Wendy J. Dunn – Women’s History Month

Birth and Rebirth

When I looked through my journal for something I could use for Gillian’s topic, I re- discovered this short essay I wrote in a response to an article I read twenty years ago. My essay explores the event that turned my life around:

Years ago, Janet Hawley wrote a powerful essay called Fresh Horizons (1995), which explored ‘the role of fright’ (p. 13), a disturbing, life stopping moment that results in a period of deep reflection, and alters the direction of our lives (p. 10). Connecting to those lines, I remembered when I too experienced this ‘role of fright’.

My encounter with the ‘role of fright’ happened when I gave birth to my second son. His birth was so traumatic that both my baby and I were in shock for weeks afterwards, and experienced the effect of it for years to come. In 1981, childbirth was far more institutionalised than it is now. I gave birth to my son in a small hospital, with staff seemingly determined to keep the control of childbirth directed towards the hospital’s convenience.

I was a ‘good’ patient. I didn’t argue when the doctor ordered an induced birth at forty weeks. I didn’t argue when the medical staff attached me to a machine that dictated the type of labour my body produced. In fact, I didn’t argue about anything. This resulted in my downfall as a ‘good’ patient. The first midwife, eager to add another baby to her tally before she went off duty, continued to increase the level of oxytocin to my body, speeding up contractions. Despite the rapid, agonising contractions, with barely any rest in between, I stayed silent about my body being allowed to give birth in its own time. I even tried to stop crying out in pain when my midwife told me I was making too much noise. As a very young woman, I always strived to do what was expected of me. This time I was expected to be a ‘good’ patient.

Hours into my labour, my son’s heartbeat appeared to stop. Later, our doctor told us the more likely explanation: our baby had changed his position, and our inexperienced midwife, when she tried to hear his heartbeat, did not realise this. No matter the explanation, it resulted in everything flung into panic mode and the use of high forceps. I remember vividly the feeling of standing outside my own body, thinking, who is screaming? I returned to my body where I could no longer escape the answer.

I was sobbing when they placed my baby boy in my arms, after tearing him out of my body. My son, his head badly bruised, cried in such a way I knew he was hurting, just as I was hurting. Those first moments after his birth bonded us in our dual suffering. I, still unable to articulate our true anguish, kept repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I felt ashamed that I had been a ‘bad’ patient, reduced now to a state where I needed to apologise.

After my son’s birth, while we were in hospital and for weeks after we returned home, I spent time reflecting on life. This life ‘fright’ had cast me adrift. Now, with all my moorings gone, I was in unknown and uncharted seas, where strong waves of barely controlled emotion threatened to engulf me. I went so deep within myself I often found it difficult to respond to other people. Friends would talk to me, but I heard them as if from a great distance. I was too distracted listening to everything I had unconsciously repressed over the years. All these things demanded from me a hearing. People began to worry about me because only I understood what was truly going on. A doctor may have diagnosed post-natal depression. If this is what it was, I can only now describe it as a beneficial post-natal depression. The fright of my son’s birth made me face that I simply didn’t know who I was.

At this point in my life, my academic study of sociology was still in the future, so I lacked a lot of words to express how I felt. Even so, I began to confront the reason why I was now struggling to fight my way through this life storm. It came home to me that I had fallen into the expected narrative for my life. Having left an extremely unhappy, unsettled home at seventeen, I had married at eighteen, bore my first child ten months later, now had given birth to another child. I was a wife and mother— the accepted, expected dual-roles for a woman of my class and time – before I had a chance to really grow up and to understand my true identity. I was so young I thought I had to put aside all my childhood and teenage dreams of becoming a writer and visual artist because I was now a wife and mother. The previous two years of my life had seen me struggle with relentless despair. My son’s birth made me realise an important truth. My life was being dictated by the conditioning of my society. This conditioning had me utterly in its grip by the time I married. I had accepted (or tried to) the ‘reality’ of my life. A conditioning so internalised I saw the fault as being with me, and not with society, whenever I found it difficult to accept the limits of my ‘normal’ life.

When my second son came into the world I possessed everything that I believed should have offered me happiness: a marriage with someone I loved, healthy children, a comfortable home. But, there were so many moments – in what for me was a half-life – when I drowned in dark despair. If I dared to express my discontent to others, what did they answer? ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re a lucky woman. You’ve no reason to indulge in self-pity.’ And I would think, ‘Yes – many people have real problems. There is no reason to feel this dreadful sadness or to feel I had somehow missed out on a complete life. Again I pushed this unhappiness down, only to have it re-emerge again. I told myself that if I learnt to accept my role, I would be happy, simply because I no longer strived for ‘things not meant for me’. I became frightened to step out and fully live because it meant stepping out from the accepted. I had yielded to the illusion it was better to remain safe within a life of understood standards, than risk myself further by taking up the gauntlet thrown down by life, which offered no guarantee of victory.
My birth experience was the ‘fright’ I needed to get my life on track. A year after my son’s birth, I began a Bachelor of Arts Degree through an Early Leavers Scheme, this led to an eventual career in teaching. Gaining my Degree also gave me the confidence to set out and write my first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This?

Berger writes in his “Introduction to Sociology” (and here I am changing Berger’s man to woman for obvious reasons): ‘Heidegger’s concept [woman] enables us to live inauthentically by sealing up the metaphysical questions that our existence poses…The agonised question ‘why?’ that every [woman] feels at some moment or other as [she] becomes conscious of [her] condition is stifled by the cliché answers that society has available’ (1968 p. 169). How tragically true. I believe far too many people in our world would rather be living their lives differently. Life is too precious and short for people not to seek out their true and authentic life, a life that will make them grow as human beings.

Janet Hawley 1995, Fresh Horizons, Good Weekend, The Age
Peter Berger 1968, Invitation to Sociology, U.S.A.


Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel.

While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder (Tom told the story of Anne Boleyn in Dear Heart, How Like You This?), serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her own family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter—named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne.

After successfully completing her MA (Writing) at Swinburne University Wendy became a tutor for the same course. She gained her PhD (Human Society) in 2014.

Web: www.wendyjdunn.com/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/authorwendyjdunn
Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/author/show/197156.Wendy_J_Dunn

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