Giving Birth

I've done it twice.  Ditto for my sister.  Once for my dear friend.  One of my friends just had her first experience with it.  Another friend is anticipating doing it sometime in early fall.  Yet another friend is hoping to do it differently this time around.  Most women fear it.  Some women find it empowering.  All women have some brush with it, for it is a uniquely womanly experience.  No man can do it.  No man can appropriately write about it.  The burden of truth is upon us.

Childbirth (and the politics, pain, and pleasures surrounding it) understandably wasn't on my radar until I was pregnant with my first.  Like many women, I started doing a little research.  I got the ubiquitous What to Expect When You're Expecting.  I started reading discussion boards on the subject.  I began tossing around words and phrases like "birth plan," "doula," and "episiotomy" as though I had just learned a new language.  And indeed I had.  The experience of being pregnant and giving birth is a rite of passage, a secret club that few people ever talk about in public. 

Through a series of events (and being who I am), I became more involved in that secret club than many women.  Many women just consider it something to endure until they are holding their child.  Then it is something to forget until the next time.  I chose a different route and have spent the last 5 years moving closer to a goal of becoming a childbirth educator and doula myself.  So, I've read such titles as Birth as an American Rite of Passage by Robbie Davis-Floyd and The Doula Book by Marshall Klause, John H. Kennell, and Phyllis H. Klaus.  I have a separate library of TBRs on the subject and a huge training manual binder to finish for certification.  I recently watched The Business of Being Born, the excellent documentary produced by Rikki Lake a few years ago, and I have DVDs on Gentle Birth Choices and other hippie-ish concepts.  And of course, I have my own birth stories.  I recorded them in the days following the births of my children in a journal that we've been adding to at least once a year since then.  The journals are for our children.  We want them to know how it happened.  We don't think it should be a secret. 

Recently, my academic self came running up alongside my hippie self and said, "Hey, we should hang out some time.  Surely, we've got something in common!"  And off I went to discover what was being written and researched about birth and literature these days.  The answer: not a lot.  Women's Studies has a bit of material, but not a ton, and my cursory exploration into birth stories in novels came up surprisingly empty.  I was struck.

How can so many women in all parts of the world be having these experiences and not be including them in their writing?  Why is bringing a child into the world still treated as sex used to be treated by the Victorians: a groan, a page break, and an infant upon our return to the narrative?  We can write and read (or even watch on screen) the most graphic of rape scenes or the grisliest of crimes, but we will not accept the accurate and vivid depiction of labor and delivery. 

So, I am on a quest, and I need your help.  I need you to let me know anytime you read something that includes a birth - even if the birth act is not actually recorded.  If someone has a child in the novel you are reading, send me an email or comment below and let me know what it is.  My first find was Margaret Atwood's amazing short story "Giving Birth" found in her 1977 Dancing Girls and Other Stories collection.  I am a great fan of Atwood's tremendous abilities.  She has yet to disappoint, and this story (and the others I've read in the collection) is no exception.  In "Giving Birth," Atwood introduces us to Jeanie, a woman the narrator insists is not herself ("This story about giving birth is not about me" (226).)  Jeanie's wants a "natural" birth, and we track her progress through her pre-natal classes and on to the hospital.  The whole time, though, Jeanie is haunted by another pregnant woman who is not embracing the process with Jeanie's same fervor. 

"She, like Jeanie, is going to the hospital.  She too is pregnant.  She is not going to the hospital to give birth, however, because the words, the words, are too alien to her experience, the experience she is about to have, to be used about it at all.  . . . The word in English for unwanted intercourse is rape.  But there is no word in the language for what is about to happen to this woman."  (230)

The dream-like quality of this other woman is apparent.  In fact, despite the narrator's insistence, Jeanie herself seems merely a version of truth.  Atwood is definitely working with the separation of self from experience in this compelling story, and I love the way she acknowledges the words themselves as barriers to a full exploration of the truth of birth.

"Maybe the phrase was made by someone viewing the result only: in this case, the rows of babies to whom birth has occurred, lying like neat packages in their expertly wrapped blankets, pink or blue, with their labels Scotch Taped to their clear plastic cots, behind the plate-glass window."  (225)

Who is this "someone" who has written our stories?  Is he labeling us with Scotch tape and trying to keep us behind plate-glass?    Perhaps this is the new glass that needs to be shattered. 

Giving birth changes a woman.  It leaves indelible marks on her person and leaves her a new creature.  Atwood knows this as any woman who experiences it knows it.

". . .in the days that follow Jeanie herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually, by someone else."  (240)

Let me know what you find.  I'll be continuing my work on the subject for quite awhile.


  1. In looking again at my statement at top that "no man can appropriately write about it," I realized I have been a bit too harsh here. Skilled writers can and do write about things they haven't experienced. How else would we have books that involve crimes or tragedies that the author had not personally experienced? The author does, however, have to try to get at some universal truth in writing about those other experiences. I'd be interested to find if any men had even tried to really tell the story of a birth.

  2. No novels occur to me right away, but my partner & I are making our way through the show Mad Men on DVD, and Season 3 features a rather harrowing birth scene that the character Betty Draper goes through. Extremely un-empowering. I am not particularly activated about these issues, but I know people who are (doulas and couples who have recently had babies), and the scene helped me understand what it is they're objecting to in the way Western hospitals have traditionally treated pregnant women. The episode is called "The Fog."

    There is also that birth-giving monologue in The Vagina Monologues, of course.

    Will keep my eyes open for other instances!

  3. Emily: Thanks for the heads up about Mad Men. Televised depictions of births have long been an annoyance for me. It makes women think that your water breaks (which it doesn't even always do), and you must then RUSH to the hospital. Mad Men has been on our list of shows to check out, so perhaps we'll get there one day.

    Do you recall a scene from Kristin Lavransdatter? Something is tickling the edge of my brain about it, but I haven't read yet.

  4. Forrest Gander's As a Friend opens with an extraordinary birth scene (or so it seems to me--I had C-sections). And the new David Mitchell has a harrowing birth scene, also, if I'm not mistaken (haven't read the book yet, just an excerpt several months back), at the start of the book.

  5. Thanks, SFP. I'll take a look at those.

    Keep it coming, friends!

  6. OH YES, Kristin Lavransdatter, how could I forget. Yes, Kristin gives birth to many, many sons, but as I recall only her first son's birth is depicted in detail (because of drama with her husband, getting pregnant out of wedlock, OMG THE GUILT yadda yadda yadda). It's toward the beginning of the second book, I think about 100 pages in?

    It's interesting that you mention that about the water breaking, because the Mad Men scene actually has the Betty Draper character inform the nurse that her water "never breaks" (it's her third delivery). I highly recommend the show irrespective of its depiction of childbirth, as well. :-)

  7. I have a similar attitude to birth to you and try to read as much on the subject as possible. I frequently read about birth in fiction. I'm struggling to think of the best examples at the moment.

    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese - he is a man (doctor) and has written quite a convincing scene.

    The best scenes I've read have been in The Clan of the Cave Bear - which also includes comparision between birth of Neandathals.

    I read a wonderful one about a birth in a isolated hut in the cold, but I'm struggling to remember which book it was in. I think it might have been Ahab's Wife, but I'm not 100% sure :-(

    I'll try to think about it some more.

  8. Jackie: Thanks so much for the insight. I would love it if you kept sending any you think of my way.