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True Life

Elizabeth Pearce

Posted on Friday 27 September 2013

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In about two weeks, so I’m told, I’m giving birth to a gi-mungous baby. It is a strange pause, as though before death: do not get me wrong, I am tremendously excited about receiving this child into my life (which is weird. It’s already here. More ‘here’, arguably, than it will be once it’s outside my body, ‘in true life’ as my husband’s eight-year-old rather wonderfully refers to it). It feels like the school holidays leading up to Christmas: you kind of want the days to last, to revel in their warm promise and simultaneous decline (the last days of my true life, or possibly my false one; but either way, the one I like a lot), but at the same time you are stupid with anticipation. And nor do I mean ‘like death’ to refer to pain, intensified by the arrival of a child cheerfully described by my obstetrician as ‘top of the class’ and ‘a chunky kid’; more coolly by the scan-ologist as ‘in the ninety-fifth percentile’ for its size. Good lord. Never mind, luckily I have my heart set on thorough and immediate pain relief. If I needed a justification for this (which I don’t, I don’t!) it would be this:

Some women feel strongly about natural childbirth, and I really do respect that: one reason they feel strongly about it is, as far as I can tell, about taking control of an experience that has been siphoned into patriarchal, institutional processes. But for me, there is nothing more natural than a person coming out of my vagina. That is beside the point, now that I think about it, because I don’t really privilege the natural above its supposed opposite: isn’t it ‘natural’ for us clever human beans to develop more and more sophisticated means to help our species suffer less the burden of our humanity? and other such folksy ponderings. i.e. You wouldn’t have your leg cut off without anaesthetic. This is all starting to smack of desperate justification, so allow me to continue: Compared to other apes, our babies have very effing big heads to accommodate brains that can do really cool things like invent pain relief to ease the transition of the giant heads – through pelvises made narrower by the advent of upright walking – into the world (true life). Why should the female of the species, the ones doing most of the work in this whole ‘evolution’ business, be the ones to luck out on the benefits of our accelerated intelligence?

There are two stolen ideas in that sentence, above. Firstly: the notion that women are ‘doing most of the work’ is a bastardised version of the hypothesis put forward in a book I have just finished reading, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy. Hrdy’s impressively nuanced, cross-cultural, historically informed and broadly inter-species reading of the shaping force of maternity in the process of evolution demands closer analysis, at some stage when my brain feels less baby-fried, and once I have the energy to pose a proper argument about bio-cultural feminism. But basically, she paints a picture, at once bleak and liberating, of motherhood as an intensely strategic state of being. There is such a thing as a maternal instinct, but a wildly contingent one, less pretty and far more flexibly applied than ‘I loved my baby at once’ or ‘mother love is selfless’. Indeed, mother love, it seems, is radically selfish, in that it is engineered to promote the procreative successes of the maternal subject, and not to serve some free-floating, transcendental human ideal. So do human infants – those wobbly-headed lumps of useless cuteness – come into the world prepared to fight to secure the richly rewarding – but not automatically assigned – mother love, so crucial for their survival, and to push through the bottleneck of infant mortality and into the next genetic generation. This is surely feminism (and infantism?), but unlike any feminism I have ever known. Hrdy’s definition of patriarchy is one of the more useful ones I have encountered: so often, ‘patriarchy’ is unthinkingly invoked as though akin to air or water: a transparent agent, self-evident element. In contrast, her definition hinges on a distinction (coarsely applied in this essay, but not in her book) between the procreative interests of men (quantity: lots of sperm, lots of kids) and women (quality: one egg at a time), and on the need for men to counter the disempowerment of uncertain paternity:

Patriarchal societies are those in which patrilineal interests have, over time and by whatever means, come to prevail over strictly maternal ones. The goal is to produce offspring – often many of them – of undisputed paternity, no matter the cost to their mothers.

She uses a number of examples from the human and animal kingdom to exemplify this patriarchal state of play. I would like to think more about to what extent it applies to ‘our’ kingdom, the world of the individual and the nuclear family, of work and money, childcare and child support, paternity tests and privatization.

These thoughts came home to me quite strongly during a sneaky (because deeply embarrassing) viewing of Look Who’s Talking (shut up). Now, you may think it impossible for a film that revolves around Bruce Willis ventriloquizing an infant (‘Look at that – I’ve got a third arm. How am I going to get that in my mouth?’) to have much to offer us in terms of shedding light on male and female procreative strategies, but it’s all there: a woman learning to split her time (like women have done throughout human history, according to Hrdy) between work and motherhood; her appropriation of substitute parental care for her child (i.e. babysitting; again, nothing new there); the timeless tussle between male and female interests (the male too busy looking for new mates to raise his existing children; the woman balancing the pay-offs of bagging a high-status male against his unreliability: ‘I look like I could play the lead in Night of the Living Dead and your father deserted us so he could pork his interior decorator. I think you could safely say that it can’t get any worse’).

Still from the movie "Look who's talking" Kirsty Alley and John Travolta hover over a baby.

John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in Look Who's Talking.

Now, Kirstie Alley (I said shut up) may be compromised, but she is far from helpless. The impossibly cute babysitter of course turns out to be a dream pseudo-father. Poor John Travolta, a lowly cab driver, is resigned to stick around to raise a child belonging to Kirstie’s rich, good-looking first choice; to perpetuate, in other words, the genes of another, more sexually successful competitor. Her choice – imperfect, but hers nonetheless – plays out in the scene of her first attempt to have sex with John T, in which her initial passion, set slightly creepily to the song Daddy’s Home (To Stay), blends into a nightmare vision of their future family life: she, barefoot and pregnant, waits for him to come home from a hard day of cab-driving to feed a Catholic-sized family with food scavenged from a dumpster. But this is the 80s, goddamn it, and she can not only control her own fertility, she can also go out to work in her high-paying job as an accountant – just as long as she has someone to help her watch the baby. In the end, that’s just what she winds up with, along with the double jackpot (in evolutionary terms) of a reliable father figure and good genes for her child.

One more thing, and then I promise to never mention Kirstie Alley again: Interesting for my purposes is the labour scene itself, in which Johnnie is driving her to hospital in his cab, and urging her to ‘breathe’ for pain relief and not to take drugs because it’s ‘better for the baby’: ‘The only people who say stupid things like that are men, because they’re idiots!’ (Later, to the doctor, in an Exorcist voice: ‘Fuck my breathing.’) Now, John is definitely asking for it here. But note how men are ‘idiots’ for trying to give us pain relief, as per the natural childbirth scenario I outlined above, and also for trying to withhold it. The Ancient Mariner comes to mind: ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…’ (‘Patriarchy, patriarchy, everywhere…’ admittedly doesn’t have the same ring to it). I guess what it comes down to is that I’m the one pushing ‘something the size of a watermelon through a gap the size of a lemon’ (Kirstie again; ok, that was definitely the last time) and so it’s up to me. Especially since my watermelon may be extra pink and fleshy. If you mention my lemon, I’ll kill you.

And so to the other stolen idea that I mentioned above: the big-brain justification for pain relief. This one comes from a book I talked about in an earlier blog, Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy, in which the narrator wrestles with the pressure from other women to give birth without an epidural. But that is less interesting to me than the deliciously simple dichotomy Goldsworthy sets up, throughout the book, between birth and death, most poignantly in a scene in which she is taking her young son to visit his great-grandmother, Moggy, for the last time. Earlier that morning, she promises him a trip to see some ‘funny statues’ at the museum and tries to prise socks onto his recalcitrant feet; the action is repeated later for her grandmother, whose mild surrender to being loved and clothed amplifies the child’s robust vitality. Indeed, as he kisses the old lady for a final time, ‘a kiss into oblivion’, and waves merrily goodbye:

‘We going to see some funny statues now, mummy?’

How soon we are erased.

Part of a mother’s job, it seems, is to introduce a child to their mortality. I feel I am a little unprepared in this regard. I blame my mother. But nor is this what I mean when I claim, dramatically, to be poised (rhetorically) on the brink of death. What I mean, rather, is that I know a lot of what I care about now will no longer seem to matter as much. I don’t speak for all mothers-to-be but I know this of myself. Here and now, two weeks before, it is sad, in the same way that death is sad for the bystanders but not for the dead – who don’t, after all, care anymore. But unlike the full stop of death, I’m dicing here with a semi-colon; a breath before a passage elsewhere, true life.