It started with a DVD of No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers' chilling adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy book. When I first watched it, I fell in love with its stark brutality—the harsh landscapes of the Southwest and the ruthlessness of its characters. One autumn night in a bookstore, a few months after I became pregnant with my daughter and maybe six months after seeing the movie, I came across a copy of the book and snapped it up.
I'm not typically a swift reader, but I inhaled No Country. McCarthy's lean, unflappable prose was unexpectedly soothing. And the tale of morally questionable men (one of whom is arguably Death himself) battling over treasure in West Texas and Mexico was about as different from my current situation as it was possible to be. It was refreshing.
In one of my favorite moments, No Country's protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, is injured and trying to outrun Anton Chigurh, a hit man who methodically kills whoever gets in his way. I was stirred by his resolve to keep going, despite the fact that everything's falling apart around him:
By the time he got to Grande Street a pandemonium of gunfire had broken out behind him. He didnt think he could run any more. He saw himself limping along in a store window across the street, holding his elbow to his side, the bag slung over his shoulder and carrying the shotgun and the leather document case, dark in the glass and wholly unaccountable. When he looked again he was sitting on the sidewalk. Get up you son of a bitch, he said. Dont you set there and die. You get the hell up.
He crossed Ryan Street with blood sloshing in his boots.
Even before we conceived, I was no stranger to the grim side of pop culture; I adore heavy metal (including some of the really theatrical, rah-rah-devil stuff that makes puritanical folks' brains hemorrhage) and horror movies (the spookier, the better). But still, I was surprised to find I couldn't resist McCarthy's books during my pregnancy. Maybe it was because maternity is too often romanticized, dressed up in frills and bows, pink and white. At first, McCarthy's hypermasculine, bleakly violent stories seemed like a much-desired antidote to all that. Over time, I realized his books revealed something about maternity itself.
After No Country for Old Men, I wanted more. I love post-apocalyptic fiction, and went straight for The Road, about a father and young son's survival-driven road trip through America following an undefined cataclysm. This is no book about maternity. The son's mother has killed herself before the story begins and is barely mentioned by her surviving kin.
Where No Country is unapologetically violent, The Road is more so. Its characters focus on little except survival in a world where death is around every turn. At the same time, the story is unmistakably domestic, tightly driven by the particulars of parenting in a literal worst-case scenario. The father carries a gun, but he only has two bullets. He has taught his son to use the gun on himself if he's captured by one of the bands of cannibals that roam the land.
Almost nothing uplifting happens to the father and son in The Road, aside from a short stay in an underground bunker filled with food. And yet, at the end of this desolate journey, there's a dash of hope: After the father dies, the son encounters a man with a wife and children. The boy has limited means by which to judge whether he'll be safe with this stranger. But, in a few brief actions, the man shows he's trustworthy. He doesn't try to take the boy's gun, and he offers a kind gesture: to wrap the dead father in a blanket. The boy asks the stranger:
Do you have any kids?
Do you have a little boy?
We have a little boy and we have a little girl.
How old is he?
He's about your age. Maybe a little older.
And you didnt eat them.
You dont eat people.
No. We dont eat people.
And I can go with you?
Yes. You can.
Before our daughter was born, my partner and I had some tough conversations: What would we do if we split up? What would happen to our baby if one of us died? And, worst, what would happen if both of us died? What if we were out on a date one night, and the movie theater collapsed, or a drunk driver slammed into us while we were crossing the street? Who would take care of our child?
Nobody wants to think about their own death or what might happen after, but I'd seen what happens when someone dies young without laying down their final wishes. After my friend Kim died, his disabled partner of 19 years was left fighting for enough to survive on and remember him by. Even though Kim had sidelined his own parents years earlier, they legally had the rights to his estate—and took everything they could. After that, it seemed cruel for anyone to die without some kind of plan for what happens afterward.
Still, talking through each possibility was like a blow to the chest. If one of us died, we knew, the other would carry on parenting for both of us—impossible as that is. But sizing up our parents—who had raised us to adulthood, ably if imperfectly—as potential caregivers was an ordeal. Too old, too frail, still too busy working, too conservative, not attentive enough. At the time, our brothers were no better, seemingly caught in eternal bachelorhood, not even beholden to any high-maintenance houseplants. Who could raise our baby as we'd want her to be raised? Or even ably raise her at all? We ultimately came up with a plan, imperfect as it was, in the eventuality of a personal apocalypse.
While the language of McCarthy's recent books is spare, his early writing was rougher, more flamboyant. I liked them less, but one was more clearly relevant to my gravid state. Outer Dark, which McCarthy published when he was just 35, kicks off with a baby. Rinthy gives birth to a son fathered by her brother, and much of the book is about her journey to find the little boy after her brother takes him to the woods and leaves him for dead.
The head had broken through in a pumping welter of blood. He knelt in the bed with one knee, holding her. With his own hand he brought it free, the scrawny body trailing the cord in anneloid writing down the bloodslimed covers, a beetcolored creature that looked to him like a skinned squirrel.
When he picked it up it squalled. He took up the cord like a hank of strange yarn and severed it with the handleless claspknife he carried and tied it off at both ends. A deep gloom had settled in the cabin. His arms were stained with gore to the elbows.
It is, in hindsight, the most honest description of birth I'd ever read.
When you're getting ready to give birth, the midwives, doctors, doulas, and birth-class teachers leave some of the details out. They don't mention that you might poop while pushing your baby out, or that the amniotic fluid might be flecked with green meconium—fetus excrement. They might make passing reference to a (sometimes bloody) glob of mucus that drops out of your vagina in the hours before labor starts, unstoppering you for the main event. But they're fuzzy on the fact that your baby is likely to emerge covered in blood and clots and slime. The shirt my partner wore while helping catch our baby looked like he'd performed first aid at an accident scene. Birth is awesome, but it's also very, very messy.
I'd read all the pregnancy books, humorous and practical alike, but none of them really prepared me for that moment. Instead, it was the desolate landscapes of Cormac McCarthy's fiction—which I hadn't read before my pregnancy and haven't enjoyed since—that gave me a framework for my predicament.
I knew early in my pregnancy that I wanted to give birth at home and stay as far away from hospitals as I could. I'm allergic to many of the pain and anaesthetic medications often given to women who labor in hospitals. And, when I was just 22, my mom died in one, of lung problems, surrounded by breathing tubes and wires and beeps that kept her alive but trapped in her bed.
But the day my daughter was born, I found myself blinking against the brightness of an operating room, numb and naked from the waist down, while a half circle of doctors, nurses, and med-school students watched a surgeon stitch my vagina back together. This might not seem so unusual, given how most babies are born these days, but I'd given birth at home, specifically to avoid hospitals and anaesthesia. My baby was not with me. My partner was not with me. I was in unfamiliar territory. This was not how it was supposed to go.
My labor was as typical as could be, but I pushed my daughter out fast, and I tore badly, all the way into the muscles meant to keep vagina and anus apart. I'm told there was blood everywhere; I was too distracted by my tiny red girl, squalling and rooting for milk, to notice the midwives mopping up around me. Our primary midwife crouched between my legs, looked at my torn body, locked eyes with me, and said I needed to go to the hospital for stitches. I wasn't going to be able to avoid the place after all.
I reluctantly agreed, handed the baby to my partner, and let our midwife drive me to Labor and Delivery. We spent hours in a small exam room, waiting for a time slot in the operating room, me feeling too doped up on birth hormones and sleep deprivation to freak out completely. I drifted in and out of sleep, disembodied, disassociated from where I was. The anaesthesiologist, knowing my litany of medication allergies, asked if I wanted to be numbed from the waist down, or to have a needle of lidocaine shot directly into my torn birth canal. After everything else that had happened, I just wasn't feeling that tough. I went for the spinal block.
When they finally called me to surgery, I stepped gingerly from the exam room to the OR. My midwife tapped my shoulder and pointed down. I was leaving a steady trail of blood droplets along the shiny mopped floors.
While I was pregnant, I had certain ideas of what birth and motherhood were going to be like—and McCarthy's books seemed like a complete escape from those ideas. But during labor, and in the weeks that followed birth, it seemed his books had done as much to ready me as anything else had. There were certainly moments of soft, cooing motherhood, but when faced with cracking nipples, ghastly diapers, or sleep deprivation, a certain amount of steeliness was called for. A certain amount of scanning the grim horizon. A certain amount of getting the hell up and crossing the street, even with blood sloshing in my boots.