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Book Review: (M)otherhood – On the choices of being a woman

23 August 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1109

(M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman

By Dr Pragya Agarwal

Published by Canongate Books

ISBN-10: 1838853162, ISBN-13: 978-1838853167

Buy this book from Amazon UK

(M)otherhood is a frank, moving account of what it means to be a woman in a society that remains conflicted by fertility and female identity. Part memoir, part historical and sociological study, Dr Pragya Agarwal writes in the context of her own experiences: from the cultural expectations of a girl growing up in India, to the difficulties she encountered after the birth of her first child, to the myriad problems that impact women in the journey of becoming, being – or choosing not to become – a mother.

It is clear from the first chapter that the topics discussed in this book are relevant to anyone who identifies as female. By combining an incredibly honest account of her complicated life experience with a comprehensive study of fertility, Dr Agarwal confronts what it means to be a woman and a mother. Whilst reading this book I was reminded of an interview with Margaret Atwood, who stated that the events she wrote about in her famed book The Handmaid's Tale are entirely based on real-life occurrences. Previously, I struggled to believe this could be true. On reading (M)otherhood, which highlights the obsession with fertility that pervades society, and how it has been used as a tool for ownership and persecution for millennia, I no longer find this so hard to believe.

In one startling story, Dr Agarwal describes a Roman festival characterised by slapping child-bearing age women on the face with the bloodied hide of an ox in a bid to bestow fertility on her. If a woman was unable to conceive a child following this unpleasant event, her husband would be free to leave her for another woman with no repercussions. That might sound like ancient history, but it's not so different from the reality faced by women in certain countries today: in Nigeria, if a woman fails to bear sufficient children, her husband is permitted to take another wife with no repercussions.

I was also intrigued by the invented construct of 'mother nature' and how this informs the stories. We hear of a prospective mother's supposed maternal instinct of how to breathe through the pain of labour and subsequently care for a baby. It is baffling to me that women are judged for opting for pain relief during labour or deemed 'too posh to push' if they elect for a caesarean. In no other full-body traumatic event is medical assistance deemed weak, so, as Dr Agarwal writes, why is this used as a yard stick to measure resilience or a woman's worth as a mother.

A pervading message throughout the book is that society deems pregnancy and motherhood as things to be done in the 'right way'. This might differ by culture or through history, but the message is the same. Don't get pregnant too young. Don't get pregnant too old. Don't get pregnant by the wrong person. Don't get pregnant when you're not married. Don't get pregnant when you will become a single mother. But don't get pregnant at all? Well, that's probably your fault too.

Similarly, there's a 'right way' to do infertility. As Dr Agarwal writes, portrayals of infertility or childlessness in popular culture tend to involve a white, middle class couple who eventually realise their dreams of parenthood through access to the appropriate medical assistance. But that's not even telling half the story. Infertility is something that affects (and likely disproportionately so), women of colour, gay women and trans women, but is often not so openly discussed or addressed in these communities.

After rounds of unsuccessful IVF, Dr Agarwal describes her decision to ultimately pursue motherhood a second time via paid surrogacy in India: not a decision to be taken lightly, and one that is also fraught with ethical and legal considerations. Whatever your opinion on commercial surrogacy, the account of this journey is raw and sensitive. Although paid surrogacy was subsequently banned in India in 2019, it made me think that there is probably a better way of regulating and facilitating motherhood through surrogacy than the confusing legal system that currently exists.

(M)otherhood does not intend to resolve the struggle between female identity, fertility (or infertility) and motherhood. Rather, Dr Agarwal presents these conflicts throughout her story. A chapter discussing abortion access inequality and the lack of authority that women are given over their uteruses ends with the author reflecting on the validity of the choice she eventually made to abort an unexpected second pregnancy.

After a number of chapters describing patriarchal ownership of, and language around, fertility, she describes her secondary infertility as being her 'fault' and a 'failure'. Initially I struggled with these contradictions. How can we advocate for women's reproductive rights if we aren't resolute in our decision; how can we remove ourselves from a duty to bare children if we feel shame when we cannot. On reflection, it's clear that this conflict is central to the message of the book. Maybe we don't need to resolve them. Bringing them to our attention is a step forward for now, and (M)otherhood does this beautifully.

Buy (M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman from Amazon UK.

Canongate Books Ltd |  3 June 2021
22 February 2021 - by Dr Helen Robertson 
The number of single women pursuing motherhood has seen a rapid rise in recent years. As changes in the trends of those seeking assisted reproduction become more apparent, it's perhaps even more important that relevant information and support is available to those pursuing parenthood using such approaches...
9 November 2020 - by Chiara Thomas 
As changes in attitudes, law, and assisted reproductive technology have taken place regarding family structures, Professor Susan Golombok has followed these developments, keeping children's wellbeing at the forefront of her research as she explores the experiences of these families...
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