In our society we do not openly acknowledge the physical and psychological pain endured in pregnancy and birth or even the real possibility of death during labour. In many ways as a society, we’ve handed over all responsibility for childbirth to the medical profession.
It took me over four years to write about the birth of my first-born as the whole experience was so traumatic. But it was the start of my journey to recovery.,
The importance of control
When mothers feel they have lost control over their birth experience, it can feel almost apocalyptic; even though they may have given birth to a healthy baby, they can still grieve for the death of the birth they never had. Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born (1976) distinguishes between two types of pain: 1) suffering – as in the healthy contractions in a normal, natural labour – and 2) affliction – as in a labour where a mother feels powerless and out of control:
‘…..where it is unavoidable, pain can be transformed into something usable, something which takes us beyond the limits of the experience itself into a further grasp of the essentials of life and the possibilities within us. However, over and over she [Simone Weil] equates pure affliction with powerlessness, with waiting, disconnectedness, inertia, the “fragmented time” of one who is at others’ disposal. This insight illuminates much of the female condition, but in particular of giving birth.’
Poetry to the rescue. Again
I wrote a poem in the third person as a series of snapshots over the week of my son’s birth. By concentrating on the visual, not the emotions – my usual starting point for writing – I’ve been much more able to accept how dark it all was and find a real compassion for myself back then. I’ve called it ‘The End but not the Means’ for obvious reasons.
The End but not the Means
Bright blue veins stretch a map across her belly,
giving no indication what’s happening underground.
Her hand cups the full-moon, the cusp of new life;
the woman dreams as cells are dividing, beginning.
A sudden panic of white coats round a monitor,
two on their phones, the others inflated with facts.
The woman no longer exists, she’s just a vessel grown in size
with the same pale hand now gripping on for life.
A curtain cuts her clean in half, a foretaste of the scar.
Tears stream from her unseeing drug-fogged eyes.
Bright fluorescent lights and Technicolor red:
waterfalls, rivulets, forceps and a beck.
An oxygen mask hides her face, cannulas cover her arms,
a latex glove wields a thread, pulls the gash taught and tight.
One hand holds a purple, glistening tiny fist,
the other strokes dark wet hair on hospital-issue white.
A score of cards displayed randomly on the shelf, the wall, the door.
Late morning sun pervades their bedroom: a yellow halo glow
surrounding three heads on the pillows leaning in to touch,
all unaware of this moment of calm: hand in hand in hand.
(c) Kaye Heyes 2013