After Birth – Some Non-Graphic Reflections on Womanhood & Spirituality

My wonderful wife, Paige, recently gave birth. Her water broke at a check-up and we went to the hospital, but first stopped for coffee and donuts. After Julian was born the first thing she said was, “I bet my coffee is still warm.” After hearing her talk about her experience and explore what it taught her, I asked if she would be willing to share those things here. 

My second son was born two weeks ago. It was short and intense. My water broke at my doctor’s appointment and then I had him an hour and a half later. No time for pain meds or epidurals. Au natural.

Before the little guy came, I dragged my (kind, patient, cooperative) husband to three weeks of birth refresher classes. We learned better how to breathe through contractions and practical ways to handle pain during labor (basically we listened to a lot of soft music and gave each other massages). But part of the course was all about medicated ways to handle pain (epidurals and the like). This part I was very interested in because with my first son, I had pretty much every intervention barring the c-section to bring him into the world. And because I had had such a rough first experience (which still ended in lots of pain and slow recovery), these 9 months have been a terrifying journey for me just waiting for what I could not avoid: a painful delivery.

It’s crazy how many options there are for women to numb the pain of delivering their children.

For most of us, we just want to avoid the experience altogether.

Pain and Suffering are Life-Giving

We dread nothing more than experiencing pain. I don’t know which is worse even now – whether it’s pain you’re anticipating or when the pain sneaks up on you unexpectedly. Either way, our world now tries to shut up pain in every way possible. Even a simple headache must be quickly quieted with some Tylenol. And if you’re giving birth, the expectation is that there’s no way you need to be experiencing what’s happening to your body.

But through all that pain, life is being created. We are brought into this world through our suffering mothers and we give life again through the birth of our own children. And we see what beauty and joy they bring!

I’m not just talking about life outside of ourselves, either. The only thing strong enough to change us individually is pain. In the midst of your anguish, you experience your own powerlessness. You are led to the edge of your own ability. And when it peaks and there is that pivotal moment of “I cannot do this for one more second!”, transformation occurs. Birth happens. You have crossed the threshold and have become a new, dignified individual. Pain is life giving for everyone involved. We should not fear it.

Pain and Suffering are Not Just About You

I’m not denying it. It’s hard to be a woman. The monthly “ordeal” coupled with the seemingly endless self-doubt and insecurities is bad enough. And bringing a child into the world is rougher still simply because we have made it all about us.

There’s a child growing inside of you that you have to take care of 9 months before you can even see it. You have to change your diet and your habits and your wardrobe to accommodate a living human that has taken over your midsection. And then all throughout labor and delivery you are stripped of all dignity and modesty and experience so much pain…for someone else.

Many mothers tend to lord this over their children, reminding them that their birth was a painful ordeal to never be forgotten. In some ways, mothers go so far as to make their children feel like they are unwanted or undeserved for all the suffering the mother had to go through to bring them into the world. This I feel is a glitch in our system. As women, we have bought into the idea that the birthing process is all about US: our comfort, our ability or inability, our beliefs, our strength. Under this mindset, the wonderful rite of passage women receive through giving birth is shut down by stifling our pain and removing that transformational threshold for us.

And so it is with suffering. Whether it’s a death in the family or the loss of your job or a bad breakup, the affects are rarely singular and one-dimensional. When we try and avoid pain, we rob ourselves of the transformation that occurs. Instead of viewing the inevitable or spontaneous pain in this life as something to “get over” as quickly as possible, let us embrace our suffering, for we know that (1) God will not give us more than we can bare and (2) the life-giving affects of our pain are immense and beneficial for our spiritual growth and dependence on God.

Why Do We Feel This Way?

Where does this fear of pain come from for women? First thing that comes to mind is Genesis 3: the story of the Fall and the casting out of Adam & Eve into the wilderness. Every woman who has ever heard this story remembers poignantly the words God speaks to Eve:

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

with painful labor you will give birth to children…”

For most of my life, I’ve thought of these words as a curse to Eve and a curse to all women. It has really warped my perception of God: what good was there in causing this physical pain to us? How could it possibly reconcile us back to God? And doesn’t God seem like a huge jerk right here? I mean, of all the things…

We ought to see this moment not as punishment, but as grace. Weird, I know. But a God that curses his children is not quite within His nature. In fact, if you look back on the stories of the people in Genesis, you’ll see that God is continuously creating goodness out of chaos. The kind of chaos that we still experience today:

A barren woman who has no hope of having children of her own. A lonely man and wife who are trying their best to follow God. (Genesis 18)

A boy who betrays his own brother and father out of greed. A family torn apart by sin and manipulation. (Genesis 32)

Jealousy and selfishness leads a group of brothers to betray and cast out their younger brother into the world. (Genesis 41)

Over and over again, God takes these broken, hurt individuals. Men who have been victimized and mistreated, taken advantage of, or have taken advantage of others. Women who were ostracized for their inability to have children and cast out to the margins of society. These people went through an awful lot of suffering but are brought through the pain and are transformed by the realization that God is greater than they ever had thought:

Sarah, in her old age, finds joy in the birth of her first son, Isaac. She had laughed at God when she heard that He would give her a son. Her doubt makes her skeptical of any message of grace. And now, after Isaac is born, she says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

Jacob had stolen his brother’s birthright and betrayed his father. He had fled from home and was a prideful, manipulative man. It’s not until he is faced with confronting his brother Esau, who is armed with 400 men and is on his way to meet Jacob, that Jacob is locked into a lonely moment of fear. He confesses he fears Esau and wants God’s protection. Jacob hovers over the threshold of transformation in these moments of prayer and petition to God. Jacob then fights for his life against an unidentified man who assaults him. This “man”, later identified as an angel of God, knocks his hip out of socket, leaving Jacob with a visible limp for the rest of his life. This humbling of Jacob actually saves his life when he goes to meet Esau. This spiritual crisis in his life began a new phase for him. Jacob had to give up self-sufficiency to become strong in faith. Now in a strange reversal of roles, Jacob who possessed the blessing was bowing down to Esau and acting like Esau’s servant. He was showing Esau that he did not want any power over him. In the end, Esau runs to meet Jacob, hugs him and kisses him. The brother he had betrayed is now coming to be reconciled to him.

Joseph’s brothers all were convinced that he was his father’s favorite son. They were jealous of all the attention Joseph seemed to get, and sold him into slavery (and also lied about his death to their father). After that he goes through a string of unfortunate events all outside of his control. He cares for the house of Potiphar, but then is framed for rape by Potiphar’s wife and is put in jail. He’s able to interpret dreams for men in jail and finds favor with everyone there, but is forgotten and left in prison for several years until Pharaoh finally needs his help in interpretation. He is put up in charge of Pharaoh’s matters, and then famine hits Egypt. Through all the ups and downs, Joseph is continually reminded that God is looking out for him, but he no doubt harbored a great deal of hatred for his brothers who had separated him from his family and own culture. Now, in a foreign land, the one thing that breaks him is the return of his brothers. When he sees his youngest brother, Benjamin, his heart breaks and instead of taking revenge on his brothers, he invites them all to come join him in Egypt where they would be well taken care of.

We could similarly compare our own narratives with these champions in scripture. But the Old Testament isn’t really where it stops. We can relate to the journeys of those who suffer in scripture all the way up to Christ himself. His death on the cross is the ultimate kind of suffering. His death leads to resurrection,  his and ours,  and vindicates our own suffering by showing that, contrary to our expectations, death brings life. Our own journeys point back to this simple and overwhelmingly relieving truth: that our suffering is not punishment from God, but a trial that is producing in us something beautiful.

As women, we are fortunate to share in this truth through childbirth (though not exclusively childbirth. This is just one strong example). The whole matter is a reflection of our spiritual journeys with Christ: that our current pain leads us up to a transformational threshold. When we hang in that moment where only one thing matters and we are forced to rely exclusively on God, birth happens. Life is created. We are transformed and initiated into a new self: one that glorifies God and rejoices in this new chapter of life.

So ladies, let us not be afraid of labor and delivery. It is a gift from God that allows us to share in the experience of Christ. It shows us on a small scale the great magnitude of what it meant for Jesus to suffer and die for us. Through his death, we were given life. And it was done unselfishly, for our good. It was all for us. Just as we labor and suffer, but unselfishly. For the good of the life that comes out of us.

If you’d like to see pictures of the little guy, you can check them out on Paige’s blog here.