What I’ve been reading: Making Babies and Super Sperm

Recently I’ve read two very different pieces of writing, but both of which highlight the importance of being aware of the voices behind the stories which shape our beliefs. One is a book about the early days of motherhood, and the other an academic article analysing the language used to talk about male and female reproductive systems. Stay with me – it’s fun!

Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood by Anne Enright

Anne Enright is best known for writing award winning literary fiction. I confess, I haven’t read much of her work. I consider her a serious writer who writes about serious things. Motherhood is often portrayed as an unimportant activity to which it is not necessary to give intellectual consideration, so it’s somehow validating to have a writer of Enright’s literary stature broach the topic. But even though this book does allow us to think of motherhood as a topic worthy of serious consideration, there is much in this book to raise a smile. The humour gives it a lightness, which perfectly captures the ‘best of times, worst of times’ feeling of new motherhood.

The book is a collection of essays, notes and articles written by Enright when her children were newborn and toddler age. I remember so little about my firstborns early months, early years even. I wish I had been able to write as clearly as Enright does, to capture those precious days. But the beauty of great writing means that even though Enright is not writing about me, or my child, I see myself in the pages. She captures perfectly the utter hopelessness and love you feel for this newly created being, whilst simultaneously hating the trappings of modern day motherhood. The unfairness of it all! Why do women have to be the ones to breastfeed?! The tedium. The discomfort. The impossible task of choosing a buggy that you can afford, and will also fit in your house, let alone your car. There is love, despair and humour in every sentence.

” All babies are perfect. They are given to us so that we can wreck them in some tiny, but catastrophic way.”

The sense of solidarity and comfort new mothers and parents can find in this book , the relief in being seen, indicates the importance of listening to real, honest stories of motherhood, and of telling our own.

Shortly after finishing Enright’s book, I read a journal article called, ” The Egg and the Sperm : How Science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles.” The article is written by anthropologist Emily Martin , who argues that scientific accounts of reproductive biology ‘ rely on stereotypes central to our cultural definitions of male and female.’ When we read scientific articles, or text books, there’s an assumption that the language is neutral, or without bias. But in actual fact, Martin’s research demonstrates, much scientific writing perpetuates gender stereotypes.

She talks about how menstruation is talked about in terms of decay and waste, and even ovulation,  which is ‘productive’ in the same way as the male reproductive system, is viewed as passive. Ova, she explains, ‘ far from being produced, as sperm are, merely sit on the shelf, slowly degenerating and aging like overstocked inventory.’  Rather than consider the quite remarkable fact that ‘ at birth human ovaries contain an estimated one million follicles ‘ , it is nothing to the fact that the male continuously produces fresh cells.

Consider the vocabulary used to talk about sperm, in all its ‘sheer magnitude’ as it makes its journey ; ‘streamlined’, ‘active’ ‘ velocity’ ‘propel’ ‘whiplash like’ ‘strong lurches’ and, of course, ‘penetrate’. The egg, meanwhile, ‘drifts’ passively along the fallopian tube, just waiting for something exciting to happen. It’s a fascinating, and at times hilarious, read. Martin goes on to point out that even recent scientific texts find it hard to move away from the traditional imagery, and even when they do, fall into other stereotypes, such as the woman (egg) as aggressor , trying to ‘capture’ the sperm ‘rather like a spider lying in wait.’ I mean, come on.

I don’t know about you, but I was never taught in school to question anything presented to me in a science text book, or any for that matter, with the possible exception of History classes. Science was always presented as fact. And the facts may well stand, but the language used to write about those facts is significant. So we should always stop and pause for thought. Who wrote the words, who devised the language, how might that impact what’s being said, and why it might suit them to tell their version of the story ?

4 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading: Making Babies and Super Sperm

  1. I really enjoyed the second half of your blog, I think I will read the article. I think language is also crucial when we talk of motherhood. All too often there is reference to the importance of motherhood not being recognised or being undervalued. Many articles are based on this argument. I’m sure I’ve written some myself. Maybe it’s time to ignore this and just publish positive, realistic motherhood articles. If we move away from this negative recognition maybe we will move forward into being recognised for all that we are worthy of without fighting for it 😀Gosh, that was nearly an article in itself x


  2. There is a lot of inequality in the IVF world too. Doctors are so quick to assume any problems lie with the woman and her “old” eggs. I know of so many stories where the issue lay with the sperm but it wasn’t discovered for ages due to ignorant doctors. Interesting about the vocabulary used when talking about reproduction!

    Liked by 1 person

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