Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

Eleven Hours

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No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.

These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned….

And so begins Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens. Lore is a single thirtysomething who shows up at the hospital alone to give birth. She is assigned a nurse, Franckline, who has just entered her second trimester, but is not showing—and hasn’t told her husband yet. Eleven Hours is the story of Lore’s labor and delivery, but her story is also Franckline’s. The two women seem very different, but they have more in common than they will ever (or could ever) know.

Stories of the path to motherhood run the risk of becoming trite or sentimental, but Pamela Erens, author of the acclaimed novel The Virgins, turns Lore and Franckline into complex, ambivalent characters. While both women are mothers in their own way, they are also daughters, partners, and workers. Erens sets this book apart from other books “about motherhood” by offering backstories about who these women are and what led them to this moment.

I have an MPH in maternal-child health, I work in the field of women’s health, and when I read Eleven Hours I was weeks away from giving birth to my first child, so I was eager to read this book. I find most stories about motherhood to be filled with stereotypes and brand names. Few stories deal with the messy parts of pregnancy and birth—blood, body fluids, and all. Eleven Hours goes there.

Lore embodies many of the Type-A, overachieving characteristics of metropolitan mothers-to-be, but she doesn’t exactly quite fit the mold—which is what makes her such a compelling character. Like Lore, the writing is restrained and underplayed. The reader gets more familiar with Franckline, but even then, Erens gives sparse details, which makes for a terse read.

She knew there were other women in the childbirth group who came straight from work, without even a break for dinner, in their maternity blazers and heels that pinched their swollen feet, but even so, even though she had time to go home from P.S. 30 and drink a little tea and have a little meal, she was in a temper every Wednesday and could not bring herself to like the class…. Perhaps that was what it was—these other women, these couples, still believed in what they could imagine, still enjoyed building up in their minds their perfect homes, their perfect births. Whereas she, the one partnerless woman, the one who always had to team up with the instructor for the exercises, stood precisely for the fact that things did not turn out as you had planned.

Pamela Erens

Pamela Erens

When Lore arrives at the hospital, she has everything planned out. She wears a ring on her hand, but there’s no boyfriend or husband. She only allows Franckline into her true thoughts during a contraction. Slowly, as the hours go by, the reader begins to learn their histories. Franckline thinks about her childhood in Haiti, the child she lost, and her fears and hopes for her current pregnancy. She compares her younger self to Lore and remembers the many women she eased into motherhood while acting as a midwife’s helper in Haiti. Lore dissects the relationship that resulted in this pregnancy, right up to its messy end, while thinking about her own childhood growing up with a single mother.

When I finished the book, I wanted more. Something felt incomplete, like the ending wasn’t completely fleshed out. But perhaps that is Erens’ point: We don’t always get what we want, and there aren’t explanations for everything. Although I appreciate its depiction of the “messiness” of birth, the lack of clear-cut explanations and endings unsettled me.

Eleven Hours is a finely tuned story of two women, each in her own world, orbiting each other during a major life transition. The tension between the characters is palpable. Ambivalent, raw, messy, and redemptive, the book is an apt metaphor for birth itself.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others. Her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing.

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