I’ve never been pregnant, never tried to conceive a child. I’m at the age when friends and colleagues are having babies left, right and centre, but the furthest I’ve got down the road to furthering the species is to get married and agree that my husband and I want them ‘at some point’. Although I feel a lot more ready for the thought of bringing a child into the world than I did ten years ago – when the thought was ‘shit, having a baby would be the worst thing that could happen to me right now’ – I’m now at the ‘if it happened, we could cope’, but not yet at ‘shit, NOT having a baby would be worst thing that could happen.’ I’m a godmother to a dear girl, the daughter of a friend from school, and an inveterate ‘knitting auntie’, knocking up hats, mittens, bootees and jackets for each new arrival. But actually a mum myself? No, not yet.
Part of the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the baby project is a lack of understanding about how it might make me think and feel, anxiety about how it might change the very me-ness of me. Sure, there are also the massive practical considerations of work and lifestyle and cost (has anyone ever told you how shitty parental pay and leave are in the UK?) but at least there’s some support from the state, and we both have jobs and savings and four grandparents-in-waiting. We have friends who have done it and so can tell us ‘don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal’ and who wouldn’t mind being howled at down the phone at silly o’clock. The species needs to do it and, after all, all of us have already been through it, albeit on the other end of things.
But a big stumbling block to overcome before I take the plunge is to try and work out how this massive life-changing thing could affect me. Not just physically – though there is that too – but how I think and feel and cope with the world. I guess that, in part, this is futile; people always tell me that you can’t imagine what it’s like until it’s happening to you. But I still want to try and work it out, and it’s almost impossible to do because there’s barely a book on the subject that isn’t just a handbook advice on folic acid, maternity pads and pelvic girdle pain. Did those words make you shiver? If so, you’re not alone – they made my skin prickle, and that just shows how culturally conditioned we are to finding the whole pregnancy and motherhood thing a little bit disgusting, something that we just don’t talk about before we’re on that giddy journey ourselves, hurtling into the future with nary a clue about what’s to come. Preparing for this journey I don’t want a car manual, I want a story about the place that I’m going to which reassures and excites and makes me feel like I could cope with the brave new world ahead.
Thank God for Chitra Ramaswamy. Her brand new book Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy (Saraband, April 2016) is a magical yet practical and beautifully written monologue on pregnancy, from the pre-conception jitters to the miraculous but traumatic moment of birth. Each chapter follows a month of her own pregnancy but against a background of cultural and literary references from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy. In fact, those two sources are pretty important, because there simply aren’t that many books, poems, plays, films or works of art which actually depict this most awesome and fundamental of human processes. As Ramaswamy questions:
‘What, then, is the riddle of pregnancy? How are we even to begin to understand it? To find the right metaphors? Or perhaps even to abandon them: to crack open the jar and spill the contents?’
Ramaswamy’s a journalist and the training shows: her research is thorough and wide-reaching, turning up gems in places we wouldn’t have looked as well as those we thought we knew. Some of the works she cites are obviously about childbearing: Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kate Clanchy’s Newborn and Sharon Old’s poem ‘The Language of the Brag’ all take the stage. But others are more unexpected: Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (1977) isn’t a book about pregnancy at all, but in it Ramaswamy finds surprising parallels between Shepherd’s mountain explorations and her own journey to motherhood. Take Shepherd’s description of water on the hills:
‘I have seen its birth […] and the more I gaze at that sure and remitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled.’
Ramaswamy feels the same about the miniature miracle occurring in the very midst of herself.
After the uncertainty of the first chapter, those first few weeks before most women even know they are pregnant, the references to other people’s experiences come thick and fast: Sylvia Plath’s 1959 poem ‘Metaphors’ (‘I’m a riddle in nine syllables’), Marcel Proust, Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alison Watt’s and Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Gustave Coubert’s 1866 painting The Origin of the World, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hélène Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa, John Muir, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Jamie’s Jizzen, Voltaire, George Mackay Brown, Frida Kahlo, David Hume – it may be a daunting list, but Ramaswamy handles it with skillful lightness, marking each jolt of her journey with a fingerpost provided by someone else who has traversed humanity’s trail ahead of her. The very life-and-death-ness of her journey binds her to more than just other pregnant women, it also brings her into contact with people, places and narratives she hasn’t considered before.
There is also the quotidian normality, even familiarity, of this rarely-written-about subject. From the movements of the baby in her stomach to the contractions of birth, the feeling of joyous wellbeing in her sixth month to the protective nesting sensation she often experiences, the refrain is the same: ‘the most surprising part of all this was how unsurprising it felt’. For Ramaswamy discovers that her body is wiser and better prepared than her head, that this most primeval of functions is hard-wired into her very being. It doesn’t take her away from herself, it make her more herself, part of the humanity of humanity.
I cannot recommend Expecting highly enough. As someone who may take the path to motherhood in the coming years, it feels like a life-raft in a sea of uncertainty about pregnancy, helpful yet humorous, intimate yet universal. Not a car manual, but a true friend of a book, one that any person with the remotest to connection to the miracle of life could turn to again and again. I have no hesitation in placing on my personal ‘handbooks for life’ shelf, alongside Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. All books to gladden my heart, steady my footsteps, and remind me to keep looking at the world with new eyes.