterati." It is here, in the hills of Umbria, that Wolf learns she is with child. How did she become pregnant? Why, she willed it. She was using birth control, but because her "heart and body longed for a baby," her "will and longing…somehow altered chemistry"; her inherent, driving "mother love, the mother wish," overrode birth control. Later on in the book we hear more about the power of Baby Gap/Earth Mother thinking to conquer biology and technology. One woman Wolf interviewed, after suffering through the many disappointments and real indignities of fertility treatment, went to a therapist who told her to imagine that her ovaries were blooming. She did (she also thought about Jesus rising from the dead), and voilà: pregnant. Want to get pregnant? If you have a powerful New Age will and are truly a determined individualist, you can simply resolve your way to conception. This reporting technique, which Wolf resorts to with abandon, is a favorite of ideologues: Pay lip service to the canons of good research by collecting "data" from interviewees who are just as loopy as you are.