When I got home from the hospital after giving birth to my daughter in February last year, the first thing I did was sit in the rocking chair in the room that would become hers—where some of the most intense hours of the labour had taken place—and desperately write down everything I could remember about my first experience of childbirth.
I did this partly because I’d been told hormones would soon alter or erase my memories of the experience—and I definitely wanted to keep them—but also because I was trying to make sense of what had just happened to me.
As I’d later learn, I was caught in a post-traumatic psychological loop; a kind of fumbling mental attempt to process or explain the horror I had experienced—a common side-effect for people who have experienced trauma.
My journal entry includes words like ‘violence’ and ‘terror’—words that maybe won’t surprise anyone who’s given birth before (at least, those who can still remember it), but will probably surprise some of the population who just simply haven’t encountered—or had any reason to encounter—a realistic birth story before.
This goes some way to explaining why everything I’ve read over the past 12 months—at least, everything I’ve read for myself, setting aside the colourful counting, animal and activity books for a moment—has at least something to do with labour, childbirth or parenting.
In the weeks following the birth, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t encountered many labour scenes in literature before. (I read Burial Rites when I was pregnant—BIG trigger warning for people who are fearful of giving birth. Yeesh. That was a whole thing.)
In my altered state, I felt the need to remedy this, so I set about searching for some labour stories to help me figure out whether what I’d been through was ‘normal’ or ‘standard’—and what I could do about the residual feelings of fear, confusion and, eventually, depression that the experience had left me with.
It wasn’t long before I clocked where to find the labour stories. Poetry!
Of course this genre would be home to the rawness and pain of childbirth! This genre where reality is shrouded in metaphor, and even the most famous works sit somewhere outside the literary mainstream.
During these early months, my wife would get home from work to find me in the rocking chair, a sleeping baby on my lap and mobile phone in my hand, tears streaming down my face.
‘What’s wrong?’ She’d ask.
‘Just reading Plath again.’
When you Google poetry about motherhood, all roads lead to Plath.
The image gallery on my phone from that period is a grid of endless photos of my tiny kid in the haze of the morning, looking up at me with different wide-eyed expressions—interspersed with screenshots bearing a few stanzas of a poem that resonated in some way.
How beautiful is this, from ‘You’re’ by Sylvia Plath:
Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,
Gilled like a fish. A common-sense
Thumbs-down on the dodo’s mode.
Wrapped up in yourself like a spool,
Trawling your dark as owls do.
Mute as a turnip from the Fourth
Of July to All Fools’ Day,
O high-riser, my little loaf.
I tried to get into audiobooks during this time, a form which was an entirely new experience for me. My wife, an avid audiobook consumer, listened to Maggie Nelson read The Argonauts through long nights during the first few weeks of our daughter’s life.
Sometimes I’d wonder aloud about the interplays between parenting and sexuality and desire and queerness, and she would say, ‘You should really read The Argonauts.’
I set about listening to the book, but I couldn’t get into the audiobook form. This is partly because my brain doesn’t work too well post-6pm, and my labour trauma really reared up at night-time, but mostly, I think it’s because Maggie Nelson’s writing doesn’t lend itself to being consumed aurally. Her written words dance and duck and weave, tangential and sprinkled with asides, which can necessitate repeat-reads of sentences—not because the writing is clumsy; if anything, to better appreciate its genius.
When my daughter was nine months old, we flew to Europe for a working holiday. In London, I spoke about Archer Magazine at a wonderful lefty bookstore called Housmans. There, I purchased a copy of The Argonauts in paperback.
Another reason audiobooks don’t work for me is they don’t facilitate my traditional cataloguing system: when I read, I underline passages that I love, or that jump out at me for any reason, and then jot down the page number in a reference list on the inside cover.
Most of the books in my bookshelf have two or three or ten page numbers scrawled inside the cover. Two-thirds of the way through The Argonauts in paperback, I’d already recorded 15 references.
It’s been a long time since I’ve ever felt so heard, held, validated or excited by a book. The examination of queerness and relationships, desire and parenting, the limitations of language and body and agency are all avenues down which I’m so keen to follow Nelson.
This paragraph exemplifies what I love about this book: ‘it is romantic, erotic and consuming—but without tentacles. I have my baby, and my baby has me. It is a buoyant eros, an eros without teleology. Even if I do feel turned on while I’m breast-feeding or rocking him to sleep, I don’t feel the need to do anything about (and if I did, it wouldn’t be with him).’
This is audacious, sensitive, and inciting—the stuff memoir should be made of. It’s writing that delves into the muck and mire of human experience without fear of getting its hands dirty. That’s my jam, and always has been; but never more so than after giving birth to another human being.
Another new literary form for me is the Instagram story: in particular, the parenting-related vignettes captured and curated by Lorelei Vashti (@loreleivashti). Especially significant for me were her reflections on the traumatic birth of her second child, which ended with a recommendation for a book called How to Heal A Bad Birth, which I purchased and loved. That’s where I found the answer I’d been searching for—it turns out that not everyone has such a horrific time during labour, and not everyone spends the next few months (or years) slowly working through the fear and confusion and distress they harbour as a result.
Written by the founders of a Queensland-based organisation that offers support for new parents who have experienced trauma, How to Heal A Bad Birth is a self-help-style book full of insights, info and activities to help you bounce back after birth. I found the book practical, helpful, gentle, relevant, and incredibly healing—much more so than finding out what happened to Sylvia Plath in the end: that’s a story that would get anyone down, but it’s especially harrowing when you’ve had three hours sleep, your hormones are surging and you’re trying to look after a baby human.
Lastly, if I’d kept a count of each time I’d read and finished a single book, it’d be higher for the past 12 months than any other year in my life—but the bulk would be rereads of Where is the Green Sheep? and Time for Bed by Mem Fox; Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown; The Family Book by Todd Parr; and That’s Not My Duck by Fiona Watt. I would recommend each of these titles to anyone thinking of having a kid—and, in fact, would also recommend the having of the kid, despite, or alongside, everything I’ve written here.
Spoiler alert: it turns out my duck is the one with the fluffy ducklings; all different kinds of families are special; and just about every other adventure ends with bedtime for all concerned.
Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist and founder of Archer Magazine, an award-winning publication that curates lesser-heard voices on topics around sex, gender and identity. Amy has written and edited for Australian Geographic, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Daily Life, The Age, The Big Issue, Junkee, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow and more.