“Bring it On” — A Sexist Challenge on Childbirth

“I had a lady friend years ago… who was a mother of several children. She had a bout of shingles. She told me she would rather give birth. I have had shingles. Bring it on.”  — A male friend of a friend on Facebook.com, July 26, 2013


My mother and her first grandchild

Facebook is a hurt-feelings-machine.  It’s an Offense-O-Matic.  It’s a Jerk-A-Tron.  It can make ordinary strangers sound like idiotic, sexist monsters.  We all know this.  However, Facebook is also the only place I can reliably see pictures of my nieces and nephews so, like most users, I have reasons to put up with the website that outweigh the heaps of garbage I find there.  But the comment quoted above – one made in response to a comedy sketch about a bogus medical device that transfers the pain of childbirth contractions from mothers to fathers — reads as particularly loathsome to me, even by Facebook standards.

When it comes to empathy for the ordeal of childbirth, I prefer quotations like this one:

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t know it could be like this or I would have told you.”

That’s what my mother said to me moments after my first son was born.  She didn’t say it because she was ignorant of childbirth and hadn’t worked hard enough to prepare me for it.  She had borne seven children herself and been frank with me about her experiences.  She knows much more about childbirth than most people will ever know.

But my mum was still shocked at how differently childbirth unfolded for me.  Unlike Facebook-Shingles-Man, there’s no bravado, nothing dismissive or smug in her response to my very personal passage to motherhood.  Standing at my hospital bedside, Mum knew my labour had been twice as long as any she’d ever had.  She had watched me struggle with the second stage – the pushing part where things usually developed quickly and fruitfully for her.  For me, it went on for hours, until the whole debacle finally ended in a traumatic, complicated delivery of a baby whose size was so out of proportion with mine that the doctor had said, “I can’t believe he was in there.”  My mum knew if we hadn’t been in a modern hospital that night, it would have been the night that I died.


My son’s birth was not what my mother had expected – and that was something I hadn’t expected.

Birthing a child is different for everyone, even closely related people like mothers and daughters.  And every time I had a new baby, his delivery was different from the other ones I’d weathered.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it had something to do with my age, the babies’ sizes, the tides, the placement of the pins in some Voo Doo doll – I don’t know.

Apart from physical differences, childbirth medical interventions also vary based on where we are, who attends us, and our personal choices.  My boys were delivered by four different doctors plus a boomtown nurse left alone with me while a fifth doctor was on lunch.  Even though I asked, none of my deliveries worked out so I could have much pharmaceutical pain relief.  Every time my children were born, I was right there for all of it – mind, body, and soul.  That’s certainly not the case for every mother.

Our bodies are different.  Our surroundings are different.  Our babies are different.  In addition to concrete factors like these there are innumerable emotional, social, cultural and other issues colouring our childbirths – enough factors to keep the experience infinitely variable.

I think the case of shingles is actually a good example of how social and psychological factors exacerbate suffering.  My mum taught me this too.  Only for her, it wasn’t shingles.  When I was an elementary school kid, she was hospitalized for kidney stones.  She said it hurt a lot, like having a baby, only there was nothing to hope for at the end of it.  There was no mounting sense of love to convince her that the pain was meaningful and worthwhile.  In light of that, I’m sure she, like Facebook-Shingles-Man’s “lady friend,” would have said she’d rather give birth than pass her stones.  Birth is hard but, unlike disease, it isn’t a bad thing.  Heck, I’ve been mired in arguments so painful I would have rather given birth than listened to another word of them.  But that doesn’t mean the experiences of birth and disease, or birth and a nasty argument, are equivalent.  What it does reveal is that the meaning of suffering affects our perceptions of it.

And there’s far more to withstand in childbirth than just pain.  There’s also fear and panic.  Birth is scary.  For some of us, the fear grows worse every time.  I was nervous when I was admitted to the hospital the morning of my first labour.  But by the time I arrived in an ambulance for my fifth labour, I was terrified – phobic and crazed.  No one in the comedy sketch that started me on this tirade had any comic device for transferring the fear of childbirth from the mother to the father.  Maybe even they know there’s nothing funny about that.

Yes, I get punchy when I hear people talking about birth as if it’s some kind of syndrome – a universal experience we all live through in exactly the same way.  I get especially punchy when that person is a man out to appropriate the most powerful and sublime of female powers for himself by equating it with a disease he’s suffered.  Clearly, what Facebook-Shingles-Man said was sexist – disgustingly so.

And then it’s more than sexist.  It would have been offensive even if it hadn’t been a man who’d said it.  What arises from the bad assumption that birth is the same for everyone is the worse assumption that we’re qualified to evaluate and pass judgment on each other’s reactions to childbirth – or anything else we suffer.  Looking at somebody’s suffering and joking about it or daring them to “bring it on” is never a decent thing to do.  It’s a perversion of empathy.  It’s a mistake my mum – someone wise and acquainted with the breadth of human experience called motherhood – taught me never to commit.

First Review of My Book!

Montreal Review of Books looks at my novel in the Summer 2013 Issue

Montreal Review of Books looks at my novel in the Summer 2013 Issue

The summer issue of Montreal Review of Books is out today.  And I am thrilled to report it includes Elise Moser’s review of my soon-to-be-released novel.  It’s a feature review complete with quotations from emails Elise and I exchanged.  Read it here:


Here’s the first paragraph:

“I think Babies “R” Us is one of the saddest places there is – everyone looking to buy something that will make a very traumatic and life changing experience into something more manageable.” Like her main characters, Jennifer Quist does not hesitate to express firmly held, intelligent opinions. That’s her talking about birth. You should hear what she has to say about death…



Schwester, Seour, Eonni, Jiejie, and Other Ways I Can Say “Sister”

My German textbook.

I love the English language.  I was an early English talker, an average English reader, and have made writing in English my profession.  Sometimes, I imagine English loves me back.  Even if it doesn’t, I can usually coax it to stand up on its hind legs and help me say whatever I want.

No matter how much I love it, English is only one language.  I don’t know how many other languages there are in this world – maybe no one knows for certain.  It’s debatable and ill-defined.  At any rate, there are hundreds.  Maybe I’m greedy and faithless but it makes me sad to have full use of only one of them.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to learn more.

Just about every English-speaking Canadian reaches adulthood with some ability in French.  Our country has two official languages.  Like most of my comrades, I sat through daily French classes in public school.  On the east coast of Canada, most of my teachers were Francophones – Acadians with an accent different from the one in Quebec and definitely different from the Continental chit-chat on the cassette tapes that came with our textbooks.  When my parents moved us back to western Canada, I was taught French by an Anglophone who spoke like a computer simulation of a human being talking French.  Whatever their quirks, I’m glad for those lessons.  They were not a waste of time.  The proof is that I can hold my own in my sons’ elementary school French immersion classes – for now.

In university, I needed credit in a language other than English in order to qualify for my degree.  I was tired of speaking badly only in a Romance language so I enrolled in German.  The vocabulary was a blast.  German pronunciation was fun and I found myself reading it aloud even without comprehension simply because the sound of it made me so happy.  The grammar, however, was cruel.  I took my introductory course and was surprised to receive a letter from the German department offering me a spot in their honours programme.  It was sweet but the fact was (and is) that the German phrase I used most often was, “Wiederholen Sie das, bitte?”  It means, “Can you repeat that please?”  I used it to stall conversations while I slowly and painfully tried to decode the language.

I discovered Asian languages outside of school when my kids became fascinated with east Asian pop culture.  Currently, most of the television we watch comes from Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan.  I know about twenty words in Japanese, slightly fewer than that in Mandarin Chinese, and about 90 words in Korean.  But my Asian vocabularies are not very useful in normal, daily conversation.  The phrases I know tend to be the kind of thing someone might shout in dramatic dialogue – things like, “How can this be?” or, “There’s no time!” or, “Do you want to die?” or, for really special occasions, “Don’t go!  I’m sorry!  I love you!  Come back!”  Yes, my conversations with the nice Korean guys who own my favourite gas station have to be kept short or things might get a bit melodramatic.

Tallied up, that’s 4+ languages attempted and only one mastered.  It’s not an impressive record.  But I can’t quit now.  This summer, I’ve started seeking out a new second language.  It’s different again from anything I’ve ever studied.  For once, pronunciation isn’t a concern.  This language is not in my mouth.  It’s in my hands.  I need to learn American Sign Language.

A family member – the wife of one of my brothers – is losing her hearing.  It’s her story and I won’t try to tell it for her.  She’s a writer and can share it without any help from me.  My sister-in-law is a smart, pragmatic, optimistic person – a problem solver – and I’m sure she’ll figure out how to cope in a world where not enough people know how to talk directly to her.  She’s losing her hearing, not her speech so she’ll remain able to tell us whatever she wants.  No doubt, the person doing the heaviest lifting with my sister-in-law’s new communication strategies will always be her.  But maybe I can help in my tiny way.  And maybe language study will be different for me this time.  It will come with an urgency, a purpose, and a focus it’s never had before.  I’m not learning for grades or entertainment or curiosity or even in the interest of fostering Canadian national unity.  Instead, I’m learning in order to stay connected to someone I love.  It’s a language study aid I’ve never tried before.  It’s more compelling than any of the  impressive cultural, political, commercial, or neurological arguments that can be made for studying a new language.

Whatever it is, “Sister” is one of the first signs I’ve learned.

Commencing Countdown, Jewelry On

The countdown to the release date of my novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, has passed the point where the time is measured in months and moved to where it’s measured in days.  Look, it’s right there in the column of widgets beside this post.  The moment has come to start opening the windows on my advent calendar.  The book’s release date is practically here.

Sometime I feel like dressing up like someone who wrote an artsy, Gothic love story because, well...

Sometime I feel like dressing up like someone who wrote an artsy, Gothic love story because, well…

In preparation, my literary fairy-god-sister, author Fran Kimmel, came along last week and held my hand as I booked a venue for the novel’s launch event.  It’ll be happening here, in the small-ish town where I live, on August 29.  The timing – a Thursday night right before the last long weekend of summer – is terrible.  I know that.  It won’t be convenient for anybody.  In my head, I’m already composing the passive-aggressive email I will send to all my first degree relatives living within a 100km radius of my house.  The message will explain that, while I will try my best to act like a grownup, if any of my nearest and dearest skip my launch party, I might be stuck thinking very, very hard about their absences for a very, very, very long time.

Yes, I’m fighting against an inclination to take the book’s release and launch far too seriously.  I keep coming back to that line from the sappy radio follow-your-dreams pop song that made me cry in the car on the way home from the venue last week: “I don’t want to waste this.”

In what was probably not a great moment in Feminism, I spent an hour in my closet trying to figure out what to wear to the launch.  My closet is usually a happy place.  It has everything from thrift shop finds to fancy satin bridesmaid dresses.  But nothing seemed quite right.

I thumbed through the hangers and thought about Trish – one of the many weekend editors I freelanced for at a car-crash of a boomtown newspaper during our years in the north.  She was tall and what someone writing a romance novel might call “willowy” – burgundy lipstick and dark, Morticia Addams hair.  She wasn’t satisfied with the mug-shot the last editor had been printing beside my columns and called me down to the office so she could take a better one.  When we met, she pulled her elegant spider-leg eyebrows together and tried to imagine my face in her new, fabulous arts-chick vision of the newspaper.  All she said was, “Oh, you’re such a mom.”

At the time, I hadn’t yet turned thirty and I had three children under the age six.  I hadn’t slept through the night in years.  I didn’t own any clothes that couldn’t be tossed into a washing machine.  The lipstick I’d put on in the rear view mirror minutes before had a distinct rouge-on-the-dead look to it.  I typified the shabby, faded waste of talent this lady (who did become a friend of mine) called “a mom.”

There are a host of arguments I could make for why she was wrong and why she was right and why looking like a mom can be glorious.  But in the closet, a month before my book release, none of that mattered very much.  I was mired in one of the shallower depths of my consciousness – one that dreads anyone seeing me at a podium with my novel and thinking, “Look at her.  Oh, she’s such a mom.”

In passing, I mentioned my wardrobe silliness to my publisher.  I think a part of me wanted her to send me a uniform – a matching Linda Leith Publishing t-shirt and cap, maybe even an apron and hairnet.  Instead of sending me a kit, Linda’s advice was simply to wear something that made me feel terrific.

Something terrific would be something I could forget about – something that could fade into the tone and rhythm of the reading and talking and celebrating I’d be doing during the launch.  And I was beginning to form a vague, shadowy notion of what that might be.  Ever since I signed the publishing contract last winter, I’ve been slowly dressing more and more like someone who’s written an artsy, Gothic love story because – dangit — that’s who I am.  I knew the spirit of what I wanted to wear but couldn’t yet read the letter of it.

My glamorous sister-in-law understood.  We’ve been together for over eighteen years.  That’s her entire adolescence and adult life.  She sees me from an angle similar to the one her brother, my husband, uses to look at me – one that somehow makes me appear genuine and beautiful and at the same time, one I hardly recognize when she describes it to me.  She took me to her favourite jewelry shop – the place where a nice old hippie guy once diagnosed me as psychic – and helped me choose a pendant I could use to anchor my launch-day wardrobe.

It’s set in silver and shaped like an eye – a blue eye like my eyes, my husband’s eyes, and the ten blue eyes I assembled from the atoms of my own body as the mother of our sons.  There — that’s me.