Thicker, Animal, Entangled: Engaging Complexity in Mother-Narratives

by Jessica Bozek


“I was sufficient and am no longer, will not be again. Any mother knows.”
– Noy Holland, “What Begins with Bird”

Long before I gave birth, I was compelled by versions of pregnancy and the postpartum period that acknowledged or, better still, rendered the otherness, the messiness, the unnaturalness of these experiences. Specifically, Danielle Pafunda’s Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies and Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat (in Johannes Göransson’s translation) come to mind. Pafunda’s “Wherein a Surrogate is Determined Prime” begins, “When the artifact came to skim my cavity, I was, / they said, to follow the protocol. To respond I / am well and to ask no questions….” Pafunda makes strange the artificially pregnant body, as well as comments on technocratic ideas of pregnancy and birth (e.g., the pregnant woman as broken machine), while Berg hyperbolizes the newfound utility of the mother-body in “Blubber Biter”:

here hangs the bite
waiting for blubber
for many thousand years
of slowness

My own recent delivery (in a birth center, with midwives) was happily devoid of the creepy interventions Pafunda conjures for the surrogates in Iatrogenic, though most newly nursing mothers will relate to Berg’s notion of the body as suddenly animal and indefinitely slowed. What’s surprising, however, is that neither topic—the medical world’s manipulation of the female body and the trials this body endures—is a regular feature of postpartum conversation. Everyone wants to talk about the baby. My baby was healthy and unscathed, while I smelled of injury and couldn’t sit for a month. I tried to bring up my own trauma, the indignities I was suffering, so that I might have a sense of how better to navigate them. But most people were more interested in what I had pushed out than the specifics of this pushing out. To be fair, Anja was prettier than my torn perineum.

Because most birth books focus on the 40 weeks of pregnancy (some include a brief, baby-centered section on the “fourth trimester”), I found myself searching online mother-forums to determine if what I was experiencing was normal and when my body might heal. The sense that I wasn’t alone was comforting, but only to a point—each story was just more data. I craved a thoughtful synthesis of the real postpartum experience, one that was more than coos, cuddles, and counting dirty diapers.

So I pulled Noy Holland’s What Begins with Bird off the shelf again. The collection’s acknowledgment of the darkness of birth and parenting is what drew me to it years ago, when I had no plans to become a mother. Nearly half of the stories deal with the aftermath of birth, how mothering can seem simultaneously natural and unnatural, how parents might question their bond with a newborn baby. I like the amorality of these stories—the way that they exist in their own complex ecosystems, much like the characters in Northern Exposure or in the films of Isabel Coixet and Sarah Polley. For example, in Holland’s “Someone Is Always Missing,” a young woman named Rose lets her baby live too long inside her, just so she can feel it move before she has an abortion. Her sister, a new mother, responds unsentimentally, “I don’t see why you had to wait so long so you had to even go to the hospital and actually have to have the thing…. It’s unreasonable. It’s just a lot of moaning.” We don’t know whether Rose’s sister sees her actions as despicable; Holland withholds judgment, because that’s not the point. One person’s response to pregnancy or birth is just as valid as another person’s. Similarly, in “Time for the Flat-headed Man,” Holland presents a father’s fleeting impulse to be rid of his new baby, one with whom he has not yet formed an attachment:

She’s just little, little bunch, just a nugget. I could drop her through the mouth of the woodstove, be done with her in a day.

Who am I?

Because who am I really, do you think, to her?

She’s just little. She doesn’t know me.

While I may not have thought about killing my daughter, in the early weeks my husband and I joked about bringing her to the nearest fire station, where newborns can be surrendered—no questions asked. It was hard not to think about what we’d be doing in the absence of this new, unrelenting responsibility.

Holland’s characters are often vulnerable—new parents, young siblings taking care of themselves and/or their parents. Even the babies in this book must wear harnesses to restrain their “little buttery bones,” to keep their legs from looking “detachable, like the limb of a plastic doll.” In the title story, a lonely beauty pervades the narrator’s time with her newborn son: “We pass such liquid, unmoored days—no sleep—with only outside the seeping beech, the rising snow to mark time by.” She must get used to her new role as the boy’s sustenance: “I am food, heat, a smell to him; a teat in the dark, a plug in his mouth. No matter the claim, no matter what tenderness moves me. He moves to the smell he left on me, the mark he knows me by. Little monkey. Little brain on a stalk.” And she must confront new doubts about her new self: “I have taken the last of the pills… to dull the ache, the progress, the healing meant by the mess I pass, the sheeny clumpy liverish ruin that is left of being sufficient, of having been, for a time, sufficient, for a time, I swear it, calm.”

This calm, the clarity of self and story are past, at least for a time. The narrator of “What Begins with Bird” wants “orderliness, a story, the discrete before and after,” but birth defies such neatness. It must, when one major way of knowing, the body, has been altered. The postpartum body, “thick and slow and swelled still,” divulges past sufficiency and current awkwardness:

… here in my face is the vessel I burst trying to push him out. Too late—by then he had already outgrown me, grown into me, a leggy, dogged stalk of boy left to bolt to seed. He left in my forehead the fine mesh of roots that living things send out, the paths, the swerving abruptions of blood, the friable clump in the floor of a pot.

Our bodies will never be exactly the same, despite prevailing myths about how quickly they “bounce back.”

Of course there is light during pregnancy (what will this little thing look like? what will she do?) and after birth (how many minutes do we pass just staring at this perfect sleeping body?), but there is little grappling in the pleasurable moments, which are what we so often choose to document in photos and status updates. We might learn something from Cricket, the young narrator of Holland’s “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose,” who knows that light seldom offers the whole story. In the midst of rendering and ordering the chaos that surrounds her family, Cricket confronts the unseemly. She admits, “I am not cut to picture.” We might not want to look beyond the frame, but if we’re being honest, we need accounts of pregnancy, birth, and parenthood—like Pafunda’s, Berg’s, Holland’s—that consider how a woman’s body is made strange to her during these periods. I don’t mean that we need more of the horror stories women love to tell other women at baby showers; besides, they’re often mere litanies of fact. Nor do I mean that there is no room for awe and beauty here. I mean that we need accounts that deepen our understanding of these complicated, often ambivalent experiences. Then we might be better equipped to negotiate injury and pleasure, to own our new bodies.


Away from Her. Directed by Sarah Polley. Canada, Capri Releasing, 2006.

Berg, Aase. Remainland. Translated by Johannes Göransson. Tuscaloosa: Action Books, 2005.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Holland, Noy. What Begins with Bird. Tallahassee: FC2, 2005.

My Life without Me. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Spain, El Deseo, 2003.

Northern Exposure. CBS. (1990–1995).

Pafunda, Danielle. Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies. Las Cruces: Noemi Press, 2010.

Take this Waltz. Directed by Sarah Polley. Canada, Mongrel Media, 2011.

The Secret Life of Words. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Spain, El Deseo, 2005.

Waterlow, Lucy. “The Yummy Mummy Myth: Unlike Celebs, The Average New Mum Takes 409 DAYS to Get Her Figure and Sex Drive Back after Having a Baby.” Daily Mail. Last modified July 2, 2012. 

(Note: The pictures above are, in order, Danielle Pafunda, Aase Berg and Noy Holland)

Jessica Bozek is the author of The Bodyfeel Lexicon (Switchback) and The Tales (forthcoming from Les Figues), as well as several chapbooks: Squint into the Sun (Dancing Girl), Other People’s Emergencies (Hive), Touristing (Dusie), and correspondence (Dusie). She runs the Small Animal Project Reading Series and lives in Cambridge, MA.