Hera by Alexa Seligman

HERA is dedicated to Vaishali Prazmari and to the other mothers who have given birth alone in these exigent times. To the mothers mothering in isolation now, all who have revealed their deepest courage.

We all begin our lives in confinement. But we are not alone.

Late in 2018, I began making HERA, a seven minute moving image work about the Greek goddess Hera who gave birth to her son Hephaestus, alone. I was drawn to this myth because it struck me as a tale of a woman’s agency and autonomy. I wished to draw parallels with mortal women who, although unable to fertilise their own eggs, are still capable of bringing their children into the world, for the large part, unaided (whatever their eventual birth plans and birth stories). I wished to celebrate this power to procreate.

Preparing HERA, I posed an experimental question about how female agency in birth can be portrayed on screen. According to my practice, a final answer would emerge as the work was completed and with its screening to an audience.

HERA was completed as we entered COVID-19 lockdown in March this year, 2020, at which point the entire nature of giving birth changed. Suddenly women and birthing people’s choices were limited in new ways. Some were unable to have the home births they wished for, others gave birth in hospital car parks, too afraid to go inside. The presence of birth partners was highly controlled, and, in some instances, not permitted at all. Often partners were allowed to be present only when labour was ‘established’ and were sent home when the baby was born. Some of these practices remain in place now.

Even making HERA, my intention was never for the goddess to be entirely alone. Hera, danced by Oliva Peers, is accompanied throughout her birth by her midwife, danced by Sarah Selwood, a watchful and comforting presence, who envelops Hera with a silken veil when her labour stalls, spinning caring energy back into the birth. A woman giving birth needs to feel connected with the people close to her, to feel secure. Indeed the hormone oxytocin, which drives a birth and creates contractions, is also the hormone of love, of belonging, of home, of lactation, of connection (and also of war, of violence – here Hera had it all). A birth simply cannot progress without a woman feeling this sense of security, unless there is to be some kind of medical intervention.

So to deny women the simple but fundamental companionship of their birth partner through COVID restrictions seemed to be a violation of their very beings (not to mention denying their partners the chance to attend the birth of their child). Luckily some of the most severe restrictions have now been lifted and women are being given more choice about how they give birth, sometimes with the support of organisations such as Birthrights.

But already many women have given birth alone. One such woman is my friend the artist Vaishali Prazmari who gave birth to her second son, Kashi, at the beginning of April, an act of pure bravery unlike any I have witnessed before. ‘Baby boy born’ she messaged, in an unusually brief text, at the end of a twenty-four hour labour under the pink moon, alone up until the final pushes. I felt a rush of joy and relief, connected by the pixels on our screens.

The experiment of HERA revealed that agency is not always something we can show through people doing things on screen. Sometimes it is revealed by pointing to their inner lives.

In the edit, we altered the timeline of the story from the script so that, after the midwife covers Hera with the veil, she is not instantly revived by this gesture of comfort but struggles with herself before she is able to dance again. It simply did not make sense for the goddess to be entirely revived by her companion, something had to come from within.

In this way, we witness the courage to give birth emerge in Hera from the webs of love that carry her from within, as E E Cummings writes “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in. my heart)” or, as my child says, in her “love heart”. As Hera summons her inner strength and begins to dance again, we travel with her through these layers upon layers, the luminous folds of the Cloud location, designed by Lily Jencks, a kind of deconstructed Parthenon, coming alive under its own motion, the vocal layers of composer Donna McKevitt calling us on through.

With Hera we ride those waves, of emergent being, of the emergent self, of life. It might be a home birth, or by Caesarean, she might be alone or have her hands held on both sides by those dearest to her. But she dances. Her heart sings. And when the baby boy is born, her eyes meet the eyes of the soul her heart, her body, has carried with her all these months under the moon.

Coda: two steps out of loneliness step

1. sign Holly Avis’s petition to allow birth partners to attend the entirety of labour: https://www.change.org/p/partners-allowed-for-entirety-of-labour-birth-in-all-hospitals

2. to find out more about women and birthing people’s rights in giving birth at this time visit https://www.birthrights.org.uk