Thoughts on ‘(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman’ by Pragya Agarwal

The number of books I’ve read has stagnated over the last couple of years. I can blame the pandemic and very young kids, but those are no longer an excuse, or I don’t want them to be. This year I’ve kickstarted my reading with a couple of good books, one of which is (M)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal. She kindly sent over a copy for me via her publishers Canongate Books to read in late December, and it spoke to me on so many levels I knew I wanted to pen some thoughts down here.

First of all, this is a brave book, as Elif Shafak has also said on the cover. It is definitely a memoir, but it weaves facts, politics and history through each chapter in a way that you’re never completely sure what you’re reading. I think that’s a plus. My mind was forced to switch gears so many times I found myself paying a lot of attention to what could otherwise be very dry facts – and I say this as a feminist and someone who’s also spent a number of years quoting the state of women on social media. But taking myself out of my shoes, I think anyone interested in why women’s lives are the way it is, will find this a good read, activism notwithstanding.

Another reason I found this book interesting is that it’s written by a South Asian woman. The book is about becoming a mother, the mental anguish of abortion, and the trials of secondary infertility, IVF and surrogacy – which are all important issues that are rarely spoken about in the media by South Asian women. I know this, because as a South Asian woman I went through IVF myself – and for nearly a decade it dictated my life and impacted my mental wellbeing. During that time, I looked for books, articles, blog posts by women like me talking about the trials of infertility, and most often I came up with nothing. I found the odd blog or two and a few articles yes, but nothing that spoke to me the way this book has.

Pragya writes with no judgement, and with full acceptance of her lack of insight into, for example, the lived experience of trans parents. She is upfront about the lack of existing research for her to highlight the parenting experiences of trans people in the book in as much detail as she would have liked, but by the end of the book I found that she had in fact given me a lot of background and history to some of the problems they face with fertility as well.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in strong, human, personal and well-researched writing about all the issues I mentioned above. You won’t regret it.

Here are some of my favourite quotes and passages. I’m bookmarking them here for when I want to come back to them later:

We clutch on desperately to stories of those who tried something that worked. Lucky them. We don’t hear of those who tried acupuncture for months on end and it never did anything for them. We don’t hear of people who had kale juice and a specific diet but never saw the seeds grow. Perhaps we don’t want to hear of these stories because what we want most is hope. Hope that something will work, that there is a way around the biological reality, and that the body and mind can be twisted and turned and coaxed into pliability. Most of all we want to believe that it all really works out in the end.

It wasn’t as much the news or the way it was delivered but the utter disbelief that for someone, I wasn’t worthy of basic human consideration and sensitivity. Honesty is the best policy, but a cushion would have helped, a furry cocoon to engulf me while I was dealt this blow.

In ancient Greek medical vocabulary, as early as the fourth or fifth century BC, where we first start seeing a discussion of infertility, the two main terms were aphoros and atokos, both negative adjectives referring to the absence of a productive bearing; both applied only to women. Rebecca Flemming, fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, in her 2013 paper discusses how even as land and trees can be aphoros – barren or non-fruit bearing – and money can be atokos – if it does not bring forth profit – men are neither. This gendering of reproductive vocabulary has continued: ‘infertile’ and ‘sterile’ can be used for both women and men, but ‘barren’ is never used for men.

Having grown up in a world where women are ‘the Second Sex’, still considered the ‘other’ with a man still being the default, I’ve become accustomed to assigning value to my success. Failure has not been a part of my vocabulary, because I did not have the luxury or the freedom to fail. Every failure, even the tiniest one, is hugely personal. This failure to conceive is something I cannot share with anyone, not even my own mother. I have pretended to be strong for so long, with that unwavering sense of reliability and solidity that others fall back on, that I cannot share my hopelessness and desperation, and my crushing sense of despair with anyone, not even those closest to me. Infertility is a social curse, to be pitied, and abhorred, rarely to be empathised with. In this journey, I am alone. Not even my husband understands my acute sense of failure, and he watches, hopelessly. Even though we were in this together, me and him, I have never felt lonelier. It is the grief that should bind us, but I don’t know if he is grieving. He does not say. I wish he would. (My note: She could have literally been describing me here. My feelings and experiences have never felt so validated.)

Somehow within the proclamations of progress made over the years, the needs of those who use this technology the most have been sidelined. Even as the test is touted as a feminist technology, empowering women, giving them choice, freedom and clarity, it remains ambiguous. There has not been as much research on home pregnancy tests as there has in technological apps for fertility. This is a classic case of ‘technological somnambulism’, a technology that society adopts without due consideration, much like while sleepwalking. Home pregnancy tests have changed so much of how we live and how we experience the pain, grief, loss and jubilation of being pregnant – or not. We, as a society, are still deciding what the criteria for a feminist technology would look like, and we don’t have very clear answers just yet. The way these tests are marketed, packaged, bought and used shows us that they are not feminist. Far from it. (My note: This chapter, on pregnancy and testing, was one of the most interesting for me. I’d experienced so much of it, but hadn’t really thought about all the points that Pragya made. It really is an unfeminist technology, for what it purports to be).

I love being a mother, most of the time. And I am okay with it. But I want to feel and believe that I can design my motherhood the way I want to. My motherhood does not have to prove anything to anyone. Not being a mother or being one does not shape my femininity or my value to society.

You can buy (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman from Bookshop here. The paperback was released this month, January 2022.

P.S: Can I also say how much I absolutely love the cover design!

10 Things I Learned In 2016

1) NARP: Nonathletic Regular Person. From this conversation between Jason Kottke and his niece about her usage of Snapchat.

2) Nae-nae: ‘a hip-hop dance that involves planting one’s feet, swaying with shoulder movement, placing one hand in the air and one hand down, and incorporating personal creativity’ (Wikipedia). From Sophia DeJesus’ college gymnast routine, as described by Time.

3) LIGO: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. From this New Yorker story about how scientists finally found gravitational waves. Also, the ‘interferometer’. What a brilliant word!

4) Zero-day exploits: ‘an undisclosed computer-software vulnerability that hackers can exploit to adversely affect computer programs, data, additional computers or a network. It is known as a “zero-day” because it is not publicly reported or announced before becoming active, leaving the software’s author with zero days in which to create patches or advise workarounds to mitigate its actions’ (Wikipedia). From this blog post by Ben Thompson discussing the dispute between Apple and the FBI over hacking an iPhone earlier this year.

5) Mario and Luigi: the names of the two robots created by the MIT Senseable City Lab to crawl underground sewers in Cambridge, MA and collect virus samples. From this Forbes article explaining the project.

6) This Noah Chomsky quote, which can be applied to 2016 in general, from this Medium post by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab on why she left the University of Wisconsin-Madison for Temple University.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

7) The cellphone reception area between DC and Baltimore was called the ‘dogbone’ because it represents the shape of the area served by the same tower. From Sarah Koenig’s day 3 update to Serial Season 1. 

8) The longest artist name recorded on Songkick is The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (61 characters). From this Songkick post on designing with data. 

9) Prosopagnosia: Face blindness (Wikipedia). From this TED talk by Nancy Kanwisher, ‘A Neural Portrait of the Human Mind.

10) Qualia: The way things seem to us. Read this PDF for more. First spotted in this Aeon article about how AI can shed new light on literary texts.

Highlighted passages from ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is almost quotable in its entirety. It can be distilled into one hashtag: #blacklivesmatter. Still, here are a few passages that I pulled out.

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race”, imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was no killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.

All my life I’d heard people tell the black boys and black girls to “be twice as good”, which is to say “accept half as much”. These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of our time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three hour days for us.

But like at least one third of all the students who came to Howard, Prince was tired of having to represent other people. These Howard students were not like me. They were the children of the Jackie Robinson elite, whose parents rose up out of the ghettos, and the sharecropping fields, and went out into the suburbs, only to find that they carried the mark with them and could not escape. Even when they succeeded, as so many of them did, they were singled out, made examples of, transfigured into parables of diversity. They were symbols and markers, never children or young adults. And so they come to Howard to be normal – and even more, to see how broad the black normal really is.


Highlighted passages from ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir’ by Carrie Brownstein

I know this is the end of the year, but ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir‘ was one of the first books I read this year. I’m just putting these down for posterity, passages that stood out for me, that I thought resonated with me or were otherwise just lyrical. And they teach me so much in themselves; about memories, music, elitism, fandom – and just being human.

Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something – survived it, experienced it – is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something.

There was a stillness about the past, a clarity, the way it has been somewhat defined and dissected, in the rearview mirror; it was there for the taking, for the mining.

I don’t know much theory, I play by instinct and feel, I could probably get schooled by an eight-year-old on tonics and inversions. But back then, the word ‘musician’ had a professional characteristic to it that would have made it more alienating and anathema. Back then, I was still just a fan of music. And to be a fan of music also meant to be a fan of cities, of places. Regionalism – and the creative scenes therein – played an important role in the identification and contextualization of a sound or aesthetic. Music felt married to place, and the notion of “somewhere” predated the Internet’s seeming invention of “everywhere” (which often ends up feeling like “nowhere”).

To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band – I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked “Why are you in an all-male band?”

Though I had no reservations about touring with Pearl Jam, elitism was a stubborn habit to kick. A small part of my brain retreated to my younger self, reminding me that in certain circles Nirvana had been considered the cooler, more authentic band. Nirvana’s music dragged you across the floor, you felt every crack, every speck of dirt. Their songs helped you locate the places where you ached, and in that awareness of your hurting you suddenly knew that the bleakness was collective, not merely your own. In other words, it’s okay to feel like a freak. And in high school, and for much of my adult life, maybe even now, I had, I do.

I love being a new onlooker, a convert. To become a fan of something, to open and change, is a move of deliberate optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm.


Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly by @marthasadie via @storythings

This post by Martha Henson is worth reading if you work in media in any format today, because whether you like it or not digital is part of what you do. Thanks to Storythings for the HT. Read the whole thing, I’m just going to pull this bit out:

Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly.

I’m serious. Do NOT embark on any digital project if you aren’t going to at least make a decent effort to tell people about it or otherwise figure out how people are going to see it.

If you are going to make an in-gallery app but only have room for a small piece of signage and no budget or space for print promotion, do not bother. If you are going to create a game and put it on your website and think maybe your organisation might be able to muster up a single tweet and facebook post about it, give up now. If you are creating an amazing interactive video experience but the entire budget is going on production and you’ve run out of money to market it, stop.

Source: Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly

Obama on Purpose

“I’m having personal conversations with folks, meeting with them, or groups of them, and pitching them,” Obama says. “And my pitch is that the tech community is more creative, more innovative, more collaborative and open to new ideas than any sector on earth. But sometimes what’s missing is purpose. To what end are we doing this?” As the president explains, he asks potential recruits, “Is there a way for us to harness this incredible set of tools you’re developing for more than just cooler games or a quicker way for my teenage daughters to send pictures to each other?”

Fast Company: Inside Obama’s Stealth Startup

Creativity does not want to be locked out: the problem in a nutshell (via @davewiner)

I guess all industries have lock-out. The moneyed people own everything, and in order to create, you have to fit in. And most really creative people don’t.

Then you have systems that are not locked-out, like Twitter and Facebook, but are subject to revision at any moment. This is imho better than not having APIs at all. At least the world can get a glimpse at the idea before it’s shut down. In a fully locked-out system, new ideas are stillborn.

Dave Winer

.@Kevin_Ashton on tenacity and underappreciated innovators (via @smithsonianmag)

Some really good points are made in this short interview with Kevin Ashton in Smithsonian Magazine, who is known as the person who coined the term ‘the internet of things’. One, the importance of patience and tenacity in an innovator, which I cannot overstate. Not that I am ‘an innovator’ but in my experience simply having the gumption to go on is 70% of the role. Alan Turing in the Imitation Game, for those who’ve seen it.

The other is this:

Who’s the most underappreciated inventor in history?

History overrates the role of individuals, especially individuals with power. As a result, history’s most underappreciated inventors are women, especially non-white women; and its most overrated inventors are men, especially white men. One example—there are many—Marietta Blau, a Jewish woman, made major advances in particle physics, while Cecil Powell, a British man, received the Nobel Prize for “adopting” her work.

Pretty damning that despite her contributions to Austria (her native country) and the world, Marietta Blau was not made a full member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Anyway.

Well said @hondanhon – being ‘awkwardly specialised’ *is* a thing

Dan Hon hits the spot:

One thing that I’ve noticed is a sort of awkward specialisation for a bunch of people in their thirties who’ve grown up with the internet and worked in the industry. It seems like there’s not that great a title for people who’ve “done internet stuff” but who weren’t firmly in one camp or another. In other words, the mythical Design/Developer unicorn. Instead, there’s a whole bunch of people who sit firmly in that Venn diagram intersection who are *very good* at getting along with designers and developers, and are able to bridge that gap, and yet precisely because they *don’t* fit into one camp or the other are eminently unemployable. Because you’d much rather hire a unicorn, a designer/developer, than a translator, right?

Here is the thing about those people in the middle. Those people in the middle see systems and like to solve problems. They still see the power of the internet in helping to solve those problems, and to make things better. But they’re not specialists. They’re not designers and they’re not writers, they’re not developers and they’re not ops or sysadmins. Perhaps one way of looking at them is saying that they’re Product Managers (but not Project Managers). But they’re the people who help figure out what it is that you want to do, and help you do it. Regardless of the *title*, there’s still a need for the people who can keep it all in their head. Who understand enough about all the little bits – but who might not be able to implement them – that they have respect and trust to lead. Maybe that’s a thing.