Books for the News

Mothers and Babies and Books, Oh My!

Motherhood and babyhood are on our collective minds this month. Yesterday, of course, was Mother’s Day (did you call your mom? I did!). And this weekend, the documentary Babies opened in wide-release (we dare you to watch the trailer and not coo).
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For those wondering how we came to celebrate a holiday—marked by brunch, greeting cards, and pastel floral arrangements—Rebecca Jo Plant, author of the new book Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America explores the origins of Mother’s Day in an essay on the History News Network. (The Chicago Tribune also noted Plant’s book yesterday.) But Mom does much more than explain national holidays. Exploring such topics as maternal caregiving, childbirth, and women’s political roles, Mom vividly brings to life the varied groups that challenged older ideals of motherhood, including male critics who railed against female moral authority, psychological experts who hoped to expand their influence, and women who wished to be defined as more than wives and mothers. In her careful analysis of how motherhood came to be viewed as a more private and partial component of modern female identity, Plant ultimately shows how women’s maternal role has shaped their place in American civic, social, and familial life.

For readers who have ever been babies (ie: everyone), and for those still giddy from seeing the film Babies, Alma Gottlieb’s unique and engaging ethnography of babies, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From, draws into sharp focus the way culture affects how we rear our children. Gottlieb studies the customs of the Beng people of West Africa; when a new baby arrives in their community, they see it not as being born, but as being reincarnated after a rich life in a previous world, filled with spiritual knowledge. She explores how this religious ideology affects every aspect of Beng childrearing practices—from bathing infants to protecting them from disease to teaching them how to crawl and walk—and how widespread poverty limits these practices. A mother of two, Gottlieb also includes moving discussions of how her experiences among the Beng changed the way she saw her own parenting. For all parents and anyone interested in the place of culture in the lives of infants, and vice versa, The Afterlife Is Where We Come From is anthropology at its most enlightening. Read an excerpt, watch videos of Beng caregiving practices, and look at color photos from the book.
Happy (slightly belated) Mother’s Day to all the moms out there (and all the babies who make motherhood possible).