Carmen Winant,  My Birth  , 2018, Found images, tape. Installation view of Being: New Photography 2018 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 18, 2018–August 19, 2018. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Kurt Heumiller

Carmen Winant, My Birth , 2018, Found images, tape. Installation view of Being: New Photography 2018 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 18, 2018–August 19, 2018. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Kurt Heumiller


Real Talk: Child Birth

Four Uncensored Birth Stories

After giving birth to her daughter, Charlotte Jansen called her sister to ask why she’d not told her how bad childbirth is, “Well, it wouldn’t really have helped, would it?” she answered. There is a code among mothers to not talk about birth experiences, at least not in all the gory detail. There’s a collective reluctance to talk about something so individual and basically indescribable. No one wants to hear about the grisly stuff and, of course, no two births are ever the same. But isn’t this partly self-imposed taboo, a bit like our society’s attitude towards menstruation, another way of repressing women’s bodies, making them seem cleaner, neater, more sexual than they really are?

Charlotte spoke to three different women about their experiences of childbirth to explore the multitude of ways they each brought their babies into the world.

Charlotte Jansen

I was embarrassingly ignorant when it came to giving birth. Assuming most people exaggerate when they talk about how excruciating it is, and having next to no understanding or knowledge about the whole biology of it, I merrily attended hypnobirthing classes believing when it came to the moment I’d simply “breathe the baby out”, just like all those wonderful women in a birthing centre in Guatemala, or the friend of a friend who’d given birth while taking a shower at home.

My boyfriend made the panicked phone call to the maternity ward as I was on all fours on the bed where I was also sending a few messages on WhatsApp–my waters had broken the night before, four days before my due date, as I was finishing up editing a particularly annoying article. We’d hurried off to the hospital where they eventually determined that the trickle of clear, odourless liquid (nothing like the bucket load I’d imagined) that had come out was in fact my waters breaking. If there was no action within 24 hours, I had to come back to be induced.

After a strange last dinner alone, and my last dinner for a while, my contractions started at around midnight, more like light period pains I was half able to sleep through. By the morning though, they were getting intense, though in between I was still trying to tidy up our flat.

I knew it was going to be bad. I just didn’t realise how bad. It was nothing like Queen Elizabeth’s birth scene in The Crown, there was no “ping” like in Monty Python and it definitely wasn’t like I saw it in the 1990s (Julianne Moore being attended to by Robin Williams in Nine Months? Nope). It didn’t look like any of those medieval birth paintings. We called an Uber and my boyfriend went ahead to update the driver on the situation. I shoved a blanket over my head and stuck the hypnobirth recording on my earphones. Every speed bump we went over was like a mountain. We finally arrived at the hospital waiting room, me sweating, with the blanket still over my head. Another woman was in labour, straddling three seats on her knees and howling, her partner nervously rubbing her back.  

The pain was at times terrifying, and the scariest thing was there was no other way out.

“I can’t do it, just cut it out of me!” I cried, seven hours later, after twenty-seven hours in labour. The pain was at times terrifying, and the scariest thing was there was no other way out; my body was acting of its own volition and I couldn’t control it. This was supposed to feel natural, “our bodies are designed to do this”, etc, etc. It felt to me like a trauma that my body couldn’t cope with, that it was impossible there was enough room for an actual human to come out of it.

My boyfriend and the midwife offered quiet encouragement as I writhed around like a wild animal in the birthing pool. I couldn’t communicate except in sounds that came from some primitive, cave-woman version of myself, but heard snippets of their conversation about the poor quality of hospital coffee. “You’re almost there,” they kept telling me. When the head was finally “visible”, somewhere up there, I thought that must surely be the end. “How long now?” I pleaded. “It’s usually about two hours from here,” came the calm reply. “What the fuck do you mean two hours!” I cried. It felt like it was never going to end and I was exhausted.

Yet as the tiny purplish person, a perfectly formed miniature being, was finally placed in my arms, quiet and blinking up at me with a wise and inquisitive look, I experienced something I have never felt before. But it wasn’t a spiritual awakening or the fireworks I imagined. As the little thing looked straight into my eyes I simply felt overwhelmed by a gentle wave of calm and relief. She was going to have a happy and good life. It felt natural and normal that she was here in the world and I felt her purity was going to be my guide more than I could ever offer to be hers.

Soon enough practicality kicked in, as it inevitably does. I began to feel sorry for the little purple wonder in my arms, our untainted specimen of humanity spending the first minutes of her life sitting in a lukewarm pool swirling with blood and bits of faeces. My boyfriend cut the cord (a thick, liquorice-like thing) and took the babe in his arms, while I slowly waddled out of the water and across the room at a snail’s pace, dragging the rest of the cord, scissors attached to the end, like the protagonist of a David Cronenberg movie. Awakening from my birth trance, I came over all British, apologising to the midwife, who had just moments before been fishing bits of my poo out of the water with a mini fishing net.

But that wasn’t quite the end of it. An hour later a slab of meat the size of a Hawksmoor steak came out (not without another excruciating effort) and then a theatre bed was wheeled in for the finale: stitches. The midwife then on duty thought it a good chance for her junior to practise. “Er, maybe you could finish it?” My boyfriend nervously called to the senior nurse from a safe distance across the room.

I can’t say I felt empowered as I shuffled out of Homerton Hospital with my baby, my boyfriend, my deflating balloon of a belly and my NHS designer vagina. But ever since life—all of it—has seemed miraculous.

Detail from Carmen Winant,  My Birth  , 2018.

Detail from Carmen Winant, My Birth , 2018.

Carmen Winant

I could occupy lot of space in this re-telling; I will try and keep it compact. Both of my births – which took place 22 months apart—were medically induced, as I went late and long. My first birth, with my son Carlo, lasted about 36 hours. My water broke around 9pm but contractions did not start. I barely slept that night, anxiously awaiting a thing that didn’t come. Around 1pm the following day, the midwives at the hospital started me on a Pitocin drip to induce contractions. It felt, from there, as if I were having one long, unbroken contraction for the many hours that followed; the swell of pain in my uterus was immense and un-abiding. I was determined to have as a natural birth as could be (of course, the IV in my arm did away with that idea from the start) and after twelve hours of labouring I was only at 4cm (of ten). I was moaning in ways that I had never heard from my own body, I couldn’t open my eyes for hours. I was drained, too tired but also in a realm beyond sight. I kept needing to shit and had to roll my IV in tiny steps over to the bathroom; the nurses were worried that I would push too hard, or at the wrong time, but I couldn’t stop it. I opted for an epidural so that I could have the energy to push (labour is a wild thing but also very strategic and orderly). I remember feeling immense relief with the epidural went in and I pushed the baby out in 45 minutes from that point. Holding him to my chest, was such a relief.

My second son came much faster—in about 8 hours. I had broken my coccyx falling down the stairs two weeks earlier so I opted for an epidural from the start so that I could lay on my back, which was otherwise impossible. I feel some sadness at this as I felt at a remove from my own body for most of the birth but I’m not interested in suffering for suffering’s sake; I opted for what I felt I needed to get me through the experience with an outstanding injury to my pelvis. I was prepared to do major damage to my body getting that baby out, but he managed to shift with and around me. When he came out, like a shot, I thought: “He is so beautiful, and this room is far too bright.”

The first time around I was amazed at his smallness. I was amazed at his need. I was amazed at the exhaustion I felt, and the tiredness. I was amazed by my boredom, and also by his laugh. I was amazed by the way he trusted me, inherently, and the immense tenderness I felt towards him.

There is, of course, a lot of trauma that the body goes through after birth. I bled from my vagina for over a month. My breasts filled with milk becoming engorged and infected. I was taking so much Advil to help aid my sleep-deprivation headaches that I developed a tear in my stomach lining and vomited blood, ending up in the ER (leading to another breast infection, as they didn’t have a working pump for me to use). There was so much management of my body that needed to happen, and all while I was needing to manage someone else’s body.

The second time was different in the sense that I knew what to expect—so many of my feelings the first time were coloured by nervousness and unknowing—but also in that there was less wonder. Because my older son was (and is) still a toddler with a tremendous amount of energy, there was less time to marvel at the new baby; he became folded into our lives in a different way. I’m aware there are advantages and disadvantages to being a second child.

Detail from Carmen Winant,  My Birth  , 2018.

Detail from Carmen Winant, My Birth , 2018.

Alicia Mersy

I woke up from contractions and my water broke at around 2 am. It was so painful I was walking in the apartment not knowing what to do with myself and suddenly I remembered this conversation I had with a woman just a few days before. She said, “No matter what happens and how painful it gets just close your eyes and imagine you’re in the ocean and the waves are the contractions. Don’t resist them, ride them and everything will be ok. It’s a divine pain, you might only experience it once—so think about this and try to enjoy and understand the meaning of the pain.” That woman saved me.

I was at home with my partner and my doula/collaborator. The birthing center asked us to call them every time the contractions would get closer to each other. They wanted me to stay home as much as possible so that I could be in a familiar comfortable space. When the contractions started to get closer to each other they asked us to come in. The uber driver didn’t want to take us when he saw I was starting to give birth. His car was full of stuff everywhere it was the longest uber drive of my life.

I was mostly in the bath, but the toilet bowl felt really good too! It took 3 hours from the moment I arrived at the birthing center and started pushing. I was so tired I remember the midwife saying you can sleep if you want so I would just fall asleep and wake up from the contractions and start to push again. I have Polaroids from the whole birth and I look at them once in a while—it’s just the deepest thing I ever experienced.

When he came out it felt like a huge slimy heavy fish coming out of my vagina. I was crouching so I didn’t see him. There was a long moment of silence so I remember imagining the worst and asking everyone in the room, “What? Is he ok? Does he have eyes? Legs?” I also didn’t know the gender so when he came out the midwife grabbed him, opened his legs and said “It’s a boy!” 

The midwife opened the placenta to show me where the baby was that whole time. I loved the midwives so much but they made a mistake not stitching me straight away. They said they didn’t want to interrupt the special moment, so the stitching got complicated. I went home 5 hours later. We stayed at home for the following few days just us it was so hot and humid in New York. We prayed every day to thank God, it was so fucking magical.


Yaffa Zeit Chekol

I had Almaz when I was 25. I don’t remember how strong the pain was but I remember exactly how my body reacted. A few nights before giving birth my stomach was hard, my pulse was very fast and I couldn’t sleep. I went to a routine check-up at which they found out I might have a toxic pregnancy and I was rushed to the ER. I was required, given my medical condition, to have an induction: They tried a cervical sweep and when that didn’t work I was given Pitocin (also known as Oxytocin) that was supposed to bring on the contractions. When I started dilating I was really overwhelmed by contradictory feelings—I really wanted to see the baby but I really wanted to be out of the hospital as soon as possible. When I was 2cm dilated I was given more Pitocin.

This is where the real drama began. My waters still hadn’t broken. I remember the sharp pain as the nurse burst the amniotic sac. I was able to bear the pain for only a while and then I asked for an epidural. I remember hearing the nurse saying the baby’s pulse was getting weaker and we needed to hurry. I was disturbed by the fact the doctors kept talking in codes over my head—I was crying and panicking, tears just streaming down my face and asking them to explain what was going on. (Almaz’s father), and my mother were both there and helped me, both physically and mentally, holding my hand and encouraging me—I was exhausted at that point.

The obstetrician on that shift was really reassuring, she told me not to worry and that everything would be ok and soon enough I’d meet my baby. About half an hour later my daughter Almaz was born, but she was silent—I asked why she wasn’t crying. They cleaned her and put her on my chest, but something wasn’t right and they quickly took her to another room to give her oxygen. I was lying there crying, I was sure that something horrible had happened, I was in pieces. They explained that my daughter was exhausted from the difficult labour. While they were taking care of her the doctor came and told me that I would have to wait to deliver the placenta and that I’d need two stitches as I’d torn from the effort. I didn’t feel any of it because of the epidural but I still felt the delivery at full power. Everything I experienced was so different from what we see on the TV.

A few hours later, Almaz was finally returned to me and I experienced the next biggest crisis of my life—breastfeeding. I remember her lips circling my nipple, sucking it so intensely and the pain was unbearable—I was shocked. I didn’t know breastfeeding could be so painful and so unpleasant. I was mad at my mum and the older generation of women in my life for not mentioning this detail. Everyone talks about the pain of giving birth but no-one tells you about the pain and frustration of breastfeeding. Every time Almaz was feeding it felt my nipples were on fire. They were cracked and wounded and I was hugely engorged. I was anxious, confused and terrified. It was supposed to be the natural thing to do. I was my daughter’s food source but I was suffering and crying every time I had to feed her. She would be crying because she was hungry and then I’d panic. Two weeks of torture later the doctor discovered I had a blockage in my milk pipes, a fungus was going to the baby from my breast and I needed antibiotics to treat it. I had wanted to breastfeed and I didn’t want to give up. I’m glad I didn’t because I learned it was the right thing for me and I loved it in the end.