The Battleground: Fieldnotes from la maternité

by: , October 5, 2020

The most ineluctable fact, the most frightening, the most disturbing, the most difficult to digest, humanely speaking, is quite simply, the co-existence of things.’

Susan Sontag


In the field of ethnography, Emerson defines fieldnotes as ‘accounts describing experiences and observations the researcher has made while participating in an intense and involved manner’.  It is 9.39 am on the French maternity ward. She is nearly thirty-six hours old.  Baby contemplates the world through one open eye: an oracle, a window to the present. She is a cock-eyed pirate dressed in rose: a violent, pink buccaneer. An unnamed nine-month riddle. Eyes like mountain pools. Nursing, wailing and cuddling, she smells of tarte tatin: caramelised apples and burnt toffee, awake since midnight. Now, her eyes are finally shut and the crying stops. Not for long.

I grab a notebook, write fieldnotes from here, to notify where I have been, where I am, where we are, to untangle our quandary, this precise stage, this exact juncture: Birth. Postpartum. I want to record evidence from all the planes, raw data, uncut rushes from la maternité. The minutes and days where everything changes. Freshly disorganised. The taste of kairos on our tongues.

Blithe new-mothers and beatific pastel-swathed babies are a bland tempering of the red visceral nature, of the beginning, of the secret of the mystery that arrives.

Everyone starts here. At this point. Everyone is born.

I observe my room in the maternity ward. Bright and square. A delimited space with: an ensuite bathroom, a TV, a hanger-less plywood wardrobe, a desk, a chair. In France, mothers and babies stay in hospital for four days. It is the third time I’ve given birth here, sprawled in a mechanized hospital bed. Inside a room like a cheap motel. Beautifully monotonous. Bland. Disinfected. Neutral. Anything could happen here. This room is a blank page, a screen on which to project.

Baby sleeps in a transparent Perspex crib. It is 10h40. She opens her eyes. I lose myself in her well: a fathomless unknown known. We watch each other through the thick plastic. Separated. Together. The cord between us cut, but an invisible thread binds us closer. We are stitched in time, I think: Mother. Daughter. Fille. Mère. Simone de Beauvoir says the female fertile body is a battleground, a conflict between individual and species. Between object and subject. Between the medically named female body. My own. I have fought this war three times over, been done, undone, redone, as Louise Bourgeois writes. My third daughter. I am a third daughter. Baby is the third daughter of a third daughter. We have called her Sophia, from the Greek sophists, for sagesse.


Fieldnotes come from the field. Lederman says, ‘The field is not so much a place as it is a particular relation between oneself and others, involving a difficult combination of commitment and disengagement, relationship and separation’.


On the maternity ward, I watch a TV show, Les Maternelles, On the small screen, I see women perched on sofas, with immaculate hair and approachable smiles. They discuss pregnancy and delivery techniques and procedures. Lying in the bed, I try to commit, relate and separate with the television, the child and myself, attempt to pinpoint our place within these narratives, this field.  On the screen, a militant midwife talks about birth, I take notes-

‘The medical profession will not give more power to midwives because they are unable to cope with the animal aspect of birth’.

I recall the birth: the cries, the body, someone’s turning limbs, and the substances that seep. Expulsion. Production. Ferocity and softness. I chose to give birth naturally, turning in circles: the mouth, the pelvis, the head, the vagina.

Socrates repeatedly refers to ‘onomatourgo’ a craft-maker of names. This storyteller is also the legislator, imposing what is laid down, fixed. In naming, the ‘onomatourgos’ creates law.  But who labels birth, names the pain, decides how we arrive on earth? Foucault writes that hospital architecture and health rituals are based on military concepts of organisations. In the hospital, women and babies are pathologies, numbers, microbes to be wiped, disseminated; wounds to be healed, parts added or removed.

Baby’s diaper must be changed.


Fieldnotes are evidence. Raw data.


The following morning, I walk up the corridor; fetch my breakfast tray. Huddled by the biscottes, hunks of baguette, butter, coffee, tea, juice and jam, I meet a collection of mothers with marshmallow stomachs. It is a singular meeting-point, a crash-collision of strangers in pyjamas. Stumbling and mumbling, we exchange raw data. Our meeting is not scheduled on a hospital timetable. No nurses, no doctors, no midwives. We talk.

‘Is it your first?’ I ask a cheerful-looking woman.

‘No, my fourth’, she giggles.

Another woman joins in talk of reflux, sleepless nights. In seconds, shyly, we knit a conversation. Hovering within the clinical corridor walls, we string together bunches of intimate words. Subjective experiences from the battleground.

‘Mine was a surprise’, I tell the fourth-time mum.

‘I lost my last daughter’, she answers, pouring chocolat chaud from a jug. ‘She died just before birth. I didn’t want any more, couldn’t bear the pain. It was unbelievable. But then une surprise. This one had to be here.’

Between my two trembling hands, I take my tray. This intimacy is fragile, I want to stop time, wrestle numbers from clocks.

Bon courage. Aurevoir’, we say, walking away.

I don’t tell the woman that my sister died three months earlier, that as I gave birth I juggled life and death in an Orphic dance.

I don’t have time.


My friend Z is training to be a midwife. She works shifts, twice a week in a London hospital. She says,

‘In those few hours you are plunged into enough drama, crisis and love to fill you up for a lifetime.’

Birth. Death. Nappies and tiny clothes… it begins in this raging dawn. Un début.


The field is a pasture, open or cultivated land. The field is also a battleground. It is a tract of ground where something is obtained or extracted, a range of related things.


It is 14h17 on the maternity ward. On this tract of ground, Baby cries. On the television they talk about related things, obtained and extracted: zoos, precious giant pandas in iron cages, black and white shapes behind bars. The panda is filmed ambling back and forth. There is a close-up of the animal’s coal black eyes. The panda appears to be looking straight at me. Watching the images, I picture myself being a panda, this hospital room a cage. I eat a grey meal: fish terrine, broccoli purée, white fish in white sauce, Camembert and–for desert–a cooked pear. Everything is sludge-coloured. I want to be here and somewhere different. This hospital holds, looks after us in bland neutrality. I am writing myself into its pages. Baby cries. Then, at last, she sleeps, again. She is still far away, snoozing.

I manage a small hour of sleep. I dream I am on the sofa with A. On the floor is a large spider. Folding its eight legs inwards, it becomes a flying beetle.

‘There’s a horrible flying insect’, I repeat, as it buzzes around the room, a dream from la maternité.


An Assistant State Attorney in Florida describes fieldnotes as the shorthand record made by police officers from the time they arrive on the scene until the assignment is completed.

In this sense field notes are held between temporal walls. There is: a beginning, a middle, an end.


It is 19h07 on the maternity ward. My fieldnotes will stop in three days. Visitors come and go. A friend brings a beautiful pottery turquoise fish, another a bunch of Lily of the Valley. For the French, these are ‘good luck’ flowers. Bonne chance. Baby smiles, sleeps and eats. I watch a program about French teenage nightclubs in Cannes. Adolescents dance dressed in white and pastel colours: pale pinks and yellow outfits highlight golden tans, immaculate hair; slim bodies move to 80’s hits. In the nightclubs, they serve non-alcoholic cocktails. Defying the rules, the kids sneak in bootleg Gin. I feel tearful. Broken. I lack sleep. I miss A. My stitches hurt. My daughters come, hold Baby, read, bicker and eat biscuits. They are beautiful, and full of a joy befitting a six and ten-year-old meeting their new sister.

But the room is too small to contain our emotions. A tidy white box. When there are five of us inside, I fold my newspapers and restack my pile of books. Jokes and words overwhelm me. As people visit, I tell the story of the birth again, organise, reformulate my words in accordance with the details I wish to share.

‘It was fine, all went fine.’ Four letters sum up birth: Fine. Blood, pain, expulsion, cutting, cries, stitches.

It is the verbal ritual of the hospital room–the retelling, confiding of the act–the intervention, the passage from inside to outside, from exterior to interior. What to tell, mask, beautify? Visitors glimpse my naked flesh. I am exposed in this room, revealed, imperfect, marked with battle scars.


In anthropology, fieldnotes come from a situation where social interaction transpires.


Il est 22h00 à la maternité. She sleeps. Outside my room, babies mew like new-born cats. Baby is soft, tender. Skin dappled from the breath of life, still part of me. I am still part of her. We are bound together and interact. On the maternity ward, I imagine materializing, painting the colours of our conversation. We whisper, argue and sing in strokes of Amaranth purple, Bangledesh Green, Bondi Blue, Mordant Red and Burnt Umber. There is Carmine and Celadon, Cinnabar and Cyan Cornflower Blue, edged with Marigold. In the square white room, the nurse can only see the baby in the plastic crib and the mother in the hospital bed.  Running around them is our glorious river of colour.

Baby farts loudly. I laugh.

She has her Jewish dad’s sense of derision.

‘Goodnight my darling’, I whisper to Baby at 22h08.

Before sleep, I read The Myths We Live by Mary Midgely on my Kindle. She describes myths as

‘The imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world’.

The act of giving birth is stuffed with myths, force-fed like a foie-gras goose: religious, cultural and moral myths. I grew up in a commune, was fed a Marxist, feminist myth: natural birth depicted in explicit language, cries and crude photography. Distorted faces. Open vaginas and monumental breasts. Some of this education I have kept, other parts rejected. I chose to give birth without pain relief and breast-feed, but have a cynic’s aversion to any stereotypes of the ‘natural mother’. It is complex finding one’s own way to be a mother, navigating a landscape of myths, class and cultural expectations, and the prosaic physical and financial realities of a tiny baby, a family, and a body undone. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes about pregnancy: ‘No one asked, How does one submit to falling forever, to going to pieces. A question from the inside.’ In la maternité, I wear a lace-trimmed nuisette, nurse, read the NYT, trashy magazines and alternate between listening to Raï music and opera.

Pregnant with my first daughter, I recall realising I was the only one who would be her mother, so I would try be myself. This third time round, I feel at home in my imperfect, evolving way of being, inside the home that philosopher Mircea Eliade calls ‘the heart of the real. ‘The French say ‘être bien dans sa peau.’ It means, ‘To feel good inside your skin.’ Being at home in imperfection feels like a fitting response to the quandaries of motherhood.


In the words derived from the Latin root mater and the Greek root metèr, both meaning mother, you will find:

Madrigal, an unaccompanied partsong for several voices.

Materiel, a substance that goes into the make up of a physical object.

Matrix, an enclosure within which something originates or develops.

Matter that which has mass and occupies space.

Metropolis a large and densely populated urban area.


It is 2h24 on the maternity ward. Baby has just finished feeding. She has the dazed, decadent face of a junkie on fall-out from her favourite shoot. I listen to recordings from the College de France about the ‘polis’, Greek society and rational thought, how we shape mental space. Breast-feeding and midnight French philosophical radio go hand-in-hand. Baby sucks. I think. The midnight feeds open up an alternative space, an elsewhere, a breach in time stretching body and mind. I jump inside.

I imagine a world where men in battered suits in smoky basements sit on red velveteen chairs, lay bets and do financial deals over breast-feeding triumphs as they once did over tulips and salt; breast-feeding as a capitalist commodity–a free-market physical and intellectual property–a skill to be revered, treasured, bought and sold. High stakes. Good milk. Excellent breasts. Advertise. Popularise. Buy. Sell. Buy. Sell.

I have to write in the maternity ward. Everyday, as soon as I can.

It is 21h36 on the ward. I try to read an E.L.Doctrow book. A gift from a visiting friend: a haunting history of New York brothers. It is too gruesome for this white room. I put it down when I read words about maggots eating flesh in the WW1 trenches. Instead, I think about dreams. Les rêves. In all my dreams à la maternité I can barely walk. Crawling across rough earth, I sink to my knees, collapse. My eyes will not open.

On the maternity ward, I dream of my sister. She is trying to contact me through a hi-fi system, a telephone, a fax.

‘I have to speak to you before I die’ she says.

When I awake from this dream, I turn my head to the ceiling. I look up and hold the tears in my eyes. I will not let them fall. My sister died three months ago. There has been enough death in this pregnancy. Baby and I have already attended a funeral. I want our first days here to be about life. I put the grief, carefully, to one side, a delicate piece of china. Respectfully I say, I will deal with you later.


In anthropology, when we are ‘in the field’, we are considered to be physically displaced from a comfortable, familiar setting to some exotic, linguistically and physically challenging, remote place.


On the maternity ward, we have visitors. Visitors today. Piles of visitors yesterday. I try to read Proust on my Kindle, it is suitably disconnected for my fractured mind; I am displaced. There is a word that I read and do not understand: Metempsychose. Later, I learn it refers to the transmigration of the soul, its existence outside of the body. Plato uses metempsychosis to explain the innate knowledge of new-born babies.

Inside the white room, our days are pieced together from meals, feeds, nappy changes, showers and baths. A stream of midwives, care staff and doctors sew the minutes and hours of the day into a seamless event.

Ca va?’ In the dialogue, they repeat, ‘How are you?’ ‘Do you need anything?’


It is 13h13. On the maternity ward, Baby sleeps. It is our fourth day. On the television they talk about anti-aging creams made from plants. People grin with white teeth. We eat, sleep, heal and cry.

I tell A this morning that each of us – him, our two daughters and myself – are adopting new positions in our family group. Death and birth. Doors open, close. Thresholds are crossed. Who will we become? Where are we going? What is happening? Baby burps. There is puke on my shoulder.


In natural history research, fieldnotes cultivate students’ attending to a particular landscape. Fieldnotes allow students to go beyond making passive observations, instead entering into an active on-going dialogue.


It is 22h12 on the maternity ward. Our last night. Tomorrow we leave the hospital, return to our apartment. Baby will discover our home. I am weary of this room, the white box, asphyxiated by pastel pink, the extinguishing, enveloping maternité. I want red, scarlet, vermilion.

I take Baby for a walk in the corridor. There is no one here. I cross paths with a nurse.

‘What are you doing?’ she inquires.

‘Just going for a walk’, I feel absurd, illegal.

The maternité corridor now seems tyrannical, an institutional, controlled territory. One cannot wander. There is no room for divergence, for flanerie. The rooms wind around a central empty windowed hole. A womb. A voice. A tunnel.

I think of Foucault’s texts on the panopticon. The design allows all inmates to be constantly observed without them ever knowing when they are being watched, inducing constant behaviour control. I wander round the hole, feeling observed.

Today, petulantly, I am overwhelmed by the cheery ballads of the staff. Hearing the Baby’s cries, they repeat,

‘What a lovely song! Quel jolie chant!’

The baby is fucking crying, I long to brawl. I have cabin fever, am bored of being examined, fed, wiped, measured and weighed. I want to cook, breath fresh air, eat avocado and take a sip of red wine. I want to show Baby the sun.


Fieldnotes are often described as jottings. Jot comes from Greek iota, the smallest letter. Hence a jot is the least part of anything. To jot is to hold on to the tiny detail, the banal and the singular; everything is retained.


It is 10h15 on the maternity ward. I pack my bag and watch a program about Vol au vent, the best French patisseries: light and airy, ephemeral pastry.

In one hour, we will be gone.

Every trace of our presence will be eliminated from the white box, sheets turned, our bacteria removed, our paperwork filed in a cardboard box. Yet, the memory of our stay on this battleground will be retained, traced in our bones, and carried by the midwives and the women who bring the food, make the beds and weigh the babies.

In my bag, I pack my lace-trimmed nuisette, my toiletries, my books, my magazines and my notebook with the fieldnotes: the raw data, the jottings, the banal and the singular, Goethe’s ‘delicate empiricism’, stretching past dualistic-rationalism, turning the battleground into a playground, modifying the experience of the space in order to endure or even enjoy it, to subvert the terrain and not despair. Precious traces have been observed, separated and extracted, stolen from la maternité, fieldnotes from all of our pasts and beginnings.



De Beauvoir, Simone (2010), The Second Sex, New York: Vintage.

Doctrow, Edgar Lawrence (2011), Homer and Langley, London: Abacus.

Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw (1995), Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Farnsworth, John S., Lyn Baldwin and Michelle Bezanson (2014), ‘An Invitation for Engagement: Assigning and Assessing Field Notes to Promote Deeper Levels of Observation’, Natural History Institute, Vol. 8, (last accessed 10 July 2020).

Foucault, Michel (1977), Discipline and Punish, New York: Pantheon Books.

Midgley, Mary (2003), The Myths We Live By, Abingdon: Routledge, 2003.

Sanjek, Roger (1990), Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Schwandt, Thomas A(2007), The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry, London: SAGE Publications.

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