There are very few taboos in modern society that continue to raise a blush or an eyebrow. A pervasive sense of liberalism (post-Brexit-Trump-Farage radicalism obviously excluded) coupled with a post-modernist lack of respect for rules and authority has ensured we can talk about most things these days, although female masturbation, paedophilia and incest are still quite difficult to bring up over coffee and cake.
So where does that leave birth? Few women talk about it in public spaces, it is largely ignored by comedians (although Dylan Moran’s quip comparing birth to pushing a water melon out through your face was surprisingly accurate) and the media are only concerned with the medicalisation of having a child.
It is one of the biggest physical and emotional experiences that a woman can have, yet it is sidelined into silence with knowing looks and nods. My own experience has been reduced to an amusing anecdote which I trot out on social occasions involving zombies, a Primark dressing gown, some green bile and a tiger’s stone. Hiding behind humour is one (ineffective) way of dealing with trauma.
There are not many people I can sit down with and talk about what it was actually like to give birth to my son. I am also extremely careful about who I do talk to because it can be 1) upsetting to women who might be having difficulty conceiving 2) the reality of it may put other women off wanting a child 3) childless women might understandably not be interested in your vagina and 4) it can feel awfully competitive: if you had a very positive birth, other women may resent you and if you had a very complicated birth, it may seem that you want to out-awful other women’s experiences.
So you see, it’s complicated and sometimes a lot easier not to talk about it at all: the very definition of a taboo.
I often think that if men gave birth through their penises, it wouldn’t be like this. There would be mass birth-offs, it would become a competitive sport with prizes, there would be many T-shirts and a lot of extremely long injury anecdotes. A man-spective on birth may not be ideal but at least it would be out there and at the moment, it feels like the experience of pushing out a baby is well and truly hushed up.
And not only does the birth experience seem to have no voice or status in society, but other women who have had children appear to be complicit in this. Instead of shouting across the street to new mums and asking how their vagina is, did they tear, have an episiotomy, or how it was to poo for the first time after birth, if they are still bleeding, have sore nipples and on and on (insert body parts), I smile knowingly at them and then the baby; I can imagine how it might have been, and is, but I say nothing.
Well here’s two fingers to hushing it up: it was fucking painful and incredible in equal measures; I actually thought I was going to die more than once during the experience; I feel betrayed by my mother who had four birth experiences and shared none of them; no one mentioned post-natal complications to me, that I may never wee in a controlled manner again, that disposable pants would become the best invention ever and that my stomach muscles could actually split in two and remain like that. What the actual fuck?
No one also mentioned that having a child would bring so much joy into your life, that you can cry at pretty much anything most of the time; the feeling of love and protection that you harbour for someone you’ve only just met is bewildering and sits in your tummy like a red beating ball, sometimes of worry, sometimes of irritation but mostly just filled with wet snivelly teary irrational love for a pooey pukey being who can’t even talk to you yet. It defies rational thought and brings mortality just a little closer.
So there. I don’t think I’ve solved the taboo of birth but I’ve talked about it and it’s made me feel a lot better. Thanks for listening.
Read more: Amanda Bacon’s recent and refreshing perspective on birth.