Beth Newell and Jackie Ann Ruiz are no strangers to funny business: Newell is a writer and comedian who cofounded satirical feminist website Reductress. Ruiz is a writer and illustrator whose Instagram page shares hilarious political sketches as well as talks about “drawing spiderwebs shooting out of vaginas.” But for both friends, pregnancy was an unexpected life change that forced them to call upon their shared sense of humor. They also needed the comfort of evidence-based information during an overwhelming time.
Though they both read popular science-based pregnancy books such as Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery (1975) and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know (2013), they felt something was missing. Where was the manual for people who were simply trying to survive pregnancy with their wits still intact? They couldn’t find a book that talked about perineal tears without trying to pretty up the pain, so they decided to write it themselves.
Newell and Ruiz apply a refreshing irreverence to the business of cisgender women giving birth. There’s No Manual: Honest and Gory Wisdom About Having a Baby is more than just What to Expect When You’re Expecting (1984) with f-bombs; the book makes an earnest attempt at dismantling the patriarchal bullshit that hounds pregnant people. Despite its edginess, There’s No Manual is as constrained thematically by the gender binary as most pregnancy guides. (The authors offer “apologies in advance” for this limitation.) Where their book does succeed, however, is in informing without scaremongering and advising without judging. Bitch spoke with Newell and Ruiz about getting knocked up accidentally, tapping into empathy, and writing a feminist pregnancy book that doesn’t claim to have all the answers.
Who did you have in mind when you sat down together and wrote There’s No Manual?
Beth Newell: I think it was all new moms. Jackie and I had both been going to midwives and doulas, getting a lot more information about how our bodies work and [receiving] a lot more emotional empathy through the process. We had both become part of a mom Facebook group [with approximately] 900 women, and we wanted other women to have more of that support.
Jackie Ann Ruiz: This is the book for [people] who don’t have a mom group they can ask questions to at three in the morning. Men should read it, too, [and] even people who aren’t going to have kids or people who already have kids and are older. One of the main things we say in the book is that it’s easy to forget how hard it is in the beginning because our brains are trying to help us forget it so that we’ll be willing to do it again, keep making people for the earth, and continue our species. Reupping on that empathy is how we make the world better in general. So the more people who can understand just how hard it is, [the more] we can all get on the same page about supporting mothers at some point in the future of the United States.
What would you say is the most important thing that you wrote in the book?
JAR: Women of color are at much greater risk for maternal deaths during labor and [for] many other complications and are treated extremely poorly in hospital situations. Every single time I tell someone this fact, they say, “Really? I had no idea,” and I feel it’s something everyone needs to know. Women of color are 12 times more likely to die during childbirth in New York City than white women. That statistical gap is widening instead of narrowing, and that’s not the direction we need to be moving in. Not enough people understand that this is a real issue, and [that statistic] is a concrete piece of data we can use to explain it’s that bad. This is an emergency.
BN: Reminding women and moms that they matter, their preferences matter, and their needs matter is the thing that feels most important about the book. We all have this internalized sexism so hardwired into us that makes us feel like we have to put our needs aside and take care of everyone else. Unfortunately, you have to do the work of training your partner or whomever to support you at a time when you most need them to be doing that support on their own. And it’s just a lot. When you’re going through the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, that’s a time when that ingrained internal sexism can really destroy you if you’re not careful.
At the beginning of the book, you mention the patriarchy’s role in building shitty expectations for women, and you sign the book, “The Matriarchy.” What do you envision as the matriarchy’s role?
BN: I see it as women supporting each other and being supportive of each other regardless of each other’s choices, and recognizing our individuality and our individual needs.
JAR: In the idea of a matriarchy, motherhood is honored as the actual full job it is, so then that job is supported and honored. That would allow for a lot more things to change in a positive way in the world. If we can honor women, then we’re honoring life, and we’re thinking about children and their futures. We’re moving forward, and that has ripple effects [on] every part of the way we’re building our future.
BN: I think if we can support other women who want to get abortions, support women who are choosing to become moms and make sure they’re getting maternity leave and childcare and all of those things, it not only helps women, but it will help the next generation of human beings be much stronger and more resilient and have trees still
Empathy was really one of the things that struck a chord with me while I was reading the book, especially the part where you both mentioned that you had accidental pregnancies. In a footnote you mentioned that people have been having accidental or unplanned pregnancies since the dawn of time. And yet, it’s still so taboo to say, “I was having sex. I got knocked up.” How did you decide to talk about unplanned pregnancies in the book?
BN: We just wanted to let women know that none of us really have it together. Everyone’s just pretending they know what they’re doing. And we’re all getting a lot of overwhelming information that makes it feel like there [are] all these boxes to check, and we’re all supposed to do it in a certain way. But the reality is everyone’s just figuring this out as we go.
JAR: Right. We talk in the book about how an accidental pregnancy takes two people and that women shoulder a lot of the burden as far as it being a mistake or feeling nervous about it.
I, too, am part of the accidental pregnancy club, so I found the part in the book about hiding pregnancy to be really helpful. I have never seen any pregnancy manuals advising “how to hide a pregnancy.”
BN: That’s what kind of information we were really struggling to find when we were pregnant—a hands-on explanation of what the hell is happening to your nipples and everything else. You can get it from midwives and certain people, but the pregnancy books feel so clinical and detached from the visceral experience you’re having and the problems you’re having.
JAR: And shame-y, too.
How did you decide what to take a definitive stance on? So much of the BS mothers face is “you have to choose this or that” and there’s always this binary that we end up tiptoeing around.
BN: Jackie and I are both woo-woo spiritual people, but we’re also sort of research-grounded people at the same time. We wanted to leave as much flexibility in a woman’s choice as possible with a lot of things while still trying to be honest about real health risks. I found from research that I did [that] there’s no evidence that vaccines are causing autism or any of these other claims, while there is plenty of evidence that a lack of vaccinations will cause babies to get life-threatening illnesses. Whereas with things like circumcision, a person could go one way or another, so we just tried to include statistics where possible and give people real data.
When you’re going through the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, that’s a time when that ingrained internal sexism can really destroy you if you’re not careful.
Did you ever feel like your book might scare moms?
BN: We’ve already [heard] that from nonmoms. They’re a little scared. But going into pregnancy, for both of us, we were trying to consume as much information as we could find, and it was really hard to get some of it. So, from our point of view, we would rather give people information and let them try to process it rather than withhold [it].
JAR: The more information you have, the less scared you’ll be. As long as that information is based in fact, and it does not have a slant of opinion in it. If you want drugs [during labor], you should take drugs. You should have whatever kind of birth you want to have. You should have all the information you want. And no one should have an opinion about what kind of birth you [choose].
What would you say to moms who are still coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy but haven’t reached the joy part?
JAR: You don’t have to feel joy. If you don’t want to be pregnant, you can totally end your pregnancy.
BN: I would also say you’re stronger than you think, and you will find new reserves of strength that you didn’t know you had. And realizing how powerful we all are [is] part of the cool thing [about] motherhood.
Is there anything else you want moms to know about your book?
BN: We’re trying to give people what we didn’t have. But there’s also room for improvement in our whole system. So if other people want to put out other blogs and books, we support all of that information sharing.
JAR: We say in the beginning of the book that we tried our best, but we won’t do justice to the experience of many people and what they experience in motherhood. We wrote the book because we both got pregnant accidentally at the same time. So, it may be good to get accidentally pregnant, too, to be motivated to write your own version. That’s the key.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.