Friday, May 14, 2010

Inevitability and Powerlessness in Margaret Atwood's "Giving Birth"

Margaret Atwood’s 1982 “Giving Birth” includes a short sketch of a set of prospective parents in a childbirth class. The group consists of several first-time mothers and fathers and only one woman who has given birth before: “She’s there, she says, to make sure they give her a shot this time. They delayed it last time and she went through hell” (261). In response to this proclamation, the other participants in the class “look at her with mild disapproval. They are not clamouring for shots, they do not intend to go through hell. Hell comes from the wrong attitude, they feel. The books talk about discomfort” (261). This scene resonates with my own experience. When I was pregnant with my now one-year-old, my husband and I enrolled in a childbirth class, mostly because this was to be his first child and I wanted him to feel included in this process with which I was already at least somewhat familiar, but also because, like Atwood’s experienced mother, my first delivery had been terrible and I was in search of some way to ensure that this one would be different. Since I had previously given birth, I was much like the woman whom Atwood describes in this scene, the only one in the group of hopeful soon-to-be mothers and their partners who had experienced the terror of labor. During the first scheduled childbirth class, the instructor encouraged us, during childbirth, to envision each contraction as a “squeeze” and assured us that these “squeezes” would not cause pain but only—and here’s that word again—discomfort. It was at that moment that I recognized this woman—who claimed to have given birth to one child herself—as simply a liar or, perhaps, as one of the lucky ones who had gotten the drugs during childbirth for which I had hysterically screamed during my first delivery. I yearned to warn the other women in the room, as the experienced mother in Atwood’s story does: “’It’s not discomfort, it’s pain, baby’” (261). I kept my mouth shut, though, and decided that instead of attempting to sway the minds of the women in that room who seemed to need to believe in the wonder of childbirth to the exclusion of its often very real agony and gore, that I would just skip the remaining classes in the childbirth course. This course could do nothing to help me through the battle that would inevitably ensue—between my insides intent on expelling my baby and my outsides trying desperately to hold me intact—and that would just as inevitably leave as its primary casualty my split and bloody body, not to mention my psychologically battered consciousness.

This sense of dreadful inevitability that I felt throughout my second pregnancy is powerfully depicted in “Giving Birth.” Indeed, although some critics read the story’s portrayal of giving birth as a metaphor for a woman’s creative process, I claim that this short piece takes as its most literal theme a mother’s complete powerlessness to escape the terrible and bodily violence that occurs in childbirth. In this way, Atwood intervenes in the romantic discourses that still pervade the dominant ideologies surrounding maternity and this process named—curiously, as Atwood points out—“giving birth.”

The narrator of the piece—a writer and a mother of a young toddler herself—recounts her plan to create a story in which a woman named Jeanie goes through the process of childbirth. Throughout her pregnancy, the character of Jeannie is shadowed by another pregnant woman, one “who did not wish to become pregnant, who did not choose to divide herself like this, who did not choose any of these ordeals, these initiations” (260-61). On the way to the hospital to give birth, Jeanie contemplates the position of this woman who is inevitably headed toward the same birthing process that Jeanie will undergo: “It would be no use telling her that everything is going to be fine. The word in English for unwanted intercourse is rape. But there is no word in the language for what is about to happen to this woman” (260). Of course, this woman seems to represent a part of Jeanie’s own consciousness, the part of her—and the part of each soon-to-be mother—that fears the process in which her body is caught and from which she is powerless to escape.

Indeed, it is this powerlessness that makes the birthing process so terrible for Jeanie in the hours to come. As she slips in and out of the painful “dark place” of each contraction, she continually struggles for control (267). At first, she tries to count through the contractions, but at some point this becomes futile: “She no longer has control of the numbers either, she can no longer see them, . . . . She realizes that she has practised for the wrong thing, . . . she should have practised for this, whatever it is” (266). Like many laboring mothers, including myself during my first delivery, Jeanie experiences a moment when she refuses to accept that she must go on, stating forcefully, “’I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t do this’” (267). Of course, she has to do it; she has to continue laboring and delivering her child. What “it is,” then, that Jeanie should have practiced for, is the realization that she cannot stop this terrible process, that she must see it out to its end.

After her baby is born, Jeanie regards the infant carefully and decides that “giving birth” is a misnomer for the experience that both she and her little girl have just undergone: “Birth isn’t something that has been given to her, nor has she taken it. It was just something that has happened so they could greet each other like this” (269). Here Jeannie rejects the romantic notion of delivery that positions the mother as the active giver of life and instead realizes that a mother who “gives birth” is simply stuck in a necessary cycle of life and death that she cannot fully control. As both baby and mother drift off to sleep, Jeanie’s partner, states definitively, “’You see, there was nothing to be afraid of’” (270). Even in her state of exhaustion, Jeanie recognizes that “he was wrong” (270).

As “Giving Birth” demonstrates, what is terrifying about the birthing process is not only the pain but the realization that one’s body will carry out the deed regardless of whether or not one’s mind wishes for it to stop or carry on and, therefore, that we have only limited control over our own bodies. Also, during a delivery, a part of the mother’s body becomes its own person. This means that childbirth truly is an “initiation,” as Jeanie calls it, into a state in which the mother inevitably loses more and more control over what was once her own body. Even though my delivery of Wes was less difficult than my delivery of Taegan six years before, I still recall a moment during his birth when I thought to myself, "I can't do this. I can't go on." Despite the fact that his actual arrival into this world was a bit easier than I expected given my previous experiences, I still maintain that "giving birth," is both an intense realization of and gateway into the sheer terror of the often powerlessness of parenthood.

Bibliographic Note: For a reading of Atwood’s short story as a depiction of a woman’s creative process, see Pascale Sardin’s “Creation and Procreation in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Giving Birth’: A Narrative of Doubles.”

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Giving Birth.” Mothers and Daughters in the Twentieth Century: A Literary Anthology. Ed. Heather Ingman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. 255-71.

Sardin, Pascale. “Creation and Procreation in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Giving Birth’: A Narrative of Doubles.” Women’s Literary Creativity and The Female Body. Ed. Diane Long Hoeveler and Donna Decker Schuster. New York: Macmillan, 2007. 163-174.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, how I remember that feeling. That moment in the hospital, when every fiber of your entire being is screaming "I don't like this! I want out!" and you realize there's no way out, no way around, there's just through. I think of it as the plane-going-down moment, which I imagine is very similar: the only thing you want in that moment is to be out, away, anywhere but there--and there is no escape. There is no escape.

    Still--we are such a mixed bag of feelings--there's excitement and thrill and wonder and anticipation and a bunch of other stuff all mixed up in the experience too, at least there was for me. One thing I realize is that every emotional (in my experience, anyway) seems to be a big mixed bag of tangled skeins of thread, all different colors of emotion . . . so it's a matter of focus as much as anything. Of course, it's hard to focus or shift your attention when you're in the grip of actual terror. :-)

    My second birth was much better. I think I was more prepared, calmer, seasoned. I also had read about visualizing, so every contraction I saw in vivid color, strongly envisioning opening up more and more, little by little. It was a pretty fun experience, actually. And horrific. Definitely horrific. Childbirth is one of the few things in life (performing onstage knowing you're not up to the task also comes to mind, to the -100th power of childbirth ) that I can think of that's both FUN and HORRIFIC at the same time. :-)