By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
“By the time I started to become aware of the fact that this wasn’t just normal ‘good parenting,’ that this was actually illness, I was thinking, how did it happen? Why did it happen? In talking with other women, it felt like it was everywhere and nobody was talking about it. Where is it coming from? Why is it at once omnipresent and hidden? I wanted to look at all the different things feeding and normalizing and sustaining this anxiety.” Sarah Menkedick said when she spoke to the Current via telephone.
Menkedick, who lives in Pittsburgh’s East End with her husband and their five-year old daughter started researching while she struggled with anxiety and OCD-like fears after giving birth. The result is her new book, just released this week by Pantheon Books, ‘Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America.’
Virtual Book Launch! “Ordinary Insanity” By Sarah Menkedick
“I had a conversation with one of the women in my book. We were both saying, ‘I think our brains have been permanently changed and is there any science to back that up?’ It turns out that there is a lot of room for more research, but I started there and then tried to come at it from every angle — culture, medicine, psychology, history. It was amazing to me just how little has been written about motherhood. It is really striking for something that is a fundamental experience in our society, even if you are not a mother. It’s shocking that so little has been explored about it,” she said.
Writing about motherhood can be a minefield for writers, especially women writers. There is the risk of being pigeonholed into the ‘mommy wars’ narrative. Or being given a pastel book cover signaling a story less weighty, one easy to dismiss as the problems of the affluent and entitled. But there are real hurdles, real difficulties, real conditions faced by real women from across the economic and racial spectrum which haven’t been covered.
This paucity of information is one of the things Menkedick seeks to address.
“It’s tricky to say that motherhood or birth are these essential life experiences” Menkedick notes. For years, women have fought to expand the possibilities of our lives beyond the confines of maternity and domesticity, so there can be real pushback.
“That’s a legitimate reaction to much of human history where that was the only option, the only identity for women. But we’ve [also] marginalized motherhood as this banal, trivial thing. We don’t look at [it] as interesting or important or intellectual. I want to make it visible and elevate it without making it something that women have to experience. How do you make it visible without falling into that societal trap of essentializing it or making it the only female identity?”
Menkedick does just that by distilling reams of data, literature and scientific study into a very readable, engaging book. One of the ways that she is able to explore really complicated concepts about racial disparities in health care, the anxiety that new mothers feel at epidemic levels, and the constant struggle to win at mothering is through telling the stories of other women.
“As a larger point of the book, it’s important to tell these stories, because this is what helped — just talking to other women. So much of it is isolating. You start to feel, is this just me? Have I lost my mind? Am I just this person now? And the answer is no. This is part of a collective experience that we need to recognize and talk about,” she said.
These individual experiences, these stories, allow Menkedick to flesh out some really hard data. In the chapters which surround Jamie, she writes about our culture of extreme risk aversion around pregnancy and motherhood. It is one of the most fascinating chapters in the book.
She writes: “The actual percentage of babies born each year in the United States who die of SIDS is 0.0000625. Not 1 percent, not 2 percent: .0000625 percent. Yet for many women, avoiding SIDS becomes the single most important focus of their early days with their babies.”
These kinds of fears are quite common, if heard to measure. Whereas racial disparities are quantifiable and horrifying. Through her detailed re-telling of Whitney’s lived experience of pregnancy as a black woman in America, Menkedick does really essential reporting. She also integrates overwhelming data about how severe the effects of systemic racism are in terms of successful pregnancies and healthy babies.
“[Racism] has a very real, physical, biological impact on black women’s lives. There are these striking studies — many of them — over and over again showing that racism can be the single most influential factor in preterm birth and in low birthweight … especially with the statistics [showing] that the women who you would think would be better off and have better outcomes (as is the case with white women) — as education levels and income increases, it’s the opposite effect. Racism is the huge factor there: it actually weathers the body and has physiological impacts. That hasn’t been explored fully or enough,” Menkedick says.
By telling stories of childbirth and motherhood, and by freshly examining the biology of childbirth, prejudices around racial and economic inequities, telling stories from the history of midwives, and exploring societal pressures, cultural conventions and taboos unique to the early 21st century, Menkedick has given us a new way to understand motherhood. She has blown the doors off of some fusty institutions and given women new space in which they can share their stories and regain some of their own power.
“There is this sense that you’re constantly supposed to be preventing things and that is your main role. Mother is not an empowered identity where you go out and do things; it’s about preventing disaster all the time. If you’re an ambitious, motivated person, it’s easy to feel I’m going to be the über mother. I’m going to prevent everything all the time,” Menkedick said. “That’s a really horrible space to live in.”