Unlike sex and violence, childbirth is rarely described in literary fiction.


Are there still taboo subjects in the literature? Graphic violence and sex in all its endless variations have become mainstream. Even shedding is now self-explanatory: think about the unforgettable scene of Joey searching for a ring in his own shit in Jonathan Franzen Freedom. But read almost any novel in which childbirth, one of the most universal of human events, takes place, and you will find that the act itself has been removed. An author as famous for her visceral and detailed accounts of the female experience as Elena Ferrante offers the following as a description, in its entirety, of the birth of the narrator’s first child in the third book of the Neapolitan novels, Those who go and those who stay:

I had excruciating labor pains, but they didn’t last long. When the baby came out and I saw her… I felt such a piercing physical pleasure that I still don’t know any other pleasure that can compare to it.

Pages later, the birth of her second child is even less elaborate: “Everything went well. The pain was excruciating, but within hours I had another daughter.

Some ways of avoiding a childbirth scene in contemporary fiction have become almost predictable, as cliché as the clothes strewn on the floor in a PG-13 rated film: the frantic drive to the hospital, followed by ‘a jump to the new baby; or the episode played for laughs at the woman in labor yelling at her ignorant husband, followed by a jump to the new baby. What happened to What is really going on?

My last novel, Eleven o’clock, takes place entirely during labor and delivery in an urban hospital. I have had two childbirths myself and have found it to be the most physically painful and transformative experience of my life. I wanted to write something that I felt I hadn’t read: a story that described childbirth from the inside out. I wanted to portray the alterations in consciousness that arise from being confronted with great pain, and the ways in which the crisis of work can cause a woman to find previously unknown forces within herself. I wanted to evoke the feeling of a long wait punctuated by intense activity. I wanted to show what it was like to be so close, simultaneously, to the creation of life and the possibility of death.

When Eleven o’clock had been accepted for publication in the US and my agent was buying it overseas, a publisher who had taken one of my previous books turned it down. “Sales and marketing weren’t sure how to present it,” I was told. “It’s such a special experience that we tell here.

Such a special experience? You mean, the one that billions of women have experienced? Didn’t feel sure they would know how to present it? The novel, as I saw it, was about the serious mind and body challenge that childbirth poses for a woman, just as combat is a severe challenge for the mind and body of men. Would an editor ever pretend he didn’t know how to pitch a war story?

The analogy between childbirth and battle may seem extreme to some. But it is only in the last hundred years, and only in certain countries and among certain populations, that childbirth has ceased to be extremely perilous for women. One in 18 womene– century in England who had seven children (the average was seven to eight live births) had a lifetime chance of more than 9 percent of dying in labor. Contemporary accounts of births at this time are complete. Recalcitrant babies can be extracted with a hook inserted in an eye or in the mouth; attempts to transform babies in the womb have led to neck fractures or beheading. Naturally, these procedures were excruciatingly painful, physically and emotionally, for the mothers. Even in today’s affluent West, childbirth can lead to nerve damage, scarring, and incontinence, as well as the less likely outcome of mother or child death.

It is not details and scenes that appear in literary fiction. Most would be too ugly, too overwhelming, wouldn’t they? But wait:

He put the gun to her head and fired… A fist-sized hole exploded on the other side of the woman’s head in a large vomit of blood and she spilled over and lay in her. blood without remedy… He took a flaying knife from his belt and walked over to where the old woman was lying, took her hair and wrapped it around her wrist, passed the blade of the knife around it. his scalp and tore off his scalp.

This is one of many such scenes in Cormac McCarthy’s modern classic. blood meridian. It is a sort of war tale, describing the skirmishes between border Americans and Native Americans in the middle of the 19e century. War stories are of course the backbone of our literary tradition, from The Iliad at Roland’s song at War and peace to the solid crop of novels and stories that attack the legacy of our recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. One might think that war offers higher stakes than childbirth – the fate of nations, rather than that of a mother and child or at most a family – and is therefore richer material. for fiction. In fact, it is seldom the plight of nations that prompts us to read imaginative war stories. we do not pick up War and peace because we are passionate about whether Napoleon will win or lose the Battle of Austerlitz. What engages us are its individuals and their destinies. Many famous war stories are driven by the relationships between fellow combatants, from Achilles to Patroclus to The nudes and the dead and The things they carried. They are no less “domestic”, in this respect, than the novels of family life.

So why are childbirth stories missing from literary fiction? Like many women, I am fascinated by birth tales. When I was pregnant, I coaxed other women to tell me theirs; I especially wanted to know how bad things could turn out, what maybe I should be prepared for. Subsequently, I wanted to be part of the “can you believe it?” »Compassionate and empathetic? community of women sharing birth stories. Women tell each other the details of labor and childbirth, but we don’t use them as material for literary art. Why?

The reason for this is certainly, in part, that childbirth is not only about blood and suffering, but also blood and suffering. the low. You know, the vagina. But there is more to it. In a much-discussed 1998 article for Harper’s review, “Woman’s ink perfumeFrancine Prose quoted novelist Diane Johnson as saying that male readers “have not learned to make the connection between the images, metaphors and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness) and the universal experience , although women, formed from childhood to read books written by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical meaning of the battlefield, the sailboat, the journey, etc. I would add to Johnson’s list of “home, garden, madness” the delivery bed (or delivery stool or delivery tub).

A few writers saw more potential in the birth story, among them – who else? – Tolstoy. In Anna karenina, Tolstoy takes three chapters to describe the work of Kitty Shcherbatsky. Although the point of view is that of her husband, Levin, these passages beautifully render the distortion in the sense of time, disbelief in the flippant demeanor of those who are not in pain, and the terror and fear that is part of it. of almost any childbirth. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood draws certain political and economic implications from procreation, here transformed into labor imposed on contract maids. In this novel’s birth scene, the upper-class woman who will take the baby, ritualistically crouches over the giving birth mother and pretends that she is the one pushing the baby. It’s fascinating.

These kinds of fictional passages are rare and offer only the smallest beginnings of possibility. We have been trained to see childbirth as all immanence, an event that is confined to our body and evaporates over the next few days or weeks as our memories of pain fade away. But why shouldn’t stories of labor and birth become vehicles for exploring questions of the utmost importance, including the pressing dichotomies that draw us in the first place to fiction: will and fate, courage and terror , love and hate, meaning and emptiness, power and helplessness, the carnal and the transcendent? Each birth crackles with these possibilities. To write these stories, the authors will first have to believe that they are important: fertile, to use an apt metaphor. Women will need to give up their habit of sharing details only in private, with other women who have given birth themselves. They will have to deal with any trauma they may have suffered: a callous doctor, the shock of the pain that sometimes shattered them, postpartum depression, a birth defect, a stillborn child. They will have to probe memories that adrenaline and fatigue have blurred and put aside the shame of how they may have behaved in extremis.

It will be worth it.

See all parts in
the review of the book on slate.


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