“In movies, and particularly in television films, when people have babies they are sitting in a hospital room and there are flowers everywhere. They are made up, magically, and they have a baby in their arms and it’s all really lovely. They start getting pink baby clothes… [But giving birth] is a truly, truly murderous business. It’s violent. If one doesn’t embrace that [violence], if one can’t embrace it – and it’s really tough to do that – then you’re up a gum tree because it means you’re going to be cutting off a whole part of yourself.”
-Tilda Swinton, speaking from the red carpet at Cannes just last week.
Swinton is starring in a new movie about motherhood called, “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” It’s based on the novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver and it should get lots of attention if it’s anywhere as good as the book. I read it a few years back after being told by a friend to read it, “RIGHT NOW!” I passed it on to other friends with the same urgency. All of us read it breathlessly and talked about it for weeks. We still use “Kevin” as shorthand for a child (sometimes our own) who (usually, temporarily) seems to be, in actual fact, the spawn of Satan.
I can’t give anything away about the plot because it’s all too brilliantly twisty and turn-y, but the question posed by the film is this: Is a kid born, or parented into being, bad? It’s not clearly answered in the book, and we’re all left feeling empathy for the least likely characters and fearing them at the same time. Very effective. It’s In Cold Blood for the mommy set.
But getting back to Swinton’s startling comments about childbirth: Is accepting the violence and murderous quality of childbirth a good way to prepare ourselves for the epic work of motherhood?
When I read the above quote, you’d think my reaction would be, no it’s normal and lovely and beautiful and possibly painless if you’re totally without fear. (I’m a childbirth educator and we’re known for re-framing birth as a normal, physiological event, not a screaming emergency.) But it wasn’t. My first thought was: Totally.
Metaphorically, the non-mother is murdered to give way to the mother. There is a violence in the severing of two bodies that have been connected and contained in one. There’s blood. Often cries and moans. This is a wildly animal time for women–one of the rare times in our lives when the instinctive part of our brain holds more sway than the intellectual part of our brain.
I personally love all this about childbirth and don’t want to whisk it away and sanitize it. I’m not a martyr and I’ve enjoyed an epidural. And I don’t want to get into a whole “natural childbirth” is better thing here — the violence metaphor holds no matter how the baby is born (via c-section, vaginally, with epidural or not).
This is not to say that if you’re pregnant you should be freaking out about childbirth because you’re already experiencing what I’m talking about. As Mahvesh Murad once wrote in the in the Herald Tribune: “Pregnancy is not a ‘delicate condition’. It is not a mysterious, intangible miracle that shrouds a woman like some sort of diaphanous golden halo… Pregnancy is strong and violent and powerful and feral. It irks me beyond belief that many consider a pregnant woman to be anything less than a force of nature, like an earthquake, or a volcano.”
What I think Swinton is saying is that we are better off if we acknowledge how “strong and violent and powerful and feral” giving life is. It’s not a car accident. It’s not pathological. It’s not unsafe. It’s not a screaming emergency. It’s not without intense joy and relief and mind-altering happiness. But giving birth is not like shedding a hair. It’s a profound shift.
Childbirth, like motherhood, is full of contradictions. If we force ourselves to only look at the pretty, sanitized parts we may miss out on something important. We may feel more conflict than if we look this brutality square in the eye.
Swinton’s new movie is all about violence– metaphorical and actual. I will be curious to see it, and to hear from women on this topic of how we can hold two opposing thoughts in our minds: birth is beautiful and birth is violent. Birth brings life, and brings loss.
For more on this them, check out: Pregnancy Is Not A Delicate Condition, It’s A Volcano
Maternal Healthcare in America: The present issue and future possibilities