Lately I’ve found I gobble up birth stories. I read them all. As I don’t have children, nor do I seem to want them, perhaps my curiosity has to do with how little I know about this common, pivotal experience. We’ve each been formed, grown in, and either pushed or pulled from a woman’s body, yet for most of my life I’ve learned less about childbirth than I have about, for example, the intricacies of trench warfare. Should nothing but stories concerning pregnancy and early motherhood be published for the next 10 years, it would hardly redress the vast historical imbalance between what humans experience and what has been judged worth documenting. More English language literature has probably been written about medieval jousting than about childbirth. This lack is yet another of patriarchy’s gifts.
But I’m in luck: there has been an upsurge of books that focus on motherhood, and this memoir is a vivid, though often harrowing example of the genre. Meaghan O’Connell became pregnant at 29, sooner than she had planned; though anxious about the timing, she and her boyfriend, Dustin, elected not to have an abortion.
“What if, instead of worrying about scaring pregnant women, people told them the truth?” O’Connell asks. “What if pregnant women were treated like thinking adults? What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Her account is energised by her devotion to revealing the truth. Dating in New York, she says, meant she knew “how not to need anything”; “Wanting a baby was a desperate quality in a woman, like wanting a relationship multiplied by a thousand.” O’Connell hoped for a child but she also had doubts. (After learning she was pregnant, she panic-Googled phrases such as “I regret having my child”, “baby age 29” and “writing career, baby”.)
O’Connell is open about the sometimes competing feelings of fear and desire, shame and artistic ambition
O’Connell intended to have a natural childbirth but after more than 24 hours of painful labour she asked for an epidural – it was little help, as the anaesthetic failed to numb part of her body. There turned out to be a “blind spot”, five square inches where it felt as though a demon was “chopping” at her “from the inside with a pickaxe”. As further ineffective epidurals were administered she shouted that she wanted to die. Then, at last, she had a caesarean section. Weeks of bleeding followed, and her body was so ravaged that, the first time she looked in the mirror, she wept: her “entire middle section” was “covered in purplish red gashes” and was hanging like a balloon that had been deflated, but was “also, somehow, full of wet dough”.
O’Connell’s chronicle of her life after her son is born includes frank, striking descriptions of physical problems such as mastitis: the milk-duct infection, she writes, is “like having the flu and then getting stabbed in the tits at the same time”. Breastfeeding was initially so painful that her breasts felt like skinned knees on which she had to crawl. The stabbing analogy returns when she explains what it was like to attempt sex in the months after having given birth: “postpartum knife dick”, she and her friends call it, shooting pains that result from low oestrogen. Before giving birth, she considered sex and intimacy to be “the main reason to be alive or the surest way to feel alive”; afterwards, for a year, her body was so hormonally altered that she’d have preferred sex didn’t exist.
O’Connell is open, too, about the competing feelings of fear and desire, shame and artistic ambition. The first time she left her son for an hour so as to go to a cafe and write, she felt as if she might cry – this time, from happiness. “I was always doing math with the hours, testing the limits of time, trying to see how much living I could get away with.” Contrary to popular belief, breastfeeding wasn’t “one of the most incredible experiences of your life”. She did her duty, wondering all the while whether its importance had been oversold; it was “sometimes lovely but more often not”. Then, there was the continuing parental terror, the persistent gut feeling that her beloved child was about to die. In giving birth, she realises, “we created a death”.
Midway through And Now We Have Everything, there’s a wonderful scene in which O’Connell’s friends pay her a visit shortly after her son is born. Conversation is stilted until she asks if they want to see her stretch marks. Yes, they say, eagerly. They are aghast at what she shows them, while she is embarrassed but relieved. “I needed witnesses”, she says. “I needed my reality confirmed.” Her book is a testament, a gift to mothers who might want their realities confirmed, as well as to everyone else.