Busy Being Born
I began writing what would eventually become “The Art of Being Born” on my daughter’s twenty-second birthday. That anniversary triggered memories of the day she was born—a warm day early in spring, reaching the low sixties, sunny in that everything-is-all-right, couldn’t-be-better way, blue skies like the inside of morning glories, with tumbling clouds.
In that first writing, I recreated the narrative of the day, how I had slept on the couch, the walk through the ravine, our appointment with the midwife, and so on through to the baby’s arrival. The narrative was funny and poignant, I thought, full of characters and situation, containing all the elements of a good story. As a first-time mother, I hadn’t known what to expect, and every step that unfolded was fraught with surprise and drama.
The first draft, which I called “Birth Story,” was written from the perspective of a new mother who was a bit of a bungler in the role, and it focused on the birth itself. While it was one of the most significant events in my life and nothing was more pleasurable for me decades later than to caress the details, I wondered how interesting others would find this narrative. The story was common in women’s lives, shared over and over among them, and yet rarely put into a published form. It was a small tale, in some senses—not a war story filled with last-ditch camaraderie and heroics. But that distinction led me to consider the ways giving birth is heroic, an act of optimism and bravery. It connects all women who undergo labor across time and place and circumstance. The commonness and commonality of birth unified me with other women, and I felt them behind me in my pregnancy and labor, and in the writing of the essay.
As I worried about the adequacy of this story , I remembered the question Anna Deveavere Smith asked the characters in her play Fires in The Mirror: “Do you remember the circumstances of your birth?” This question opened up material that resulted in the next version of the essay, called “Bloody Show.” Now the chronological narrative of my daughter’s birth became one strand of an alternating braid. In the other strand I included reflections about the importance of a birth story in our culture, its personal significance, but also its mythic possibilities. I wrote about my own birth and not knowing the story. Why didn’t I know about my birth? What effects did that absence have upon my sense of myself? What did my unstory say about my own mother, and what did I not understand about her? My essay now had a form that is fairly familiar in the contemporary essay, a string of pearls, with the chronological narrative holding together nuggets of reflection.
I now came to perhaps the most important insight into the form the essay should take. Instead of alternating between two strands, I wanted a form that, in a sense, wrote over my own meager birth narrative with my daughter’s new story. Giving birth to my daughter, I gave birth to a new sense of my life. I saw that the “essay” was really a letter to my daughter, giving her a history that she could hold and know and that we shared.