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Ready AND This Common Secret [7 May, 2008]

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Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood

By Elizabeth Gregory; Basic Books; 298 pages

This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor

By Susan Wicklund; Public Affairs Books; 268 pages

Elizabeth Gregory’s Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood is about a phenomenon she calls “later motherhood,” of women having children, either biologically or by adoption, in their forties and beyond.  Susan Wicklund’s This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctoris about her twenty years of experience as an abortion provider and the changing landscape of abortion rights.  Wicklund’s clients are rural pregnant women in need of abortions in a world where clinics sometimes remain for only a few days a month.  Gregory is the Director of Women’s Studies and Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston.  Her book draws from a small sample of 132 women, all of who share her privileged background.

Wicklund writes about her own alienating experience with abortion, with cold instruments and colder nurses, and her subsequent resolve to ensure that she could provide women in similar situations with a far more supportive atmosphere.  But abortion rights have, by law, become increasingly restrictive and onerous for poorer women in particular.  For many, the fight for “abortion rights” may well be a moot point.

Wicklund has had to bear witness to it all, from the abortion protestor who showed up for an abortion and still called Wicklund a sinner, to the man who brought in his daughter to abort the child he’d fathered.  One woman lost her job because of the required 24-hour waiting period which forced her to take extra time off that she couldn’t explain.

In sharp contrast, Elizabeth Gregory’s Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, is optimistic to the extreme.  She sees a brave new world where birthing technologies and adoption opportunities make for a perfect world where anyone (in her social class) can become a parent.  It never occurs to her that women might not want that chance; it’s clear she feels that having children is the ultimate mark of adulthood.  Or, as one of the women puts it, “I could never have shown up [for them] in my twenties because I was too busy trying to show up for myself.”

Her eagerness to render childrearing in the sunniest of terms prompts Gregory to make bizarre statements, as in her description of international adoption: “Part of the hope around adoption in impoverished countries is that the children who are adopted out will gain the education and resources needed to return as adults and help make things better for their birth country.”  It’s unclear why she would ignore the economic duress that forces countries like China and India to turn into baby factories in the first place.  Or that adoptive children are not and should not be sent out as economic emissaries to the world.

Even more disconcerting is her willful ignoring of the issues of child-rearing that face most parents today.  Gregory gets around all that by only focusing on women of her own class, leading her to write blithely that “highly educated women spend intense amounts of time stimulating creativity in small numbers of children, preparing those kids to be the innovative workers the market now demands.”  Such statements are typical of her placement of women’s bodies and the children they bear or adopt as agents of neoliberalism.

Gregory’s book cloaks reproduction in terms of choice and technology.  Wicklund provides a stark look at the realities of reproduction from the other side.  Her book gives us the perspectives and experiences of women for whom giving birth might be an unwanted experience but whose rights to terminate their own pregnancies are increasingly being eroded by the very economic system that Gregory celebrates so joyously.  Elizabeth Gregory shouldn’t be held directly responsible for the world that Wicklund inhabits, but a book about reproduction could at least be more aware of the socio-economic circumstances surrounding the same.

Placed next to each other, these two books provide unsettling insights into a climate where the ability to reproduce and the ability to cease reproduction are mired in a complex entanglement of access and privilege.  Seen through these two lenses, motherhood emerges less as a privileged and natural process of adulthood and more as an experience mediated by women’s gendered relationships to inequality.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 7 May, 2008

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