Chitra Ramaswamy and Hollie McNish on the everyday miracle of childbirth

On TV, childbirth is a few pushes and out pops a very clean bairn. In their new books Chitra Ramaswamy and Hollie McNish push back, telling the truth about an everyday miracle
Chitra Ramaswamy, left, and Hollie McNish at Aye Write. Picture: Robert PerryChitra Ramaswamy, left, and Hollie McNish at Aye Write. Picture: Robert Perry
Chitra Ramaswamy, left, and Hollie McNish at Aye Write. Picture: Robert Perry

Chitra Ramaswamy: Morning Hollie! It was such a pleasure to chair you in Glasgow [at the Aye Write! festival] and to see all the women in the audience responding to your poetry, whether with babies on their breasts, in their bellies, no intention whatsoever of having children, all of it. I really sensed the hunger for this sort of thing – the fact that it hasn’t really existed before, at least certainly not in the mainstream. No one tells the truth about pregnancy, birth and parenting. So my question is… why? Your book is called Nobody Told Me. My book is a response to the fact that nobody told me. Why are we so silenced on the fundamental matter of growing people in our bodies and giving birth to them? After all, it’s how we all got here. In my book I talk about a Vietnam veteran I interviewed once who was speaking about the trauma of this time on tour and the silence that pervaded his return. He told me society had conveniently worked it out that way – if you talk about the good things you’re bragging and if you talk about the bad things you’re whining. It struck me when I came to write this book that the same deadening of truth happens around pregnancy.

Hollie McNish: So bloody true! For me, I think it felt a lot like a kind of cross between that sort of British “politeness” but also I think a huge part of it is to do with the historic idea of how women should be – the whole ladylike ideal. Girls are “sugar and spice and all things nice” and as we grow up it doesn’t really change. Aside from the pyschological side, motherhood is a very dirty –physically I mean – and very naked thing. If we want to talk of realities, it involves bodily processes, from morning sickness to vaginal tearing to baby sick and poo and lots of blood and – though not the same but viewed similarly, unfortunately – leaking nipples and milky breasts. As a society, for a woman to talk about her body, let alone those apparently private parts, plus blood and sick etc is not deemed “ladylike” or “polite”. I think that is a huge part of it. Everything about females, and men increasingly, is so bloody fake. So clean, pretty, sanitised and so disconnected from our actual flesh.

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CR: Totally… I remember an ante-natal yoga class in Edinburgh when I was only about 18 weeks pregnant. A woman came in with her newborn and told her “birth story”, as it’s suddenly called after you do it, and all the visitors started pitching up, wanting to hear all the “gory” details. Anyway, she mentioned walking around after giving birth with the umbilical cord still attached and trailing out of her like a lead. We all giggled but I remember feeling really shocked – I had never thought of birth like that. It’s always represented in films and TV with only the second stage – a few massive pushes and then a six-week-old baby pops out with not a sign of blood, vernix, meconium and so on. I’ve noticed, and my book isn’t yet out, that whenever I do events women are so keen to tell me their stories of pregnancy and birth. It’s like they’re desperate to talk about it. So I don’t think it’s the case that we’re not up for doing it. It’s more that society is not up for hearing the real version. What kind of response are you getting to your book and to your Youtube videos? I see “Embarrassed” has had more than a million views now...

HM: Yeah, that was a poem that I never intended to read because I didn’t think anyone would get it! I genuinely thought everyone else was fine. I think that’s the case not just in pregnancy, though, but in general. The “Oh I’m fine” response to “how are you?” and the desperate hiding of reality in case it makes you look imperfect or weak. I have the same at gigs. It’s my favourite part, once I’m offstage and able to hear others’ stories. I find mums and dads want to talk. Lots about the sex after birth that I talk about seems to hit the “we’ve never spoken about this” cord. But yes, it seems we all want someone to talk to. Someone to admit things first, then we’re desperate to share. It’s the only thing that helps, I think.

CR: What about labour? Were you worried about writing about it truthfully? I think that was the chapter of my book I was most worried about writing. And of course, I only came to it at the end. I worried about translating it into words because it’s such a wordless experience, and also about being truthful about it. But in the end I decided to just go for it and reading other accounts of labour in novels, poems, and journals really helped. Especially Sylvia Plath’s account of the birth of her second child at home. It’s only a few pages long but I found it so striking in its truth and clarity. It really inspired me. In fact I decided on the structure of my book – nine chapters, one for each month of pregnancy – partly because I came across a Sylvia Plath poem called “Metaphors”. It’s nine lines long, with nine syllables to each line, and goes through a range of metaphors for pregnancy. It’s quite pithy and sad. I thought the tone of it was perfect.

HM: I structured my book in seasons because I found the weather and season to play such a massive role. Having a child in spring and summer is so much easier! In terms of labour, I wrote hardly anything. I wrote some jokey comments and things I was thinking but I just couldn’t find words to really describe it. I was totally and utterly shocked by labour. Really, after going through it I just could not believe that’s what mothers had done. I know its different for everyone but the pain, the shock at how hard and intense and painful it was made me speechless. I said those things in the book, but more lightheartedly. But it really affected me. I was so scared afterwards too, the bleeding and my ribs, I remember almost having a panic attack that I couldn’t find my ribs as they had moved up. I think the fact I knew very, very little about what the actual processes were made it even more of a shock. But the actual pain of delivery left me gobsmacked. And in awe of mothers. It made me annoyed how little respect and awe birth is given. Still does. People run marathons and we act like they are gods. Birth is harder and more important and so intense. We should get f***ing medals too!

CR: It’s so true – not enough respect is given to birth. There’s something about the fact that it’s so ordinary, so bog standard, so necessary for any of us to be here at all, that we pay it no attention or use it to undermine women or turn the whole thing into a battleground. It’s also, clearly if you ask me, because it’s women who do it. I didn’t end up focusing on the history of childbirth much in my book but trawling through some of it I was so appalled and depressed to learn how much it had been used against women, as evidence they were mad, overtly sexual, or somehow deserving of the pain. We should be celebrating women and that’s the case whether they push their babies out or have C-sections. It’s all hard, it all takes its toll, and so much of it isn’t about choice anyway. It’s just what happens to you.

• Expecting by Chitra Ramaswamy is published by Saraband on 7 April; Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish is published by Blackfriars and is available now.