The first time I saw the actual birth of a child was in sixth grade sex ed at Harman Elementary, next to Chesapeake Mobile Court, where I was living with my mother and her new-ish husband, Bill. The class had already scarred my fragile ego by standing me next to Alfred Jump as demonstration of the varied stages of puberty in our young bodies, mine the example of a boy who hadn’t displayed any of the characteristics of such a phenomenon. But that is a different essay, one perhaps more traumatic—and certainly more vitriolic—than this one.
The video we saw in sex ed was NOVA’s 1982 classic The Miracle of Life, which chronicles the entire gestation of a single human organism from freshly ejaculated sperm to freshly birthed baby. I was so mesmerized by the complexity of the progressing stages, the catalog of chemical processes, by the science, that I even forgot for a moment how this class originated the new nickname I would suffer at the hands of mean girls and meatheads for the rest of the school-year: little baldy.
The Miracle of Life was graphic for a pre-internet, pre-YouTube, 12-year-old without a household Cinemax subscription. This video showed stuff. The mother, a feather-haired woman who looked a lot like Princess Di circa fairy-tale wedding, was being encouraged to push by a smiley doctor who looked a lot like Sigourney Weaver circa Aliens Ripley. NOVA showed the crowning of the baby head-on, and the mother’s private parts in all their bushy, ever-widening glory. The video ends with the baby’s body eased out, followed by an immediate cut to being cradled alongside the mother, and this phrase: “the incredible journey of birth is complete.” Other than the baby’s head looking a bit gray in its first moments, the birth was…well…beautiful. The Ripley doctor was beaming in joy, the handsomely bearded father was mouthing “wow”, the soundtrack was swollen synth in a major key, and the mother was laughing, face aglow, her lip gloss intact, and her feathered hair wispily defying gravity. I think I even teared up at this final scene. I may have mouthed “wow,” as well.
I remember my mother telling me about my birth. She said it was very fast, and when I came out I didn’t cry. I simply came into the world, opened my eyes, and was pleased. She said, “It was amazing. A miracle.” The image I carried of this story was of me, radiant in my newness, looking Buddha-like, my legs folded in Vajrasana. I was an easy labor, and I prided myself on this fact, that it in some way signified my overall personhood.
The next time I saw live birth was Stan Brakhage’s 1959 experimental film Window Water Baby Moving in my Sophomore Art and Culture course. This was a very different experience than NOVA, with warm-toned lighting and quick jump cuts ranging from Brakhage’s very pregnant wife submerged in a bathtub to middle shots of her belly to close-ups of her vagina during the big moment.
Now, I was 19 years old at this point. I’d heard enough to know that birth was a painful process, sometimes complicated, on rare occasions even dangerous. But I was male, an American male, and a homosexual male at that. I didn’t have to think too much about pregnancy and birth. I never lounged on the grassy quad of my Georgia alma mater and pondered images of labor, whether inspired of my own doing or not. And the images I did possess in my database were of Princess Di and Sigourney Weaver over-smiling amidst 80’s synthesizer-and-hair-spray oblivion, and my own celestial Buddha-birth. But now I had a new experience of birth with Brakhage’s silent video: Blood. Lots of blood, seeping out of his wife’s vagina, before, during, and after their daughter emerged, with various jelly-like and runny substances smothering the newborn’s alien cone-head. And then the placenta squeezing out like an afterthought, a shockingly large, bloody, meaty mass that I imagined making a sound like caught catfish slapped onto the deck of a pontoon boat. I think I even exclaimed after class, “I can’t believe all of that came out of her!”
There was more to this birth thing than I thought.
When a friend from high school had her first child a few years later, I went home for the Sip and See. Her friends were wearing pastel sundresses, fawning over the baby, cooing half-sentences: “So amazing. A Miracle,” like a melismatic chorus. As a polite gesture, I asked what was most memorable about the labor, expecting an answer similar to my mother’s, similar to all women I’d known who’d had a baby, where mother was exhausted but aglow, with a heartwarming simultaneity of cries and laughter. But not Tisha. With a signature deadpan look that she perfected alongside me during our rebellious teenage years, she said, “For real? I had to get twelve stitches. Dante was so fucking big he ripped the skin between my pussy and asshole.”
And not long after that, my friend Sarah asked me to attend her childbirth. The father had ghosted her upon hearing the news that she was pregnant, and Sarah’s Pentacostal South Carolina family pretended their 23-year-old college-educated daughter was not having a baby out of wedlock. Sarah was my good friend. Of course I would support her, hold her hand as I had seen done on every Emmy-nominated prime time TV show. And, now I knew more. I was ready for the blood, for the placenta. I wasn’t going to be surprised or grossed out.
That baby was 9 pounds, 11 ounces. Sarah had a waist my arms could wrap around twice. When that baby started coming, so did everything else. First, Sarah peed. A lot. Pee was going everywhere. I thought it was going to hit the doctor’s face it was so forceful. Poor Sarah was apologizing, but everyone kept telling her, no, it’s just water. She even contested through gritted teeth, “I know I peed.” But the doctors ignored her, told her to focus, to breathe.
But then little Taylor’s shoulders got stuck, and the next thing I knew Sarah’s feet were pulled to her ears, and everyone was telling her to push harder, push harder! The room was frantic, and Sarah was screaming so loud I thought her vocal chords were going to pop like guitar string. And then, the poop. Sarah was pooping, all over the place. Screaming and bleeding and snotting and pooping, folded up like a lawn chair. Wherever there was an orifice, something was coming out of it. Her body was completely out of her control. And, it was disgusting.
Taylor was a healthy baby girl. Her face and body were wiped down. The delivery bed stripped and cleaned, Sarah rosy from the exertion, but calm. I was holding her hand. She was looking intently at me with remnant tears in the corner of her eyes, as if asking something of me—affirmation, confirmation? In the most sincere, beatific face I could conjure, I cooed, “So amazing. A miracle.”
I was incensed. Why don’t the great big They tell us this shit, this truth about birth? Why didn’t NOVA at least show Princess Di with sweaty hair stuck in clumps to her forehead? Are they afraid we sixth graders won’t want to have children if we see the real deal? And if this kind of revulsion is such a well-kept secret, what else are They not telling us about our futures? What other horrors are we waltzing into willingly, snowed by the glossy stories, the omitted details, the well-edited promotional videos?
Why do we curate the most immediate and animal of ourselves into something antiseptic? Why do we take a sort of cultural sandpaper to the representations of our biology, scratching smooth our bodies until they gleam with the gloss of Cosmo or Vogue? And what are we exactly buffing out? I ask this question to my LA friends over drinks at a local watering hole. Mel recoils at the question, as if envisioning all of the world’s bodily functions erupting at once. Dana quickly replies, “Sin, Miah. Duh. You went to Catholic School.” I stare at a water stain in the bar table. Duh. Of course. We make museum pieces of our bodies because art is a closer thing to God, and blood and snot and poop aren’t, and we aim to be as close to our promised sacrality as we can, as often as we can.
All of these experiences shattered the image of my own birth, my exalted beginnings as a sitting lotus, another type of glossy magazine ad. Let’s be real: I wasn’t the only male who carried this inflated conceit about the splendid entry into their mother’s world. She said I was a quick labor. Now, the thought of me shooting out of my mother’s 5’2, 95-pound body like a Catapult pitching machine immediately filled me with terror. I knew now that the cervix had to dilate systematically in order for that large an object to pass through. I knew now that the pressure on the body is so great that most women will bleed, will tear, shit on themselves, piss on everything else. So, what happened when the baby also came quick? I was mortified that I may have torn my mother’s asshole. That Thanksgiving I wanted the truth, however ugly.
I selected the day after the Thanksgiving meal, the flock of family gorging on Black Friday electronics sales at Walmart. Mama and I were not shoppers, and instead were playing a game of Scrabble that, of course, she was winning. I had been drinking wine, so it summoned in me a bit of courage. “Mama, you told me that I arrived really fast during birth. Wasn’t that difficult?”
But all my mother said was, “You were a quick labor,” her pale eyes determined to arrange seven tiles into yet another slaying of her English-major son.
I shook my head. “But wasn’t it hard, you know, for your body?”
She smiled, “Miah, it was a miracle. A really amazing thing.”
With the wine coursing through me, determination on my tongue, I pushed further, my mouth dilating with the taboo question. I wanted to punch a hole through the magazine ads of our biology, of our body-lives curated for the Second Coming. I needed to know just how traumatic giving birth to me was. I needed to know just how much pain I caused, how much embarrassment.
“Mama…did you poop?”
Her eyes reluctantly left the tile rack, she took a slow sip of her sweet tea, relaxed her shoulders into the high-back dining chair—as if she had expected this line of inquiry—sighed, and said, “You men ask the most irrelevant questions.”
© Miah Jeffra
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Miah’s interview]