Childbirth in fiction – delivering the goods

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini
Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Births, marriages, deaths. These are the building blocks of stories. But what does it take to write a good childbirth scene? Is it even necessary to describe how a fictional baby comes into the world? Not always, I would say. But sometimes, as shown by the examples below, the birth is much more than a biological event. It is an important driver of the story which has an impact on how the characters behave later on. We have to be there with these women in their hour of need.

There is a short story in Annie Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is called Them Old Cowboy Songs which contains one of the most tragic birth scenes imaginable. The mother is a teenage girl living alone in a cabin in a remote part of Wyoming in 1885 (were there any non-remote parts of Wyoming at that time? I’m not sure). Her young husband Archie has gone off on his last cattle drive before the birth, hoping to be back in time, having asked a neighbour to check in occasionally on Rose.

The next morning was cold and sleety and her back ached; she wished for the heat of summer to return. She staggered when she walked and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make coffee. She drank water and stared at the icy spicules sliding down the window glass. Around midmorning the backache increased, working itself into a slow rhythm. It dawned on her very slowly that the baby was not waiting until September. By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor. She wriggled out of her heavy dress and put on her oldest nightgown. The pain increased to waves of cramping agony that left her gasping for breath, and on and on, the day fading into night, the rain torn away by wind, the dark choking hours eternal. Another dawn came sticky with the return of heat and still her raw loins could not deliver the child. On the fourth afternoon, voiceless from calling for Archie, her mother, Tom Ackler, Tom Ackler’s cat, from screaming imprecations at all of them, at god, any god, then at the river ducks and the weasel, to any entity that might hear, the python relaxed its grip and slid off the bloody bed, leaving her spiralling down in plum-colored mist.

There follows a heart-rending scene where Rose crawls out of the cabin with her stillborn baby wrapped in a dish towel and tries to dig a grave with a spoon. I won’t say any more.

At the risk of mentioning Lionel Shriver once too often in this blog, I have to include an extract from the birth chapter in We Need to Talk about Kevin because the savage eloquence of Eva, writing here to her husband Franklin, is so remarkable.

So I made an effort, at which point I had to recognize that I’d been resisting the birth. Whenever the enormous mass approached that tiny canal, I’d been sucking it back. Because it hurt. It hurt a whole lot. In the New School course, they drummed into you that the pain was good, you were supposed to go with it, push into the pain, and only on my back did I contemplate what retarded advice this was. Pain, good? I was overcome with contempt. In fact, I never told you this before, but the emotion on which I fastened in order to push beyond a critical threshold was loathing. I despised being spread out like some farm exhibit with strangers gawking between my canted knees. I detested Dr. Rhinestein’s pointed, ratlike little face and her brisk, censorious manner. I hated myself for ever having agreed to this humiliating theatre, when I was fine before and right at this moment I could have been in France.

In some countries, one in four babies is now being delivered by caesarian section and yet it’s not often you come across a description of a surgical birth. Maggie O’Farrell has one in her 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine. The birth is important in the book because things go drastically wrong just after this scene and the mother, Elina, spends most of the book recovering from the shock.

She could feel them, the two doctors, rummaging about inside her, like people who had lost something at the bottom of a suitcase. She knew it ought to hurt, it ought to hurt like hell, but it didn’t. The anaesthetic washed coolly down and then up her spine, breaking like a wave on the back of her head. There was a green canvas screen bisecting her body. She could hear the doctors murmuring to each other, could see the tops of their heads, could feel their hands in her innards. Ted was nearby, at her left, perched on a stool. And there was a great heave and suck and she almost cried out, what are you doing, before she realised, before she heard the sharp, angry cry, surprisingly loud in the hushed room, before she heard the anaesthetist, behind her, saying a boy. Elina repeated this word to herself as she stared ahead at the tiled ceiling. Boy. A boy. Then she spoke to Ted. Go with him, she said, go with the baby.

There are various other flashbacks of the birth as Elina tries to piece together what happened and come to terms with it. The other option is to skip the technicalities of the birth altogether, as Mary Costello does in Academy Street.

The pain struck at dawn. Willa came. In the hospital foyer her waters broke. She looked down at her drenched shoes and began to cry.

That evening when it was all over she thought she had scaled Everest, stood at its peak, exhilarated.

What, that’s it?
Actually there is a little more. Costello continues:

The next morning the enormity of it all hit her. She had brought forth life, rendered human something from almost nothing, and this power, this ability to create, overwhelmed her.

She did not take to the child. The light down on his skin resembled fur. She could not bear to touch the head, the unknitted bones of his crown. She thought of him as half-hatched, not quite finished. She was not in her right mind. Her body had been riven open, pummelled, her innards displaced. A disgust at her physical self took hold, at the engorged breasts, the bleeding. I am a cow, she thought. But cows are good mothers.

Nine and five years on I still remember the births of my own children in forensic detail and I remember feeling an urgent need in the early weeks and months to tell the story as often as I could (hopefully to a willing audience). Telling the story is a way of fully understanding and celebrating what has happened. It is too big an experience to fit into one day.

What about you? Do you think it’s desirable for authors to write detailed fictional accounts of labour? Have you ever written a childbirth scene or read one that stayed with you?

15 thoughts on “Childbirth in fiction – delivering the goods

  1. The most emotionally powerful childbirth scenes that I have seen in fiction are the ones used on the BBC drama Call the Midwife. It’s a loose adaptation of a trilogy of memoirs by Jennifer Worth that detail her adventures as a young midwife in the poorest section of London in the 1950’s and 60’s. The births offer the viewers a glimpse of the fear, joy, horror, and beauty of birth with a degree of realism that can be emotionally shocking. The first three seasons are on Netflix and the fourth is currently playing on pbs if you’d like to get a better idea.

    1. I know the series and I agree, it’s really well done. Also read the beginning of someone else’s copy of one of the books when I was away for the weekend and remembered not wanting to hand it back. Definitely deserves a mention in this discussion of childbirth in fiction (the books read like novels, don’t they?) because it is breaking the mould and extremely popular too.
      Glad to discover your blog today. Thanks for the follow!

      1. The memoirs only covered the first two seasons, after that it’s all fiction. Seasons 3 and 4 are all fiction and BBC has said they’re going to make a 5th season. Now I’m in the mood for a binge watch!!! 🙂

  2. You found some really stunning scenes, Clare. It’s surprising there are so few birth scenes in novels. Reading the ones you chose, points up what a significant event it is. In my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, I described the first son’s birth in some detail. But later, when a second son was born, I merely reported it.

    I, too, have watched and enjoyed The Midwife. The subject matter is so different from anything else on TV.

    1. Hi Nicki, I remember being impressed by your childbirth scene and would really have liked to use it as an example here but my copy of Tiger Tail Soup is in Ireland.
      I will get it back and look forward to featuring the novel in a future post. I could imagine using it as a great example of conveying a sense of place. Good to hear from you!

  3. Hi Clare. I remember the Shriver and Costello scenes you quoted, finding the first more convincing than the second. I just completed a short story that involves a birth would you believe? I copped out a bit, described the labour pains, then concentrated on what the mother remembered as the baby was lifted and laid on her chest afterwards. And since I’ve only had the experience once (natural, no pain relief offered) of course my own memories influenced my handling of it. I agree – it does stay with you!

    1. I wonder if your own experience is impossible to ignore when you come to write about childbirth. And it’s so different to write from the perspective of the observer. Just came across a scene in What I Loved where it is the father describing the birth. Very graphic, too graphic in my opinion. Guess there’s a limit to how much each reader wants to know.

      1. Yeah, spare us the gore. I think some writers may, wrongly IMO, think the male POV would focus on the graphic elements. On the other hand, writing it from the POV of an onlooker allows a writer who wants to represent birth like that to really go for it.

  4. To be honest, I don’t remember the pain of each birth, just details of before and after, chatting with the midwife, husband passing out, that kind of thing. I had with epidural, without epidural, quick and unremarkable, slow and gruesome, cesarian section, forceps, epidural that only worked on one side, baby popping out while the midwife was out of the labour ward. Most of the grisly details have blurred together. Each time was different, each with its crises. If I was to write about labour in detail, I wouldn’t know which time was ‘average’.

  5. My God Jane, how many children have you had?! It’s funny what you say about your husband passing out. The idea of the father being present at birth is still relatively new and probably not considerd normal in most societies. I wonder whether it’s really beneficial. I suppose many men will say they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

    1. Just five children but each one had its share of thrills and spills. Having your husband pass out isn’t the most encouraging of debuts, admittedly. They don’t let husbands see the injection for the epidural for that reason, but they forgot he was there. I was hunched over with that bloody great needle in my spine (or close) and I just saw his feet as they dragged him out.

      1. Five is a big brood. You must have been through every child-rearing experience in the book. I’m just reading Alexandra Fuller’s second memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come. She had nine novels rejected before she turned to memoir and that’s when things took off for her.

      2. My mother used to tell me to write about ‘real life’ but nobody would believe the half of it. I hate those books about living in Provence( the main culprit) when most of the anecdotes sound completely made up, or else are the resumt of misunderstandings due to the writer’s pig ignorance of the language.

  6. I’m in the middle of writing my second novel and it has a fairly graphic birth scene, so this blog post was really useful. I love the Annie Proulx piece. There’s also a wonderful and incredibly sad still birth scene in Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I’ve had two children and wrote down exactly what happened a day or so after each birth so that I wouldn’t forget .

    1. I’m glad the post found its way to the right reader. I kept a similar record on my first birth (twins) because I was so blown away by it. The second birth has yet to be recorded but is also etched in my memory. Nice to hear from you Claire and have a good writing summer!

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