The Death and Life in Fertility to Birth: Labor and Delivery

O Lord, in distress they sought you;
they poured out a whispered prayer
when your discipline was upon them.
 Like a pregnant woman
who writhes and cries out in her pangs
when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
     we were pregnant, we writhed,
but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:17-19)

Femininity is often defined in terms more associated with a church mouse than that of a living, breathing, human being. Meek and mild are the boundary markers for interpretations on what is feminine: soft, smooth, gentile, maternal, quiet, proper, etc. It will be no surprise to you then that I would disagree with any definition of femininity that is based on such words/terms. In defining femininity, we must consider the very thing that biologically defines a woman: birthing. Thus, redefine femininity. Rather than meek and mild, it is strength, fortitude, and even fierceness that defines femininity. A woman in labor is completely feminine. A woman in labor is confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And she confronts death alone. No person (apart from the Holy Spirit) takes her hand and guides her through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; she will (speaking in terms of an un-medicated labor and delivery) moan, grunt, even growl at death, bring it, Death! She’ll stare it down. My life for this one! A proper definition of femininity must incorporate this imagery.

Labor and delivery is earthy and visceral. I’ve yet to meet a husband, having witnessed his wife giving birth, who has not walked away completely changed in his opinion of what this woman can do and even is. Many male comedians have joked–in truth to a great degree–that if God came down and changed the roles (men now being child-bearers) that the human race would cease to exist. Men who have stood by, next to, or even those who have have held their wife during labor (my husband), and witnessed this process are forever changed in their own way–at the least his view of her is radically altered. Thus, in the process of creating a definition of femininity that incorporates the imagery of the woman in labor, the definition of masculinity is redefined. Chivalry become less about protecting her from danger and more about protecting her space to enter into this danger. His inherent ability and desire to protect (a generalization I’m willing to make having seen this “protector” spirit in my young sons) will be turned outward, toward the world, keeping the world at bay; in his presence she is safe, he becomes the source of comfort and soothing–he becomes the homestead–while she enters into this event and while she works and battles. He is not holding her, but holding everyone back. In light of modern birthing techniques, the husband often loses his role in this process, being relegated to the side and designated unhelpful or useless–a problem that needs a correction. Husbands are crucial to the process and the event this woman, his wife, will go through, for he is her first source of comfort, the one who knows her intimately, and his presence can represent to her that she is free to enter into this battle, to face death.

So, let us speak in terms of the theme of these posts, and let us look on the death and life in labor and delivery.

From the onset of labor to the completion of pushing, the woman submits to the event happening to them. The woman gives herself up (has to) to bring this other life into the world.  A woman who is laboring (naturally) will often look almost lifeless during the highpoint of contractions–slumped and limp held up only by the strength of her husband’s arms or still, inexpressive,  curled up on her side. Even delivery (pushing), the most primal of the process and invoking the totality of the activity of the woman–activity surfacing beyond all reason, in spite of all exhaustion–in itself, represents her total submission to the event–she has to push. She is face to face with death (her death), she will give the whole of herself to the process and afterwards is forever different.  She does not choose when labor begins, but it seizes her, and she can do nothing but die to herself to bring this child into the world. When you see her child, you see the death she went through in labor and delivery to move this child from her body in to the world. It is impossible to go through this process, this event and remain the same.  There is a new woman at the end of the event and not merely a new title to add to the others.

But let me not forget those of us who endure a different labor and delivery process; for those of us who endure Cesarian sections (a major surgery to extract the baby from the very lowest part of the abdomen) also go through the death into new life process. Having had three C-Sections, the imagery of being laid out on an operating table in a cruciform position does not escape my attention. My arms are stretched out to the side, and strapped (albeit loosely) down. My legs pulled straight on a narrow (and I mean NARROW) table. It is in this position, cruciform, that I will give birth. I don’t want to make a too-big of a deal about this nor draw a one-to-one comparison between her and Jesus’ death. But the imagery is there. During our last (and final) delivery, I walked (without Daniel) to the OR; everything about this small trek to have our daughter felt like dead woman walking. Each step down the cold hallway, barely covered by my gown, led me toward my confrontation with death. Without the lead-up that is the transition between early stage labor to a stage referred to as “transition”, you feel catapulted to deaths door in the event of a c-section.  As she is laid out, strapped, prepped, and as the curtain is raised–separating her from the gruesome scene below–she will close her eyes, breathe out, and say, “My life, for this one.” She will never be the same when the last suture is in place, and she will bare the scar of this confrontation, it will be the symbol of her new, of her different self, forever marked.

Labor Pains

I am sick today,
sick in my body,
eyes wide open, silent,
I lie on the bed of childbirth.

Why do I, so used to the nearness of death,
to pain and blood and screaming,
now uncontrollably tremble with dread?

A nice young doctor tried to comfort me,
and talked about the joy of giving birth.
Since I know better than he about this matter,
what good purpose can his prattle serve?

Knowledge is not reality.
Experience belongs to the past.
Let those who lack immediacy be silent.
Let observers be content to observe.

I am all alone,
totally, utterly, entirely on my own,
gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid,
waiting on inexorable fate.

There is only one truth.
I shall give birth to a child,
truth driving outward from my inwardness.
Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

With the first labor pains,
suddenly the sun goes pale.
The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
I am alone.
It is alone I am.

Akiko Yosano

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