I've had a copy of Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2008 for the last week or so and it has been the perfect antidote for a period of prolonged reading fatigue. One of the first pieces that caught my eye when skimming the table of contents was Robin Behn's "Childbirth in Alabama," well, because I was childbirthed in Alabama. Reading it brought back memories of how out of place I felt--though for different reasons--in the delivery room when my daughter was born. So I'm more than happy to present to you this brief post by Behn on her brief essay in the book, and for one day at least, I'm willing to forgive her the fact that she teaches at that other university in Alabama.
I wrote “Childbirth in Alabama” the night before my son turned ten. I was even more aware of his birthday than usual, since it was the first birthday when I was not able to be with him on the actual day. In the act of conjuring him, I found myself remembering the night he was born and the circumstances of his birth. I hadn’t planned to focus on Alabama, but the aspects of the piece that are cultural found their way into it, and I realized, when I was done, that it was both a very personal piece and one that spoke about being an outsider in this culture. I knew it would be about Alabama when I found myself remembering, word for word, that doctor’s voice: “What do you want me to do, catch it with a bucket?” I was furious at the doctor during the whole labor, fighting off his unnecessary and invasive interventions at every moment, it seemed. At the same time, I was beholden to the nurse assigned to my case. I had asked if any of the nurses had an interest in natural childbirth, and the nurse assigned to me seemed to be on my side all through that long night. I knew that elsewhere, in more northerly climes, women had long since changed the culture of childbirth so that natural childbirth was the norm. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, having to explain the native language to the inhabitants at a time when I was ill equipped to do so.
When taking childbirth classes—I did the “Bradley method”-- one is encouraged to write out a “birth plan” of how you want the birth to go. But my son was born six weeks early; I hadn’t had a chance to write out, much less think through, any sort of plan. And so writing this piece was a kind of belated birth story, not how it was supposed to go, but how it did, indeed, go. My impressions of the NICU were vivid in part because I spent a week there. The healthy mothers with beefy babies went home the next day, whereas our kind lingered, soaking up the scenery.
I sent this piece to Brevity because I admire the on-line journal very much. I’m intrigued by how a non-fiction piece can be accomplished in 750 or fewer words. In fact, it was reading Brevity that prompted me to write this piece. I had been reading the journal the very night I wrote the piece, thinking to myself, “I wonder if I could do something like that.” I usually write poetry, so I decided to approach this piece like a giant poem. I like the leaps that happen from one paragraph to the next, the way poems often leap from one line or stanza to the next, and I like the way images do a lot of the talking.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve found Alabama a very hospitable state in which to write. My subjects are usually not regional; this piece is an exception. Although the piece concerns Alabama, I wanted it to be published somewhere “out there” in the larger literary community of which I am a citizen. The web is a big community, vast and anonymous, yet marvelously accessible. I find that the work I publish in on-line journals gets a higher readership than most of the things I publish in print. That this piece is now in print in Best of the Web is very gratifying; it feels like coming full circle, back to the medium in which I began as an author, yet with the knowledge that this little piece has been around a huge block with many virtual onlookers on its way home.