Looking for some ideas regarding a possible piece of work about childbirth I came across Renaissance artifacts called Birth Tray’s or Deschi De Parto.¬† There are sources (http://www.courtneyoquist.com/category/blog/) looking at the idyllic representation of the postpartum scene obscuring the reality of birth at the time and the very real chance of dying in childbirth.¬† In preparation for the arrival of the baby, many women prepared wills, can you imagine?

Death in childbirth pitti2

The death in childbirth of Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni from 1477 illustrated in this marble relief is unique. No other representations of death in childbirth exist from that period, even though one in five women died in childbirth (according to the website quoted above).

The fact that the widespread representation of childbirth had communicated a skewed picture of reality makes me think about idealised images representing  motherhood today.

Then as now, there is a powerful social necessity and investment in the institution of motherhood. Society (or to use an old feminist term, the patriarchy) cannot afford to allow the complex picture, the one that acknowledges sacrifice, loss of freedom, undermined earning potential etc to be widely proliferated and shared.


Just a thought..


About Eti

I am an artist and academic teaching Photography at the University of West London.
My visual art practice is a personal investigation of the limits of maternal subjectivity expressed through photography and video and I also write about the maternal in contemporary art practice.
I am a…Read more

Website: http://www.etiwade.com

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7 Responses to “Dying in childbirth”

  1. Helen Sargeant

    It is really challenging to work counter to these idealised representations that form the “institution” of motherhood. It’s difficult to articulate/visualise the complexities of mothering, especially when both artist and audience have to “see” outside of the patriarchy.

    • Eti

      Communicating outside of the dominant ideology is near impossible. I think sometimes I purposefully represented myself as bad (mother) or at least dubious (mother) hoping to stir something up. I used to worry that social services might get in touch (especially with some images in my Jocasta series).

  2. Frances Earnshaw

    The possibility of death did cross my mind, strangely, in the months of carrying my daughter. I have faced a good deal of surgery, terrible childhood illness, and such. The proximity of birth and death was in my mind. There is the death of the self, the death of ordinary life before the baby comes.

    It is strange that it was so hidden, culturally, but I imagine that the bearing of children was so de rigueur that the silence was a need. A very young girl would be facing the early bearing of children, and therefore death. The policy was to have many children, because many died. It is still the same in parts of the world.

    • Eti

      Hi Frances, I’ve not checked out the statistics but death in child birth is probably still a real possibility for women in some parts of the world. How awful it must be to have this real fear of not surviving childbirth. It’s bad enough preparing for pain and unexpected medical interventions.

  3. Frances Earnshaw

    Just thinking again about how reading “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson and listening to Horses by Patti Smith seemed to be a good preparation for giving birth!

  4. Helen Sargeant

    Even though you are told that everything is very safe, that birth is completely natural etc, I still feared dying in childbirth. Fear in birth is very real. What is scary is that for some women in some parts of the world today that fear is very very real.

    I love that you purposefully represented yourself as a bad or dubious mother. Jocaster is such a provocative and emotive piece of work, you were brave to make it. In response to your words I wrote “I must try harder to be a bad mother” post.

    A couple of years back I naively tried to set up a project at a local sure start centre called “M(other)s Stories. I wanted to run a series of workshops with mothers of young children to record their everyday lives. Initially the centre was really enthusiastic about me and my work, however after a managerial meeting “they” decided not to go ahead with the project because they found my work to be “too powerful” and “disturbing”. On another occasion after agreeing with me that I could to hand out free copies of The Worlds Wife by Carol Ann Duffy as part of World Book Night to a group of young parents they decided to stop me as they said that I may have offended some of the parents by giving out the book, especially because her work was “subversive”. I was appalled by this situation, I explained that Carol Ann Duffy is taught via the national curriculum, that she was our poet laureate, that surely the young parents could decide themselves whether to except the book or not. I am retelling this story because I think it illustrates why its so difficult to work outside the dominant ideology. I thought that they would be really sympathetic and open about me wanting to creatively engage with their centre. I was not expecting such a barrier to making. I have not been put off setting up the same project again, I think that there would be a different response to the work at another centre, and I would be more aware of some of the issues that I might encounter. I think its a matter of finding the right people to work with.

  5. Char March

    Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds had (when I last visited) an entire wall devoted to a very powerful graphic that represented the number of women who have died in childbirth over the centuries throughout the world – and still do in their thousands in (for instance) sub-Saharan Africa simply because they can’t afford the (very cheap) drugs to stop haemorrhaging. The Thackray also list all the famous women who’ve died in childbirth and that made very sobering reading – the disgrace of all that talent lost so young.


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