(Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2016)
Childbirth is a ubiquitous occurrence, yet each woman deals with it differently; each woman’s experience is personal, as if scripted just for her. There are guidelines, advice, and expectations, but never are there guarantees. What a woman wants does not always matter; sometimes, the vital decisions are torn from her control. So I shuttered when Lore walked into the hospital with a detailed birth plan that explicitly stated “no Demerol. No Pitocin. No epidural.” Those requests were eerily familiar. I knew them well, because I had made the same ones. But twenty-four hours into the process of trying to give birth, I learned that in reality there are no set rules and things do not always as planned. Yet even as Lore’s labor progresses erratically, she clings to her resolve, her belief – born in a birthing class – that hospitals meddle more than they should and that a mother’s responsibility is to fight so that her child enters the world as naturally as possible.
Lore, the central character of Pamela Erens’s new book, Eleven Hours, is not like most expectant mothers. She enters the hospital alone. There is no father, no friends. She has only one sympathetic nurse, Franckline, who tenderly, yet sternly, takes care of her. When a contraction seizes Lore, her body becomes rigid as she fights the pain. This will not do. Franckline coaches her to expel the pain by breathing deeply and screaming emphatically. Lore is reluctant, but Franckline thinks, “I can open this girl. She will open.” And the opening is both literal and figurative.
Lore is closed off to the world. Just as she struggles against the agony of labor, she also rebels against the possibility of friendship. Woven into the fabric of Lore’s labor narrative is an account of her childhood, the abandonment of her father, her coming of age, the burden of caring for her dying mother and the disappointment of a failed relationship. We also learn about Franckline’s youth in Haiti – the despair of being disowned and the devastation of giving birth to a child who did not survive.
The strength of Eleven Hours is in the revelation of personal histories and the realization that no narrative is complete, but is rather obscured by the teller’s decision as to what is relevant and what is not: “How again and again she was caught up short by the discovery that other people had stories they didn’t tell, or told stories that weren’t entirely true.” But even a willing narrator isn’t always afforded time to tell an entire story, and so a listener must draw conclusions based on what they are told. Franckline will spend an intimate eleven hours with Lore, but their relationship is transitory, one that will not last beyond the birth of Lore’s child.
Franckline, however, is successful in figuratively opening Lore up. When another contraction strikes, Lore screams, giving voice to her pain: “But the moan this time is not simply a moan of will and pain but a call into the emptiness: Is anyone there?” Although there is no exchange of personal stories between nurse and patient, Lore finally concedes that she needs Franckline, and in conceding, she becomes less rigid, less concerned with breaking the rules she had stitched into her birth plan. For some women, the fairy tale birth of no drugs, no intervention, becomes a happy reality. But, for some women, some babies, the fairytale isn’t possible. Had Franckline’s child been born in America instead of Haiti, had he had the fortune of an NICU, Franckline wonders, would he have survived?
Eleven Hours is about letting go of expectations, and submitting, when necessary, to the men and women who do know better. It is about learning to process the past so that it does not impede the future. It is about the unknowns that lay before us and questions without immediate answers. And finally, it is about making decisions – and deciding again and again, after life has responded to our initial plans.
Eleven Hours is a deeply engaging narrative that raises important questions about society’s perspective regarding family, pregnancy and the birthing process. It is a must read for all expectant mothers – although women who are anxious about giving birth may want to wait until after their child is born.
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Elizabeth Jaeger is currently finishing up an MFA degree in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She is an assistant editor at The Literary Review and her work has been published in The Drowning Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. An essay of hers has been featured on the podcast No You Tell It.