Unstoppered - a call for submissions
A collection of memories
1989 At primary school, boys and girls being separated for those PSE lessons where we were first shown those pictures of our anatomy that we’d never previously thought about.
1994 Someone at a youth theatre saying a friend of his had told him ‘never trust a creature who can bleed for 7 days without dying’.
2005 Working front of house in a theatre. Leaving a tampon discreetly and out of sight by the side of a till because I was on my period and I didn’t have any pockets to keep one in. A male member of staff removing it because ‘we don’t want to see that’.
2008 Watching that advert for sanitary towels where a woman in white jeans is brave enough to walk down the central aisle of a train despite the fact she’s on her period and my friend shouting at the television ‘DO YOU THINK WOMEN ARE GOING TO EXPLODE WITH BLOOD??’
2010ish An ex-boyfriend describing women as‘basically leaky bags of fluid’.
I think about all of this as I lie in bed with my weeks old daughter, not sure if the wetness around me is breastmilk, wee (hers or mine), sick, sweat, or tears. Probably a mixture of all of them.
I think about how our images and icons of strength are largely male, and muscular, and hard. What my own experience of motherhood has taught me, as well as the experiences of mothers around me, is that strength can look like lots of different things. We hold a lot. We hold up a lot.
I never worried about my vagina before I gave birth. I’d always been pretty unapologetic and gung-ho about its appearance, furious at any assumptions it should look any one way or exist to please anyone but me. But when I was pregnant I really started to worry that there were bits where there shouldn’t be, that it looked horrendous, that when the time came the midwife would look down there and belike ‘oh god, we didn’t realise..’ that it wouldn’t work. I never really associated my vagina with how sexy or attractive I felt, that was more to do with my face, or my legs, or an abstract thing like a touch, but when I was pregnant I did feel less sexy because what my vagina was telling me was that it was for one thing only, and that wasn’t to have anything in it, it was to push something out. And when would it go back to sexy again?
After I had Clea it was funny to think back to that, because it seemed obvious that what I should have been worrying about was what the fuck my vagina was going to look like afterwards. It was surprising to me how many people wanted me to have a look. I suppose everyone else had a look – or quite a few looks – during pregnancy.
At the time it was kind of upsetting, kind of not. I felt proud of my vagina, but I felt sorry for it too. I assumed it was fine, so when the GP at the 6 week check said it wasn’t exactly, I was quite shocked. But how not ok is not ok? It’s good enough. It does the job. Not very often to be fair. But it did the job. It did the job. It’s funny how this, like my pendulous (never used that word before) breasts and my weirdly soft tummy, are sometimes things that I’m totally fine with, and more than that, quite proud of. And sometimes they’re just signifiers of all the shitness I am as a mother and as a person.
Months and months after this, when it feels far too late to go back to the GP, to ask her what they could do with my ripped up vagina, when I think most of the time ‘oh it’s probably ok!’, I end up on a mummy online forum, where women have started posting about how they feel about their vaginas post-birth. Almost uniformly, frankly, happily, women are posting about how appalled they’ve been by what happened down there after pushing out a baby. Some upset, some proud, many just not giving a toss. I feel instantly and intimately connected to this group of anonymous women.
We are so used as women, as mothers, to pushing it down, keeping quiet, not being graphic about our emotions and our bodies, so as to not upset someone else’s sensibilities. I would like to start a conversation where we can talk about some of these physical things that we learn to not talk about. That we are taught not to talk about. There is a big question in this picture of how women's experiences and health may be minimised because they don't fit with a narrative that has been adopted by our society, and I hope this is a step towards combatting that, by using our own stories as a starting point.
An anecdote (or three)
My labour was quite long. My daughter was back to back and I was sick five times within a couple of hours when contractions started, so I didn’t manage to eat or drink very much at all during labour. I was told repeatedly ‘a full bladder is the biggest obstacle to pushing out a baby’, and instructed disapprovingly to do a wee. I was very dehydrated, it took a couple of days for the swelling on my legs to go down. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the loo a few days after giving birth, trying desperately to squeeze out a poo that seemed to be made of coal, tears streaming down my face, listening to my daughter crying in the next room.
A week after she’s born sitting on the bed breastfeeding Clea and my partner puts on If You’re Feeling Sinister which we played on repeat while I was in labour. I immediately start crying, like a muscle memory. Milk and salt water mixing and wetting my shirt.
When Clea is a couple of months old, teaching a full-time summer course to teenagers in a drama school. Running out every break to breastfeed her on a park bench. Realising I was leaking milk through my t-shirt during a class because I never remembered to pack enough pads. Unsticking nipples with dried on milk from a bra, like peeling a plaster off a grazed knee. Swapping stories with another tutor on the last day, her commenting that teaching the young students ‘is like breastfeeding’. Only able to nod at her.
A call out
I’m collecting stories, anecdotes and memories of women’s experiences of ‘leaks’ for a new project called Unstoppered, which has been commissioned by Mothers Who Make (an Arts Council England funded project). These stories might be about getting your period at a difficult moment, having night sweats during the menopause, lying in puddles of breastmilk and wee post-birth. These stories and confessions will be used to create a podcast that will be a conversation about female ‘leaks’ and about the things that women’s bodies do. I would like to start to create a space where women are able to talk about experiences that they might not have shared, or felt able to share. Things that might be or feel unwanted, unexpected, inappropriate, hilarious, heartbreaking. I’d like to invite YOU to send me your stories through my website here.
All stories will remain anonymous. Contributions will be used to create a podcast and create an online archive on Mothers Who Make's forthcoming website - it will be an unstoppered confessional.
You can send me your stories by emailing me through the contact form below.
By emailing you are confirming that you understand and agree that your submission may be used as part of the ‘Unstoppered’ project, and may be read by an actor and used as part of a podcast. None of your details will be shared with third parties. All submissions belong to Gemma Kerr, who can use those those stories in any form or media for advertising and publicising the ‘Unstoppered’ project anywhere in the world in perpetuity without my further consent.