Thursday 14 November 2019

Mary Kenny: Penning pregnancy

Female fiction writers are focusing on the great drama inside a woman's body

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's sometimes suggested that artists and novelists are better at sensing the zeitgeist - that spirit of the age - than more prosaic sources, such as economists and political analysts. This perhaps was illuminated by Dublin's choice, this year, for its UNESCO "one city, one book" focus. The book selected was Sinéad Gleeson's anthology of short stories by women, entitled The Long Gaze Back.

And see how the zeitgeist can animate the world of fiction and imagination: of the 22 stories by living women writers, 10 have some kind of preoccupation with, or focus on, the issue of pregnancy and motherhood.

Possibly the most strikingly contemporary story is June Caldwell's Somat. This is a description of a woman in a coma, being kept alive when it is found that she is pregnant. Soon the medics, the lawyers, the media and the State are all involved. "If there's only a 20pc chance of survival at 24 weeks - what hope has this mitten at 18? What are the doctors saying? Are we talking severe handicap or stillborn? How far is the State willing to go?"

There's the dilemma over viability - and potential legal consequences. The voices of the experts are heard. "Absence of neurological activity, already determined, is legal death… the Eighth Amendment shouldn't even come into it as she's already gone." Then the story seems to switch to the foetal point of view: "They plan to grow me for 20 weeks and see how it goes. In a few weeks I'll be plump enough for a tube through the nose into the windpipe… No visitors allowed in to see Mama now because she is, let's be very clear about this, not in fine fettle." Caldwell, who identifies herself as pro-choice in her CV, zones in on some crucial issues in this narrative: changing clinical knowledge, amazing possibilities of what doctors can do, and the mystery and maybe miracle at the heart of the gestational process.

Anne Enright, who has written insightfully about pregnancy and babies, describes, in her Three Stories about Love, an Irishwoman visiting Melbourne, dreaming about her unborn baby. "Elaine dreamt that the baby could speak. She dreamt that the baby was, in fact, talking to her, hugely and at length… The baby was actually very interesting… Elaine woke to heartburn… she was in a room in Melbourne, and the baby was inside her, inside a room in Melbourne. Each morning, she woke two seconds before she realised where she was, though she never forgot she was pregnant, not even when she was asleep."

Eimear McBride, an award-winning novelist who often writes in surrealist, stream-of consciousness style, describes a mother's ambivalent feelings about a pregnancy and subsequent birth. "The tightness in my chest when the test said yes? My husband's distress when I said, Oh no? My inability to fall for motherhood as quickly as pregnancy proposed? When my son was born I wanted my husband to take him off me. I did all I should, but I didn't love him either, until he was six months at least..."

The cost of motherhood includes, for the narrator, the diminution of the individual self. "Making new life certainly decimated the one I had cherished and the grow that grew after on my scorched earth was still too unwilling for him."

By contrast, the anguish of motherhood when a child is born and only given a "50-50" chance of surviving is explored by Lucy Caldwell in Multitudes, and the physical pain of the mother is reported in detail as she struggles to feed a sick newborn, "hour after hour, drop after drop…"

The late Maeve Brennan, though she never had children, portrays a mother's enduring sense of loss after the death of her first child "a loss she had never accepted". Yet motherhood's sacrifices are balanced by rewards. "She had found that the more the child demanded of her, the more she had to give… the child's holy trust made her open her eyes… she could meet what challenges arose and meet them well… she had seen at once that the child was unique."

So many of the writers include a pregnancy experience in their stories, from EM Eapy's preoccupation with "the bump", to Róisín O'Donnell's story of an African "spirit child" who possesses occult knowledge: in "a bar in Dun Laoghaire... she knew instantly the barmaid was two and a half days pregnant."

Siobhán Mannion writes a superb description of swimming in the Atlantic in Somewhere to Be, with just one subtle hint towards the end, of the swim's deeper purpose: "It has taken more than a week for her body to empty itself, for all traces of new life to fall away. She has scared him, she knows this, with her long silences, her animal howls." And Eimear Ryan's mature Lane in Stay portrays, with candour, a widow's bleak searches for connection, and her rueful regrets: "She was the one who hadn't wanted children, and now, she cursed herself for it, for failing to hold on to even a piece of him."

In the past, many women writers focused on the search for love, and on relationships - and it is still an eternal quest - but there's also now a generation of women fiction writers who have found the potential for exploring the great drama that occurs within a woman's body itself. And the imagination and sensitivity of fiction writers can probably probe the complexities of feelings around this subject better than any adversarial political debate.


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