So tonight I started watching ‘One Born Every Minute’ – the Channel 4 documentary that started showing in February about the reality of a maternity ward. It is an amazing, sensitive, deeply moving programme that follows one or two families a week – in the first episode I watched, which was Episode 7 of Series 1, covered two babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. I realised just what an incredible job the doctors and nurses in maternity wards do, and I genuinely think that the world would be a better place if more people realised how much work goes into maternity hospitals. There are over six billion people on the planet, and each one was given birth to by a woman, a woman probably aided by a team of other people (who are almost always also women), and each birth is difficult and painful and bloody.
Part of the reason that I think it’s a brilliant programme, though, isn’t just that it’s well put-together, or insightful, or moving. It’s that it completely unstitches the myth so deeply embedded in our culture that childbirth is something mystical or magical. Angela Carter, writing in The Sadeian Woman in 1979, called for the “demystification” of the female body – an erasure of the comforting fictions that entrap women and allow their importance in the world to be diminished:
All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciliatory mother, are consolatory nonsenses […] If a revival of the myths gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life.
The real conditions of life are uncomfortably, bloody and sometimes remarkably grotesque. Menstruation is a monthly suffering for half of the planet’s population, and yet I’ve known men, who are obviously not eligible to experience it, beg to remain ignorant of it as well. Why should this be? Why are women not allowed to talk about their bodies and what they do? I still admire a friend of mine who, in an argument with a male friend, turned around and said, approximately, “You know what? It could be worse: I’m bleeding from my genitals right now.”
In Carter’s words: The truth of the womb is, that it is an organ like any other organ, more useful than the appendix, less useful than the colon but not much use to you at all if you do not wish to utilise its sole function, that of bearing children.
So why is this truth overwritten with layers of mystifying shmaltz about “nature’s gifts” and “being with child” and, worst of all, “she’s stroppy/irritable/miserable/etc because it’s her time of the month”? Why does the world at large still allowed to think such clichéd rubbish about the reproductive systems of half of the human race? It’s like Cixous never wrote Laugh of the Medusa – a text in which she called for women to write their bodies into text. bodies. They’re important. Everybody (no pun intended) is in a body. And ‘One born Every Minute’ shines a gently documentary light onto bodies, and birth, and what it is to be a woman, and it does so without judging and with no agenda other than to show what happens when a child is born.
There is one thing more that ‘One Born Every Minute’ made me think, and I’m struggling to phrase it without looking like I’m some Dawkinsian raving atheist. I’m not an atheist, I’m not a pagan, but I don’t believe in a Christian God, either. I don’t believe in a Christian God because I don’t think that, if a god exists, she/he/it is Christian (or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu…) – if there’s a divine being up there, I’m pretty sure she/he/it doesn’t really mind what we do down here on Earth, so what’s the point in worrying about it? So I don’t really have any beef with God, if it should be the case that there is one. My problem is with religions. Particularly Catholicism (I corrected myself here from “Christianity”), but that’s only because I went to Catholic schools for six years, and familiarity didn’t breed contempt so much as frustration at their sheer backwardsness. I’m not a fan of organised religions because they always seem to settle for the easy option of orthodox dogma and stagnation rather than critical debate.
Watching ‘One Born Every Minute’ I felt very deeply how disgusting it is that the “Good Book” could have enforced the idea that birthing pains are a judgement from God because Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Why should the men who wrote the Bible have launched such a smear campaign against women? I don’t mean to denounce the whole message of Christianity by this, it was just a particular comment from someone recently that sparked this off.
And why should birth be so mystified in this way? It is moving, and intimate, and difficult, and precious, but it’s not mystic or mythical. It is one body sliding from another, in blood and in pain and with very little dignity.
What I like about ‘One Born Every Minute’ is that it shows what childbirth is, and not the fluffy euphemisms we’re used to. It is something that happens to one woman and one baby every minute of every day, and I don’t see why it should be a mystery.