The first time I met this mother, she was Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi, in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the material impact of pregnancy and childbirth on her mind was relegated to the footnotes of a man’s story. I met her again in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood as Nnu Ego, in Flora Nwapa’s Efuru as Efuru, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun as Amala, in Barbara Boswell’s Unmaking Grace as Grace. In these later appearances, she yearned to be “a mother,” a “real woman”; or she could not raise children successfully and so dedicated the rest of her life to a deity; or she was coerced into a sexual relationship with a reluctant man and gave birth to a child she refused to hold; or she suffered intergenerational trauma in a post-apartheid country that was still learning to heal.
She lived many lives. She thrived during the European invasion of pre-colonial Igbo land; she was a wife to a servant in colonial times; she endured during a bloody civil war; she suffered intergenerational abuse in a racially segregated country. This mother went by many names. It did not matter what country or time she lived in because as a mother who suffered post-partum depression and complications, I saw myself in her. And I was intensely aware of how stories about pregnancies were banished to the shorelines of political and cultural conversations, with little attention paid to the ways pregnancy can shape a mother’s worldview and curve her narrative arc. While the Maternal is heavily theorized in philosophical discourse, especially the conditions of its existence within the Symbolic order, I realized that postpartum interiorities were rarely centralized.
My earlier thematic preoccupations never veered into this terrain because my literary ancestry had conditioned me to believe that the themes a “serious” reader must pay attention to were those that address global or national situations, never a mother’s individuated experience, never matters of childbearing—what has been largely dismissed as “domestic fiction.” Rereading some of my favorite literary texts, alongside the critical and theoretical responses to them, exposed the gap in our archive. A mother’s pre-and post-partum circumstances form the central nerve that determines her reactions to the people around her and her participation in her community—a fact that I was blind to until my post-partum journey and the decisions I made that changed the course of my life. These novels demonstrate how a mother chooses to perform the category Woman and why; how she decides to be a wife; the way she raises her children or not; and so forth. And her interiorities serve as my guide in this critical work of locating her in these novels set within cultures that “establish, regulate, and deregulate identity.”[i]
I, however, want to do more than construct her history. This work does more than trace her pregnancies, her deliveries, her life with or without her children. It instead seeks out what has been primarily ignored without coloring her with one shade; to make her even more visible in our communal archive without hunching her shoulders with my own peculiar journey, because that, in itself, would be an act of violence.
But then, how do I transform that which had been narratively muted and inadvertently silenced? How do I elucidate that which a writer had glossed over, never fleshed out—these tiny threads that gather like candlewax, drenching into the lives of everyone around the mother and, in turn, shaping or changing the entire course of a community’s trajectory? Audre Lorde writes that “what is most important…must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”[ii] She adds: “the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation.” But will my reading of these novels only through postpartum framework “[diminish] the space of creative articulation”[iii] they opened, as Barbara Boswell feared of the singular reading of Bessie Head’s fiction as tragedies? And why is this task important anyway? Would it change our cultural notions and expectations for all that identify with that category Woman? Will it displace the stereotypes of the “sweet mother” within the paternal hegemony, which the Nigerian musician Prince Nico Mbarga contributed to when he sutured the maternal to eternal suffering; he sings about the mother who suffers to raise her child, who suffers to care for it: “sweet mother, I no go forget you, for the suffer, wey you suffer for me.”[iv]
As a young mother, the literatures available to me were primarily tips about how to feed and care for my child, the food I must eat to produce good milk, the exercises I should engage in to regain a desirable body, when I could resume having sex again, those sort of external, care-and-pleasure-giving interests; never thoughts about how I should deal with my psychological ruins caused by the changes in my body. I could not find texts that tracked the postpartum stories of the mothers in our community. This absence created a longing, and I found myself seeking out works of fiction that feature mothers, searching for myself in those women, finding comfort in the fact that people like me could exist in stories—people whose bodies succumbed to or survived childbirth, which meant that I was not alone. Later, I began reaching out to other mothers—writers, too, themselves—to trade postpartum stories. This was the kind of literary documentation I had searched for in our archives as a struggling young mother, which would have made much difference had I found them years ago. And now, the work of constructing and filling the gap in our archive is a collaborative effort, because as Cordelia said to Nnu Ego in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood: “We are like sisters on a pilgrimage. Why should we not help one another?”[v]
The responses I have received constitute the foundation of my research interest, a prelude to the cartographical journey of enriching the archive. And they are textured. For some mothers, their experiences with pregnancy and childbirth were difficult, too uncomfortable to be shared with public. It took too long before the mother could look at her reflection in the mirror. The experience plagued their minds; it crowded their thoughts, crawled under their skin, trembled in their nerves. Some felt “plucked and plundered.” Some developed a complicated relationship with sex after the birth of their children, echoing what Nnu Ego felt in Emecheta’s text; after her first pregnancy and the subsequent unexplained death of the baby, Nnu Ego stopped sleeping with her husband. She avoided him. She skulked around, questioning the meaning of existence. It took a conversation with her friend, Cordelia, before she returned to her husband’s bed. When she eventually got pregnant again, she became “so apprehensive that something would happen to make her miscarry.” So, she “took things easy, concentrating solely on having the child safely.” When her next son, Oshiaju, came, she was anxious. She worried and feared for him, and the mental toll meant that she paid little attention to her trade. She suffered financial loss. As a consolation, she comforted herself with an old proverb that says: “money and children don’t go together,” because “if you spent all your time making money and getting rich, the gods wouldn’t give you any children; if you wanted children, you had to forget money, and be content to be poor.”
For the other mothers I spoke to, little changed after their pregnancies; they were surrounded by a community of women who served as their doulas, offering what Jennifer C. Nash aptly defines as a “tremendous physical, emotional, and spiritual work.”[vi]
These personal records are important. They inform the perspective I bring in the quest to track similar threads buried under the tangles of dominant discourses in the works of my favorite women writers, who use the discursive space of the novel to tell these important stories. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers a rare glimpse into the world of a “plain village girl,”[vii] who suffered postpartum depression after a difficult pregnancy for a man she was coerced into having sex with. Amala gives birth to a baby girl and refuses to hold it. She refuses to breastfeed it. She refuses to eat. She simply “curled up on the bed as if she were cringing from one more furious blow from life.”
This project is personal, because as Lorde writes, “in becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences.” The words of the writers who shared their stories with me serve as a guiding light in this task of populating our communal archive with postpartum narratives.
Hawa Jande Golakai, Novelist
You wake up destroyed. Coma, brought on by advanced viral encephalitis. Extensive damage to both cerebral hemispheres, notably the left, resulting in complete paralysis. You may never walk again; you may spend your life eating through tubes and shitting into a bag drilled into your stomach. Your universe has been breached and is now a portal for malevolence. The Mistake slithers through. You are unsteady, not ready. The Mistake presses until he gets his way. You feel plucked and plundered but don’t allow yourself to dwell on it. You lay the first bricks in the wall in your mind.
“How?”, The Mistake asks. “Weren’t you taking precautions? Are you sure it’s mine? Let’s check the dates. Honestly, I’m not ready to be a father…” [brick brick brickedy brick]
A first child should be born at your utmost. Yet here you are: broke, crippled, jobless. AND YOU WILL NOT CO-PARENT WITH THIS ANIMATED TURD OF A MAN. “Fine,” is all you say [brick]. You’ve always been fine.
Your mind is an ocean tossing you back and forth. How can the butcher’s floor that is your body make a person? What exactly is this…gremlin growing under your ribs? The harsh medications and injections, night terrors and sleepwalking, constant seizures… You aren’t fertile ground to grow anything, your raggedy new self or this terrifying alien.
You make Arrangements. Cancel. Remake. Cancel again. Remake and go before you change your mind. Every hospital says: “We don’t do ungodly things here. You have to keep it. Ehen, why didn’t you keep your legs closed? You’re old now; this could be your last chance. It’s too risky with your medical history.” [brickbrickbrickbrickbrickbrick]
It moves. That’s all it takes. This is your baby.
You weep and sleep in a cycle, headaches splitting your skull. “I suspect you have a brain rupture. I’m retiring and there’s no replacement in the country,” your neurologist says. “Don’t have this baby here if you want both of you to live.” [BRICK]
The women who love you come through with New Arrangements. A plane ticket to South Africa. You are fed, housed, loved.
You have seizures the day after your C-section, crashing onto the floor of the maternity ward. You wake a day later with a thread-fine skull fracture. You haven’t seen your son since you both were sobbing uncontrollably as they laid him on your chest, before whisking him to the NICU. “I should’ve listened to you,” says your white OBGYN, nervously clutching the folder you gave her, which she ignored. You could sue. But you won’t. You’re out of bricks to lay and stones to throw.
The first time you hold your boy to your breast is a sensation like no other. Like so many unfocused frames of you coalesce into one crisp image.
Have I resumed a normal sex life? Yes, no, sometimes, never again. I’ve elevated from the fast-food of fucks to a fulfilled deity. I am the brick wall and the ocean that walls cannot dam. I had to shatter to get here. But it’s beautiful.
Chika Unigwe, Novelist
I often write about difficult labors and births and postpartum depression in fiction, but I have never suffered through any of those. My longest labour was probably not longer than 5 hours. And for my shortest, I hadn’t realized my pains weren’t from Braxton Hicks until I was on my way to the hospital. Within 30 minutes of arriving at the hospital and beginning to feel really intense pain, the baby was out.
With each birth, my body snapped back to its previous shape quickly. I walked a lot (I didn’t have a car until after my youngest was born. I was in school through 3 children (I got my Ph.D. after my 3rd was born), and I always had a community of supportive family (including my husband and mother-in-law) and friends. So, I never felt overwhelmed.
My life before and after didn’t change significantly. I went to school, went to residencies, tried to get enough rest as often as I could. It wasn’t always easy, but it wasn’t impossible. The only thing I couldn’t do was breastfeed (I managed it with only my 3rd), but my mother told me it was fine, so I didn’t feel like I was failing my babies. I realised how lucky I was. And I will forever be grateful to the community that rallied around me to make that ‘luck’ possible.
Sylvia Ilahuka, Essayist & Poet
Because nobody had told me exactly what to expect postpartum (these are the gaps that cave in the pavement of life when your mother dies too early), I felt I was taking “longer than normal” to recover. To be fair, nobody can tell you precisely how you are going to feel after your body is relieved of an entire human being; that is a knowledge that is shrouded until one has eaten of the fruit themself.
I am that person who, immediately post-delivery, asked for a mirror so I could see the aftermath – sheer curiosity. After all, unless one is a practitioner in the specialty, when else does such an opportunity present itself? A whole new person had emerged from a very small place that I simply had to pay homage to. Everyone in the room flatly refused, so I settled for taking a mirror to my nether regions once I was home. I felt a sense of irreversible damage, a fear that arose every time I felt a twinge at my episiotomy site (it didn’t help that the stitches had had to be entirely redone a few days postpartum or that my body started spitting them a week later).
The fear followed me into the resumption of physical intimacy and was then replaced by surprise at discovering that the commonly rumoured looseness was, in fact, a myth; that the reality for me was quite the opposite, and that my reconfigured internal geography had some notable positives. On the phone with my best friend a few days later, I exclaimed, “It’s a lie!” and we laughed the kind of laugh that calls for the slapping of palms.
Megan Ross, Poet
For a very long time after giving birth, I would disassociate during sex. My body was there, but I was disconnected from it. Why? Two things were happening. One, sex felt all too much like being invaded. Like being assaulted. After all, I had suffered terribly during childbirth, and the utter intensity of that physical pain had, at the time, felt like I was being torn in two. I felt that I had been butchered, ignored, and degraded during childbirth. An irresponsible midwife and a doctor who didn’t ask for consent before ramming what felt like his entire arm inside of my body, until my screams threatened to scatter everyone in the surgery, had tied my vagina to associations with pain. Two, my pregnancy was unplanned, and the fear of another unplanned pregnancy seemed to hover in the room, threatening to split me from myself yet again. My body had come to the conclusion that birth was the natural result of sex. And, being as terrifying as it was, why would my body possibly let me experience pleasure if its consequences were so heinous? It’s taken years and my partner’s vasectomy to finally feel okay. For the fear to lift. Sex isn’t something I am afraid of anymore.
Julianna Baggott, Novelist
In labor, I realized that I was a mammal. This shoudn’t have surprised me. There’d been plenty of warnings that I was mammalian. I just was too in my head and fully dressed to get it. What mammal wears jeans and plays field hockey and studies foreign languages? So, the baby coming out of my body and then what followed — my instinct to feed and protect this small creature — was new. Once you know that you’re a mammal, sex makes more sense. I wasn’t baffled by sex before I had a baby. It’s just that after I had a baby sex was less a head-space thing. By the time I’d had four kids, sex was super fucking clear. I’m not sure if this is helpful or not. Maybe you wanted to know something mechanical? Something about the anatomical changes? To be honest, I had my first kid when I was twenty-five. I feel like bodies snap back at twenty-five. And I don’t have a body that didn’t have kids to compare, side by side, with my body that did have kids. Donc, as the French say, this is all I’ve got to say on the subject.
I grew up hearing warnings that your vagina would only bring one thing: trouble. My dad swore to kill me if I got pregnant “out of wedlock.” Then later, he changed his mind and said he’d support my new business with a fine tray and a basket of groundnuts. And so, I hated sex.
I got married, then pregnant. When I went into labor and the nurses came to check my dilation, I’d quickly pull on my underwear after they were done. But when the pain hit home, goodness gracious, I flung the clothing. My mother tried to close my legs, but the pain had driven me mad. During those 24 hours of labour, I thought of my husband even more than the baby. I knew that he, too, would be suffering, and I wanted to console him. I would grow closer to him afterward, not sex-wise, but because we both needed each other to heal from that experience.
With childbirth, it was as if I had been reborn, as if my life had become renewed. So, I started making conscious efforts to have sex not because it’s part of my marital obligations but to enjoy it. I began to initiate sex. If I was not in the mood, porn was there to do its job. Now, I am getting used to standing by the mirror and admiring my body. I also vehemently rejected circumcising my daughter. What nonsense. If God did not want us to enjoy sex, why did She equip us with that organ?
[i] See Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble
[ii] See The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, edited by Roxane Gay
[iii] See Barbara Boswell’s And Wrote My Story Anyway: Black South African Women’s Novels as Feminism
[v] See Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood
[vi] See Jennifer C. Nash’s “Birthing Black Mothers: Birth Work and the Making of Black Maternal Political Subjects”
[vii] See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun
About the Author:
Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma.
Feature image by Anne-Onyme / Pixabay