Placing Birth in Public Memory

(l-r) Katie McLane, Dariana Pérez, Frankie Goodman, Anya Naylor, Antonia Perez, and Tia Tanzer performing “Aquelarres” Photo Shane Morgan

When I was in college, I wrote a monologue about my fear of cesarean sections, and a friend of mine performed it for an audience of our peers and parents. The piece was mostly imagined sensory detail: cold air in an operating room, plastic in shades of hospital blue, gleaming metal, and the experience of crying while horizontal — salty water in the ears. I was prepared for my writing to confound people, for the audience to find the subject matter bizarre and my anxiety pathological. But there was that one mother in the audience. “That is what it is like,” she told her son, a classmate of mine. “That is exactly what it is like.”

Responses such as this one are why I started the Birth Play Project, which is the site of my ongoing research into childbearing stories in the theater.

My fear of c-sections can be traced back to hearing about obstetric violence experienced by strangers and witnessed by my mother, who started her career as a nurse during my formative years. My mother occasionally came home distressed after caring for patients who were belittled, manipulated, threatened, or ignored during their labors. I write about birth because I have learned that our hospitals can house everyday callousness. Maternity ward cruelty makes me angrier than anything in the world. But my mother has many stories, and I also write about birth because those stories contain all human potential — including compassion, bravery, and grace.

I am not sure there was anything revelatory in the monologue I wrote. I think the significance, for my classmate’s mother, was the fact that I chose to write about c-sections at all, and that I chose to put that writing onstage.

Birth is an experience that our culture often steers us towards forgetting, so much so that “it’s like childbirth — you forget the pain!” is an adage we recognize. I am not here to refute the idea that the body forgets pain. It is also true that people who have given birth remember their experiences — I know this because I have asked. I am here to insist that it is important for our culture to remember birth, too. The pain of going unheard — that pain stays. So too does the ecstasy of triumph, and of hearing a new voice for the first time.

Much of our access to birth is through social media, where we receive numerical data about newborns in the form of dates, pounds, and ounces more often than we receive narratives. On- screen depictions of labor are more often grounded in tropes than in physiological truths. We are trained to laugh as sitcom characters curse at their husbands in between screams, with their legs in stirrups and a doctor ordering them to push.

For me, theater is an opportunity to subvert tropes and to explore a variety of narratives.

Some births require a large cast of characters, and others only the parent-infant dyad. Some are grueling sagas, and others are quick surprises. The womb spends more time at rest throughout labor than it does in contraction — a reality that popular culture does not capture. What happens in those quiet moments?

For a hero’s journey, turn to birth. For a test of intimate relationships, turn to birth. To find the extraordinary-ordinary generosity of strangers, turn to birth.

Likewise, for evidence of systemic inequities, turn to birth. For a test of a society’s beliefs about bodily autonomy, turn to birth. To find histories of violence, turn to birth. We need these stories, lest we forget the twilight sleep under which some of our parents were born, the systematic marginalization of Black midwives, the appalling racial disparities in infant and maternal health. We need opportunities to learn what made our loved ones feel hurt or held in their most vulnerable and valiant moments.

Theater consists of moments when the private becomes public, when our breath catches in unison and our heartbeats synchronize, when there is communal recognition of the intimate human experience that an actor is representing, live and in person. The theater asks us to be together and listen. It dares us to empathize with ourselves and as a community. Theater is a site of public recollection. To place an experience onstage is to insist that it is worthy of remembering.

Yes, I use the language of remembrance as someone who has not yet given birth. I need birth stories just as I needed coming-of-age stories in childhood, and just as everyone needs stories about dying. Art can both take us back in time and serve as preparation for joy and sorrow to come; art is a prayer that we will all eventually be folded into an ever-growing community of understanding., @birthplayproject