Merry Christmas, one and all!
I’m taking a week off from the cover art tutorial. It’s a holiday, I’m traveling, and frankly the last week was crazypants, so I’ll do a better job when I have less demanding my attention elsewhere.
This week, I thought about the day of my post, when many of our readers would be celebrating the birthday of a savior, and realized there’s a topic I’m not sure I’ve seen discussed for writers and it’s one that is sort of important…. birth. Pregnancy, yes, as a precursor, but today specifically it’s about the delivering of a child from the womb to the cold hard light of the world. I’ve been through this process five times, but I only remember four of them. Those were the times I was a mother, bringing her child into the world.
I suspect that the reasons you’ll not often see birth in science fiction (or, for that matter, fantasy) are myriad. Pregnant women usually aren’t traveling, having adventures, or giving birth in uncertain circumstances. They did, in the past, and also, not coincidentally, infant mortality was terribly high. As was maternal. Even today, the outcome from labor is not always guaranteed to wind up with happy healthy mom and baby. Worst case always has been losing one or the other, or both. This is only one reason most writers are either going to steer clear, or use it as a off-screen plot element to pitch a Hero into the thick of it, if it’s mentioned. More than this? Birth is a messy, vulnerable, fraught process. And it’s not fast, for most. It’s also been treated with great mystery for much of human history, as it’s a mystical time in many cultures.
With many SFF writers being men, who were in recent century-or-so excluded from labor and delivery rooms, and only introduced to their offspring later, cleaned up and wrapped in fluffy blankets, it’s little wonder they weren’t going to get gritty in their storytelling with the details. On the other hand… there was also a trend for years of anesthetizing Mama, fully in some cases… But I’m not going to go into a screed here on the horrors of interventionist delivery doctors. Suffice it to say that pregnancy and birth are not illnesses, and treating them like they are is not a healthy strategy.
So! I had four children. My first three were born at home, with midwives in attendance. I chose to have my final child at the hospital, also with my midwives, for the sole reason that I had three small children at home and really wanted to have 24-48 hours in a room by myself. A vacation! That this turned out to be the only delivery where I had problems, was ironic.
If you are writing labor, it is a varied as women are themselves. Long labors for the first child are not uncommon, as the body goes through significant physiological changes to accommodate the passage of a small human through the pelvis. The first child is often (and I’m not speaking in absolutes here in this post, as statistical probability doesn’t always hold the exceptions back from happening) the smallest child if a mother has multiples over her lifespan, which helps in this process of the body altering into motherhood. These changes are permanent, by the way, which is why a forensic anthropologist looking at only the bones of a woman can tell you if she had delivered a child. My first labor was 24 hours, my second was 13, my third 6… and this is another pattern that is common for mothers. The body, figuring the process out, tends to be more efficient with it. You’d think my fourth birth would have been rapid. Except this is where the pattern altered for me, as my son presented with his head tilted, and jammed like a cork in a bottle. It wasn’t until some interventions happened that he was able to be born… 23 hours after labor began.
You can already begin to see some of the complexity of writing an accurate labor. The temptation to gloss over it is strong – and likely valid if the description is not going to advance the plot. Birth is also a messy process. There will be blood, amniotic fluids, meconium (the infant’s first bowel movements happen prior to birth, or even during, due to the pressures), and even feces from the mother that are forced out in the process. Then there is placenta Must be delivered after the baby, and takes some effort), the umbilical cord, and sometimes what is called a caul. You’ll see the last referenced in some fantasy tales as there are myths surrounding this membrane. The baby has been in a sack of fluid for months, and as a result, will be coated with (to some degree, some more than others) vernix, a creamy white film that protects their skin. I’m just giving a brief overview here – I could write much, much more, having studied this intensively from the time I first learned I was pregnant and continuing through all my pregnancies.
Describing any of this is rare in fiction, but you should know it’s there. If you want to write birth with any accuracy, you should not be making it all clean and clinical unless you are going to also make it happening outside the mother. Which is a whole ’nother topic. The concept of external incubation has been well-handled by Lois McMaster Bujold, and we do see that science is advancing to make it possible. The problem is that we are also understanding better just how important the maternal presence is to the developing child. From the ability of the mother’s body to cushion and protect the womb with it’s precious cargo, to the babe’s ability to hear and react to the mother’s heartbeat, voice, and even the voice of others who are nearby – like their father – the human starts to become aware of and connected with the world around them very soon in the gestation period. If you are going to postulate a culture with external incubation, you much also postulate the developmental and psychological impacts this leaves such creche-born children with.
Even the ’violence’ of birth itself has purpose. During the passage though the birth canal, the liquid that has been in the infant’s lungs is forced out (there is some fascinating data on this, the development of lungs, and how we can save and nurture even very premature babies, in the last couple of decades. The baby is also exposed to the mother’s microbiome during this process, and in the time-honored tradition of laying the newborn on the mother’s skin for bonding time. This gives a newborn essential immune protections which are reinforced through breastfeeding. Not being able to do this, through delivery via C-section, or a mother that is unable to nurse, gives a newborn hurdles to cross from the first moments. Feasible, of course, but still, not the ideals.
I was thinking about all of this, and the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth, the other day. There is no mention of a midwife – and in a small town overwhelmed with an influx of visitors, she would have existed but likely been busy, or simple matter of not knowing who to contact. However, being in the stable was not a bad thing for a woman in the throes – less contact with stranger’s germs. Also, although Joseph was a carpenter, and would not have had much experience with birth, the first responders to the Star were shepherds, who would have been intimately familiar with birth (I leave aside the Wise Men, as they likely arrived when the child was a year or two old, certainly not to the stable as the holiday cards depict for brevity and art’s sake). A young mother, but not completely alone, with perhaps shepherds arriving in the aftermath? I can see it. Birth is as old as time, and happens whether we are ready or not for it!