Julie Myerson

'But it's a beautiful image,' I protested. 'Look,' said Tom. 'The baby's just come out, it's covered in blood. The cord hasn't even been cut. I find it very, well, invasive'
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Laura has just had her second child by caesarean and is showing me the photos. There's Joe at the actual moment of birth - in other words, before she even set eyes on him herself - being lifted by surgeon's hands from her womb.

It's an incredible photograph - taken by the anaesthetist - and I am startled by its beauty and moved by its honesty. A luminous background of deep Mediterranean turquoise (the surgical gowns) contrasts dramatically with the muted neutral of urgent male hands and arms, and sticky crimson of blood, glossing rubber surgical gloves.

And there's Joe himself, emerging from his private, liquid world to air - fierce, chiselled, a sculpted baby, all solid curves and exquisitely defined angles. His fists are clenched, his legs crossed around his cherubic, birth-swollen genitalia. As well as the blood, he's still pearly with vernix, the white paste that protects his skin in the womb.

I am incredibly drawn to this picture, to the frown and fight and trauma on the newborn's face, the pesky, elderly quality, the knowingness. Look at the face of any hours-old baby, and he or she will seem possessed of more knowledge than a three-month-old, as if they are somehow born old souls, only to creep backwards into babyhood.

Inspecting more closely, I see that there's a delicate sparkle of wet at the tip of his penis. "Look," I show Laura. "He's actually peeing as he's born." She hadn't noticed. We both stare at the little frond,entranced all over again.

It's not that extraordinary; of course it isn't. It's just that, close up, the moment of birth is always breathtaking - the nearest we ever come to scrutinising humanity's momentum, making the roundabout of birth and death stand still so we can have a good look. It's a beautiful, gorgeously explicit photograph, and I tell Laura so.

"It's funny," she smiles, shifting the now serene, milky-blond Joe to her other shoulder, "but not everyone likes it. Some people don't know what to say, you know - they don't like to be confronted with the actual fact of birth. Especially men."

When the notorious Benetton baby ad was everywhere and much discussed in the press and at dinner parties, the reactions of friends whose minds I rather smugly supposed I knew often took me by surprise.

OK, so nobody I associated with actually approved of Benetton's cynical use of the image to sell clothes; that was never an issue. But these friends of mine, these liberal, sexually enlightened, educated men, who all had at least one child of their own and had been duly and dutifully present at their births, were quite clearly uncomfortable with the image itself, regardless of its purpose.

"I don't want to have to see that in the street or anywhere else," said my dear friend Tom, who, with four kids of his own, is no stranger to blood and vernix.

"But why?" I protested. "It's surely not in itself offensive. It's a beautiful, exhilarating image."

"Look." He was effusive, almost angry. "The baby's just come out. It's covered in blood. The cord hasn't even been cut. I find it very, well, invasive."

I couldn't see it. "But what's wrong with that? That's how it is - how human life begins. It's just real and true - and exciting."

I was pregnant at the time with my third child.

"Baby!" shrieked Jacob, then three, as we drove past the huge Benetton billboard at Vauxhall Cross. "Look, blood!"

"That's how our new baby will come out of Mummy's fanny," I explained, "They'll wipe the blood and the white stuff off and we'll give him a cuddle."

"Yes," he agreed enthusiastically. "There's always a bit of blood and cheese when a baby comes out."

How could this picture of a newborn baby be "offensive" and "invasive" when I had no problem with my three-year-old seeing it?

At precisely the same time, there was a poster for Terminator 2 gracing the adjoining billboards. "It's Nothing Personal," said the blurb, over a picture of Arnie holding his double-barrel shotgun with a menacing frown. That's the picture I didn't want my kids to see. It was disturbing, gratuitous, offensive and invasive - and worth making a fuss about. But the baby?

"Of course," I cross-examined Tom, "if it was 10 minutes old, but had its cord cut and was cleaned up and wrapped in a woolly rabbit blanket, nobody would consider it invasive, would they?"

"Probably not," he agreed, cagily.

"So it's not the newborn baby, it's everything it stands for and points to, isn't it?" I dared suggest at last, "It's so raw and so recent that you're actually forced to think about where it's just come from. We know what that cord is attached to, and precisely where that blood has come from. It's the power, isn't it, and the pain, and the sheer, scary femaleness of birth. Ultimately, it's vaginas, isn't it?"

"Oh, come off it." Tom was not best pleased. "It's to do with personal liberty. Why should I see all that blood on my way to work?"

But why shouldn't you? Of course there's a privacy issue here. I agree we shouldn't have to have images of violence, aggression or even explicit sexuality forced upon us in the street - but this?

"But it's not blood from an accident or violence," I persisted. "It's positive, harmless blood - like menstruation."

"Oh, don't start," he snapped, as I decided to go for broke. "It's just not what I want, OK?"

Laura says she's going to get her beautiful picture of Joe's first moment blown up. I don't know where she'll put it - decorously in the bedroom or loo, or rebelliously propped among the postcards and dried flowers on the mantelpiece?