From Dancing Girls and Other Stories, by Margaret Atwood, 1977
This short story is a brilliant meditation on the language we use for pregnancy, birth and motherhood, but also a study of the (much discussed) transformation that takes place when a person has a child. Rachel Cusk discussed this in her book, A Life’s Work, saying something to the effect of she did not lose pieces of her old self but rather became something new entirely. My understanding from Cusk on motherhood is such that her life changed so dramatically there is no comparison. One could weigh the losses and gains, but the difference between them is too vast to make sense of any of it.
The narrator in Giving Birth begins by pondering the meaning of ‘delivery’: “Was someone in bondage, is someone made free?” She recalls the pregnancy of a woman she calls Jeannie, who is haunted by the “other woman”:
“Jeannie has seen her before, but she knows little about her except that she is a woman 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. 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.”
It is apparent from early on the “other woman” is the narrator herself, and Jeannie is (also) the narrator. Still with me? 🙂
The other woman, of course, must be held at a distance. She is a mysterious stranger who did not want children but is pregnant, too. Jeannie, on the other hand, is the naive mother-to-be who needs to do everything correctly. Jeannie reads all the books, makes a detailed birth plan, judges mothers who won’t breast feed. Jeannie does not want any pain relief: “What pain? Jeannie thinks. When there is no pain she feels nothing, when there is pain, she feels nothing because there is no she. This, finally, is the disappearance of language. You don’t remember afterwards, she has been told by almost everyone.”
It is the You don’t remember afterwards that is particularly haunting. True, it is something most mothers who have given birth say, but in this context it carried the haunting sense of Buddy’s admonishment to Esther in The Bell Jar: “I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems anymore. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed.”
Today there is much debate and judgement of people’s choices about children. A woman may be called selfish for not having children, or for too many rounds of IVF or not enough, or for using a surrogate. There are countless things women are made to feel guilty about — sometimes by mothers and other women. (I plan to review (M)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal soon, which discusses exactly this). Between the narrator, the “other woman” and Jeannie, Atwood explores the transformation of motherhood, but she does not commit to any storybook endings. While this story has the simplicity of a traditional pregnancy and birth (it was the 70s, after all), the narrator alludes to these judgements which have spidered over the many routes to motherhood that exist today.
It’s unclear what happens to the other woman — she disappears from the hospital after Jeannie gives birth to her baby, and of course, to the narrator. “(It was to me, after all, that the birth was given, Jeannie gave it, I am the result. What would she make of me? Would she be pleased?)” But in giving birth to the narrator, Jeannie also begins to disappear. She sees how the world is very fragile and in need of protection, and “the enormity of this task defeats her; she will never be up to it, and what will happen then?”
In the place of these two women we have the narrator, who seems neither bitter nor exuberant. Perhaps she is only ambivalent. Five stars.