Birth is my metaphor

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)

 

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  • Love you, and love this. So much.

  • helen

    Thank you. My experience of birth is purely of the loss kind. I never went on to have live babies. And my losses were early, but painful nonetheless. I found those to be real life changers and there are lessons and metaphors there. I can’t watch births, real or fiction (ie Call the Midwife etc) without feeling, in my whole being, that in that intense, challenging, beautiful, strengthening and thrilling experience is a rich, striking a woman to the core kind of experience that for all the pain and mess and risk would have been a powerful and shattering (in a good way) and enriching moment to have lived through.

    • So powerful, Helen, so well said. Thank you for sharing this and your wisdom! xo

    • Donna-Jean Brown

      I’m very sorry for your losses, Helen.

  • JP

    This had me crying the whole way through. Ever since I heard you speak in Calgary, I have marveled at how perfect this metaphor is. I have 4 children myself and though each birth was different, the metaphor works. Honestly, my faith transition has been as terrifying as what I experienced in childbirth. But the beauty on the other side is worth it.

    (And my one c section forced me to completely let go of expectations. Sometimes you just have to trust others to pull you through. )

    • So true, JP – thank you for that reminder!

    • JP, so my experience too, especially the c-section.

  • Brett FISH Anderson

    Wow Sars, so great. My younger sister is about to have her second baby as in will be induced tomorrow if it has not arrived yet and my best friend’s wife [where we were staying until we moved into our own place three days ago] is a few weeks ago so what a relevant metaphor to people i love right now and totally on owning your metaphor and your story…

    You mentioned miscarriages and loss and that is the very theme that started off the Taboo Topics section on my blog [https://brettfish.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/taboo-topics-losing-a-baby-intro] which has been a huge source of inspiration to so many and which began with me realising that miscarriage happened a lot more than we ever hear about [which is like never] and inviting people to share their stories and encourage others going through the same situation [if you ever were up to sharing a story for that it would be amazing] and that has been exciting and heart-warming to watch and heart-breaking to read [especially cos the people who shared were mostly close friends of mine]

    But yes, love your work as always and all the best for the ‘baby-making’ as you head into the final – urgh – stretch.
    much love
    brett fish

  • Glorious, beautiful, true. I read this as I nursed my little one, just as I read your practices of mothering ebook on the flight from Toronto to Denver with her sleeping on my lap. I’m grateful for your words and for the reminder not to be ashamed of my own metaphors–many of which have changed or taken on a different tenor since giving birth.

    Thank you, Sarah, for encouraging me in all the aspects of my mothering.

  • Gosh, yes, yes, yes! Love this. Beauty and pain and so much good. Birth is my metaphor too. You brought me back to my 4 births in each sentence Sarah. I think my first birth I was scared of the pain and wanted to do it perfectly — wanted to show that birth was a performance (like every other thing I’d used to gain my worth up until that point) and that I was strong and could have my non-medicalized zen birth. What happened was a medically necessary c-section. Birth was the first obvious place I utterly failed my own expectations. It’s been a sweet and hard journey. To see myself as so bodily in birth; to see and lean into the coming pain. To feel it wash over you and to not be consumed. To know that you are upheld even in the darkness, even when you feel like you’re splitting in two, even when you can’t do it anymore because there, there is the end. It’s been restorative too — each birth together, building on the ones before. Trusting the process and not over-analyzing. Seeing redemption. And it also taught me the holiness of the F word. 🙂

    I always love your words Sarah. You are a poet-visionary. And you bring much rest to my soul.

    • Now that is a great point, Ashley – very powerful!

      • Thanks Sarah for responding. And thank you most of all for writing — for giving away your words for free here in this space.

  • This. This right here is why we need women in the pulpit. HOW ELSE would we learn of the God shining through metaphors of birth? We NEEEEEEED this so much!

  • Adena Paget

    This is worth a read. Excellent metaphors….. wonderful rich language.

  • I love this Sarah and I loved this reminder my own last birth four years ago now – it’s such holy ground for me too. Many blessings to you during this miraculous time.

  • Michelle Luck

    Beautiful writing, as always. I am also nearing the end of my pregnancy, perhaps one which will be my last (although I’m still hoping – just need to convince hubby), and have powerfully felt the metaphor of faith and soul in pregnancy and birth. Days after my first child was born I was reading Doctor Zhivago and was struck by a passage about the holiness of birth – how men are excluded from this holy, mysterious process, about how every mother sees God in her child, and that every birth, not just that of Jesus, is a miracle. It’s probably intended to be blasphemous, I’m not sure of Pasternak’s spiritual leanings, but it struck me as so close to the truth that I had experienced.

    • It may have been written with that intention, but God does have a way to turn that kind of thing around to reflect Him and the Truth 🙂

  • April

    Sarah you’ve just written something I wish I had written!!!

  • Claudia Dahinden

    What a great and touching read! And believe me: although I’ve never given birth (and guess never will as I’m already 44), your metaphor rings so true! You’ve written some precious words here about transition, trusting the pain, knowing that when you want to give up, it’s a sign that you are almost through. Your words encourage me, and I’ll find write them down and find a place for them to remember 🙂 Thanks and blessings!

  • The doula in me says amen, and the mama in me says AMEN.

  • sarah

    Eshet chayil!

  • When you use this metaphor in your speaking and writing, I feel like God gets me. I am sometimes sad that I never got to do the whole hard pushing out into the world thing, sweat and blood and joyous relief. But my experiences of life and loss nonetheless tell God’s story in him….a cutting open to make space to bring something beautiful to the world, a bleeding out of the life I so desperately wanted to cling to and hold for myself in order to offer the chance at life to other mamas. God wrote that over me. And it is deep and rich and like the cord that forever ties me to Him.

  • Not long ago, I heard someone make an incredibly derogatory comment about female theologians writing about childbirth too much. It broke my heart, and stung since I’ve certain spent many words on birth and breastfeeding and the like. Thank you for healing that wound for me with this beautiful piece.

  • This is stunning. So beautiful. Thank-you for pouring your heart our and owning your metaphor.

  • Naomi

    Thank you, thank you. Your words and perspective with Holy Spirit eyes are healing and inspiring. Beautiful.

  • I sure do hope you write about every single one of these things. Because I will soak them up and store them in my memory. I will store them up to remember when the day comes (years down the road) that I find myself with child, to remember that “how it’s supposed to be” is an invalid statement, to take practical wisdom from women who have actually been there done that, who have experienced the miracle already. I will remember them to humble myself from thinking I can do it perfectly or that I won’t mess up or that I’ll have it all under control, and to allow myself to ask for help and then receive it. I am so, so excited about this beautiful baby coming into this world! I think about her and mama daily. I can guarantee I will cry tears of joy when the news comes down that she’s finally here! I don’t know you personally, but I love y’all 🙂

  • Trina Dennis

    You always speak right to my heart. I love this! Thanks!

  • Donna-Jean

    Oy, that is good writing, Sarah. This piece reminds me of my favourite book when I was pregnant a hundred years ago, “Motherhood and God” by British theologian and mommy, Margaret Hebblethwaite. And thankyou for the Bene Brown link – Oh yes I do want my faith in Christ to be like an epidural for life’s pain, but dang it, it doesn’t work that way.

  • Allison Olfelt

    O, Sarah. Yes. Thin places. Every advent I’ve spent pregnant the practice of expectant waiting has been palpable. Beautiful, beautiful piece. Thank you for writing it.

  • JoMae

    Thanks for this! As a mother of five and now a great grandmother, I often ponder these things and you’ve added a new dimension for me.

    My thoughts often go to the shedding of blood both when we are born and when we are born again. How long will it be before we get to the point
    where we can use the metaphor of the blood of our human birth
    to speak of our new birth through Christ’s sacrifice?

  • Sarah Allen

    I never thought that I needed to embrace this mothering way of learning as I too have fallen into the trap of thinking my personal experiences as being a mother are overused and maybe I should turn the volume down on that part of my life. People might be tired of hearing it and think me boring that I don’t have any other avenues to learn from and share?! I often feel as if I won’t be taken seriously unless I shy away from motherhood talk, like moms are already perceived as being brain dead with nothing interesting to say. I need to continue to meditate and think about this in my day to day, especially in my relationships with non-mom community. Maybe I am doing them a disservice by not sharing this part of my life more freely as there are so many gems to reap underneath all the laundry and dishes and diapers!!! I just adore your Canadian heart and hope we might one day meet by chance in the beautiful BC. Keep walking honey, I’m following!

  • Jill

    I am in the “talking about starting a family” stage with my husband, which is both exhilarating and terrifying. I want to be a mother so badly but I have always been slightly (ok, more than slightly) afraid of childbirth, seeing it as this awful punishment that I have to go through. It’s irrational, but my fear of the unknown, of pain I can’t control, is sometimes overwhelming. I think I have just been exposed to too many negative stories to the point where my fear has grown out of control. I have to say that reading this really helped shift my perspective by a few millimeters. Do you or your readers have any other resource recommendations on how to overcome or handle that fear- books to read, meditations to try, etc.? Thank you. I really would appreciate any kind words or advice you can send my way.

    • Naomi

      I can only say that fear (of labor, of parenting) prolonged and intensified my labor. I wish I had worked through more of my fear before the birth, even before pregnancy. Ina May Gaskin shares empowering stories. Finding a doula can help, maybe point you to a local birth circle of mothers with positive birth experiences. Trust your body and your Creator. Explore what you said about seeing childbirth as punishment ~ is that from your loving God? Where do those beliefs in your heart come from? How can you fill your mind with Truth?

      • Jill

        Thank you for sharing your experience and advice, Naomi. I plan on checking out Ina May Gaskin. I appreciate your advice to explore my idea of childbirth as punishment- I’m not sure where it comes from- perhaps Genesis and Eve? I’ve always perceived it as something awful that women are forced to endure and I’ve always marveled at friends and relatives who have had children, secretly amazed that they survived. Part of this may come from my own sexual history as well. I grew up being taught that sex was bad and still struggle with that. It’s also still painful as well (I have been diagnosed with vaginismus.) So I suppose childbirth as a terrible ordeal goes along with that? I am going to continue to explore why I feel this way and work on changing my perspective. I appreciate your comments!

    • Eliza

      Have you heard of HypnoBirth? It involves self guided, deep meditation and mindfulness to manage labor. It has helped many women I know overcome their fears and have beautiful birth experiences. One friend even used the meditation scripts to manage her anxiety as she was undergoing an emergency cesarean. Learning the scripts long before labor (even before pregnancy) might help you feel less anxious about pregnancy and birth. Rather than focusing on the pain and struggle, the scripts really help focus your mind on the beauty and miracle of birth.

      • Jill

        Eliza, no I had not heard of HypnoBirth but since I saw your post, I’ve begun checking it out. It sounds like something positive that I’d like to continue looking into. You’re right- learning to manage anxiety even before becoming pregnant could probably help a lot. I like the idea of a meditation script to focus on and I also like the visualization aspect of HypnoBirth. I appreciate your advice! Thank you!

    • Naomi

      Also calmbirth.org

      • Jill

        Thank you Naomi!

  • taralivesay

    I tried to pick my favorite paragraph. Pa possib! (not possible) – love it all, S.B.

  • Katy Kwon

    Read this chest to chest with my ill’ mongoose on the bed where he and I did the work of labor 6 short days ago…thanks for speaking arrows to my heart!

    May #4 be a unique and nourishing birth with lots of good stories attached! Rock on warrior woman.

  • Amen. We should never, ever be afraid to tell our own stories, with our own metaphors. Great stuff again Sarah.

  • Thomas Crichlow

    Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your experiences with birth and how it has become interwoven with your faith. Your metaphor shines light on what has been in my heart as the Holy Spirit brings me forth into something new. Your words help me to understand more fully how the Holy Spirit is so willing to dwell alongside me (my mind, body and spirit) in times of resurrection.

  • I think you just preached a word.

    I will take a thousand birth metaphors from the pulpit before I hear another sports or war metaphor. Thank you for not hesitating to share the metaphors and experiences where you meet God.

  • Such a beautiful, touching, and truthful post. Birth and pregnancy are all of these things (and more). I love stories or birth and pregnancy. I love how they relate to life, they educate, they support, they honor, and they give. Birth and birth stories are so much of what life is.

    So, Yes! Keep using birth as your metaphor, it certainly is a powerful one. And even more, it’s yours. Own it and be it! 🙂

  • Oh gosh I love this. Yes. No apologies.

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  • Brittany

    Beautiful. Thank you for claiming and owning this metaphor. I am an Episcopalian, and although we have many women in the pulpit these days, I still feel they try to hard to “keep up with” the men. My hope is that women in church leadership positions will continue to own and proclaim their womanhood as bravely as you have. Many blessings on the journey to baby #4.

  • Allison

    As a Canadian family physician who lives and works in rural Zambia and gave birth to my now four month old baby boy in this country, much of what you said resonated. I am reminded every day here of what a miracle life is… and of how easily it can fade. Unfortunately, birthing your baby into this world can still be a very dangerous process for both mother and baby, my own delivery was not so smooth. We live in a broken world.

    Culturally in Zambia, your pregnancy isn’t acknowledged in public because most women have had a sister or a friend or a relative who has either lost a baby or died in childbirth. As a physician, I am at times in awe of how wonderfully and fearfully our bodies are made, and at other times I am in dismay over the pain and suffering we endure as women. Whether it is a woman in obstructed labour that was a 3 day journey from the hospital, a 14 year old with a pelvis that is too small, or a fetus with an enlarged head that prevents smooth delivery; we have much to be thankful for in our North American medical systems where help can be sought in a timely manner.

    One of my worst memories as a physician is spending 5 hours breathing into a newborn through a bag mask after I had finished a C Section on a woman who had a failed vacuum delivery. I was in a remote area, there was no ventilator or specialized care for this baby… I cried out to God but even though the baby was warm and had a heart beat, there was no muscle tone of breathing movements. Eventually I had to stop and hold the baby as it died…God was present. Later I did an emergency C Section on a colleague’s wife with pre-eclampsia to save her life but unfortunately the baby was too small to make it, that one I also held in my arms as it died. The stories go on. Of course, there are also stories of great joy; of the second twin that failed to deliver after the first delivered naturally who managed to hang on enough to come out breathing after an emergency C section. Or the woman whose uterus was ruptured while she laboured at home who managed to reach the hospital in time to save her life.

    But we live in a broken world, the Kingdom of God is still in the process of being birthed, and there are times when our bodies fail us because these bodies are not our homes. And it is messy. tragic, beautiful, and redeeming all in one breath.

  • allison

    Sarah, can I use this metaphor as my homework assignment for my mentorship class? I was suppose to turn it in yesterday morning but hopefully you will let me use this metaphor

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