I’m a university lecturer specialised in Russian literature, with a strong interest in so-called “maternal fictions” – literary texts which describe pregnancy, childbirth, and maternity. I’m fascinated by the different ways in which male and female authors narrativize these primal experiences; and also by how some authors re-write maternal experience to represent something entirely different. Birth is universally perceived as a symbol of hope; but it can also symbolize many other things, including failed hope, changes in political order, the inevitability of change, the impossibility of change, and even death. Birth scenes in literature can be “read” in many ways: they often encode the authors’ views on women, female morality, maternal behaviour, social class, and historical progress.
The Pregnancy Test is a blog which aims to interrogate literary fiction: how authentic is each depiction of maternal experience? Are there hidden subtexts? What does the author want us to feel? Unlike a real pregnancy test stick, the answer is rarely as simple as “plus” or “minus”. The Russian writer Lev Tolstoy, whose wife had 13 children, all home births, is very accurate about what a woman in childbirth feels physically in novels like Anna Karenina, which has two very different set-piece childbirth scenes. Much more insidious, (all the more so because Tolstoy is a brilliant observer of human nature) is the psychological message that his novel delivers: that a mother who is unable to bond with her newborn is fatally flawed as a parent and as a human being. Tolstoy writes birth, therefore, as an indication of a woman’s moral character. And he teaches us to “read” a woman – highly judgmentally – by her attitude to childbirth and the way she interacts with her family.
This insight on Tolstoy has led me to critically examine many more books in different languages, from Stendhal to contemporary Latin American novelists, which all either depict scenes of pregnancy or childbirth or make symbolic use of these experiences. This blog is an attempt to systematize my critique of “maternal fictions”. In each post, I review a specific literary text with the following points in mind: is the description of female experience reasonably accurate and realistic? Does the narrator empathize with the woman concerned? What makes this scene memorable? What is the symbolic, or narrative, significance of the mother’s experience within the context of the work as a whole? These points lead up to my core question: has the birth scene, or other maternal event, been represented in a way that is consistent with real-life female experience, or has it been retold to present a specific agenda?
This last question is the real Pregnancy Test: hence the name of this blog. Our cultural perceptions of pregnancy and maternal nurturing are formed from hundreds of interactions with textual and visual representations of motherhood: whether it’s Tolstoy telling readers how “good” mothers should behave with their newborn babies, or one of the Kardashians sharing weaning tips with their Instagram followers (and I wasn’t planning on getting “Tolstoy” and “Kardashians” in the same sentence today, but here we are), we need to understand and be aware of how expectations of maternal experience and behaviour are formed. These expectations are reflected in real life: how ashamed women feel to show their pregnant bodies to a doctor, how willing mothers are to admit to post-natal mental stress, how accepting society is to public breastfeeding (and these are just a few, obvious examples).
This blog is an effort to stop judging mothers (including our own, and ourselves) by criteria we don’t fully understand, and to start judging the criteria we have unconsciously assimilated, beginning with “maternal fictions” from global literature. Let’s start the conversation!