Kate Bentley's diary-like, poem-like 'songs' about trying to stay pregnant appear along with the story of their own long gestation in her book 'Songs for my Unborn Children'.
Some time ago, over several years of miscarriages and then of precarious – but first-time successful – IVF, Bentley put down her thoughts from day to day. There were smarts at unthinking or stupid remarks by 'other people' of every kind; and there were the repeated dramas of waiting and wondering, plunges of disappointment alternating with short-term hopes at each of the many pre-birth stages. These writings, forgotten by Bentley, had been shared with the obstetrician Susan Bewley, who came across them again during lockdown – and suggested to Bentley that she might bring them out for others to see. Books, more reliably than babies, can be ordered, produced, and delivered.
Bentley's writing conveys moments that will be recognisable to anyone who has known the frustrations of not-pregnancy: of wanting to be, but finding you're not, in any one of the many miserable ways that either nature or technology imposes. It might just be the banality, now fraught with meaning, of a period happening as usual. Or it might – as Bentley describes – be the medically marked events of a miscarriage, or of infertility treatment not working. More generally there is anger at a body that will not, or cannot, do what any other female body seemingly can:
The only thing
Is silent rage.
The prompt for the fury can be nothing at all, with a surrounding world that doesn't know the difference so sorely felt. An ordinary moment at a local cricket match is poignant because so simple:
Three children run up to the boundary
All calling, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy',
every head turns, instinctively,
Except my husband's.
The exception, the non-daddy, is only seen (and heard) in that identity by the non-mother.
There is also anger directed against more culpably indifferent or ignorant others. Bentley is sharp in the documentation of tactless and otherwise thoughtless remarks on the part of friends or medical personnel: 'the wrong words pierce through... so I have to be careful, avoid the words, and the people who say them.' During a scan that is conducted by a trainee with a supervisor, the one who sees a possible abnormality is blamed for her second opinion. Thanks to 'Mrs Senior', says Bentley, ' the bottom fell out of my world' – with some small power pulled back by the meanness of calling her that.
Following this incident, a whole page is given to just four words, on their own, in the middle:
'We are in limbo.'
This is the most extreme display in the book, both minimalist and somehow over the top. Typically, Bentley's 'songs' are made up of ordinary sentences broken up into short, centred lines of three or four words, as produced by the simple use of centre-text and hard-right function keys. Whether or not it is poetry in anyone else's eyes, the writing process is surely therapeutic, for the teller and for the recognising reader.
Songs for my Unborn Children reminded me of passages in a book from some time ago, jointly authored by Elizabeth Bryan and Ronald Higgins, a couple who had gone through infertility treatment but, unlike Bentley, did not become parents. Infertility: New Choices, New Dilemmas, was published in 1995. It is both an informative guide to available treatments then, and a powerfully moving exploration of the complexity of the emotions engendered by infertility, including their own. Thinking about the ways that are found to cope with continuing childlessness, they say this:
Writing about the experience, whether in a notebook, diary or as a story, can be a great help and can be done entirely in private. It does not matter if the results are literate, let alone literary.
They describe something comparable that happened in their own case. Not long after the decision to let go of trying to become parents, following a failed attempt at IVF, Bryan had found herself painting pictures of embryos. She 'kept the images rolled up behind the wardrobe for years afterwards – an outward but deeply private expression of a profound inner experience, especially of our one pregnancy that had ended after ten weeks.' Years later, in the book they now write, these pictures have become something to speak of and share. It is what Bentley is doing too, with her writing from troubled, childless times.