Published on October 26th, 2023 | by Josie Cellone1
Pregnancy as Body Horror
The first time I was pregnant, I felt like I was mutating.
Eyeballs and fingernails and baby teeth were growing inside my belly. Cells of a foreign body were multiplying and dividing as my fetus grew from the size of a poppyseed to a cucumber to a melon, all tracked through weekly app notifications on my phone.
I wanted to be one of those serene mothers, cherishing this miracle of life and my unique role in incubating it. Instead, it felt like science fiction.
“How frightful it must be to give life to a creature,” a young Mary Shelley wrote in her journals. Here was a woman, writing two centuries ago, who understood the macabre in motherhood, while I felt ashamed to voice my hormonal hallucinations out loud.
When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was a teenager who’d given birth twice in two years, her first child born prematurely and found unresponsive in her crib at only two weeks old. She became pregnant with a son only months later, a son who would live, and then die of fever at age two. “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived,” she wrote. “I awake and find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” In her lifetime, Shelley was pregnant five times. Only one of her children survived to adolescence.
It’s fascinating to recast Shelley’s famous ghost story in this context: a young mother terrified of creating imperfect life, haunted by reanimated corpses and death that doesn’t leave you. To be taken seriously in 1818, Shelley couldn’t write about a woman, much less a mother’s grief. As a female author, she already found her work minimized, especially in the shadow of her famous and impetuous husband, the poet Percy Shelley.
The legend goes: Mary Shelley had a postpartum waking dream about a pale student kneeling beside a creature he’d sewn together, and she transposed her experience onto a male protagonist on a challenge. The result was her first novel, Frankenstein, an enduring and avant-garde work of deeply embodied fiction.
Was Frankenstein a proxy for a postpartum mother, a being who felt the shame and awkwardness and ugliness of their body? Or did I see myself in his creator, obsessed with making life and haunted by my progeny?
As my hormones turned to horror, I looked for more modern examples to slow my spiral and found a burgeoning genre of speculative maternal fiction, titles that gave credence to my own creepy images of procreation. From Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch,whose breastfeeding protagonist has intense canine impulses, to Szilvia Molnar’s claustrophobic debut The Nursery, these female authors were documenting the surreal transformation of women into mothers. The animalistic impulses of childbirth, the outrageous mutations of pregnancy, and the terrifying delirium of the postpartum experience—all captured on the page in a way Shelley could only do in code.
Shelley’s biography became a source of intrigue for Louisa Hall, who penned Reproduction after being sidelined by her own miscarriage. “I was looking for ways to tell my own story of reproductive horror,” Hall said in a phone interview prior to publication. “Childbirth is bloody and gory. I didn’t want to be complicit in romanticizing it and softening it.” Part autofiction, part contemporary retelling of Frankenstein, Reproduction begins when a ten-week sonogram reveals an empty egg sac, the embryo reabsorbed by the narrator’s body. “Miscarriage, they told me, is another one of these things, like eating disorders and rape, that happen to most women,” she says. Why should she take comfort in the commonness of female suffering?
The first act of Reproduction documents the novelist’s struggle to conceive while researching a book on Shelley. In the second act, the mother experiences a terrifying and high-risk birth, traumatized by the impersonal care she receives at an industrialized Western hospital, her choices overridden by doctors who seem to prioritize convenience over the emotional experience of labor. The final act follows the narrator’s single friend, who goes on a journey to conceive independently, and overshares the intimate details of harvesting her eggs and screening embryos for her in vitro fertilization.
Reproduction plants itself at the intersection of modern science and science fiction. More importantly, it exposes the brutal truth of childbirth, which is that women risk their lives to do it. “I have all the advantages in the world, and both times I gave birth I was shaken to my core at how dangerous it is,” Hall said. Shelley’s own mother, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, died after giving birth to her; the placenta broke apart and became septic. With this personal history, did Shelley see herself as the monster and creator?
Even after healthy, live births, women’s recoveries are tenuous. Maternal mortality rates remain shockingly high, and research shows as many as one-eighth of new mothers experience postpartum depression, a figure that’s even higher in black and Hispanic communities, where women are less likely to receive follow-up treatment. How much of this suffering has been examined in literature? And from the point of view of the birthing parent?
Molnar explores this portal into motherhood in The Nursery, in which a new mother spirals after giving birth, feeling trapped and isolated in her apartment with her newborn. Molnar uses the foggy and overwhelming postpartum days as a dystopian backdrop to reveal deeper truths about motherhood. She doesn’t shy away from the taboo, detailing everything from the mother’s raw nipples and mesh underwear to her intrusive thoughts about smothering and shaking her newborn. “I think about how when we clean Button in the evenings, her naked body (barely a she) resembles store-bought poultry in my hands. So easy to slice, but I shouldn’t welcome the thought.” Later when her husband is bathing the child, she has to leave the room:
I can’t handle the idea that she might slip through his fingers like a bar of soap and fall to the floor in one splat, yet the image loops and warps in the head. I may soon have to acknowledge that I am losing my mind. I mean, sometimes I picture myself crushing her with my foot. There comes that awful thought again, but this would mean that the screaming will forever stop. I could go back to my desk and no one would ever miss her. I would need to wipe off the gunk from my foot, the slippery intestines, the soft skull, the pinkish blood…I would place the fouled paper towel at the bottom of the trash bin and go about my day.
As these intrusive thoughts haunt the mother, she speaks the unspoken and makes the shameful seen. Perhaps by talking about it, and writing about it, women won’t feel so alone when their experience of motherhood doesn’t match the idealized and familiar one. Instead she’s isolated, like Shelley, quarantined at Lord Byron’s Lake Geneva retreat that gothic summer when the sky was perpetually darkened by the ash bloom of a volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora.
Nightbitch, currently in production as a Hulu series starring Amy Adams, explores a different kind of postpartum nightmare: her bodily transformations don’t end after pregnancy, and the endless shape shifting piques her curiosity even as it horrifies her. “She reached toward the base of her spine. Her finger found a swollen lump, and when she checked it in the mirror, she saw a raised mound, hot to the touch,” Yoder writes. The mother slices the bump with an X-Acto knife to drain the fluid and a flurry of hair pokes out of the incision: a tail.
Nightbitch makes the surrealness of motherhood literal. Yoder writes into the hallucinations of gestating women, of turning into feral dogs induced by hormonal night sweats—the same kind of waking dream that inspired a postpartum Shelley to write one of the most enduring horror stories of all time.
In an interview with Molnar before the publication of The Nursery, she spoke to this pull toward fictionalizing the indescribable aspects of pregnancy and childbirth. “In the pregnancy days, your organs are moving around to make space for a baby and your breasts are growing and there’s all this preparation,” Molnar said. “First, you’re housing somebody, and then they’re feeding off of you. The imagery around that can be so lush and playful. Then if you add sleep deprivation to the postpartum side of that, you can certainly veer into horror or sci-fi elements. If you’re up at night, in the dark, your mind can take you to many different places.”
There’s no avoiding our primal, animalistic urges when another human rips out of your body. In Helen Phillips’ The Need, the mother inhabits the body of a great female elk bellowing on a grassy hilltop. Similarly, the mother in Claire Oshetshy’s Chouette describes her fetus as an owl-baby and believes it to be one, admitting she sounds crazy even to herself. “At first we fully recognize the existential threat that is growing inside us,” Oshetshy writes. “But gradually evolutionary imperatives overcome the conscious mind’s objection, and the will to reproduce overcomes the will to survive, and the needs of the baby overcome the needs of the host, until the only choice left for us women is to be willing, happy participants in our own destruction.”
It’s pregnancy as body horror, childbirth as a coming-of-age, and motherhood as a serious literary theme. It’s examining our domestic life as deeply as our dramatic interior lives. These novels frame the dualities of motherhood in myriad ways. They document the experience of being a human with a human being growing inside, the ecstasy and shock of a positive pregnancy test, the drama and miracle of conception, the ecstasy and pain of breastfeeding, the jealousy of women who use formula, the superiority toward women who use formula. Motherhood is the physical embodiment of holding multiple truths at once. “Look at this psycho,” Nightbitch says. “He is breaking my spirit in some small way, every day, and yet still I adore him and will go to the ends of the earth for him.”
A commonality in this category of speculative maternal fiction is their partnerships—cishet, married couples—as if the authors are saying, even in a traditional relationship, I damn near lost my mind. The narrators are white women who love their liberal and understanding if oblivious husbands. They continue to make love and occasionally enjoy it, if reluctantly. “The soreness. He keeps touching me,” Molnar writes. The protagonists’ gripes are with systemically reinforced gender roles that allow the fathers to prance off back to the office, travel for work and return home heroically unburdened. “John’s at work with the freedom to think,” the mother in The Nursery observes with jealousy. She escapes for a ten-minute shower while her husband rocks the baby and on exit is handed back the child, lovingly: Your turn.
“What if I just didn’t do a thing?” the mother in Nightbitch wonders. “What if I just stopped?” Stopped grocery shopping, stopped putting the dishes away, stopped changing the sheets. Would he notice? After Nightbitch goes on a midnight spree, her husband scolds her. “She told herself to try to remain friendly during this conversation, not to snarl, not to show her teeth, not to participate in any aggressive displays.” These husbands sleep through the night, while their feral wives rock their children through midnight feedings, inducing delirious and murderous fantasies.
Shelley, in writing a male protagonist, did not have to simulate a marriage to cordon off the horrors of creating life. The abject terror here is these are women like me, who planned their pregnancies and took their prenatal vitamins, who wanted to be moms, and were wholly unprepared for the full body sacrifice. “The rub seems to be these women are not animals who take care of their young with no wishes or cares beyond that,” Nightbitch ponders, staring at a group of mothers at the library’s Book Babies event. We’re a generation of women who were told we could do anything, from voting to opening a bank account in our own name to controlling our reproductive choices. Like these narrators, we quickly learn everything in our world has changed, in a world that hasn’t. Is it fantasy or feminist rage?
A different kind of book has been the authority on all things pregnancy for at least a generation. What to Expect When You’re Expecting has sold more than eighteen million copies and has grown from 351 pages in the first edition to 678 pages in its current fifth edition, with new sections introduced on invitro fertilization and amniocentesis. I bought my copy before I scheduled my first prenatal visit.
While What to Expect documents the morning sickness, hemorrhoids and hair loss through the trimesters, it doesn’t explore the emotional upheaval and delirium of those postpartum days. Maybe we’ve become so overwhelmed by information that we’re seeking truth. As What to Expect turns thirty years old next year—the average age of women giving birth today—mothers have turned to fiction to prepare their peers. “Women have done this before me and nothing changed. And women will do this after me. Perhaps nothing will change,” Molnar writes. “This concept can’t be literature.” I’m grateful to see it in print.