Monday, August 02, 2004

Things nobody tells you

Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer comments on Anne Enright's Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood.

If I were ever to read a serious book about motherhood, this might be the one.

Enright has excellent phrases for some of the states of mind and body involved. Pregnancy, she says, is a 'limbo state', 'a non place.'

Pregnancy is a very complicated emotional and physical experience. Nothing I read prepared me for its strangeness. My pregnancy was almost completely wonderful (once I figured out that I was indeed pregnant and not merely crying and gaining weight in succumbing to the stress of moving to a new city where I had no friends and having no success in the job-hunt). I felt supremely healthy. I glowed.

But everything I ate or craved to eat, every nap I took, and maybe every emotion I felt too, was orchestrated to serve that larger biological purpose. My body was a vessel. I was host to a parasite.

The books prepare you for the physical eventualities, including the hormonal aspects. But nothing readied me to answer that philosophical crisis. "Limbo state" starts you on the right track.

But it is the author's traumatic memories of labour itself that will send a chill through any mother who picks up Making Babies. Her struggle with a never-ending blur of pain in unfamiliar surroundings is closer to most women's experience of childbirth than is usually acknowledged.

Nobody really talks about labour or delivery. Even among my friends the experience is summed up in a sentence of two, about how it hurts like hell but it's all worth it. Perhaps it's simply too difficult to convey the pain and confusion of something so intimate.

My entire delivery experience was hellish. I'm still angry that I didn't fight harder with hospital personnel against the use of labour-inducing drugs (my water broke before I had any contractions), which I'm sure set the stage for all that followed.

If I could do it over again, I'd make sure my mother stayed home. In fact, though I was desperate for her nurturing and supportive presence in those last days of pregnancy, I hadn't wanted her with me at the hospital. Maybe in the waiting room, popping by occasionally, but not beside me.

As for J-F, I'll leave that between me and J-F.

But people stop listening when they're so busy trying to take care of you.

After 23 hours of excruciating (yet drug-hazed )labour, I had a cesarean section.

(The hospital experience, as distinct from all that surrounded bringing a baby into the world, was equally terrible. Six rooms in five days, and the nurses were bitches.)

But it's all worth it.

The pure pleasures of parenthood are in this book too, but Enright is frank about the real significance of introducing her child to new sensations: she admits it is more about her emotions than her daughter's. On standing her baby barefoot on a lawn, she writes: 'She loved this, but maybe not so much as I did — her first experience of grass. For her, this green stuff was just as different and delicious as everything else — the "first" was all mine. Sometimes, I feel as though I am introducing her to my own nostalgia for the world.'

I suspect Helena's firsts — penguins, duck-feeding, flower-watering — are something completely beyond what her mother told her it would be. We know the romance of it is somewhere, but we can never quite put our finger on it.
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