Openness and Authority in Pregnancy: Lucy Knisley’s Kid Gloves

I began reading Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos on my own due date, desperately trying to keep busy as I awaited my baby’s arrival. Lucy Knisley’s extremely honest and intensely readable graphic memoir about pregnancy and childbirth was not exactly a distraction, as the book recounts her own stories related to trying to conceive, suffering miscarriages, and finally having a traumatic childbirth experience, but it was certainly engaging. Knisley tells her own story, but she also mixes in historical and medical asides in sections she calls “pregnancy research.” It is a sometimes funny, sometimes devastating book. You’ll laugh at parts, but it is only technically a “beach read” if you are cool with occasionally bursting into tears at the beach.

Knisley is an established comics creator, and this is her sixth graphic memoir. Since each of her books recounts a life stage or personal event for her (a few travelogues, a book about food, a book about getting married), an installment about pregnancy and birth was a fairly natural addition to her repertoire. It is a truly open, unvarnished look at pregnancy and birth, with an emphasis on all of the self-doubt, anxiety, and discomfort involved. In other words, limited glowing and a lot of vomiting. Additionally, and of special interest to a Nursing Clio audience, while the book in no way rejects mainstream medical institutions, it does detail Knisley’s rather problematic interactions with medical authority.

Kid Gloves begins in an unusual place for a book on getting pregnant, with a discussion of not getting pregnant. She details her own history with diaphragms, the pill, an IUD, and the birth control implant, as well as the way these options were presented to her by Planned Parenthood educators and OB/GYNs. Her experiences with most of these methods are negative. “Good riddance, ya modern miracle,” she says while throwing away the birth control pills that caused violent vomiting.

Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos,
written and illustrated by Lucy Knisley. (©Macmillan)

Between Knisley finally finding a birth control technology that worked for her (the implant) and then going to get it removed to actually try to get pregnant, she places her first “pregnancy research” section on the history of reproduction. She briefly recounts a sort of “biggest hits” of this history, from Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings to the wandering uterus to hysteria to the medical experimentation of J. Marion Sims. I was worried it would lead to a typical progress narrative of birth and reproductive research being comically awful then and modern now, but there was nothing to fear. Rather, Knisley concludes the section with irritation at the ways women’s reproductive histories have been treated as unimportant. She explains that “none of it was covered in my sexual education, history, or science classes.” Then she moves back into her own story, and the limits of modern medicine move to the center.

In one of the first serious and hard sections of the book, Knisley recounts her two miscarriages. She describes everything from happily announcing the pregnancy to her family, to the transvaginal ultrasound drawn from her point-of-view and the deep anguish that followed. Then, typical of the organization of the book, she steps out of herself to illustrate a series of myths about miscarriage. She also explains experiencing the limits of modern obstetrics to help her through the process, noting the lack of a training in counseling many OB/GYNs have: “They see you are simply an obstetric patient, and then you’re not.”

After her second miscarriage, though, therapy and a reproductive endocrinologist helped her both emotionally and physiologically. “Did I do something to deserve this?,” her grieving self wonders. Now her post-uterine surgery self happily explains, “No, past me! You just have a weirdo uterus!”

This mix of heartache and optimism is typical of the book. When Knisely becomes pregnant for the third time, the pregnancy which results in her son, she does not treat it as a simple ending to the hard part. Instead, it’s as a continuation of her reproductive story, with the pain of loss layered onto the excitement for this viable pregnancy. Referencing the idea of maternal impressions, she notes she “was likely to give birth to an actual fear demon” if there was any truth to the idea that a pregnant woman’s thoughts shaped her fetus. Then the unrelenting morning sickness begins, and she dives into the loneliness and discomfort of the first trimester.

The story follows both her medical and her interpersonal interactions over the course of the pregnancy. The medical interactions are especially interesting. Her cocky OB/GYN stands in for many of the frustrations of the modern U.S. birth system: “I dug his forthrightness, but he reminded me a little of Fonzie, with myself as the defective jukebox. He’d come in, rush through his spiel with wisecracks, pat my stomach, and split.” She is left with unanswered questions and concerns, but is afraid of being too pushy.

The disconnect between herself and her OB seems minor in the first and second trimesters, but as Knisley develops more problems in the third trimester, her male OB’s refusal to take her seriously becomes a more serious issue. She describes her swelling and headaches, and the similarity of her symptoms to those of pre-eclampsia. Her OB shrugs her off. She does not quite trust him, but also does not challenge him, explaining “I wouldn’t want to seem like some hysterical first-timer!” This acceptance of medical authority (and this OB’s unwillingness to truly listen to patient concerns) leads to an extremely traumatic birth experience, which resulted in Knisley being unconscious for two days.

The illustrations become black and white at this point, with the story told from her husband’s perspective instead of her own. This is probably a point at which the reader will either be crying or livid. Knisely’s medical concerns were not even resolved when she wakes up, as she is sent home prematurely for insurance reasons and becomes even sicker. This is no longer an entertaining story about childbirth, but rather a serious meditation on how we treat pregnant women. When ultimately diagnosed with eclampsia, Knisley adds in tiny print: “Remember when Lucy asked her doctor about this and he ignored her?!” It is unnecessary, though: the reader remembers.

Kid Gloves is simultaneously an enjoyable quick read and a stressful account of the many difficulties of pregnancy and birth. It is such an important contribution to the zeitgeist for her casual discussion of how hard pregnancy can be and her honest depiction of the difficult and potentially dangerous power dynamics in modern obstetrics. From her description of trying to board a plane for work while fighting “exorcist levels of puke,” growing a “weird fuzzy layer of hair” on her stomach, and her husband’s anxiety about whether he would be a good father, reading this book often feels like you’re commiserating with a good and extremely honest friend.

I personally had two early miscarriages that almost exactly mirrored Knisley’s experience. For a second, I read this as a wild coincidence, but as I sat with it longer I realized that we had the same experiences because they are extremely common. The unusual part wasn’t the coincidence, it was simply that Knisley and her graphic memoir were so honest and open about it — and about the whole process of pregnancy and birth — that it validated my own experiences. Kid Gloves did not quite distract me from my due date, as it turns out a memoir that includes a traumatic birth is not the best choice when nine months pregnant. Even with that caveat, though, Knisley’s memoir is a great read.

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