Skin to Skin: The truth about the fourth trimester in words and pictures

Skin to skin means the total surrender of self. No ones tells you that.

Yeah, of course I read about the fourth trimester before the birth; alongside some other stuff about routine, sleep training, soothers and pelvic floor exercises. It said human babies are born before their bodies are ready to survive outside the womb so they still crave the dark, wet comfort of the mummy-house. ‘That’s fine’, I thought. I can handle that. He’ll probably just fancy a cuddle before going to bed every night at 7pm in his side-by-side crib. I even thought: ‘Ooh, that sounds quite poetic’, before the actual red screaming reality of it.

NOTHING prepared me for the raw and brutal need my new-born had for my body: my breasts, my skin, my breath, my heat, my heartbeat – even my bacteria – he wanted and needed them all to survive outside of me.

That’s what skin to skin is. That’s what it means. Not just the placing of the baby straight onto the mum at birth, that first contact is just the beginning. Skin to skin means total surrender of self. Total.

I thought I nearly died when they had to cut me. I thought I nearly died when I got a life-threatening infection. But I had died. I just didn’t have the time or energy to realise it. No one said that’s what the fourth trimester actually is: the death of you and the birth of we: a wordless animal love of mother-child, that means that nothing is between us – not even skin. I was so scared but thankfully I wasn’t alone in this new state…

It was one of those old-pants-grey spring days, I was still in shock from the birth. My boy was 12 weeks old. It had taken me about 3 hours to get out of the house. I had to go shopping. Nappies. Nipple cream. Prescriptions. Oh and food. If I had time. In the supermarket veggie aisle I saw fellow new mum Clare Hansford, a friend and brilliant visual artist. Her baby was two months older than mine. He seemed so huge. Our babies were miraculously asleep. ‘How are you?’ Clare asked. I was too tired to fake the new mother smile: ’Yeah I know’, she said in response to my silence, ‘It’s like a bomb going off isn’t it?’ Yes – that was exactly it. I was shell shocked. I don’t know how long we stood there talking it out as grumpy shoppers tried to manoeuvre around our prams. We didn’t care. We talked long enough to realise we needed to work together, to work the whole thing out – us, the babies, their need, our bodies, the intimacy, the isolation.

We wanted to make something that cut through the ‘Is he sleeping through the night?’ small-talk bollocksy stuff folk say and went straight to the blood and bone of it. The death of the maiden and the birth of the mother.

I had a collection of poems I’d written during the early months of motherhood as part of this Arts Council project The Book of Godless Verse (a project that celebrates the messiness of everyday life as secular prayer, so motherhood was definitely on the to write about list). I sent these poems to Clare to see if those 4am thoughts written during night feeds on my phone one-handed resonated. They did. Clare started to draw.

The poems and images were first revealed to the public during Deranged Poetesses, a PechaKucha performance about motherhood at Arc in 2017. This work was my first post-baby commission by Apples and Snakes North East. (I owe a huge debt of thanks to those Tees Women Poet sisters who gave me back my confidence in my writing at that weird and out of control time. Thanks and love brilliant ladies.)

Now it’s ready to share with you as an exhibition of illustration and poetry.

It’s not perfect. Perfect, or at least the trying for it, was one of the many things we had to surrender to baby-time. This work was made in stolen pieces of time – scrap time – scavenged between naps, feeds, baths, shopping, washing and cleaning. That’s where we exist now, but we don’t have time for apologies. Not when we’ve worked so hard for a truth that may not be perfect but comes from a place that’s red and raw and real.

We’ve gone for honesty because despite the minuscule daily triumphs of learning to respond to and understand your baby, there are no awards, no ceremonies, no societal value for or recognition of the fourth trimester. We want to break the silence around this disturbing and incredible time through work that captures the fragmenting self in free-fall.

We hope this exhibition is just the beginning of that speaking out. We want to make a safe space within it for you to share your experiences too. We have reached out to other artist and writer contributors to add their words and images to the exhibition and they have rewarded us with their beautiful sharings, which you will be able to see. Clare has also got some blackboard paint and a bit of wall for you to add your own stories to as you come and look around. We can’t wait to see what you have to say.

Get Involved: Call out for Flash Fiction & Memoir

We also want to create a chance for you to respond and share on line in case you can’t make the exhibition as you don’t live nearby or you’re in the fourth trimester right now and haven’t yet worked out how to leave the house (we’ve all been there).

So here is Clare’s stunning image inspired by my poem ‘My World is Small’ and we’d love you to write a piece of flash fiction, poetry or micro-memoir in response to it.

You don’t have to be a mum or a woman to respond.

A few guidelines:

• No more than 500 words
• Submissions in 12pt Times New Roman, word document
• We know you wouldn’t, but no hate please
• Deadline: 30th June 2019

Please send your responses to carmenellen@hotmail.com with the subject heading SKIN TO SKIN FLASH

The Exhibition

Skin to Skin will open at the Python Gallery in Middlesbrough from 6th July and run till September.

We’d love to see you at the launch on 6th July 2019 from 12 noon until 2pm. There’ll be drinks, nibbles and children are most welcome.

Carmen and Clare x

Author: Carmen Marcus

As the daughter of a Yorkshire Fisherman and Irish Mother, my writing brings together the visceral and the magical. My debut novel #How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017. It won New Writing North's Northern Promise Award as a work in progress and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018. My poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. As a child of an 80s council estate I am an advocate for working class writers and stories. I’m currently working on my first poetry collection The Book of Godless Verse and my next novel. I try to live up to the words of my first critic and primary school teacher ‘weird minus one house point.’

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