Former BBC Journalist Catherine Higgins-Moore started researching birth experiences after her first child was born in 2013. The traumatic birth and hospital stay inspired her to interview other women and a play emerged. The Maternity Monologues builds on those transcripts, adding some fictional scenarios and characters to create a dramatic piece that is at times darkly funny, sad, and very moving. After being shortlisted for BBC’s International Playwriting Award in 2018, the show makes its World Premiere this September as part of Theater for a New City’s Dream Up Festival, with a scheduled production to follow in London.
According to the show notes, “just as Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues sought to break down the barriers of shame around the word vagina, The Maternity Monologues demystifies the female experience of pregnancy, birth and mothering.” Higgins-Moore has a unique perspective, having experienced the births of her two children in two different countries. The Northern Irish writer had one child in Ireland and one in New York, where she now resides.
I spoke to Higgins-Moore about the motivation for bringing these stories to the stage.
What inspired you to write The Maternity Monologues?
Catherine Higgins-Moore: I’m the mother of two daughters. I had two emergency C sections and severe pelvic girdle pain that left me on crutches, barely able to walk in my first pregnancy. There’s an image of motherhood that’s projected, and it’s far from most women’s reality. It’s commercialized and sanitized. When you know what you’re facing you can better prepare. In my first birth experience, I felt like a lamb led to the slaughter- patronized and dismissed. I approached my second pregnancy with blinkers off – I learned I couldn’t necessarily relax and trust I would be listened to. I was ready to be vocal, to advocate for myself and my child. As I spoke to women about their pregnancy and birth experiences, every mother, even women who’d given birth decades earlier, still remembered the things that happened to them—the way they were made to feel. The focus was almost entirely on the baby, and if they were lucky enough to have a healthy child no one paid any attention to what they had been through. They were made to feel ungrateful if they were struggling, so they kept those feelings to themselves, which only amplified the isolation and pain. I found more interesting stories in my research than I could ever fit into just one play! The Maternity Monologues have been a long time coming.
Why did you decide it should be in monologue form instead of a play with multiple characters in one story?
CHM: The monologues are snapshots – women sharing something they usually wouldn’t. They talk to us for one to four minutes, then snap back into their lives, where they hold all those thoughts and feelings in. The short episodic style of direct address heightens intimacy, and underlines how unusual it is for us to share our unpalatable thoughts for fear of judgement.
How did your career in journalism help you with this project?
CHM: Being a writer means paying attention, listening. In journalism, you need to be interested in people and their stories, in mining for truth. In Ireland there was a new focus on maternal healthcare and the treatment of women in pregnancy – from the Savita Halappanavar case, to the Repeal Movement, to the discovery of the Tuam mass graves. I spent a lot of time reading the court reports from the Savita case. I was moved by an interview with Bronagh Madden’s family after her suicide, and I had closely followed the outcome of the court case after Anne Hearty’s death because she died in the same hospital where I had my first child. I think of these women often and how they were failed. I’m interested in where we go from here. The number of women who die giving birth in America each year has nearly doubled in the last two decades.
What has been the biggest challenge in mounting this production?
CHM: I have four wonderful actors in this production: Three Americans, one Irish all in their twenties. But the script was largely based on UK/Irish stories and women of various ages and backgrounds from 20s to 60s. I put out the casting call, and took the four best actors who auditioned. Without the range of actors the original script called for, I had to make edits and cuts. Next time the show goes up, I look forward to adding those voices back in. That, and funding!
Which is your favorite or most personal story in the show and why?
CHM: There’s a lot of dark humor in the show, which I only realized when we went into rehearsals. Perhaps that’s my Irishness coming out! I love “The Health Visitor”—the NHS sends a Health Visitor to your home one day, and then one week after you give birth. Their role, theoretically, is to offer help and support, but they often make you feel more like a wayward schoolgirl summoned to the headmistress’ office. Katie Warnusz-Steckel plays her with the perfect amount of condescension. The “Symphysiotomy” monologue is about a draconian method of breaking women’s hips in labor that’s likely to be new content for a New York audience. And Alice Marks delivers a monologue set on a NICU ward, from the point of view of an immigrant in New York. My second child spent her first few weeks in NICU. The first time we ran it it was painful to be brought back to that time and place.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
A few laughs, maybe a few tears and I hope it sparks some thought about where we stand in terms of maternal healthcare, here in the U.S and in my native Northern Ireland- the U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Women in 80% of Northern Ireland can’t access specialist perinatal mental health services. Suicide is a leading cause of death for women in the UK during the perinatal period. I hope the show goes someway in undermining the tabloid/Instagram version of motherhood that’s being presented to women. And I hope it starts a greater conversation around things that seem, for so long, to have been taboo.