One consequence of spending high school science classes sitting in the corner, fringe in face, listening to Regurgitator on a covert Walkman, is that as an adult, I have to derive my knowledge of biology from alternate sources. This is pretty fun, like completing a jigsaw puzzle by cutting the pieces to fit them together. It gives me a particular affinity with children, intelligent machines and the ancients, with their collective propensity to cling to the literal. It makes sense to me that a child would think the baby ‘in mummy’s tummy’ shared the food she ate, necessitating her ‘eating for two’. I seldom miss an opportunity to be massively misled by a passer-by or internet forum. You can imagine then, how lucky I felt a few months ago on a tram, when I got the opportunity to eavesdrop on two women sharing horrific birth stories in loud, glib voices.
“He was eight days overdue,” said one of the women. “He was literally baked.” The other made sympathetic sounds, adding that the same thing, only far worse, had happened during her own pregnancy. This woman’s poor foetus, now a child named Luc (thank God), was almost a month over term. He was “well overcooked”, the woman said sternly, his skin “blistering from his flesh” it had gotten “so hot and acidic” in there. Eventually, they had to induce labour so that he didn’t simply broil, “stewing in his own juices”.
Childless by choice and biologically ill-informed though I may be, I could not allow myself to fully indulge in the horror that these descriptions evinced. Everyone is familiar with natal cooking euphemisms. No-one believes that babies actually stew in utero, right? But why then were these women so humourless, so staunchly un-ironic, so unrelenting in their allusions to the fiery process of the oven rather than its sweetly metaphorical task of gently coaxing lumps of dough into delicious, sweet-smelling loaves? Were these activists from some radical feminist agitprop group who covertly targeted women in their fertility window on public transport? If so, bullseye.
French psychoanalyst, structuralist and detective novelist Julia Kristeva writes that the making horrific of the maternal body – “abjection” – is a crucial step in the infant’s psychosexual development. Through abjecting the maternal, our infant selves solidify our own identities as separate beings with discrete positions in the world. The most significant threat to our borders are the bodies of our mothers from which we emerge, mingled horribly with the “urine, blood, sperm and excrement” that will cement our revulsion in the face of the abject for the rest of our lives.
Everyone is familiar with natal cooking euphemisms. No-one believes that babies actually stew in utero, right?
Perhaps what’s encapsulated in the abject images shared by the mothers on public transport is not just the propensity for horrific birth stories to fill a primal need, or the way that pregnancy divides women into mothers and not-mothers in terms of sensibilities (“What’s wrong? It’s just melting flesh, it’s natural.”) and capacities (“At the time I couldn’t think about the melting flesh, I had a job to do.”). Perhaps it’s also a story of coming to the edge of all things, to the flashpoint of fear, passion, desperation and desire, and not only living up to the challenge, but finding oneself able to restore order to it, reduce it to a blasé anecdote told on a tram.
This is the high-stakes mythology within which we situate pregnancy. Its miracles and its unimaginables are all bound in tight paradox with its undeniable banality. Somewhere in this erratic conception, we hope to achieve a balance in which maternity is neither afforded too much nor too little power, is not made fantastic nor totally reduced to function, and most importantly, is something that can be clearly understood. It is not just infants who form identity in relation to the body of ‘mother’. Our cultural and political systems too, need to name and describe this body and its functions clearly, as a category both intrinsic to and completely separate from its chimeric route – the body of ‘woman’…
Read the full essay in Going Down Swinging #33