Birth Stories

PhD (2017) Giving Birth to Maternal Subjectivity: Narrative, rhythm and caesura in an autobiographical practice of birth story-telling (Aberystwyth University)

Funded by AU Dept Theatre, Film & Television Studies & AHRC

Supervisors: Jill Greenhalgh, Dr Karoline Gritzner


Within Feminist scholarship there is a growing body of literature on pregnant and particularly maternal subjectivity. However, there has been very little published about the subjectivity a woman experiences when giving birth, and in particular birthing subjectivity from an embodied perspective. This thesis attempts to respond to this gap. Using a Practice as Research methodology that combines modes of writing and speaking the body (l’écriture feminine) and deep listening, the researcher attempts to design platforms (performative and written) that enable her to write (and re-write) her experience in the Feminist tradition of autobiographical performance.

Outside of the midwifery field, it is anthropologist Della Pollock who has written in greatest depth about birth stories and the ways in which they are performed through their telling. Through her ethnographical research, Pollock asserts a number of key features of birth stories and ultimately, she proposes that the dominant narrative that women use is based on a comic-heroic structure that demands resolution. Through her research, she begins to explore a number of stories that do not sit within this framework, and which undermine its authority. By reflecting on the way women speak, as well as the words they use, Pollock points towards spaces which are created for new narratives to be conceived.

Situated in the field of Feminist autobiographical performance, the main aim of the research, like Pollock’s, is to contest dominant medical (and wider cultural) narratives of childbirth, however this is attempted, not by arguing against this scholarship, but by arguing for a scholarship that is attentive to the maternal body, in particular to hearing and listening as embodied practices.

The process of re-writing dominant narratives in an attempt to construct the/a self has been a very common feminist practice for the last 40 years (Heddon 2007). Agency (for both the author/performer and other women) is a common feature or aim of the practice. Creating non-linear narratives and indeterminate spaces is also a common objective of this work (for example Tim Miller and Bobby Baker in Heddon ibid). These serve to challenge singularity, Authority, essentialism and fixed, contained ‘truths,’ which support the dominant masculist paradigm.

Through my practice I am attempting to create listening spaces in the live event in which I might hear my story/my self anew. I ask: Who is the one who listens? And who is the one who listens to my listening? What “self” is responsible for these functions within me? How subjective are these “selves”? What role does listening play in constructing a “self” and subjectivity? And, how can these “selves” be constructed and performed? Ultimately the thesis explores the question of whether and how a woman can alter the narrative of pregnancy and childbirth so as to conceive of a new mode of self-determined maternal subjectivity.