Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Birth Machine

In her 'Author's Note' at the end of The Birth Machine Elizabeth Baines describes how a revised edition had rearranged the order of the chapters and, she felt, subtly changing the meaning.
"What we read first in any piece of work filters what we read next (however differently each maverick reader reads), and I believe that the placing of the 'subjective' and non-satiric chapter at the start lent the whole a realist and 'confessional' slant, and it was this which prompted reading of the novel as a passionate plea for natural childbirth, rather than as the plea for logic I intended it to be."

This 2010 edition reverts to the original, and while I did not read it as a plea for natural childbirth it is first and foremost a story about a woman giving birth. Zelda is having her first child, and as the wife of a doctor she is being given 'extra special' care by the system. Blended skilfully in to her day in hospital are the vivid childhood memories that seem to be occupying her mind while she lies, waiting for the drugs to take effect, and the background of her pregnancy and the somewhat strained and tenuous relationship with her husband Roland. The book emphasises the sharp division between the cold clinician, in the shape of the Professor, and his students listening to the lecture, from the intensity of the emotional experience of having a baby. Similarly the other medical staff have titles not names, distancing them from Zelda, emphasising the impersonal nature of their relationship with her. To begin with it seems she is quietly acquiescing to their treatment of her but then we learn the events that led to her induction, her anxieties and, as the story reaches the end, the truth behind what is done to her. Written in 1982 at a time when the medicalisation of childbirth was becoming the norm, with routine procedures like foetal monitoring and increasing caesarian rates, it does not paint a pretty picture of the process.

Then the story dives back into the past and we see Zelda with her friends, their imaginary games, their fear of the village 'witch', cooking up magic potions in a den to protect themselves from unknown evils, seeing omens in jumping fish and circling birds, and then their illicit exploration of a building site in the company of a boy, who ends up dead.

"Since they had completed the spell, they were invulnerable. Or almost: they would have to be careful of counter spells. They would need to take care going past the old woman's cottage. They scrambled out. Long arms of brambles swung over the entrance, spiky and feathery. Now the den was well hidden. While they were gone the doll wold be safe inside the magic circle." (p.47-8)

There is a sense of emotional trauma that remained unspoken through into her adult life, and an implied affair adds to her fears about her baby and the notion that she deserves some kind of punishment. What was clever about the structure was that initially the memory sections were separate and distinct from the present day but as the day progresses, as the intensity of her labour increases the moments of memory become infused into what is happening to Zelda in the present. The whole story becomes very emotionally charged, though at the same time she has a sense that she is losing control and the merging of the memories becomes more vivid, until her childhood friend Hilary makes an actual appearance at the moment of delivery.

"The head smashes down through the bag of her abdomen. It won't come. It won't come out. Skull like a turnip, the enormous great big turnip that the farmer couldn't pull from the cold black earth. He pulled and pulled, but it wouldn't come up. The farmer called his wife. Sister calls Doctor. Doctor hears. Doctor sees. 'Foetal distress,' says Doctor; Foetal distress, said the textbook in its outdated type on good old-fashioned paper; 'Foetal distress,' calls the nurse. Sister calls the hospital porter. The farmers wife calls the boy. The doctor raises a syringe and plunges the needle into Zelda's arm." (p79)

Reading this part was very intense because it reminded me so graphically of my own hospital experience; the sense of unreality, dislocation from real life, and above all the loss of control over your own body, not just the fact of labour where your hormones are in control, but of course the hospital routines and procedures that dictate what happens to you. Her efforts to resist events are thwarted on all sides and then when they finally sedate her I found myself seething with anger on her behalf.

If the author says this book is about logic I am left to assume that it is written as an extended analogy (is that the right word?) Childbirth is among the most emotive of all subject and therefore perhaps the most lacking in logic. For the woman experiencing it it is a profoundly emotional, even spiritual (if you go for words like that), as well as physical event. In spite of their supposed 'scientific' approach the medical profession uses this emotion to their own advantage, routinely playing the 'safety of the baby' card to manipulate mothers into cooperating with procedures that have no necessity for either themselves or their baby. Women are very vulnerable when pregnant, and even more so when in labour, the huge rush of hormones does weird stuff to your mind, and the threat of being considered a 'bad mother' before the baby is even born is quite a powerful one. Zelda is drugged and abandoned, deprived of contact with her baby, reinforcing her irrational fears that she has been punished and the baby is deformed. However she gathers her remaining strength and does the only logical thing under the circumstances, and gets herself and her baby out of that crazy place ... I could have cheered. Don't let me say anything about Roland, he was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard, and that was all a bit too close to home for me too.

I would be really interested to know how a man might experience this book. I am guessing they would read it somewhat more dispassionately. Don't pick up this book if you are expecting; I think I could read it now because the whole childbirth thing is far enough in the past. It does allow me to recall with pleasure the birth of my youngest, M, who was born at home in Westminster Avenue. The whole labour lasted about two hours, most of which was spent sitting alone in the bath. There was no sense of loss of control or the unreality of the hospital, she slipped into our lives as if she had always been there, but maybe you have to go through the other stuff to appreciate just how special that is.

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