I was in a psychology class, listening to a lecture about existentialism in therapy, when I realized I was pregnant. Somebody was arguing with the professor about choice: Do we really always have a choice? He asked. The professor said we did: sometimes the choices are terrible, between death and something worse than death, but there is always something to choose, and you are always choosing, even if you don’t know it. Suddenly, I was transported away from the conversation and firmly in the realm of the body: I was going to throw up. I lifted my hand to cover my mouth and ran to the restroom. I pressed my cheek against the stall door, where somebody had posted a flier about “Finding Your Authentic Womanhood.” I looked at the accompanying photograph of thin, white women doing yoga in front of a sunset until I felt steady enough to go back to class.
I’d been feeling not myself for weeks: I was vaguely tired, vaguely restless. It had not seriously occurred to me that I could be pregnant. This was not something I’d been planning, despite being in my thirties, married, finally a person with relative financial stability and the outward appearance of normalcy. My in-laws and family had stopped asking us when we were going to have a baby. We’d discouraged their questions and waited for so long that we’d finally convinced everyone that we were serious about not having one.
That night, I bought a pregnancy test, a two-pack. Both were positive. My first thought was of the famous scene in Alien, in which a creature tears its way out of John Hurt’s stomach and skitters away. I had never seriously considered pregnancy happening inside my own body, and so knew nothing much about it. When I turned 31, my husband and I had talked about, maybe, after grad school, thinking about a baby. After we traveled more. After we had real jobs, elusive things that people our age were supposed to have already, jobs with health insurance and retirement plans. After I’d published a few books. But I also, secretly, thought that the time would never come, because there were no shortage of things I wanted to do first. It just wasn’t a priority, and I wasn’t convinced it ever would be.
I’ve been colonized, I told my husband, as I showed him the first positive pregnancy test.
What should we do? I asked him. It was a formality. We both knew the answer: we were going to have this baby. We were both suddenly certain, and that certainty was terrifying.
I’m the kind of person who always wants to know the worst thing that could happen. I read the list of side effects for any medicine. I want to feel prepared for everything falling apart. I took this attitude to pregnancy, too. I not only Googled a million possible complications and memorized statistical probabilities for everything that could possibly go wrong, but I also re-watched every horror film about pregnancy I could get my hands on as a strange kind of preparation. If I was going to be pregnant, I wanted to know how other people had created art from fear in order to better understand my own.
One of my favorite films is David Cronenberg’s The Brood. In it, a woman named Nola is getting treatment from an experimental psychology program run by a charismatic leader, Doctor Ragland. Ragland’s modality is psychoplasmics, a therapy in which people are encouraged to let go of personal trauma by allowing it to physically manifest in the body. One man, while working through feelings of worthlessness stemming from his relationship with his father, blooms scratches on the surface of his skin. Another develops throat cancer. The injuries are all metaphor, symbols of the hurt.
Nola’s estranged husband begins to suspect that Ragland’s treatment is nefarious when his young daughter comes home from a visit with her mother covered in scratches and bruises. Later, he encounters pale, blonde, mute children who seem to exclusively stalk and murder people who have hurt Nola in the past. He manages to kill one and finds out that it is not-quite-human. The children are all blonde, their hair cut in awkward pageboys, and each is in a colorful snowsuit, but they are not really children. They are in-between things, and the film does not attempt to humanize them.
In movie’s climax, Nola reveals that the children are hers: they are part of her therapy, a way for her unconscious anger to manifest itself and be released. Reproduction and family have been her problem (her parents, her failed marriage), and so her reproductive system is what she uses to express her trauma. They are her anger babies. She opens up her robe to her husband, revealing a sac, a visible uterus, heavy with a new fetus, pumping with blood and fluid. She is proud, and as a new anger baby arrives, she births it herself, her hands covered in blood, and licks it clean like an animal.
The film implies something about the reproductive function, its power, its animal nature, and its basic strangeness, despite its commonality. Inside the body, the strangeness remains covert. When brought outside, it’s clear how we are just like cows and pigs and all other animals that nurture our kind in fluid and release them in muck and blood. Nola is clearly damaged, but her damage is inextricably linked with her reproductive capability, which in itself, the movie says, is a terrible, animal power.
I couldn’t help but root for Nola in the moment of the film when she looks up at her husband, mouth bloody, and says do you find me terrible? I felt that strangeness of the body in myself, the unknowability of the process, how little I could control or see or understand what was happening inside of me. I felt some of the disgust, too, which I did not like to think about, though it was always present at the back of my mind, poisoning all of my good intentions for a completely stress-free, positive-thought-filled pregnancy like the books and magazines say you should have. My veins swelled with my stomach, my arms and chest now ropey with green and blue lines. Always, the salty taste of vomit was at the back of my mouth. I felt as though I might drown in my own saliva. My body grew as I ate buttered bread and greasy noodles to keep the nausea down: the only thing that eased it was starchy food. I barely recognized myself anymore.
I wondered, too, about trauma, about inadvertently making anger babies. What did I know about how to take care of a baby without giving it the burden of my own history? How terrifying it is, when you think about it, to make a new person when it so often goes badly.
At the twelve week appointment, the nurse took my weight and blood pressure, both normal. I was asked about nausea, which was almost constant at that point. I was assured that the nausea would go away soon, by Christmas at least. The nurse put a device against my stomach. It crackled like a faraway station, like a radio underwater, and the sound inside my body was a constant thick static until I heard a fluttering click click click.
That’s the heartbeat, the nurse told me. She said it was normal, thought it sounded frantic to me, like a rabbit’s heart.
The nurse said I could leave after she wiped the cold jelly from my stomach. On the way home, I wondered how I should feel about the heartbeat. I had never dreamed of fat babies in onesies, had never imagined myself breastfeeding, snuggling, or rocking a small thing in my arms. I had spent so long not wanting this, rejecting anything that pointed me toward the motherly, the domestic, that I didn’t know how to put myself in those imaginary spaces. I couldn’t see the end point of a baby—I was baby averse. They frightened me, with their unpredictable and inconsolable crying, their heads riddled with soft spots. Instead, I read possible symptoms in What to Expect When You’re Expecting: gas, stretch marks, swollen legs, varicose veins. In the illustrations, pregnant women in housecoats rejoiced over salads.
Two months later, a woman in my graduate program stopped me in the hallway, seeing my new, small bump.
Don’t you love it? She asked.
I was bewildered until I realized she was referring to pregnancy.
No, I said. I wish I did.
I’m not very good at knowing when I shouldn’t tell the truth.
It’s mostly miserable, I told her. I can’t sleep. I’m sick. Everything hurts. I’m enormous.
This is not what she wanted to hear. Her face fell.
I guess everyone is different, she said, making a quick exit. I had disappointed her. I didn’t want to be pregnant badly enough, had not embraced the great upheaval happening inside my body in the way that I should.
In the film “Grace,” a woman fervently wants a baby. The film implies that this desire is beyond the bounds of normality. It opens with a depressing sex scene in which Grace stares glassy-eyed into the distance as her husband thrusts. We learn she has had miscarriages in the past. She is vegan, and the film lingers over slimy, dripping greens, as though to point out that not only is her desire disgusting, but the things she puts inside her body are disgusting, too. The film tells us that she cannot leave well enough alone, that she is trying to fight against nature, which does not want her to reproduce. One night, she and her husband get into a car accident. She is eight months pregnant and the fetus dies along with her husband. She doesn’t seem to mind that her husband is dead, this is how single-minded her vision is. She insists of giving birth to the fetus naturally, without inducing labor, a choice the film frames as horrific, misguided. She gives birth in a wash of blood in a birthing pool. The child has died, but she speaks to it. Live, she tells it. Stay alive. It does, after a fashion. Only the baby is not right. It won’t take milk and cries inconsolably as she paces her empty house. The baby, she soon learns, will drink only blood.
Nola was monstrous because her childbirth was fully visible, her insides exposed, her desires becoming children that did her bidding, her murderous children a testament to her own trauma. The woman in “Grace” (who has a name, though it is rarely used, and I cannot remember it, because the film doesn’t care about it) is monstrous because she wants a baby too much. She wants it into a living death, so powerful and terrible is that mother wanting.
I wondered about this fierce wanting in Grace, how foreign it was to me, even as I hauled my enormous stomach around, attending classes and wrestling myself into maternity dresses. For me, pregnancy was something that had happened, an experience I’d been offered, something I was curious about and wanted, but about which I still felt enormously ambivalent. The larger culture says that ambivalence is monstrous. But the film implies that wanting pregnancy too much is monstrous, too, something that makes other people uncomfortable, that might end with a creature that sucks you dry and makes you wander an empty, dark house alone, desperate to feed an endlessly hungry baby that cannot ever be satisfied. There is no right way to be pregnant.
At 36 weeks and 6 days, I went into labor. That day, my body felt swollen and achy. I was exhausted. I felt, as I had for the last few weeks, something pressing against my pelvis, a great boulder in my body that made me waddle painfully. I could not do much that day but nap and read books in bed, a luxury that didn’t feel like one at the time. My husband called me with plans for dinner: would I start the vegetables? I agreed and got up. Then, it happened: suddenly, I could feel the fluid flowing from me, warm and sticky. It was three weeks before my due date.
I stood in the bathtub, naked, water still streaming down my legs. I was told to call the hospital helpline if my water broke.
It’s too early, I told the woman on the other end of the line. The baby’s not supposed to come yet.
There’s no going back now, the on-call nurse told me. It’s happening right now. You need to come in.
At the hospital, we were brought first to the triage room, where I sat in bed, waiting for something to happen. Ten hours later, I felt twinges in irregular intervals, but nothing painful yet. While we waited, a woman came in, fully in labor, and gave birth in the curtained room next of us, screaming and groaning the entire time. We left when her shouts became unbearable: for the first time, I didn’t want to know the worst, didn’t want to hear an unmedicated childbirth. I ate a salad in the hallway and went back in when it seemed safe. My husband and I discussed the baby’s middle name, which we hadn’t figured out yet. Something was going to happen, but it was happening so slowly, I could almost believe it never would.
It’s Alive! Is a campy horror classic by Larry Cohen about a mutant baby. The opening scenes of the film are sweet, the amateur acting and almost indifferent direction lending to a feeling of reality that more polished films can’t achieve. A very pregnant wife is ushered to the 70’s family sedan by her husband when she reports contractions. The couple drops off their son at a friends house and drive to the hospital, where the wife gives birth as the husband sits in the waiting room. Only the child comes out wrong, all claws and teeth. Immediately upon emerging, the newborn murders the entire room full of nurses and assistants and also the doctor, who tries to strangle the monster before it leaps free through a window. The woman is left restrained on the table, crying for her child.
As the film progresses, the husband is convinced that he must kill the infant: he believes that it’s his responsibility to do away with what he has unleashed on the world. He has to show that he does not accept his paternity, that he won’t accept the monster as part of him. Unbeknownst to him, his wife has taken in the murderous infant, who has been trying to make his way back home since his escape from the hospital, and is keeping him in the basement. When the father finds out, he shoots it, injuring the infant but not killing it, and it escapes through the window. He hunts down the baby, following its bloody trail, until he finds it in an underground sewer, bleeding and weeping.
Here is where the film, as obviously campy and ridiculous as it is, gets me: when he sees the baby, crying, bleeding, he can’t bear to harm it. It’s his baby, that’s simply a biological fact. He soothes it, saying that it will be okay, that he will make it all better. He wraps it in his coat and tries to bring it home. But the authorities are waiting.
He’s just scared, the man tells the police that surround them when they emerge. He only lashes out when he’s afraid.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that the baby has enormous teeth and murders willy-nilly: his mother and father still love him. They can’t help it.
The movie gives me comfort. While I don’t expect I’ll give birth to a homicidal mutant, beyond that, I don’t know who he will be. It seems strange to like somebody you don’t even know, particularly as a person who likes so few people I know already, but I begin to believe it’s possible.
The day after the baby was born, I stood in the bathroom mirror in our post-delivery hospital room. I was to take a shower to prepare for the hospital photographer, who would take pictures of the baby. He was sleeping the plastic bassinet next to my bed, swaddled expertly by the nurses, all six pounds of him, red-faced and tiny and not nearly as angry or alien as I had expected him to be. I stripped off my hospital gown, which I’d been wearing since the delivery. I saw the smudge of blood on my chest, leftover from when they first placed him on my body, still slightly sticky with blood and vernix. I looked down: my stomach was puffy, covered in red stretch marks. My legs were swollen and thick with fluid—I’d been on a constant saline drip for twenty hours, and I could feel the water trapped in my ankles and feet jiggle when I walked. I looked at my face: my under eyes were dark, lips cracked and flaking dry skin. I’ve never looked so unlike myself as I did in that moment, on four hours of sleep, after a day of pain medication and labor, swollen and bleeding and stitched together as I was.
The horror that I’d imagined, the ways that pregnancy had been interpreted through film, the lists of symptoms in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, all of the fears I’d had about my ability to love somebody that I did not know and had not prepared for: none of it had happened in the ways I’d feared or expected. I’d been in pain that I had never felt before, and I had survived it. The baby had come out and I’d felt not the burden of the future, but a recognition: I somehow already knew him. He’d cried and breathed and opened his eyes warily as he rested his cheek on my chest and I did not worry about anything but that particular moment, a first for me. I noted his small fists, the contours of his face, already subtly his own and not the face of a dozen other babies swaddled in the nursery. I don’t know if what I felt was love or just a fierce desire to protect this creature that was almost still my body, so newly ejected, so vulnerable and needing that there was nothing to do but try to meet those needs.
When I was pregnant, I felt monstrous. My body was an event, a vehicle to steer through room, something that contained me but wasn’t quite me. It was full of alien flutterings and shifts, huge changes in weight and texture. It didn’t feel like mine, but it was mine, and I was forced to inhabit it. That was the experience I was looking for in horror, I realize now. And it was an experience that these films couldn’t show me, because they were written by people, specifically men, who wouldn’t ever experience pregnancy. They were narratives of somebody looking from the outside at a pregnant body, at a child emerging in blood, at somebody breastfeeding, and seeing something inherently grotesque, abject, and terrifying. Cronenberg, writer and director of The Brood, wrote this film in response to his divorce. What better revenge against the mother of his child than to make the most terrible, grotesque mother of them all, the pregnancy an outer spectacle so disgusting that the husband in the film can hardly look at her?
In those early weeks after I had my son, when my husband and I stumbled around, sleepless, still adjusting to the existence of somebody who hadn’t existed just weeks before, we watched a lot of movies. One of them was The Babadook, a film about woman dealing with unresolved grief and guilt about her feelings for her son, a difficult child who can feel her ambivalence about his existence. He was born the night her husband died, so his birth and that death are tied together. At a time of stress, when her son Sam is seeing visions of a “monster,” She receives a creepy children’s book at her door titled Mister Babadook. Mister Babadook is a male figure, white-fingered and cloaked in black, who slinks around the corners, tormenting and inhabiting the bodies of his victims.
The mother in the film, Amelia, is torn apart by her love of her son and her desire to escape him. There’s an early scene in which she is in bed with her son, who is so anxious he can’t sleep alone. He’s pushed up against her, his arms around her, and every sticky bit of that intimacy is magnified—the sound of him scratching his skin, the heaviness of his arms. She pushes his arm away, that closeness too cloying. It’s a rare scene of maternal disgust, of a desire to have your body to yourself already. Even at two weeks of motherhood, I knew that feeling. As much as I had, to my great relief, bonded with my son, I also longed to have my body back. I spent a summer breastfeeding like it was my full-time job, my nipples cracked and bleeding, constantly sweaty, constantly wanting a moment to myself and then spending each moment to myself worried about the baby.
The Babadook represents grief. Or maternal ambivalence. Or that possibility of maternal violence. It doesn’t much matter what it is, ultimately. What matters is what the mother does when she realizes the Babadook is real and that it has inhabited her body: she doesn’t destroy it, she keeps in the basement, where he tends it. When it shouts in her face, making her hair fly back, she soothes it. She sets down a bowl of beetles. This is the monster as a part of the self, the monster as a thing requiring empathy, not destruction. The Babadook never goes away, her young son says, and this is what I had wanted from those other films: some acknowledgment that my ambivalence, my fear, and my own disgust at my lumbering physical body was human and that it could be a part of me, just like my love and my amazement and my tenderness, all things that fired up together in a confusing mishmash the moment I got that positive pregnancy test. I didn’t want to kill the part of myself that was not the model pregnant woman or the model new mother. I wanted to give it some empathy. To give it a place inside myself to rest. To offer it something to eat.
Letitia Trent is the author of the novels Almost Dark and Echo Lake as well as the poetry collection One Perfect Bird and numerous chapbooks. Her story “Wilderness” is featured in both the anthology Exigencies and The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, edited by Ellen Datlow. Her work has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson award. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Fence, Sou’Wester, and 32 Poems, among others, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Daily Beast and The Nervous Breakdown. Trent lives with her husband, son, and three black cats in the Ozarks.