Why “mindful pregnancy” is just another way of turning women into compliant maternal putty

Andy Puddicombe’s book is just one of several that aim to teach the art of calmness and acceptance to the pregnant, in case women need any more unashamedly brain-numbing guidance.

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After some extensive reading and eight years’ hands-on experience, I’ve hit upon the ideal way of coping with pregnancy and motherhood: lobotomies. All pregnant women should be given a lobotomy. Yes, there are other ways of dealing with the fact that people who are henceforth required to have no subjectivity whatsoever might carry on feeling and behaving like subjects. But a lobotomy seems to me the quickest. Pregnant and still think you’re a person in your own right? Don’t worry – we can soon sort that out!

Of course, any scraping to the prefrontal cortex must be carefully done. One wouldn’t want to damage any of those sections of the brain responsible for worrying about childcare, laundry and low-paid work. It’s just all those other concerns – anything from “thinking sexism is a bit annoying” to “being overcome by an all-encompassing Weltschmerz in tune with the postmodern Zeitgeist” – that we’d want to dispense with. Surely, what with MRI, CT and other forms of technological wizardry, we’re now in a position to achieve this. The female brain need no longer be at odds with motherhood as social construct and institution.

Obviously it may be a while until all this can be arranged. In the meantime there’s always self help. As Andy Puddicombe, author of The Headspace Guide to a Mindful Pregnancy, writes, “your thinking mind will be forever with you, needing to be tamed” – but thankfully there are techniques for doing just that. With regular practice of mindfulness, for instance, it is scientifically proven that “our frontal lobe is going to be considerably more at ease and used to resting in a healthier mindset, meaning the volume of positive thoughts will ultimately outweigh the negative ones” (I am not sure how one measures the volume and relative positivity of thoughts themselves, especially given that they are “soluble, transitory, impermanent,” but I guess with enough “letting go” I can train myself to stop caring). Puddicombe’s guide is just one of several which aim to teach the art of calmness and acceptance to the pregnant. With such a wealth of unashamedly brain-numbing guidance at our fingertips, it can’t be long before pregnant women dissolve into one great mass of compliant maternal putty, ready to fill whatever gaps and crevices the thinking world sees fit.

As many of us will know, there has long been an unholy alliance between the self-help industry and the promotion of female compliance (renamed “empowerment”). We see it in contemporary messages regarding beauty (“it’s not an anti-ageing moisturiser, it’s pro-age!”), body image (“it’s not a diet, it’s a mind-cleansing detox!”), relationships (“by letting him think he’s in charge, you’re pulling the strings!”) and work (“it’s not being an overworked cog in the machine, it’s leaning in!”). As the philosopher Nina Power points out, the myth of self help as female liberation has even seeped into books which lay an active claim to being feminist: “in these books, the political and historical dimensions are subsumed under the imperative to feel better about oneself, to become a more robust individual.”If one can change oneself, there should be little need to alter the external circumstances of one’s existence. The problem is you – but that’s okay, since isn’t making the solution “all about you” really self-indulgent? Shouldn’t you in fact feel a bit guilty at spending so much time on yourself in order to fit into a world in which you shouldn’t matter? Hence guilty self-effacement becomes another form of invisible women’s work (the vast majority of self-help titles and courses being purchased by women, despite most of the best-selling self-help books being written by men).

Becoming pregnant (or increasingly, merely trying to conceive), one finds oneself in a whole new circle of self-help hell. No advice is neutral, everything is political, yet one must pretend to be sensibly wading through it, taking offence at nothing, since to do so would be frankly immature and unbefitting one’s new status as apolitical, neutral carrier of the next generation. You are now a vessel, a container, not just for the foetus, but for every crackpot ideology regarding femininity, female nurturance and subservience. There’s no point resisting; what are you going to do, scream “biology isn’t destiny” while staggering around with that great big debilitating bump stuck out in front of you? No one’s listening. You don’t get to offer feedback. The pregnant woman must simply absorb, and grow.

In Misconceptions Naomi Wolf suggests that pregnant women are inundated with so much advice on self-care because no one else is going to bother with us: “women had to nurture themselves in these trivial ways, it seemed to me, because we lived in a culture that was not bothering to nurture us in substantial ways as we went to childbed.” I think this is true to a degree, but that there is more to it than that: under the guise of caring for ourselves, we are actually being trained in prioritising others. Self help provides a circuitous, and hence more acceptable, route by which to do this. Whereas few of us today would listen to a man telling us that since mothers exist to care for others, our own needs must always come last, self help offers a new and confusing vocabulary by which to send the self-same message. “More than anything,” writes Puddicombe, “a mindful pregnancy considers the overriding interests of the baby, from in utero to birth to parenthood.” Oh, that’s nice. If the words “self-sacrificing” or “obedient” had been used instead of “mindful,” I’d have found that quite annoying, but as it is, I guess that’s just fine.

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh on Puddicombe because he’s a man. Does one need to be female to advise on mental approaches to pregnancy? After all, as Puddicombe points out, “this book is not about the womb, it is about the mind. It’s about the human condition.” This sounds fairly convincing until one considers the fact that both “the mind” and “the human condition” have tended to be identified as male, while the womb has been associated with otherness, irrationality and hysteria. Is it not somewhat galling to find that said mind is still being treated – in true Western, patriarchal, non-meditative style – as something quite separate from female embodied experience? (Don’t dwell on this, feminists. Remember, “when we let go of resistance, nothing but acceptance remains.”)

A major problem with this form of thinking – or thinking about not-thinking – is that it reduces all experience down to its most basic elements, which are – surprise, surprise! – non-gender specfic (or default male). Puddicombe argues that the “magic of a mindful pregnancy” lies in its “one-size-fits-all approach”: “Moreover, it also applies to every other area of your life, because it doesn’t differentiate between circumstances.” But if we’re talking about pregnancy – or any issue related to female embodied reality – we do need to differentiate between circumstances. Self-help culture does not allow for the fact that “being calm,” “being compassionate” and “not asking too many questions” are already highly gendered concepts. From the moment they are born little girls are conditioned to be more “calm” and “mindful” than little boys. Unfortunately, that’s why a pregnant woman is far more likely to buy The Headspace Guide to a Mindful Pregnancy than a violent man would be to buy the (imaginary) Headspace Guide to Mindfulness, Masculinity and Non-Aggression.

If the absence of calm and compassion is already less acceptable in women than in men, it’s even less so in mothers. As Shari L Thurer writes, “to confess to being in conflict about mothering is tantamount to being a bad person”:

it violates a taboo; and, worse, it feels like a betrayal of one’s child. In an age that regards mothers’ negative feelings, even subconscious ones, as potentially toxic to their children, it has become mandatory to enjoy mothering.

Or, as Puddicombe puts it, “remember that when you fire up the stress hormones to rage against your own mind, you do the same to the baby. As much as possible, be kind to your mind, and more forgiving of these moments, if not for you, then for your child.” Because of course, just like your body, “your mind” is not “you.” It’s something you serve for the sake of others. Don’t be so selfish as to think that you exist in any meaningful, coherent sense.

There comes a point in The Headspace Guide to a Mindful Pregnancy when it appears that Puddicombe genuinely does want pregnant women to see themselves as potting soil:

If you need a visual reminder, imagine a seed, freshly planted in the ground. It is the most delicate thing. It is miraculous that it could ever grow into a plant, never mind a tree which will live for decades. This seed is nourished by the soil in which it grows and in the environment in which it lives. Too much sun is not good; too little sun is not good; too much water is not good; too little water is not good. Every little change in the environment impacts the growth of this seed. The seed needs balance – a constant flow of nutrient-dense nourishment. Every single thing that you put into your body, whether you drink it, eat it or inhale it, will influence the environment in which your baby is growing, impacting on its early growth and development. Such is the delicate responsibility and precious opportunity you have when carrying a baby.

Got that, women? Be perfect, absolutely perfect, like premium soil at the Chelsea Flower Show, otherwise you’ll upset the delicate balance upon which the growth of your foetus depends! But don’t get stressed about being perfect, since that would also upset said delicate balance! Ignore the “endless loop of inner chatter” telling you how perfect you should be, but be perfect all the same! And don’t forget to be kind to your mind! Honestly, how hard can it be? (If you’re struggling, remember that “the mind instinctively knows what to do if we approach it in the right way” – whatever the hell that means.)

There are many interesting things to be said about pregnancy, reproduction and philosophies of the mind and human spirit. Many of these things have already been expressed by feminist maternal philosophers, none of whom Puddicombe quotes. For instance, if one looks at what Puddicombe writes about the relationship between mindfulness and the perception of time (“it simply means to be present in the here and now, fully engaged in whatever is happening […] It means not being tied down by the burden of the past, not held hostage by fear of the future, but simply present, watching life unfold with a sense of ease and perspective”) one could link it to feminist philosophies of maternity as continuous experience versus paternity as something abstract and imagined, a means of empowering the “alienated seed” via a rights discourse which overrides the maternal discourse of nurturance and care. However, such an approach would involve some form of power analysis in addition to mere recommendations for how to experience what is already available to be experienced. This is not what mindfulness is about. It is not a tool for positioning pregnancy within the context of continuity versus patriarchal capitalist alienation. On the contrary, mindfulness is the opium of the pregnant (what with actual opium being far too likely to have a harmful impact on the delicate environment in which your precious seed is growing).

I do not wish to suggest that mindfulness cannot ever have its uses. For instance, I find Puddicombe’s discussions and evidence in favour of the use of mindfulness as a form of pain management really quite convincing. In my own experiences of labour, I know that the pain was compounded by the fear of how much worse the pain would get, how much longer it would last and whether or not it would lead to a safe outcome for me and the baby (that “inner chatter” again!). To have the space to just be in the moment – to be with the pain as it was and nothing else – would have been valuable (although having said that, this was a state I eventually achieved, not through mindfulness, but thanks to copious dizzying inhalations of gas and air).

Ultimately there is a difference between relieving the pain of labour and making the social, cultural and political conditions of pregnancy and motherhood more bearable. Mindfulness strikes me as a fairly elaborate form of categorisation – a way of deciding how to approach thoughts and sensations within a focussed internal context – and as such it is not harmful. We all need arbitrary categorisation as a means of feeling comfortable in the world. Nonetheless, if, as a 1992 Ms magazine cover put it, Rage + Women = Power, then Pregnancy + Women + Mindfulness = Stasis. It is a dulling of the senses – the ability to feel not just calm and peace, but anger and darkness – at a time when everything should be up for grabs. As pregnant women and as mothers, we should not lose our desire to taste everything, but for that, we need to change the world, not ourselves. Calm isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, as Puddicombe himself admits, “thinking is not a bad thing.”

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.