Childless writers: should we use the childbirth metaphor for the act of writing?

March 18, 2014 | By | 11 Replies More

Paula C laughing hedge behind Last year I finished a novel. Three years of sweat and tears, false starts, protracted labour, the wish that I’d never conceived it in the first place. I had an eerie sense that it was attached to me by an umbilical cord, but once it was done it had a life somehow distinct and separate, as if it had grown and shaped itself despite me.

And now here I am, trying to capture the process. Over and over, when talking about writing, we revert to the metaphor of childbirth.

Sarah Dessen groaned of her novel This Lullaby (2002), ‘Once you realise how awful it really is, you never want to do it again.’

Vera Nazarian’s Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration: Old Wisdom for a New World (2010) taps the same vein:

‘You… look inside yourself. You pull and tug and squeeze and fish around for slippery raw shapeless things …. You latch onto something. And you bring it forth … like Zeus giving birth to Athena…. You have given it cohesion. You have brought something ordered and beautiful out of nothing.’

Our comparison-making is an act of creativity in itself. Apparently it’s called ‘structural metaphor’, this way we parallel one kind of human experience with another (G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, ‘The Metaphorical Structure of the Human Conceptual System’, Cognitive Science 4, 1980).

But, the researchers warn, one analogy is rarely enough: in the end, any comparison breaks down. Take this one, childbirth. A poem doesn’t start from sexual congress, on the whole; and a novel doesn’t come home from college years after it’s been published expecting to get its washing done.

In the UK, USA, Canada and Australia today one in five women has not given birth to a child by her mid-forties, whether through choice or circumstance. This is a growing phenomenon, not seen since World War I.

Sadly I’m one of these women. I’ve had to come to terms with it, and it’s been hard. Now I write about it on my blog, and in the aforementioned novel, coming out soon. But when I talk about how I made it, given my situation should I avoid loose talk of creative labour pangs – along with anyone else who hasn’t given birth?

Susan Stanford Friedman’s interesting essay ‘Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse’ (Feminist Studies vol. 13, no. 1) has me asking myself this question. What do I actually know about childbirth, after all? Maybe I’m insulting all natural mothers, hijacking their sufferings in labour, and their joys afterwards?

On the other hand, my inner author argues, writers are supposed to be able to insinuate themselves into experiences they haven’t personally been through, are they not?

Childbirth by forceps William Smellie 1754

Childbirth by forceps, William Smellie, 1754

Male writers – who, last time I looked, have never given birth either – latch onto childbirth too. In Ulysses, James Joyce sets his Mrs Purefoy in the hospital struggling to produce offspring while, close by, the ‘narrator’ is wrestling in labour with his prose.

Friedman argues that men use the theme differently, as part of their fascination with the ‘Other’, the female, while for women writers, it’s more psychologically charged. She warns though that it enforces the traditional male-female hierarchy, reminding us of women’s bodily functions while elevating men to some more cerebral plane.

The seventeenth-century Anne Bradstreet’s The Author to her Book distils the male-female divide on childbirth. It narrates how her brother-in-law took her poor volume of poetry and had it published without her permission:

‘Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth did’st by my side remain,

Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true

Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view;…

At thy return my blushing was not small,

My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,

I cast thee by as one unfit for light,

Thy visage was so irksome in my sight…’

An exertion of male power, forcibly and wrongly inducing the production of written work.

So if not childbirth, to what else can we liken writing? In her novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf keeps to the physical and visceral:

‘We write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.’

There’s a famous but variously attributed quotation: ‘Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, then you do it for money.’

Maybe the originator is on to something, joined right up to the minute by Lady Gaga:

‘When you … write…, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.’

But the creative act is often a solitary process, if not downright self-indulgent. Maybe it’s more akin to one particularly covert sex act. ‘Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards,’ says Robert A. Heinlein.

From the down-and-dirty to the sublime. Sufis regard all creation as a spiral dance movement, extending skyward and earthward, attuning to some calm point at the hub of life in a spherical spiral of development. Yet this is still a physical process: believers use words like ‘fleshing’.

Combined with the other images, above, maybe we childless women can begin to see our writing less as solipsistic navel gazing than as a ruthless, delicious, never-ending helix of navel excavation.

With kind permission for her quotation from Vera Nazarian:  

Paula Coston blogs on childlessness, singlehood, her desire for a boy child, the gender divide and more at

Her novel on these themes, ‘On the Far Side, There’s a Boy’, about a woman wrestling with the idea and loss of motherhood, finally pops out in June. Follow her on twitter @BoyWoman2 and goodreads Paula_Coston



Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (11)

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  1. Hi Paula,
    I loved your post. It’s incredibly compassionate and considerate to all women, no matter whether they’ve had children or not. However, as a mother of two sons, an author, and a teacher who teaches writing and self-publishing at the college level, I ABSOLUTELY feel that writing a book, or creating any type of art, for that matter, is like giving birth. Yes, it’s a different kind of labor, but nevertheless, it’s a piece of you that you create, that you unleash upon the world, hopefully to make the world a better place. To say that women who birth humans are the only ones who get to say they labored over their creations would also mean that parents who adopt should not be allowed to take credit for the successes of their adoptive children. Ridiculous.

    And in the end, neither you nor I are responsible for anyone who is offended by the the metaphor of “giving birth to a story.” If such a person exists, that is their issue, not ours. They are free to think what they think, just as we are free to think what we think. I’m not responsible for someone else’s issues or opinions. That’s the beauty of diversity.

    Thanks again for your though-provoking post!

  2. Just reading today “My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead (her study of George Eliot’s life, her novel Middlemarch and how Mead finds echoes of them in her own life. Eliot compares, in a conversation, finishing a novel to giving birth, which leaves her empty, a dry husk. Mead, a mother, notes that Eliot had never given birth to a child and thinks she had the wrong idea about childbirth, if not about writing novels; Mead’s own experience left her “feeling more alive and vital and necessary.” Terrific book.

    • Paula Coston says:

      How very interesting, Margaret! Thanks for putting me onto this book, and Eliot’s own comment. I have to say, though, that after the euphoria of publication of my novel I fell into a deep slough of despond. Friends who HAVE had children have wondered if it might be akin to post-natal depression. Still, I’m bobbing back up now, and beginning to think about the next book!

  3. As a word smith for hire, be that reporter or copy writer, I can conceive of, produce and deliver my stories about others and their endeavors without a problem, when they’ re due, in time, crafted with care. The writing I have the hardest time sharing is that which focuses on myself, my family, my people. Hundreds of thousands of words I’m unable to let go of. Twenty-two years ago our baby girl suffocated during the last five minutes of her vaginal delivery I want to hold on to what I’ve created without making my creation visible outside the computer. Reading the above, including the comments, I can very well imagine my anticipation of loss is not too far fetched to fathom, yet too great to want to experience again. After four subsequent miscarriages I can’t imagine a good outcome. The labor of love, pulls in opposite directions, and yet in the end the intention is to purge, to expel, to empty, let go. Labor pains at times start much sooner than the “moment supreme”. Let’s say my books are due, they’re just not ready to come out yet.

    • Paula Coston says:

      Dear Judith
      I was stunned by your heartrending tale.

      If you have read about me, you will know that I have also lost the possibility of children – but not in the physical sense: purely through failures to adopt, and the onset of the menopause before I met any suitable partner with whom to make a family. I extend to you all my womanly fellow feeling, and thanks so much for sharing what you have been through.

  4. Paula Coston says:

    It’s great to get all the feedback so far! But don’t forget, folks, that I wasn’t just noting that the act of writing is compared to childbirth because of any agony involved, but because of its complex, protracted nature, and the way an idea may ‘germinate’ and grow out of our control, as perhaps children do in some sense! As one of you says, creating a piece of writing is multi-faceted – just as the experience of human reproduction is!

    Keep the comments coming!

  5. Kat says:

    I haven’t given birth, but I have had a gall stone attack, which I’m told rates similarly on the pain scale. Certainly it was incapacitating and lasted for a long time (18 hours). Given that and some other health grief I’ve gone through, I admit I’ve got tired of being told by mothers I don’t know what childbirth is like.

    Having said that, it’s not a metaphor I use. I don’t like every strenuous, lengthy effort being lumped in with giving birth. It’s not fair to the efforts, and it stereotypes giving birth. Some women — including my sister-in-law — take only three or four hours and handle the pain well. Both writing and giving birth are too multi-faceted to be reduced to a shorthand for agony.

  6. Lori Schafer says:

    The childbirth metaphor is not one I would use for myself, and not because I don’t have children. It just doesn’t fit how I feel about writing. Actually, the Zeus/Athena comparison works better for me – I think of writing more as yanking some nagging irritation out of my brain than struggling for endless hours to push it out of my you-know-where 🙂 However, as your article clearly demonstrates, everyone has their own view of the creative process, and should be entitled to liken it to whatever they want.

  7. Why not? My memory of giving birth (twice)is vague, confused and overwhelmed by the tough stuff of learning-on-the-job motherhood which followed. Any writer can use the experience of others, with research and empathy.

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