Notes from a maternity ward
A New Statesman article from December 1983, by Angela Carter. Introduced by Kira Cochrane
What is the point of an anthology of women's journalism when everyone knows that women control the media? I got asked this question a lot when working on Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs, which has just been published. The answer is that, of all the major collections of journalism I've read, few scored even a 10 per cent contribution by women, and many less than 5 per cent. What surprised me most was how little women's concerns have changed over the past century. What their writing expresses - often in the personal tone that was pioneered by female journalists - is something truly universal. And so with the following piece, originally published in the New Statesman in 1983. Here, Angela Carter describes the experience of becoming a mother, including all the fear, irritation and ambivalence that are so rarely acknowledged. Her words are just as reassuring now as they were then to the millions of mothers who have secretly felt just the same. Kira Cochrane
Towards the end of the 38th week, I grow bored with saying "Fine", when asked at the antenatal clinic how I'm doing. So I try a little joke. It backfires. God, how it backfires. "How do you feel?" "A bit apprehensive," I say. "Not so much about the birth itself as about the next 20 or 30 years." The consultant, an unreconstructed Thatcher clone - that is, she looks like Thatcher minus the peroxide and the schlap - turns on me a face costive with high moral seriousness. "You have done the right thing in not having an abortion," she says. "But there is still time. It you have any doubts at all, I urge you to seriously discuss adoption with your husband - I know he's only a common-law husband, of course."
I'm overwhelmed by incredulity. Had I ever mentioned abortion in connection with this incipient cherub? Are my companero and I not the Darby and Joan of our circle? Should I say we just got hitched? What business is it of hers, anyway? I lapse into outraged silence. Later, I will weep with fury, but, if I do so now, who can tell how she will misinterpret that. I seethe. Who does she think she is; or I am? And if she delivers this kind of unsolicited advice to the white middle class - to a member of it who has given her occupation as "journalist", to boot - then what manner of abuse does she feel free to dish out to the black proletariat? How come she's lived so long? And why don't I punch her in the nose?
I'll tell you why. Because she's chosen to insult me when I'm flat on my back, dress pulled up, knickers down, vulnerable, helpless, undignified.
I would publish her name to the four winds, and gladly. But the hell of it is, she turns out to be a good doctor, as far as the mechanics are concerned. Callous and insensitive perhaps; but quick to spot a malfunction. A gift not to be sneezed at. And, furthermore, a woman so straitjacketed by self-righteousness I doubt she'd ever understand why I want to crucify her. After all, her concern was only for what was best for the baby. And hadn't I virtually said I didn't want him? When she sees me, all pale and proud, on the ward after he's born - he chuckling in a glass box like a very expensive orchid - she's as nice as pie. Well done, she says.
"She". Note how this consultant is female. I'm lying in at the embattled South London Hospital for Women, the last place I expected to be insulted. But there you go. Here, women treat women and she's the only one of them who treated me like a piece of shit.
I haven't been in hospital for 30 years, so I can't comment on the decline in the standards of the NHS; the floors aren't polished until they turn into lethal ice-rinks any more, which is no bad thing. The food has certainly improved, in comparison with the early Fifties. The sheer wonder of the NHS remains; that they will do the best they can for us, that we are not at the mercy of a free-market economy, that the lovely nurses smile as if they meant it and hug you when you are sad.
Inevitably, this particular hospital is scheduled for the axe. No amount of special pleading on behalf of women whose religion specifies they be treated by doctors of the same sex seems likely to save it: it is due to close down next April, its various wards - it's a general hospital - distributed around other local hospitals. The staff seems scarcely able to believe that some miracle won't save the place. If the Minister of Health turns into a woman tomorrow, there might be a chance, especially if (s)he then converted to Islam.
It is a rather elegant, red-brick building convenient for Clapham South Tube station (the Northern Line). It overlooks green and pleasant Clapham Common. It is, obviously, very well equipped; only needs a coat or two of paint and a few vases of plastic flowers to be fit for - who? The young woman in the bed next to me made a shrewd guess as to what would happen to the building once the NHS moved out. "They'll sell it to bloody Bupa, won't they," she opined.
The midwife shows me how to put the baby to the nipple. "Look deep into his eyes," she says. "It helps with the bonding." Good grief! Aren't we allowed any choice in the matter, he and I? Can't I learn to love him for himself, and vice versa, rather than trust to Mother Nature's psycho-physiological double bind? And what of his relationship with his father, who has no breasts? Besides, it's very difficult to look him in the eye. He fastens on the nipple with the furtive avidity of a secret tippler hitting the British sherry, glancing backwards to make sure nobody else gets there first. When he strikes oil, he instantly becomes comatose. Am I supposed to poke him into consciousness: "Hey, baby, don't nod off, we're supposed to be bonding." More like bondage. Constrained affection; what resentment it will breed, in time. It's all part of the mystification in which the process of childbirth is so richly shrouded. For he is doomed to love us, at least for a significant initial period, because we are his parents. The same goes for us. That is life. That's the hell of it.
Somebody gave us an American publication called Giving Birth. A collection of photographs of mothers and fathers sharing the experience. (Where's the lesbian couple? Discrimination!) The parents look ecstatic; radiant; touchingly, comically startled and so on. Lots of shots of little heads poking out of vulvas. Also quotes from participants: "I felt I had to be very focused. It was almost like meditation," says one mother. It is compiled by somebody called Mary Motley Kalergis, another name on my post-partural hit-list. (Isn't one allowed a year's justifiable homicide after the event?) The photographs are all in black and white, please note. And, indeed, colour film would have made souvenir snaps of the finale of my own accouchement look like stills from a Hammer horror film. While what was going on next door, an emergency Caesarean, well, that certainly wasn't like meditation, not half it wasn't! This truly nauseating book is designed to mystify. It is about as kitsch as a fluffy blue bunny, and as much to do with the realities of parturition as a fluffy blue bunny has to do with a real live baby.
OK, OK. So this notebook has submerged under a sea of baby shit. Mao Zedong called a pig "a manure factory on four legs". A baby is much the same, except it remains stationary. Some people suggest you chuck boiled disposables on the compost heap. There are a few other suggestions for utilising the formidable quantities of ordure produced by the average baby and heedlessly thrown away every day. To say nothing of the valuable amounts of methane they emit. At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy has Natasha ankle-deep in baby shit; impossible not to read something vindictive into that, although he does make Pierre soil his hands, too. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with baby shit. The TV news gobs out fresh horrors into the living room every evening; insulted by the specific urgencies of the neonate, that appalling dichotomy - the one between our lives as we live them and the way that forces outside ourselves shape them for us - seems less desperate than usual. Under the circumstances, a mercy.
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