Birth has been the hardest work of my life and the best work of my life.
In these final days, I’ve realised afresh that experiencing birth has been – and continues to be – the greatest altar of my life for encountering God. This is my thin place between the Spirit and my reality, it’s my favourite metaphor. The more I experience pregnancy and birth in all its mess and glory, loss and life, the more I uncover the devout links between how we as women experience birth and how the Holy Spirit often “gives birth” in our souls.
Sometimes when I was preaching here and there, I would use the metaphors of birth to explain what happens when we are growing or developing or evolving in our journey of faith. But then I realised something a few months ago that ticked me off: I was apologising for my metaphor. “I’m sorry, here’s another story about having babies to explain what I mean.”
This bothered me. Why was I apologising for my metaphor, for my experience, for the place where I met God so clearly? I know my metaphors don’t belong to everyone, that’s kind of the point. My situation and learning is unique to me, just as a football player’s metaphors are unique to his experiences or a business-woman’s metaphors are unique to her experiences. We each have our own metaphors for how we understand our faith journey. Some people find theirs in literature – I do that, too. Others find them in nature or in great acts like climbing mountains. I’ve heard many a sermon using sports or war as metaphors for the journey of a soul. And more, every mother’s experience with birth is unique because her situation is unique, her body is unique, her story is hers.
What was it that made talking about birth so taboo from the pulpit? It is too much, perhaps, too uniquely feminine to others, too messy, too real. The braiding together of pain and joy and love is too powerful, perhaps.
But I believe right in my marrow that the voices and experiences of us regular mamas, having babies, are just as valuable, just as real, just as spirit-filled as any other metaphor.
I’m nearly 38 weeks pregnant right this blessed moment: God is very near to me right now. In my fear and exhaustion, in my waiting and my hoping, in my swollen ankles and my interrupted sleep cycles, in my preparations and my dreams, in the disappearance of any protective armour between me and the rest of the world, Emmanuel.
So I won’t apologise for my metaphors anymore.
This is where I find God and this is where God continues to somehow find me, too.
I’ll write about how the Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle of labour mirrors the fear-tension-pain cycles of our transformations. I’ll talk about leaning into the pain, however counter-intuitive that may seem, because it’s in trusting our pain, letting our pain teach us, that we find life waiting and a trust-worthy path to release. We fight against the very thing that will free us.
I’ll write about how transition is identified by the feeling that you can’t go on, it’s too hard, you need to quit. And it’s transition because it’s in that moment, right when you want to give up in defeat, that you are nearing birth at last. My desire to give up is the very signal I am longing for that it’s almost over.
I’ll write about how the Industrial Revolution and modernism gave rise to a techno-medical method of birth that treated women like machines to manage, problems to solve, and how we forget that the very work of birth is the the thing that makes life after birth richer and healthier. And then let me draw the parallels for how we’ve techno-medicalized our souls, we treat our spirits like machines, full of shortcomings and defects, patiently awaiting the formulas to make it quick, make it easy, make it painless, make it simple. We deny each other the precious struggle which often makes healing, bonding, nourishment happen.
I’ll write about how the professionalization of bringing babies moved traditional wisdom away from us, collective story-telling disappeared, how we bench our wise women because what could they possibly have to teach us? I’ll question, oh, yes, I’ll push back a bit on authority, I don’t mind. I can’t surrender my soul or my body to the ones who want to make a buck off of me anymore. I’ll be wary of the slick promises and the easy roads, I’ll be suspicious of the ones who promise too much and cover the fine print with their jocular assurances.
I’ll even write about miscarriages and loss, about how it feels to labour only to end up with death and longing, sorrow staining backwards and forwards, changing everything.
I’ll write about how I withdraw when I’m labour, about how I need my safe place, my home, my smallest circle around me. How I crave silence and darkness, about how my very self goes deep deep deep within to draw the strength for the work ahead. And I’ll connect it to the ways that when we are in the struggle of our new births how we often withdraw from the strangers, from the bright lights, from the noise, from the unfamiliar or untrusted or untried, how the Spirit hovers over our darkness and causes new life to begin to rise from that place of silence and darkness, relentless, inexorably holy. I’ll probably think too much about how I love to give birth in water, how baptism and water pull me into relief like nothing else.
I’ll write about learning to think positively about my body, to honour the strength of my thighs and my hips, to let myself make the noise I need to make, to be unashamed about my own strength, how our bodies can hold the truth if we learn to follow. I’ll tell you about trusting our souls and our bodies, about believing in the inherent goodness of our physicality, about the lie of dualism separating our spirits and our bodies. I’ll tell you about how learning to let my body lead me gave me beautiful experiences in birth.
And I’ll write about how much I love the midwives of my life, how it feels so right and holistic to work in partnership with someone who trusts me and my body, my capacity and my spirit. I’ll echo Brene Brown who admits that she thought faith would be like an epidural, taking away the pain, but instead there she found a midwife, whispering in her ears, “push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit, you’re almost there.” I’ll write about how tenderly they cared for me, like a daughter or a sister, how they ministered with their hands and their wisdom, with their strong leadership, and then with tea and toast and clean sheets.
I’ll write about how the Apostle Paul himself never shied away from the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, finding rich parallels in our stories for life in Christ.
I’ll be honest about the ways that birth slows me down because I’m no longer afraid to be slower, to be out of step with the evangelical hero complex anymore. I’m not afraid of taking time to heal, of taking time to nourish both baby and soul. I’m done with proving myself, with acting like having a baby doesn’t affect me or change me. It does change me, it will change me, I am different already. I practice rest and healing, slowness and sleep after birth like resistance. I’ll write about how important maternity leave is and how important it is to give ourselves space to heal and mother after we do something so momentous.
I’ll tell my stories because, as Ina May Gaskin tells us, “stories teach us in ways we can remember. They teach us that each woman responds to birth in her unique way and how very wide-ranging that way can be. Sometimes they teach us about silly practices once widely held that were finally discarded. They teach us the occasional difference between accepted medical knowledge and the real bodily experiences that women have – including those that are never reported in medical textbooks nor admitted as possibilities in the medical world. They also demonstrate the mind/body connection in a way that medical studies cannot. Birth stories told by women who were active participants in giving birth often express a good deal of practical wisdom, inspiration, and information for other women. Positive stories shared by women who have had wonderful childbirth experiences are an irreplaceable way to transmit knowledge of a woman’s true capacities in pregnancy and birth.”
And our stories do that, don’t they? When we are active participants in the transitions of our soul, we emerge from the experience with practical wisdom, information, inspiration. We have tremendous capacities for hearing from God, for wrestling with our past, for leaning into the pain, for finding truth in the darkness, for discovering our true selves there in the blood and the pain and the beauty and the joy.
And then, then, we see that the struggle, the very thing we had been trying to avoid, is the very thing that sets us free, gives us life, helps us heal, restores our joy.
You have your hard-won and unique metaphor, I know.
This is mine.
Photo by Rachel Barkman back in 2011 (38 weeks pregnant with Evelynn)