Adapted by the author of Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth by Jennifer Banks. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Banks. Used with permission of the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Pretty much everyone I know who’s had close encounters with birth has asked these questions: Why didn’t anyone tell me what this was like? Why didn’t anyone prepare me?
These questions, often whispered privately rather than publicly proclaimed, are part of a cultural script that is rarely questioned. I asked myself these questions when I gave birth to my children in my thirties. I had an excellent education back then. I read the newspapers. I had traveled abroad and learned several languages. I was an adult, fairly educated in the ways of the word. And yet, like so many others, I was unprepared for the birth. What exactly was I not prepared for? And what exactly could I have been told, from my earliest days and throughout my upbringing, training and adulthood, that would have built me up, trained me, strengthened me or steeled me for that experience?
I started my book Natality: towards a philosophy of birth as an attempt to answer these questions. They seemed as answerable as all the great, complex questions of human existence, the unsolvable riddles we live with, constantly seeking better understanding. Being a reader, I sought guidance in books, in the literary, philosophical, and theological traditions to which I, as a modern Westerner, was the heir, rather than in the medical or self-help manuals through which birth has been more publicly claimed. I was interested in the possibility of shared legacies, expressed differently and perhaps full of their own disagreements, contradictions or indecisiveness, that could be used in the confrontation with birth.
My culture seemed to have this one for death. Indeed, woven into my intellectual legacy was a profound struggle with mortality, a constant confrontation with the fact of our eventual death. But there was no real shared sense of what Hannah Arendt mentioned nationality, born as a fundamental part of the human experience that needs to be faced, thought about, talked about, and taught. Birth was instead fragmented into billions of individualized bits, privatized and understood in the context of families, not societies.
What I’ve discovered over the past ten years, looking through books about birth, is that we do have rich intellectual, existential, and spiritual traditions around birth, but they remain buried and difficult to access. In Natality, I wanted to access these traditions, bring them to the surface and provide readers with an extensive range of possibilities. In a series of chapters I presented the experiences and ideas of a lineage of people who struggled with their birth and who derived great meaning from their birth: Hannah Arendt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Morrison . While many of these thinkers are rarely mentioned in the same breath, they are linked by hidden affinities and together form one immersed and surprising counter-tradition about the creativity of birth in modernity in the West. They all tended towards birth, experiential or conceptual; they were passionate about life. But by being for life, they recognized the magnitude of the birth, the great difficulty, diversity and unresolved problems.
In their lives and work, they provide examples of how what people experience at birth and how they feel about their experiences can shape their lives, have a profound impact on their societies, and even change the course of history. They understood birth as a private event, experienced individually in people’s bodies, but also as a stone thrown into a vast lake, creating wide-ranging social, cultural, and political ripples. Birth, they believed, was involved in the maintenance and transformation of human civilization. Most of them recognized how birth had been abused throughout history, and they envisioned a new relationship between birth and freedom.
Their views on nativity are particularly poignant today, as fatalism, paralysis, doubt, cynicism and despair have become the predominant features of life in the 21st century. In their own time, these thinkers were very much attuned to the power structures that produced such despondency, but in battling those structures they devised responses other than defeat. Over the past decade, as the pessimistic mood of the world grew stronger and amid a series of historical crises, these thinkers’ expressions of the human birth offered a powerful alternative to nihilism. That they collectively maintained a courageous, affirming, and undogmatic commitment to birth and life, not only in the face of these issues, but often because of them, has sustained and sustained me through some of the deadliest years in modern history.
During this time, deaths, not births, dominated the news cycle. I finished my book during the second full winter of Covid-19. I was tying up loose ends against the backdrop of mass deaths and a crumbling world order, with six and a half million deaths from the pandemic in two years and the world on high alert, fearing a third world war after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mankind’s death drive seemed unassailable. Global death rates rose and fertility rates fell to an all-time low.
“Even in the darkest of times,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “we have a right to expect some relief.” During these years, in the quieter backdrop of these calamities, I still heard about them: babies being conceived, babies being born. Those births rarely made the news, but they were as much a part of reality as any war, any disaster, any disease. I wondered who these babies would become, what they would make of their birth, and what unprecedented piece of human history they would help create. Would they find a cure for cancer or help save some endangered species? Or would they shoot pointlessly or detonate a nuclear bomb? I couldn’t predict what they would do with their lives, big or small, creative or destructive, compassionate or mean. But I knew these babies mattered; they were the members of my children’s generation, and the world would soon be in their hands.
To experience, witness and even celebrate birth while living in the midst of death and destruction was to experience a complex and dissonant truth. It was a truth so obvious as to be banal: that we are born and shall die; or that we are birth beings in a mortal world. And yet it was a truth that was not easy to digest, not packable for quick consumption. It is best expressed not in polemic but in poetry: “Were we led all that way before / Birth or Death?” asks one of the mages in TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. The Magi, returning from a difficult winter journey on which they witnessed the miraculous newborn Christ, return to their kingdoms, no longer comfortable in the “old dispensation”, but without any vision of a dispensation to come after. They never answer the question they ask themselves in the poem, and maybe that’s because it’s unanswerable: “were we led all that way before / Birth or death?”
Life is under threat in the 21st century. Even as life expectancy has risen dramatically in recent centuries and human populations have continued to expand, people seem less and less sure that life is worth living, worth passing on to the next. generation. We have had to face how destructive and deadly we are. It seems far too late to do anything about our various crises; the damage has been done. People did it and people should pay the price. An increasing number of people are preparing for and even celebrating the possibility of the imminent extinction of our species.
But these grim reckonings have done no one or anything much good. Little has improved in recent decades. Things have gotten much worse, and that decline has happened under the watchful eye of cynicism. Pessimism often masquerades as just a reflection of reality, but it is more than that; it is an active agent, defining a reality it purports to express alone.
And so I craved new models, different visions. From deep within the vortex of modernity’s death spiral, the authors I’ve profiled Natality formulated a simple but powerful alternative idea: that we should prepare for birth just as we prepare for death. We have been led all this way before birth and before death. Birth does not have to remain buried under all layers of consciousness. Here, today, in our ordinary life, we can start telling each other what it’s like – to be born, to give birth, to witness the birth, to love the birth, to fear the birth, to celebrate the birth and mourn, and partake of it. in all the new beginnings of life.