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|Conceptions in the making
or, Tilley Olsen, the Silences must still be broken
I’d been a fool, then doubted my sanity. I had read “Spiritual Midwifery” and Sheila Kitzinger.
I’d expected a blissful birthing experience. The midwife had purred “for some women, giving birth is like an enormous orgasm.”
“You’ll feel psychedelic rushes,”
“visualise rolling waves of colour.”
But it was more like torture.
“the contractions became excruciating. I was pulling out my hair, tearing
at my face, biting my arms”
”“It was like being given shocks with an electric cattle prod.”
Instead of being able to breathe through the labour pains, I succumbed to them, as if beneath the kick of a steel-toed boot. This was not what I’d been given to believe, or what I’d wanted.
“No one told me it would be like this”
What I’d conceived and what I encountered were as different as fire and ice.
Reality had been displaced by a nightmare. I experienced a disjunction, a fracture in understanding, a split between learned knowledge and the feeling, embodied world.
“What is happening to me? Why am I feeling like this?”
After the birth, I went searching for other women’s experiences. Not just birthing stories, but all the unexpressed, untold truths about mothering: the ambivalence, the fears, the surge of hormonal emotions, the guilt. I knew I couldn’t be alone, that the silence obliterating everything other than the positive aspects of mothering had to be cultural. There would be stories under the whitewash.
I found other mothers trying to hold up their smiles, and told them I was willing to listen to what they had to tell. Almost everyone I spoke to wanted (some almost desperately) to tell her story.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t love my baby…”
I found a multitude of experiences, none remotely the same.
“I cried nearly every day of my pregnancy…”
“I felt so honestly holy, I felt so blessed.”
“I felt robbed, dehumanised, lied to, butchered, ugly, rushed, powerless”
“I was the happiest I had ever felt in my entire life.”
I met women who lost their babies, who had had miscarriages or abortions, women who kept their fetuses despite doctors warnings. I spoke with women who almost died giving birth or became suicidal afterwards.
”Knowing this baby boy is going to die, how do we live with this knowledge…
and keep sane, functional and grounded?”
“300 feet over rock cliff and green trees.”
“With Trisomy 18 there could be severe mental handicap, there are often
problems that affect the heart, kidneys or other organs…”
Trying to have a long talk about something private and emotional doesn’t always work. I’d be tending my colicky boy while trying to listen to a woman as she nursed her baby and fed her two year old. Our conversations were interrupted, half-formed.
So instead of interviews, I asked everyone I spoke with if they would write down their thoughts. I bought blank journals and handed them out. I advertised, asked around, made requests for specific kinds of stories (lesbian mothers, alternative lifestyles, in-vitro fertilization.). Of the thirty-one women (no men) who responded, 22 were able to write. The rest, faced with the blank journal in front of them, found they couldn’t do it - because of complications, the demands of others, or even because their husbands felt threatened by it. A few were unable to articulate what they felt, or were so critical of themselves they couldn’t bear their own words. Of the 22 that did manage to write, seventeen were willing to show their work publicly.
“what are people going to think, reading this?”
Talking with other mothers reassured, re-embodied me. Placed within the continuum
of women’s histories, the schism I’d experienced dissolved. We all shared the same (or similar) conflicts and fears, and the same overwhelming love for our children. We worried about doing our best, we worried about failure. Everyone had a concern about something she had consumed or had been exposed to, or had even thought about while she was pregnant.
“Lithium grease all over my hands.”
“Agriculture Canada began their aerial spraying…near our farm.
They are trying to kill gypsy moths.”
“The News is full of the Gulf War, jets are practicing over our heads.”
We all had a vision of what we wanted for our child’s birth. Some felt protected by their doctors, others feared hospitals, some wanted privacy, one woman planned a full-scale birthday party; but every one of us wanted just the same thing: a healthy baby.
“I obeyed Dr. Bie’s every directive.”
“We didn’t want to take any chances.”
“No painkillers, no nothing.
I specifically told them not even to offer.”
Over and again I heard mothers being judged because they didn’t act the “right” way
or do the accepted thing. Community pressure could be harsh. I met mothers who felt censured because they were working (or because they weren’t); mothers who had been criticised because they were single, because of what or how they fed their children, or whether they breast fed and for how long. Women experienced blame for every little thing: “their children would turn out rotten” because as mothers they were too smart or too stupid, too busy or too slow, too sensuous or too hairy (but never too demure).
“For years and years I considered myself a bad person...”
“… I felt ‘less than’ in conversations with other mothers.”
I had to learn to listen, and listen well. I had to put my own desires aside, let the women I worked with know that I wanted to know their story, not just a validation of my own. I was determined not to judge. It was obvious to me that every mother did the best she possibly could for her child.
“ I have tried not to look back on my decision to leave them.
It was the best thing for them.”
“My entry into parenthood was rough. But there’s big love here.”
“ I did what I thought was best at the time. Now I’m not so sure.”
I made certain to accept, and did not censor or belittle, what women told me.
I wanted to know, and the only way to know is to listen. The physicist David Bohm wrote about how vitally important it is for “people to realise what is on each others minds, without coming to any conclusions or judgements.” In Conceptions I created a place where this could happen, where differing voices could sit side by side, each legitimate. I’ve presented the viewer with a place to think and to question, and I’ve not presumed to have the answers.
“Through all my struggles and frustrations, I am becoming someone
I never could have been without having had my daughter…”
all quotes in this article are taken, with thanks, from the journals of the women
who participated in this show.
This essay was originally published in
Pink Link ou la proposition rose
La Centrale/Gallerie Powerhouse
© Diana Lynn Thompson 2001