Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Unspeakable: Why Don't Women Write About Birth?

Image courtesy of The Birth Project Paintings

When it came to writing the birth scene in Unspeakable Things, it struck me how very rarely this is portrayed in literature. There’s the modern-day scene at the end of Birdsong and the birth in Tristram Shandy. (Please leave a comment if you can think of others!) Both my examples were written by men.

Why do so few women write a mother’s experience of birth?

We write unflinchingly about sex, violence and death, so why do we steer away from such an extraordinary process? (This article ponders the question).

Birth is a dramatic and pivotal experience, it changes everything forever – much more so than marriage, which is the focus of so many novels.

Even if you read widely and go to classes, the first time you give birth, much of it is unexpected. It is a rite of passage: you start as someone who doesn’t know the secret and end up someone who knows.

The birth of my first child astonished me. Afterwards, I went through every mother I knew in my head, and thought, My God, you did that! I never knew!

Is birth indescribable then? Surely not, with all the mothers in the world, and all the words?

Before writing Sarah’s experience in the novel, I searched for my diary entry about my first son’s birth. I found an account in Ben’s ‘Baby Diary’, but this is about having a new baby, rather than the birth itself:

He was bluish and covered in white stuff and I said, ‘Come to Mummy,’ and put my arms around him.

What I had been through was so overwhelmingly physical that I couldn’t feel anything emotional except relief.

Scribbled on the back of some bills, I found a fuller account of the birth. I have just read it again, shed a few sentimental tears and decided there are parts I am not going to share.

Ironically, I am self-censoring just as, all those years ago, I put a sanitised version in the Baby Diary.

Is it squeamishness that makes us withhold the truth, or a fear of revolting our audience? Many women, as well as men, are disgusted by the details. Is birth more intimate than sex, and more unmentionable?

For a time, women are obsessed with birth stories. I went into labour during an antenatal class, and was still in hospital when the next class was held there. I took my baby to show the expectant mothers, and as they gathered round, the midwife said, ‘Tell us your story.’

I had gone through the rite of passage and spoke to them from across the divide, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell them the whole truth about the pain, which they would all face in the weeks to come.

My diary describes it though:

The pain went on getting stronger and I gulped the gas and moaned with every out breath... I don’t know how long this went on… Since the pain got worse, time had slowed right down. I was beginning to dread the next contraction. Suddenly the quality of the contractions changed and I began to feel a great downwards pressure. It was an astonishing feeling and quite frightening… I cried out, ‘I can’t do this! I want someone else to do it for me!’ and Lily said to Jon, ‘Don’t worry, they get like this towards the second stage’.

When it came to writing Sarah’s birth story, I called upon two of my memories. One was of the extraordinary sensation, during transition, of labour changing direction – the body switching, turning and reforming in a different shape, like a Transformer becoming a robot. Another was the feeling of an unstoppable force, which I told people afterwards was ‘like a freight train bearing down inside.’

Most of the details of Sarah’s birth are dictated by her story: she wakes from a near-death experience to find herself in labour:

Her insides were heaving in chaos. Contractions! There were things she had to do. Now a freight train was bearing down inside her. It was nothing like the pains before; her insides were rotating and switching positions, like a transformation in a horror film, skin and muscle pushed beyond endurance. Pain was an unstoppable pressure, building towards a crescendo. Then Sarah knew where it was going and she opened her eyes and saw Jim’s face. She cried out to him, but all she heard was a guttural noise:


‘What?’ He turned to someone beside him, ‘What’s she saying?’ The force inside her was at bursting point but still powering downwards. She was an animal with only one impulse.

‘I gotta push!’

It’s Sarah’s story, the climax of her plot, but it owes something to my son’s unforgettable arrival – eight hours that changed my life. I hope it does something to make up for a mysterious absence in literature.

Have you read, written or in any way portrayed the experience of birth? Why do you think birth is so rare in books? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.