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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is Knowledge Always Power?

Last week, I posted a letter to fellow mothers urging them to stop sharing their labor and delivery stories with pregnant women. This letter like my blog and like life was part serious and part silly. And it prompted a pair of insightful comments from loyal ILI readers. One of these comments came from fellow-blogger Mama over at the delightful blog The Elmo Wallpaper. Mama stated - ever-diplomatically of course -- that she disagreed with my argument that women should lie about their labor stories.

She wrote:

...I believe in telling the honest truth, because not telling it just makes women freak out when they are in the middle of it and things AREN'T going perfectly. I would rather them know that it's perfectly normal to NOT have the birth you expect. And I think it's almost criminal that nobody tells you about the aftermath. Knowing it's coming, IMO (in my opinion), makes the experience less terrifying.

And instead of responding to her comment in the comment box, I decided to make this is its own post because really this is about something far bigger than birth and babies and pseudo-serious letters to fellow members of the Mother Species. This is about knowledge.

We all know that I am a hopeless romantic when it comes to education, to my alma maters, to concepts of knowledge and continued learning. There is something magical and majestic about knowledge. But does it always empower us or does it sometimes hinder us? Is it always better to know more, or does a little (willed) ignorance perhaps go a long way?

When I quit my job at the law firm and told people that I was going to write a novel, I was serenaded by a chorus of condescension. The gist? My plan to jump ship and write a book was cliched and cute. An ill-conceived, utterly blonde move. And then people who knew more than I about the publishing world (which at that point was practically everyone) regaled me with countless stories of failure, of dusty manuscripts, of slush piles, of evil agents. I was fed statistics - alarming ones - about how hard it is to complete a novel and then find an agent and then sell the book to a publisher.

But I tuned these people out like I do waiters who read dinner specials and I nodded politely and then I continued to chip away at my first novel. I would venture to say that it was because of this willed ignorance or timely naivete that I actually finished the book and then started looking for an agent. If I did too much research, if I soaked up all of the dismal details of the stories told, I would likely have been derailed, deflated, discouraged.

This is what I meant when I urged you moms to gloss over the miseries that might have marked your deliveries. Not because I am a proponent of dishonesty. (Quite the opposite. My aim in creating this blog and nurturing it is to be honest with you and myself and the world and my fingers are crossed that this honesty is deeply contagious.) Rather, my feeling is that there are times when full knowledge is not power, but the opposite. When a little mystery is a good thing. I think a woman who goes to the hospital to give birth should be excited (and, yes, a bit scared) and cautiously optimistic and realistic that uncertainties abound. I do not think this woman should have specific visions of a litany of minutiae that might go wrong. No, I think she should be shrouded in a thin veil of blissful ignorance about the admittedly tough and undeniably rewarding road ahead.

What do you all think? Is knowledge always power? Or are there times when we should dial back on details?


  1. Well, I didn't really mean that one should regale pregnant women with stories about death or failure. More that it is empowering to know that, for instance, you are probably going to need help going to the bathroom the first time. Or that Tucks pads and those ice packs in mesh underwear are miracles because, you know, your hoo-ha is going to hurt. Or that you might be way constipated and need some Smooth Move Tea. Or that an epidural might help you relax and give birth faster OR it might slow the process down -- you just don't know. Or that you are gonna leak all over for weeks. The difference in your analogy is that your co-workers were telling you that you were going to fail. I just believe in telling birth stories because they are true, they are ours, and the majority of the time, they have very happy endings. I do not at all advocate telling pregnant women they are going to fail. But I can tell my birth stories and honestly say that yeah, they had some harrowing moments, but I turned out just fine and so did my kids, and that is the point, right?

    I do pee when I sneeze, though.

    Thanks for giving me my own post! I am flattered.

  2. Interesting question. At the risk of sounding cynical, I think knowledge is power but not all information is knowledge. Whenever people express an opinion or offer information, you always have to consider their goals in expressing their point of view. For example, it seems likely that some of the lawyers at your old firm were trying to give you helpful information while others clearly spoke from their own fears/envy. It's not that all people have ulterior motives, but the skill is figuring out which do. Perhaps other readers will find my views rather bleak, and it could be that I have been a litigator for too long. I have found that once you sort out who to tune in and who to tune out, you can seek knowledge from the most appropriate sources. I am someone that likes to know as much as possible going into a situation, I also realize that not everyone is like me. As I said previously, I don't offer up my labor stories as a matter of course but if asked, I always try to be as honest as possible, after checking that the person asking really wants that!

  3. I am of two minds on this one. I think knowledge can be both power and paralysis, in many cases, certainly when it comes to birth. I think having some sense of what might come to pass helps prevent panic, but on the other hand anticipating every disaster can mean a too-quick capitulation to a world of intervention and a sense of utter powerlessness (the opposite of what we want!)

    Most of all, I think the true knowledge that one's body can do this extraordinary thing - grow and delivery another human! - can only come from doing it. And so the second pregnancy and delivery is, hopefully, less scary and more awestruck than the first.

    If we are lucky! And I do realize that having smooth pregnancies and the deliveries we wanted is a tremendous privilege.

    Thank you for writing this!

  4. I'm all for honesty, 100%...and...honesty and good taste and compassion can co-exist. I'm lucky to have had a dreamy home birth that was mostly, well, dreamy. No shit. But wait...now that I recall...there were stitches and monster contractions... and... well, I'd only give you the scarey details if you ASKED. and that's the diff between an unconcious rambling account and being considerate.

  5. I think there's a gender dimension to this, too. At least in my experience, the medical establishment (even female physicians) tend to omit the unpleasant details of medical procedures that have to do with our reproductive parts.

    I remember when I got my IUD put in. The doctor told me that there "might be some cramping and a pinch when it goes in". Are you kidding me?!?! a "pinch"?! It was the most painful thing that I've ever gone through conscious! And then I spent the next three days on the couch with a warm pad, crunching on Advil.

    I subsequently went online and found an incredibly supportive community of women who've gotten IUDs on LiveJournal. There, no detail was omitted, and I knew what to expect from then on. Thank God! There have been some unpleasant surprises.

    I think anyone's who's smart will filter. You know your body is not exactly like someone else's, so you will likely have a different experience. But it's good to be prepared so you're not dealing with these "surprises" while in pain and not really reasonable.

  6. All great comments. I am proud to elicit so many opinions on your blog, too. ;) I just wanted to add that I do not go about telling my own birth stories unless asked. In fact, when my friends tell me they are scared of childbirth, my usual response is to say that they are scared of the wrong thing. Childbirth is finite: it can only last so long. I tell them that it is everything that comes AFTER childbirth they should be scared of. ;)

  7. Mama - Thanks again for your insightful comment that got this ball rolling... I have to say that since writing that original letter, I think I have (thanks to you and the array of opinions you have elicited) changed my mind a bit re: birth-story-telling. Interestingly (and I think this is the stuff of a separate post), I do not have any qualms about stance-shifting, or even admitting that I was wrong. My original letter was very utilitarian in nature; in that it argued that we should tell stories that benefit others, regardless of the integrity of those stories... That is not something which I truly endorse...

    Mama - I do think there is an important difference between honest stories and stories about death and failure. Moreover, I find what you say about birth stories being OURS very compelling. Here is something only we can do, a task, a trip, we cannot farm out. This is at once an immense burden and an immense blessing. And of course we should be able to OWN these experiences, these stories, and we should not edit them down to a fairy tale. Yes, I am a flip-flopper indeed. (And a dreamer - anyone want to collaborate on an anthology of birth stories - it would be a book full of nitty-gritty honesty and happy endings??)

    Anonymous D - Fabulous point re: the distinction between information and knowledge. I feel like I am back in a philosophy seminar and the discussion is getting theoretically sublime...

    Lindsey - I am in complete agreement re: knowledge creating power and paralysis. I remember every time I did a prenatal test, I would salivate for the information and waiting for test results also paralyzed me with (temporary) fear.

    WhiteHotTruth - Thank you for the unsurprisingly profound set of distinctions we must not gloss over - that there is a critical difference between unconscious rambling and considerate/compassionate honesty even about tough subjects...I agree that there is a difference between revealing truth when prompted and walking around blurting it out is very. Interesting question of passivity and agency in the communication of experiential truth...

    Anonymous - curious point re: a gender difference inherent in the communication of medical information re: reproductive parts... Could it be that societally or culturally, there is still an old school emphasis on procreation and family, so the trend is to candy coat things so we all continue to pop babies out? Or, are people (physicians included) simply uncomfortable with discussion of such things? Maybe we never get over that adolescent sense of embarrassment about the human body?

    All fascinating stuff (thanks, Mama!) and wonderfully fertile ground for future posts. Thanks and keep those comments coming.

  8. Hate typos and can't let them go. Please ignore the "is very" above that does not belong. Cheerio.


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