October / Writing Natural Birth Toi Derricotte
photo by Lynda Koolish
I wrote Natural Birth when my son was sixteen years old. He was away on an Outward Bound expedition in the mountains of Washington State. It was the first time we had been separated for such an extended time, not even in phone reach, and it brought up some of those initial feelings of wrenching separation when he was born.
I had told no one of the story of my son's birth in a home for unwed mothers, not even my best friend, and especially not my son.
When I was growing up people often faked the date of marriage, moving it three or four months earlier, so that their children wouldn't know they were conceived before their parents were legally married. If there were only a couple of offending months, they said the baby was born prematurely. It was a terrible thing for a girl to "come up pregnant." In those days, 1962, abortions were usually life-threatening, back alley adventures. By the time I found out the name of a doctor, I was too far gone, beyond three months, and he wouldn't do it. It happened to lots of girls, he assured me. I would be all right.
But I had been president of my senior class at Girls' Catholic Central High School. President of the student council. The year before I got pregnant I had been accepted into the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and was to be their first black nun. (Years later I learned that their founder was not only a woman of color—Theresa Maxis Duchemin, whose mother was Haitian—but also "illegitimate.") I didn't go, partly because my mother was so firmly against it, but mostly, I think, because I didn't want to give up the pleasures of sex, which I was beginning to enjoy, and the hope of a "soul mate." I was afraid to be alone. Instead of becoming a nun I decided I would be a doctor.
It was a terrible thing, especially, for a black middle-class girl to come up pregnant. Part of the lifelong work of our class and gender was to prove beyond doubt that black people were civilized, not beasts. The rationalization for the horrors inflicted on the bodies of black women during slavery was that they deserved it, wanted it, or were used to it. According to the Cult of True Womanhood in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a good woman was supposed to be modest, domestic, and pure. My mother had seen pictures of black people in cages in her history book in the 1920s in Louisiana. They were called savages. Woman meant white woman. Black women weren't considered human. How much more impossible was our task?
I married my son's father when I was five months pregnant. He was a painter, a student, barely able to pay his own rent and put food on his table. We lived over a garage for two months, me hiding out, mostly, and, when I did go out, wearing a huge black wool coat in the middle of July so people (I thought) wouldn't know I was pregnant. We were supposed to go away to California, where nobody knew us, and give the baby up for adoption. He was supposed to make enough money to pay the way by doing charcoal portraits on the street and at fairs. I'd wait for him until late at night, but sometimes there wasn't even enough money to buy tomato soup, which I craved, and cans of bonito for sandwiches. Finally, when I was six months, I realized I'd have to make a plan for myself.
I braved the half block to the phone booth on John R, a busy thoroughfare on which I was sure to be recognized, and sorted through the Yellow Pages. The first person I confessed my secret to was the operator at Catholic Charities. After an evaluation by a social worker I was placed on the waiting list of a home for unwed mothers in another city. I had to ask my parents for money—four hundred dollars for room and board, and delivery. I sat on the floor of my mother's living room like a child. My mother, who had done everything to ensure that I would be an independent woman, comfortable and safe, wept.
I went to Kalamazoo, Michigan, on a train at 6am, like so many young girls who left to visit relatives for a few months and then came back, as if nothing had happened, to be cheerleaders in high school. Many of these girls were blindfolded during birth in order to prevent bonding with their babies. I went a hundred miles from home into a pocket of experience that I kept hidden inside me for sixteen years, in some protected space between consciousness and unconsciousness, repressing it, hating it, and yet defending it by remembering, preserving every detail. I understood, a little at a time, that there was something to be said on behalf of all women, that repression had done terrible things to us, disconnecting us from feeling, from normal pleasure and its outward manifestation from our own children.
What if my baby knew I was such an imperfect mother? That he wasn't wanted from the moment he was conceived, that he hadn't been planned for, that it was not like a Hallmark card? For much of my pregnancy I had felt nothing but shame, guilt, anger, and depression. At the birth I felt numb, disconnected. If my son knew, would he feel unloved, unworthy? Would he feel it was his fault?
Some women have said to me, "What's the big deal? You got married." To many it seemed all right if the father wanted you, as if the real shame was not being pregnant, but being alone. I never understood that thinking. For if you had done "it" before you were married, and if it became obvious because you got "caught," then what did it matter if you quickly put on a ring? You still had given in, been weak, or made a choice expressing will and desire, a course even more grievously wrong, a mortal sin. Perhaps pregnancy was evidence even in women who had been safely married for years, evidence of a secret life, emptiness, a hole that should be neatly covered up. The most perfect mother was the Virgin Mary. It wasn't that I wanted to get rid of the baby, but that I couldn't tell where my shame ended and his life began.
It was as if my body betrayed me, became evidence against me. The flesh and bones pressed out "showing" what I so wanted to hide, my sexuality, and, mostly, my own helplessness and vulnerability. I was the daughter of a man who taught me, Never show your fear, and, about dogs, They can smell it. When he’d beat me, he’d say, "Wipe that look off your face or I'll knock it off," meaning anger, and even pain. I had been apprenticed in not showing for nineteen years. What could be more disruptive of the self I had constructed in great peril? What could be more alarming than this "showing" I couldn't stop, couldn't "wipe off"?
Two things happened that finally pushed me to speak. First, as I said, my son was away on an Outward Bound trip, and I think this signaled his independence. I felt he would be strong enough to hear the truth and bear it. Second, I read an article in Ms. magazine by author Catherine Breslin about a nun who, not knowing she was pregnant, had committed infanticide at the birth of the child. She had put a stocking around the newborn's neck, choked him, and left his body in the wastebasket. The principal of a Montessori school, she was pregnant and no one had noticed. At her trial, she said:
I know it matters if I'm convicted, but I've already imprisoned myself in my mind and heart.
I'm imprisoned because I can't escape from my thoughts. I want to know if I harmed the child.
I know I must have, because I was the only one there.
The compassion I felt for her allowed me to see my experience in a different context. It connected me to feelings of sadness and rage that I had been unable to access before.
I wrote a poem about the nun and sent it to Ms. Breslin. She sent me back transcripts of the trial. Reading them, I made an eerie discovery: some of the details I used to describe the birth scene in the poem were remarkably like the description of the actual birth in the nun's testimony. One afternoon, tears in my eyes, I began a letter to Ms. Breslin, a stranger so removed from my circle of friends that I could confess without fear. She was the one person I trusted to understand.
As I was writing the letter the words started to take on another shape, a life of their own. They poured down the page, and I began to move my lips, as if a wind was coming out of me, playing my teeth and tongue like an instrument. I found myself writing a poem, in joy, and wrote for hours the birth section of Natural Birth, twenty-three pages. It was as if the words had been there all the time, for sixteen years, stored in the jar of my head, waiting for the right moment, the "inspiration," to release them. Memory was there, and feeling, reawakened. These demanded language. I knew then that the story of my son's birth would be written.
The long, difficult labor by which the book was "delivered"—not only the remembering of the experience, but the "transition," the shaping of it into art, which took years and hadn't, then, even begun yet—was the other natural birth that the book was named for. I meant it as irony, for so often the word natural implies a simple and uncomplicated state. For example, there were those who called Louis Armstrong a natural musician, implying, pejoratively, that he played in an instinctual, unlearned, or unsophisticated manner. Women read books about birth that made natural and painless synonymous, so that many went into labor believing (or hoping?) that if they just breathed as they had been taught, they wouldn't have pain. They were presented with images of women who, awake and free of drugs, had powerful "bonding" experiences at birth—a sudden rush of unequivocal love for their child. Having this feeling of love at the birth of your child was also presented as natural. Natural not only defined the way things were, but the way things should be—as I say in the book, what was "beautiful and right and good."
Ironically, the very options that were supposed to liberate women by encouraging them to take control of their bodies and not depend on doctors and drugs ended up dictating another kind of unrealistic ideal. Afterwards, many whose labors and deliveries hadn't matched the experiences of the women they had read about felt that they had done some thing wrong or, perhaps, something was wrong with them—that they or their feelings weren't natural. Shame and guilt silenced them.
By showing one woman's experience, which so diverged from the ideal, and yet which, in the end, I believe, does testify to the power of nature and love, I hoped to revise the revision of natural birth that had been attempted by those theories in the fifties and sixties. I wanted my natural birth to hold on to the mystery and power of that singular rite of passage, at the same time it stripped away the romantic and ideal. I wanted to imply that all creative acts, whether it is giving birth to a child, a work of art, or the self, are unique, arduous, and awe-full.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when he was in prison, had no paper or pen, so each day he took a match and put it to the side. Each match signified a page of his writing. When he was released, he wrote the five hundred pages of The Gulag Archipelago from these "notes." I always remembered this story, for it illustrated to me the mind's power to pre serve significant experience until it can be told. Sometimes a story will be forgotten or buried for years, even for generations. Sometimes, in order to store and protect a story, the mind has to create a symbol, as Solzhenitsyn did with the matches. The meaning of the symbols may be forgotten, but they appear in our dreams, in our fears and obsessions. Eventually, when it is safe, the mind begins to unbury what it has hidden. Scientists have said that the most important purpose of human life is to pass it on, that we are no more than the carriers of genetic code. A writer could say that our most important purpose is to be carriers of memory.
Each day for a month, while my son was gone, I sat down and wrote a section of the book. The memories came backwards, so I started at the end of the book and worked forward, writing the first section last, moving from "Delivery" to "November." Some say women forget everything. I know it's not true, for I remembered every detail of feeling.
The manuscript spent several years in a drawer, buried by another kind of silence. When I wrote it, I couldn't figure out what it was, prose or poetry. I worked on it for months, both deleting the secrets I still didn't want my son to know, and trying to make it look "right." When I cut it, however, and made it look more like a "poem," I killed the life maybe exactly the way we kill the things we love when we are made to feel ashamed and guilty. What I learned is that a poem is a living thing, and, like any living thing, we have to accept what we are given. Only then can we work with it and transform it into some thing beautiful. After this awareness came, I worked on the manuscript another two years before I sent it out.
I wasn't the only one in consternation about the shape of Natural Birth. Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, kept the manuscript for nine months (another pregnancy), hoping to publish it. Finally she wrote back: "It doesn't fit in our categories; we don't know where to put it."
I went to Womanbooks in New York, one of the first women's bookstores in the country, where I had heard that Adrienne Rich spent several months sitting on the floor between bookshelves, reading and studying while she wrote Of Woman Born. I looked through hundreds of books seeking a press and an editor who might be sympathetic to my book, who might understand (with its strange body) what Natural Birth was. Finally, I chose The Crossing Press, whose editor, Nancy Bereano, became a friend and supporter through these seventeen years since the book's publication and, at whose behest as publisher and editor of Firebrand Books, Natural Birth was republished.
My son is thirty-eight. It has been almost two decades since I wrote the book. Once, about five years ago, I read several sections to patients who are chronically ill and live at a residential hospital, Goldwater, in New York City. Through a program that poet Sharon Olds has established, poets come to teach, to do workshops and readings. One man couldn't speak. He had a kind of fixture on his head like a coal miner's lamp, and when he aimed it at symbols on a board, his words emerged in a strange mechanical voice. However, he could make guttural sounds, and, as I was reading Natural Birth, sounds came out of his throat, call and response, a kind of harmony both against and with my words. A running glissando.
Though I was saying the words, I was not "feeling" them. I had forgotten the feelings I had had when I wrote them, which were not exactly the feelings I had had at the birth itself. Rather, they were feelings that somehow compressed the birth feelings with the feelings of sorrow and compassion I had finally reached, enabling me to write the poem sixteen years later. I was saying the words, but I felt almost nothing. The sounds of the words must have reached the man's ears and given him a feeling, for he made sounds back. When the sounds he made reached my ears, they gave me a feeling. In fact, the same feelings I had had when I was writing the original text. Though there was a millisecond delay between my speaking and the instant when his sounds reached me—like an echo—I felt as if I was sitting at that table many years before, writing.
This was the very first time that I understood the power of a poem. That the poet constructs a container for words and sounds that then takes on its own life, having an energy completely independent of her. That that container, so perfectly fitted to hold her particular thoughts and feelings, has the ability to reach someone, a listener, and convey some aspect of the human experience the writer herself may have forgotten, or of which, at the moment, she is unaware. The writer, who has struggled so hard to be "seen," to make her deeply felt thoughts and feelings relevant, in some way becomes irrelevant.
And this is the paradoxical triumph: because the writing must convey without her and in spite of her. The better the writing is, the more irrelevant she becomes. Yet those same words reflect back to her, having the power to make her, too, as a listener, connect with what it is to be human. It amazes me that as separate and unique as our interior worlds are there are moments when—and this is what a poem can do—it seems we have company in our skins, that we are almost in the same space with another person, sharing our deepest realities, and that they understand.
Perhaps art can revisit the wounds of the past and, if not heal them, at least send us back with the reader as witness. In that moment at Goldwater, reading Natural Birth, I felt the loneliness of the woman in labor and the loneliness of the poet on her solitary journey to the poem, but I was not alone.
I hope this essay speaks to the complicated ways we love, bringing our own fears and wounds into the bargain. Perhaps our children choose us, ask for us before they are born in their desire to confront whatever we have not been able to move beyond, to take up our burden of love and move us one step closer. Perhaps we are the only ones who hold that possibility for them.
What was my son's reaction?
I gave him the manuscript when he was nineteen, the same age I was when I got pregnant. It had already been accepted for publication, and he knew nothing of the story of his birth. He took it up to his bedroom and read half of it, then came back down. "I can't read all of it in one sitting," he said. A few days later he finished. I was afraid my son's reaction would confirm my worst fears: the reason I had kept silent all those years was so that he wouldn't feel unlovable. Instead, he said, "Mom, I didn't know you had suffered so much."
Once, when I was cutting my son's very curly hair, I had apologized. "Oh, I'm sorry, Tony. I made a really bad cut." "That's okay, Mom, don't worry," he reassured me, "I have very pardoning hair.
Natural Birth was dedicated to my son, a wise and compassionate man whose labor of giving birth to himself is partly the labor of giving birth to his imperfect mother.
"Writing Natural Birth" appears in The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, eds Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, published by Wesleyen University Press in 2003. Used here with permission from the author and publisher.
Toi Derricotte, born in Detroit, Michigan, is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently, The Undertaker's Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), described by Natasha Trethewey as “a courageous act of healing and redemption… proving again that art is as much about beauty as it is about reckoning, empathy, and self-discovery.” An earlier collection of poems, Tender, won the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize; and her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton), received the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Recognized as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, Derricotte’s honors include the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement; the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry for a poet whose distinguished and growing body of work represents a notable presence in American literature; the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America; two Pushcart Prizes; the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists; the Alumni/Alumnae Award from New York University; the Barnes & Noble Writer for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, Inc.; the Elizabeth Kray Award for service to the field of poetry from Poets House; and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Maryland State Arts Council.
More than one-thousand of Derricotte’s poems have been published in magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Callaloo and The Paris Review. Her essay "Beds" is included in The Best American Essays 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat, and "Beginning Dialogues" appears in The Best American Essays 2006, edited by Lauren Slater. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem Foundation, the nation’s premier “home for Black poetry.” Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, she serves on the Academy of American Poets' Board of Chancellors.