'I had my baby on Good Friday ... suffering of the flesh and resurrecti on all in one day'

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The Independent Online
The time: 31 March 1961

The place: St George's Hospital, London

The woman: Margaret Drabble, novelist

I was married very young, when I was just 21 and my first husband, Clive Swift, was an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The whole thing was a complete surprise to me.

I hadn't realised how amazingly easy it is to conceive. I hadn't planned it. I was just a theatre wife at the time, writing my first novel. I had thought of having a career, of being an actress, and there I was expecting this baby. I had no interest in having a baby. I didn't know what it would be like.

That changed completely on the day of the birth. It was 31 March 1961 - Good Friday, a rather magical day to be born. I am a non-believer myself but I think the crucifixion is an extraordinarily potent symbol of what man does to man, whether God is there or not. It is the suffering of the flesh yet with the hope of resurrection, so it seemed a nice day to have a baby. I suppose I went through the suffering of the flesh and the resurrection all in one day.

From being an uncomprehending pregnant wife, I became in the space of a day absolutely enraptured.

He had a perfectly neat, beautiful little head with reddish hair, just so glorious, and I was so thrilled. It was like going from one world into another world for the rest of my life. He had huge blue eyes and just looked at me with an expression of profound intimacy when he can only have been a few minutes old.

You see, I hadn't been terribly interested in what was going on inside me. I never had a scan. I didn't know what was in there. So when I saw him it was like meeting someone for the first time. I had no sense of continuity.

We called him Adam. Clive's family is Jewish and mine has a Methodist strain. So all our children have biblical names - Adam, Rebecca and Joseph. There was also something about Adam being the first man, because we're very much a girl-producing family. A boy was an added surprise. We thought Adam was a very original name. Then we discovered that every boy in his class seemed to be called Adam. I have wondered whether it was Adam Faith that made me think of the name. What a thought. But he was around at the time.

I was just transported with delight, and when they took him away I just thought, "Oh, they have to take him away, because I'm not allowed to hold him all the time." I was a very docile patient. They tidied me up and I wondered when I would be allowed to see him again. The theory then was that you shouldn't feed them for a few hours.

I found the hospital very authoritarian. I can remember the midwives telling me to shut up. I didn't see why I shouldn't yell. So I felt the baby and I were in another world and they were telling us what to do. It was the first time I had been in hospital. This was an eye-opener about the whole system. My third novel, The Millstone, is very much about that experience of the National Health Service and the way women are bossed around by the system. I think that was the day in which I entered the world in which these issues were going to change my life.

At that time, women didn't write about childbirth. An attitude still existed then that this material was too domestic and too trivial, and possibly even unseemly. No one wanted to read about gynaecology. I looked at the literature of childbirth. Tolstoy has one or two childbirth scenes, but the women writers of the 19th century, Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, didn't have children and never mentioned childbirth. Indeed, you could argue, they wrote novels because they didn't have babies. It occurred to me that there were hundreds of thousands of women out there having babies and not expressing or talking about it.

I started to read Doris Lessing - she had been around a little longer, although The Golden Notebook wasn't published until 1962. It was as though this was an historic moment when a lot of women began to feel that they had things to say about their place in the world.

The Millstone was published in 1965 and was about a woman having an illegitimate baby. She has her baby very much on her own, which was doubly shocking. Not only was it about childbirth, but it was about a single mother. I wanted to isolate the experience of motherhood from questions of marriage and partners. I was isolated in terms of domestic life, at home with a small child. There were no nursery groups. I actually started one in Stratford for theatre wives. I absolutely loved all the children but I felt that being a mother in society as it was then was very tricky.

The Millstone was also very much part of my sense of discovery and my feeling that having a baby makes you join the human race. I think that people who don't have a child - this is a terrible generalisation - can be very unrealistic about what life can really be about. Intellectual women who don't have children can be quite unrealistic about the condition of women who do have children. I found that having had a rather rarefied intellectual upbringing, I suddenly had a lot in common with friends whom I would not otherwise have got to know. I was grounded in the real experience of life, in communication with people who were not necessarily interested in reading English literature at Cambridge, but who had got a baby.

It was through having children that I engaged with the health service. As soon as you become part of the system you realise its shortcomings, and also how essential it is. Later, of course, I also became interested in the educational system. Now I'm interested in old age and long-term care - the other end of the spectrum looms. Institutions beckon you as you move through life.

I often look back on that day and think how wonderful it was. If Adam's birthday falls on Good Friday, I think it's an extra special day and will ring him up and say so. On Good Friday, I like to listen to a little of the St Matthew Passion. I always think of a poem by John Donne - "On Good Friday Stepping Westward" - because I often drive to the West Country at Easter.

I think about Adam always. I think what an extraordinary journey one has been on since then, and what time has done.

Margaret Drabble, Nell Dunn and Doris Lessing will read from their work on Saturday 15 March at 7.30pm in the Purcell Room on London's South Bank, as part of 'The Sixties' series of talks .