Kali Hughes discusses the popular image of the stork as deliverer of babies and the silencing of women’s birth stories.
Three months ago I gave birth to a beautiful human child. I pushed his head, in the normal manner of these things, through my cervix and out of my vagina, and so I fully understand just how such a feat may seem miraculous.
But childbirth is not a miracle. It is an utterly overwhelming personal labour that often leaves in its wake evidence of traumas, both physical and emotional. In November 2018, the BBC reported on a study that found 28,000 women in the UK each year had suffered PTSD from the experience of childbirth.
During pregnancy, I noticed that such traumas are talked of only in the shady corners demarcated for ‘women’s business’. I met a new mum at a picnic who agreed to tell me her eventful birth story – but not before she glanced up at the male and female group, strewn across blankets on Hampstead Heath and said: ‘Apologies. We’re in mixed company.’
Understandably, few women are leaping at the chance to regale every Tom, Dick and distance uncle with details of the hours — sometimes days — of blood, sweat and faeces that comprised their labour. Birth is an every day occurrence. We were all born. But if Facebook made a multiple-choice quiz, would you know your forceps from your fontanelles, your epidural from your episiotomy, your perinatal from your perineum?
I had to look everything up. I used up all my googles looking for amniotic fluid, meconium, the mucus plug, pre-eclampsia. I thought Braxton Hicks was a boy band and ventouse was one of the early heats on Strictly Come Dancing.
Thankfully, I had a comparatively normal, straightforward birth, with a lot of help from my beloved partner and my equally beloved Entinox – also known as gas-and-air. However, the next day we were at home with family, opening cards and gifts, generally staring at our little ‘miracle,’ when, amidst the cooing and fawning, scoffing paracetamol for the after-pains, I opened a well-intentioned card bearing a picture of a stork delivering a baby.
I can’t say whether or not parents are still telling children they were delivered by a large, long-legged white bird, but the visual motif of the stork is still going strong on greeting cards, picture frames and textiles for newborn babies, robbing women of their birth stories. Fuck the stork, I thought. The stork is seriously stealing my thunder.
There are several sources of folklore from around the world that feature the stork alongside the birth of a child, predating Hans Christian Andersen’s chilling 1838 tale ‘The Storks’ (which ends in a vengeful plot by the storks to bring a dead baby sibling to a small boy who had taunted them). But the stork as the child-bearer originated in Germanic and Slavic cultures, and the tale continues to be told to children too small to comprehend the biological truth, or to children whose parents are too embarrassed to relay it. Now it’s available as a card sent to new mothers – mothers who know only too well the stork did nothing to produce the child they have in their arms. They keep the real story – the gory, challenging, frightening story – to themselves.
During those first few days after I’d given birth, before I understood that the birth story was mine to keep, I began to share it – but I was gently interrupted: ‘Tell me some other time. When you’re feeling up to it’.
Our birth experiences have no ready audience – unlike a veteran returning from war, you won’t be called upon to tell the tale. Of course, childbirth often ends joyfully, but then war sometimes ends victoriously. In either case, trauma is trauma and each experience is extraordinary, each story unique, not only in a physical way but in a psychological one too.
Childbirth is as heroic as it is commonplace: for most mothers, I dare say childbirth tested her body to its furthest frontier. Frosting over her achievements with a sugary fairy tale, in order that society might better stomach the reality, not only undermines her efforts, but potentially silences her trauma.