Carolyn Lyden '10
Hometown: Sevierville, Tennessee
Double Major: Literature in English and Writing Communication
Thesis Title: Writing Birth: A Study of Pregnancy and Birth in Literature
Advisor: Mrs. Lynn Coning
In a society in which hospital births are considered the norm, a home or water birth is somewhat of a novelty. However, giving birth at home was the standard before the practice gave way to the medical model in the mid-twentieth century. While most mothers prefer the hospital and its ability to provide pain relief and quick action in case of an emergency, some mothers claim that a home birth provides the ability to truly experience the miracle of birth without dulling the senses. Another benefit of this method, mothers claim, is the ability of the woman to have full power over her birth, an option not available when strapped to a hospital bed. The literature written about birth reflects this notion of power relationships in childbirth. Mothers are often not given their own voice and agency over the birth process, even in literature. Language used to describe the birth experience is distinctly masculine and portrays the mother from an observer's perspective as opposed to using a participant's point of view. Through a narrative describing my own birth, I attempt to create a short story about birth that captures the first person perspective of my mother when giving birth to me, using feminine language and giving her power over her own experience.
Not many of Maryville College's Senior Studies include interviews with the undergraduate's mother, but the study completed by Carolyn Lyden '10 does. Actually, her mother was the inspiration behind Lyden's decision to focus her study on childbirth in literature.
“My birth wasn't typical, but I had never really heard the story. I spent years imagining what was going through my mother's head when she found out she was pregnant,” said Lyden, a literature in English and Writing/Communication double-major.
The realization made her wonder how the life-changing experiences of pregnancy and labor had been chronicled in literature. What she found early on was that language used to describe the birth experience is “distinctly masculine and portrays the mother from an observer's perspective as opposed to using a participant's point of view.”
But there wasn't a lot of writing on the subject, either.
“Her topic was far less readily researchable than the average topic for thesis, requiring her to spend many, many hours researching before she could even begin to focus and narrow,” said Lynn Coning, assistant professor of literature and Lyden's advisor.
Many of Lyden's hours in research were spent reading and chronicling related topics ï¿½ the history of birth, modern birth and alternatives to the medical model for labor ï¿½ all of which are included in a historical analysis in Chapter One of the study. She learned about society's attitudes and expectations toward pregnant women, the role of the father in childbirth and the culture of the midwife, chronicling some changes from as far back as the 16th century. She also delved into numerous obstetric issues related to the recent rise of technology and science.
Lyden's searching also led her to the writings of four female authors: “Birth,” a short story by Anais Nin, “Metaphors,” a poem by Sylvia Plath, Choosing Waterbirth by Lakshmi Bertram and Baby Love, a memoir by Rebecca Walker.
In Chapter Two of her study, she analyzed each work and examined the role that the feminine voice and the depiction of the female body in the birth narrative played in the texts.
Lyden used the texts as models for writing her own creative piece, “A Love So Strong,” which tells the story of Lyden's own birth and serves as Chapter 3. For her piece, she was especially inspired by Walker's approach in Baby Love.
The MC student explained that in Baby Love, Walker discusses the problems trying to mesh feminism and motherhood because the feminist movement typically does not find motherhood empowering to women. This is another concept Lyden included in the research component of her study. She explored the notion that extremist feminism encourages women to tell their stories but at the same time shuts them down on the topics of birth and motherhood.
“In a less radical feminism, Walker finds the importance that birth should have,” she explained.
Lyden's original creative piece is a 20-page account of her mother's experiences in natural childbirth at home and Lyden's commentary on the interview, the status her relationship with her mother, and the effect this birth has had on her as well as on the mother-daughter relationship.
“Carolyn's goal was to give women a personal narrative voice in a fictional piece that is empowering,” Coning said of Chapter 3.
To aid the reader, Lyden put her mother's words in italics and broke each voice into separate sections.
Following her mother's narrative of how Lyden was pushed through the birth canal after several hours of labor, she wrote this in “A Love So Strong:”
“There's something about someone giving up so much and going through all that pain just for you. Sometimes I feel like I owe her the best. I take her out to dinner. I try to make Christmases extra special, but there's no repaying the woman who birthed you, took care of you, raised you. There's nothing that can amount to the love that she's given me over the years.”
Interviewing her mother was an emotional experience, Lyden said.
“I have always seen my Mom as this fiercely independent and powerful woman. She raised me on her own, and really all of the women in my family are very independent and strong-willed,” Lyden explained. “Interviewing [Mom] was the part I dreaded most.
“I was surprised when I started the interview with her and it was not awkward at all. She was so comfortable in sharing her experiences and memories not only about the birth, but also how she realizes a child really needs a complete family.”
Lyden said she feels an even stronger personal connection to her mother as a result of the Senior Study. Coning said she was struck by how the project was as much a personal journey as an intellectual one for her advisee.
Additionally, the advisor was struck by the high level of scholarship and creativity evident in the work. Because of that, Coning recommended Lyden's study for the permanent collection in the library.
“Of theses I have advised, this one represents the greatest diversity of goals and types of intellectual work that I have seen,” Coning said. “Carolyn's project was ambitious, her process exemplary. The final product merits both applause and sharing with a broader audience.”
In April, Lyden was named Maryville College's Outstanding Senior. She plans to attend graduate school in the near future.