Just clench that pelvic floor

A large collage, done with pieces of blue tape, of birthing and pregnancy related images centering what seems to be the same couple.
Carmen Winant, My Birth. 2018, found images, tape. Installation view of Being: New Photography 2018 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 18, 2018–August 19, 2018. Photo by Kurt Heumiller. Courtesy of the Artist. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art.


She had been a poet in her youth, but poetry had proved too nebulous, too hokey, too hipster. She’d needed job security. So now she worked in the DA’s office with my husband. 

She was fidgety, well-endowed in the ass, and prone to startling bursts of high-pitched laughter. Her husband was extremely macho. Tipping the scales toward full yang, that guy. Always a hefty dose of condescension, like he already knew everything, mind you, everything, and was just deigning to converse with you out of the goodness of his heart. 

They had been together for decades. Why had they waited so long to have a child? Ambivalence, probably, and/or the misogynistic rigor of career. She was 40: it was now or never. They were practical folk. Materialists. There was nothing woo about them. They had a conventional American hospital birth replete with time constraints, fear tactics, overtreatment, unnecessary interventions: the whole unsavory package. Soon thereafter, she reached out: she was having a hard time. She was an only child, her mother had died young, and her father was far away in every sense. Breastfeeding was extremely difficult and sleep was impossible and it was all spiraling rather intensely.

I comported myself like an expert, an elder, although I was in fact a decade younger than this woman and had my own shit nowhere near together. My two babies, born sixteen months apart, were toddlers. I’d had empowering births but more than my share of postpartum shit, and I’d recently reached that exciting stage of personal growth wherein you begin to get your own shit somewhat together and yearn to help others, so I had signed up for doula training with a local reproductive justice advocacy group.

Something bad must have happened with the former poet. Something scary, I imagine, some breaking point, something truly awful, because next I heard, she had been admitted to a nearby private psychiatric institution.

I went to see her right away. She had a musty double room to herself on the first floor. There was dark brown industrial carpeting and a dirty window overlooking a stone path lined with evergreen shrubs. It was high noon in summer, but the room was soaked in shadow. She slumped against the wall on one of the twin beds; I sat cross-legged on the other. The newborn was at home in the care of its father, and the former poet was anguished about failing as a mother.

Why had she waited until she was 40 to have a baby? I had found it almost impossiblethe marathon of labor and delivery, the exhausting job of nursing, the constant holding and rocking and shushing and diaper-changing and picking shit up off the floor and chasing after toddlersand I was, again, a full decade younger than the former poet. “I’m too old for this shit,” went my stand-up routine, which flopped, because it was stale disgruntled-mom shtick. (“I miss your blackout drunk whore routine,” a grizzled club mentor told me after my last gig in the city.)

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