The drama of birth: a subject fit for literature

I wish the drama of birth was a literary subject. A few days after giving birth, when I was stitched and bleeding and bruised and weeping at two pm on midwives who would come and peer at my wounds and talk in gentle, encouraging tones about my milk coming in, I googled famous birth scenes in literature. I found a few rants about the lack of serious, literary writing on the subject and a paltry list of authors who had attempted it. Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Atwood.

I understand all the omertàs. Birth stories are still something we joke about, that are often confined to typo-ridden confessional comment threads and forums. Our stories are fissured into tribes and corralled into the ghettos of the anecdotal. Not until we try and read universal truths into any birth story we come across- the way we generously read men’s stories of war and love and death, the way we step into their shoes and try and extract meaning about the human condition from their very particular, gendered experience, will we succeed in taking the subject of birth seriously enough to write good fiction about it. We have to get better at generosity. At dignifying every sort of birth with the sort of lavish attention that makes meaning-making possible. When there are hierarchies and moralities (and pregnancy and birth are absolutely structured by all sorts of dogma about natural birth and breast feeding and idealised madonnas instead of good enough mothers), then there are codes of silence and shame instead of a rich field of experience to write from. In psychoanalytic terms, until we collectively integrate all of our experience, the good, the bad and the ugly, we will be forced to write very one-dimensionally. As I write this, I am listening to a chorus of judgmental women in my mind: memories of voices who have dismissively told me birth wasn’t that bad, maybe I’ll forget it, that a c-section is a violent way for a baby to enter the world. As if all birth isn’t violent, as if it were possible to peacefully, innocently give birth. Not until every kind of birth is validated and we de-manacle our minds from high-horse madonnas looming over us and chiding us into giving birth ‘the right way’ will we be able to claim our own material.

One of my friends who had an elective C-section evocatively described her experience as feeling like she was a washing up bowl being reached into and rummaged around inside of. Such an extraordinary image. If we choose to pay attention- not to the manner of birth and how close or not is measures to some ideal notion of birth- instead, if we turned our focus to the quality of the woman’s experience, the descriptive possibility, the words she uses to describe the minutiae of felt, embodied experience, if we turned our focus away from the ethics and towards an acceptance of the drama of it all, I think we would be astonished. I think everyone would stop reading about war and death and love. I think no one would be able to tear themselves away from the drama of birth.

All the elements of great literature are available. The joy of waking up at midnight, soaked from my own waters breaking. The violence of my fractured tailbone, the agony of contractions, my inability to speak or make anything but gutterel, animal braying. The moment they all rushed in because his shoulder caught inside me and they weren’t sure he could breathe. The excruciating stitches after and the torturous fantasies of messy scarring and bulging organs and unhealed wounds. Passionately pumping every few hours so my milk would come in for him; weeping with the midwife as she reassured me that I WAS indeed breastfeeding if he was latched on, even if I had to supplement with formula. The strange, cancerous molar pregnancy I suffered before R came into being, when they scanned me and there was nothing but some sort of fertilised growth in my womb, not even an embryo but a kind of tissue that made pretty patterns on the sonographers screen but would need to be sucked and scraped out of me. This is such rich, fertile material, and so many of us are not free to draw on this as a proper literary subject. And it is a shame because there is so much to say, so many paradoxes and violences and euphoria to lay out and examine.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

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