We have turned away from our bodies. Shamefully we have been taught to be unaware of them, to lash them with stupid modesty… woman, writing herself, will go back to this body that has been worse than confiscated… Hélène Cixous
I’m having a phone conversation with my son in Montreal. He’s complaining that I wrote a poem about his brother and not him. Which I didn’t but anyway.
“Well,” I say, “I’ve written a story about you being born.”
“Cool,” he says, “send it to me.”
“OK. I’ve changed your name to protect your privacy.”
“Hmmmmm. What did you call me?”
“Harry,” I reply.
“Harry! You can’t call me Harry! That sucks!”
“OK. What would you like me to call you?”
There is a long and expensive silence. Then:
“Buck Naked!” he crows triumphantly. “Call me Buck Naked!”
So I have. The title of this story is not ‘Birthing Harry’ as I intended, but ‘Birthing Buck Naked.’
I understand that as a title it is somewhat ambiguous but what can I do? I’m a mother.
I prepared a corner in the room downstairs where I’d decided to give birth. I arranged cushions, pillows and blankets. I made a nest as warm and welcoming as that of any Arctic bird making a shelter for its young from spring rains and driving gales. I placed a pile of thick towels close by and on my feet I wore winter socks of cream wool. Then I rang Stephen.
“I’m starting,” I said. There was silence at his end. Starting what? I could hear him thinking.
“Oh God, I’m sorry. God, I’m on my way right now, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“It’s all right,” I told him. “I feel fine and I’ve rung the midwife.”
It wasn’t cold, though I’d prepared as if it was. April in Sydney, an unusually hot April but I knew I would feel cold in labour, and I thought outside of me could never be as warm as inside for the new child.
For the last couple of weeks I’d laid dreaming on the couch near the glass doors that led into the garden, rousing myself only to care for my four-year-old, Samuel, and attend to what was essential to maintain our daily lives. I gathered my focus and guided it inwards. A deep certainty filled my days and nights. I moved, languidly, to other rhythms. I became an ancient being, rooted in timelessness. I smiled when spoken to. I was engulfed by a great calm.
I knew plenty about the child. I was familiar with his restless stirrings on humid nights. I knew the energy in his limbs as he turned in my uterus. I knew his hiccoughs. His hands that seemed to be reaching out to me through the layers of flesh that kept us apart. The impatient, arrogant thrusts of his feet as he sought more freedom of movement than could ever be offered in my confined spaces.He was me, and he was not me. He was inside me, but I could not know him. Through me he lived, but the life outside would be his to choose.
Nobody can tell you how hard it is to love another so completely, and know as well that your task is to let him go. Nobody can tell you that from his birth it will be his task to learn to live without you.
Nobody tells you how it will feel to whisper: “Go, my darling, into the world, into your life, and may everything good watch over you and bless your every moment.”
I determined quite early in the piece that I’d have this child at home. This decision surprised everyone, not least of all me. I’d never thought of myself as interestingly alternative in my life practices. Indeed, quite the opposite: a traumatic and marginalised childhood had left me with a deep yearning for all things ordinary.
Everyone I knew gave birth in hospital, as had I the first time. But something about the indignity of that experience, its clinical nature, the smells, the brisk and efficient manners; something about the instruments, the pipes in the wall, the lights, all conspired to convince me that I wanted to try another way.
Stephen went white when I announced my decision. He wasn’t a fearful man and usually faced demanding situations with courage and confidence. But this decision propelled him miles away from his zone of comfort. He attempted to dissuade me. The possibilities of error. Sudden dysfunction in the birth process.
He called in our mothers, friends, the doctor who lived down the street. But I would not yield to argument or reason. I didn’t care to understand, at the time, the burden I’d placed on him. I was in the grip of a most profound determination, and nobody could change my mind.
We’d made the child in France, on a camping holiday in Provence. At the end of the trip, driving endlessly around the Boulevarde Périphérique trying to find our way into Paris, I threw up and realised I was growing a baby. That holiday, and living in the UK gave me the idea. Babies were born at home as a matter of course. It was no big deal. I’d read my Margaret Drabble: the birthing of the baby of a snowy night, the sleepy midwife, the snug bed. At that point we had no idea which country the child would be born in. It would be cosmopolitan. It would be born the European way.
Years later, grown up, he is a restless young man, nomadic. He takes leave of us for long periods during which he hitchhikes across the vast Canadian plains, offering his services as a ranch hand, barman and dogsbody. He takes jobs on fabulous yachts owned by French casino bosses, moored in Spain and the South of France. He swabs the decks, and serves cocktails to the wives, mistresses and daughters of the international mafia.
He sends postcards from a market in Marrakesh. He rides the ferry from Sweden to Estonia, the Greyhound from New York to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. He sends emails: I love you Mum and I always miss you. I send emails: I love you, my darling and I always miss you. Please remember to brush your teeth.
There is a point in labour where a woman may decide she’s not going through with it. It can happen in the best of labours. I arrived at that pivotal moment. I told them, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m stopping now.
They laughed, kindly, and gave me chips of ice on which to suck. Damn you, I cried. You have no idea what this is like. Then I heaved myself up from the birthing couch and lumbered into the laundry, where I threw up in the sink.
Gazing out the window at the peach tree in the back yard, it occurred to me that seeing a project through to the end was not something I was renowned for. This urge to escape had been masked, in my first labour, by gas and drugs. Now I was feeling the full brunt of it. I looked at my hopelessly swollen stomach, and understood there was no way out. I cried. I’d tried to avoid positions of such singular responsibility all my life.
The others could help me. Rub my back. Remind me to breathe. But bottom line, I was on my own. I turned from the window and propelled my massive self back to the nest. All right, I told them. I’m ready now. Let’s do it.
I want a new name for that valley between the contours of my thighs. Swollen with birthing, a bursting chakra radiant with heat. If I could see the colours of those energies, what would they be? Gold, rose-pink, ruby-red, lilac and lavender, and burgundy streaked with the rays of the rising sun.
Sensation radiated from my centre and down the inside of my legs. The waves of birth pain overwhelmed me and as I’d learned, I gave myself up to them. If I cannot control this, if I cannot escape, I will yield to this pure sensation, unmediated by thought or explanation.
Between my thighs the midwife spied the first tentative appearance of the child’s head. As the contraction subsided he slipped back, as if overcome by a sudden change of plan. The wily little character taunted us: Would he do this or not? But like me, he had no choice in the matter, we were in the grip of another force altogether and for him, like me, there was no going back. Another huge wave of sensation propelled him, regardless of his wishes, further down the birth canal towards his new life on earth.
They wiped my brow. I swatted at them as if they were flies. Everything was now an aggravation. I hated them. They distracted me with their advice. Fuck off! I roared at them, at the same time clutching their hands to keep them with me.
Then something unrecognised and thrilling surged through me. Its force brooked no argument or interference. In its wake the infant’s poor squashed face, a study in fierce concentration, slid into the waiting hands of his father who crouched, white-lipped and weeping, between my naked thighs.
There are photographs of this event taken by my sister, who set up her tripod between my legs and captured it all.
Until he was twenty, Buck Naked steadfastly refused to acknowledge this newborn as himself, claiming it had to be his brother. At twenty he came home for the first time with a girlfriend he cared enough about to introduce to us, and after dinner one night he said: “Mum can we show Alice the pictures of me being born?”
I was astonished. Not only was he owning the event as his, he wanted to share it. I dug out the photos and we all gazed at them. They are curiously compelling. Nobody said much. We all sighed a lot. They are imbued with magical powers, those photos, though to what purpose I remain unsure.
After the birth they offered me Champagne we brought home from France just for this occasion, but all I wanted was tea, gallons of it, milky, sweet and hot. Neighbours dropped by with food and flowers. This was the first home birth in our street and everyone was interested. I found myself something of a folk hero. Even the disapproving congratulated us. The following year two more women in our street gave birth at home. It was a small yet powerful movement.
The child latched immediately onto my breast. I had made it known beforehand that I wanted the placenta buried in the back yard and a tree planted to mark Harry’s arrival. Now I heard discussions about stray dogs digging it up, and hygiene and illegality. Stephen’s face was close to mine and our newborn child. “Please do what I want with it,” I whispered. “Don’t listen to them. It will be OK.” He nodded and kissed me.
In retrospect I see I lacked appreciation for his courage. After all, I seemed to be possessed of some esoteric knowledge about this birth that reassured me. All he had was my word for it. This man, whose life so far had prepared him for nothing that even came close to this experience, trusted the intuitions of his obsessed wife, and fulfilled her wishes. It was an act of faith on his part. It wasn’t as if I’d ever proved my reliability.
I remember those days in terms of the body. Of bodily fluids: waking in the morning in pools of milk from overflowing breasts. The infant’s liquids. The eroticism. The strange delight I took in bodily messes. I was real. I was flesh and blood and milk and desire and lust and sensation. It was good. I was good. I was embodied. I was, finally, earthed.
I received an indignant email from Canada concerning the flirtations of Alice. Echoing Freud, Buck Naked demanded: “What do women want, Mum? Just what the hell do women want?”
I’m not sure he wanted me to answer this question. It had the ring of a complaint rather than a general inquiry, as perhaps did Freud’s original query. I never took to Alice, I must confess. In private moments I referred to her as “Miss Canada” owing to her uppity nature and her air of knowing everything. She ran rings around him, I could tell.
I wanted to take Buck Naked on my knee as I did in the days when he wore a soft yellow sleep suit with built-in feet. I wanted to take him back against my heart so he could feel its beating, and know that he is loved. Instead I sent another email. I addressed his pain as comfortingly as possible, and then I wrote: I love you my darling and I always miss you. Please remember to brush your teeth.
There is always at least a little good mother milk left in her. She writes with white ink. Hélène Cixous