The following post is a conglomerate of four older posts that I did a few years back (the date of the introduction being early September, 2013). I’ve merged them here, as I feel they make a fine article to be taken as a whole. The introduction makes clear the goal and a quick glance into the method of my madness in terms of writing these posts. I want to be clear that while I do celebrate the event that is my ability as a woman to create, sustain, and nurture life in and from my body, I do not think that experiencing such an event defines womanhood; my theology leads me to believe that womanhood is made full in Christ (justified by faith in Christ) apart from any works I or my body may do. Enough with my caveats; I’ll let you read.
“’Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.'”
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
It’s not surprising that the topic of life is first and foremost on my mind. At some time, in the next 3-4 weeks, I’ll give birth to our third child. It is an exciting event; a new life will exist in the world, creating her own ripple effect in the lives of her parents, her brothers, her grandparents, and those she will one day encounter. The whole event is, simply, miraculous; there is a lot of joy and celebration that should surround such an event. From the moment of conception, through pregnancy, to the culmination in birth the common theme is new life, and not incorrectly so for it is in fact a new life in the world.
But what is less spoken of, but I believe to be inherent in the event, is the death involved in order for this new life to come forth. For, to be sure, there is a death, a real death to self from beginning to end. This death lies in the fact of the lack of control that is part of the fertility and child-bearing process. There is nothing guaranteed within the process. No matter how much a book may claim otherwise, encouraging that you can in fact plan when you will conceive based on some temperatures and fluids, the fact remains that not only are these very factors out of our control, but even if all the elements align perfectly, there is still some portion of control lacking in the acquisition of the final product: conception and implantation. Conception and implantation have no guarantees attached to them, for the threat of miscarriage is very real in the first trimester and even in the second, not to mention tubal implantation. Graduating into post week 20, and you still aren’t guaranteed a successful outcome, as I’ve heard a number of stories about how everything was just fine and then…Even now, at nearly full term, there is no guarantee that everything will be fine; even now I have not complete and total control over what will happen. And so it is, from the beginning to the end, I am radically changed through the event of death and not of life; in this event, at every turn, I am reminded of my place (at God’s mercy) and the futility of my capability.
But though it is death, it is not death for death’s sake; but an event of death to bring forth life, to bring forth new life (an event of actuality that leads to possibility) and, typically, not only one new life, but two. I don’t mean to be callous in my math here but, yes, for the time being, I am excluding the man from the equation. While he participates in the beginning, the whole of the pregnancy is rather abstract for him, only becoming “more real” upon birth and at that moment the death he experiences–because of this new life–begins. I say this as a woman who is married to a man who lovingly cooks for her during the first trimester when her stomach can’t handle it, understands as her expanding belly and increased number of pillows demands at least half of the bed, and cancels work trips and outings with friends because, “It’s just too close to the due date.” Not to mention a man who is as passionate about natural labor and childbirth as his wife is and knows his supporting role in labor; a man who held me, letting me hang my full weight from his arms during every late stage contraction as I tried for a VBAC with our second son, for 14 hours (roughly). So I don’t mean to say that the man isn’t part of the process, but for what I’m talking about here, life out of death as it relates to fertility, pregnancy, and the birth of the child, I’m focusing on her, the woman; because it is this journey, which is her journey and during which he plays a supporting role (albeit the primary supporting role). He stands apart from the event, looking on, watching, providing support when and where he can, but ultimately this event is between her and God. She will suffer death over and over again, which will bring forth this new life of her own and that of her child. He will be impacted but later, subsequent to her death and new life.
Plus, to be honest, I can’t speak from the man’s point of view. The only information I’ve been able to garner about the whole event from his perspective is from my husband. He’s willingly admitted the abstractness of the whole thing and we laugh when he asks, “Is there really a baby in there?” To which I like to respond, “No. A litter of Kittens.” About which we both admit that that scenario (though creepy, loaded with questions were it to happen, and perfect fodder for a B rated sci-fi movie) would be significantly easier than a real baby. He’s also admitted a feeling of helplessness during our miscarriages. During our last miscarriage, as I lay on the bathroom floor in the fetal position, enduring 3 hours of transition contractions to pass the sack (etc), all he could do was lay with me unable to take my pain, to alleviate it, to stop my tears. I know it was no “easy” task to witness the woman he loves suffer excruciating pain and discomfort and sorrow and I’m sure there was a death in that for him; the line I’m desiring to draw is between the one who goes through the event and the one who witnesses the event.
While I’ve attempted to appease the allegations that could be brought forth against me for not including Him in my discussion of Her, I’m sure I’ve not exhausted all possible appeals. With that said, I want to get back to why I’ve started this post in the first place: the death and life in fertility to birth. I plan to look at three primary areas as they relate to the themes of death and life: pregnancy, labor and delivery, and infertility and loss. As a woman, I will be able to speak from experience of having gone through the bulk of these events–the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful. As a theologian of the cross, I will see these events through the lens that God creates out of nothing (not just in the beginning but now); that these events participate in that death and (re)creation; and how, in the depths of the fear, the realization of the loss of control, and deep insecurity, Jesus Christ proves himself to be true and real and present in that suffering with us, not to “test” us but to to whisper to us, “I know. Take my hand. Follow me” and to be our strength when we’ve got none left to walk on.
“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children'” (Gen 3:16a,b)
When Martin Luther translates this verse from Hebrew into German, the first two parts of the verse read like this, “Und zur Frau sprach er: Ich will dir viel Mühsal schaffen, wenn du schwanger wirst; unter Mühen sollst du Kinder gebären.” Or, in English, “And to the woman he said: ‘I will create/make many toil/distress/difficulty when you are pregnant; under troubles/pains/toils you are supposed to give birth to children.'” The Hebrew supports Luther’s translation choices. The Hebrew word w’heronekh’ incorporates not only the idea of child-bearing, but, more specifically, the whole of the event from beginning to end: including pregnancy and conception. If this were not so and if the word only referred to the act of child-bearing (the labor and delivery part, which is often the focus for many people), then the second of the first two statements to the woman would be redundant–the second being nearly unnecessary. In what God says to the woman as part of her curse to bear is that from beginning to end the event of bringing forth a child will be toilsome, hard, filled with sorrow, pain, difficulty, and distress; there is no part that goes unscathed by the curse. Bringing forth a child, in simple terms, will not be easy in any stretch of the imagination. Part of the battle ground between life and death will be her very body; as fast as she can rejoice, she will be able to weep. All of it happening to her and in her and apart from her control–and there in lies her death, her pain, her toil–it’s not merely physical but also emotional and intellectual.
For this post, I’ll focus primarily on pregnancy (and not conception, I’ll save that for a later post), which makes sense because I’m 38.5 weeks pregnant. Pregnancy is, if you will, sort of on my mind. So what does death and life look like as a woman progresses through pregnancy? A perpetual (or what feels like a perpetual) loss of self, a handing over of one’s self to the event. Physically, this is somewhat more obvious. The pregnancy, and by this I really mean the growing life within the womb, takes over. A glass of milk is no longer merely some Vit D for the mom, it will go first to the child. Our bodies, literally, re-prioritize who is important; and the important person is the new life, the child. If we don’t ingest enough vitamins to cover both baby and mom, we, ourselves in our body, will suffer. Then there’s the ever present aversions (both smell and taste and touch) that pop up in an otherwise normally unaffected mother. With my second son I couldn’t tolerate the smell of Ham. Ham. It’s completely innocuous; it has no danger to it whatsoever, but I reacted to it like I would rotten eggs or rotten meat. There’s the nauseous hailing in “morning sickness”, which, by the way, is typically more of an all-day sickness that can fluctuate in correlation to, well, nothing really. It sort of does what it wants. Personally, I would be nauseous both full or hungry, both rested or tired. And speaking of rest, what’s that?? In the beginning, in those first few weeks, there is, typically, extreme exhaustion, no matter what you do. You could sleep all day and wake up and feel exhausted. Physically, the woman is taken over. She is no longer in control of her body, and this is the beginning of the death of herself.
But it doesn’t end with the completion of the first tri-mester; no. way. As the pregnancy progresses so will her weight, her hips will spread, her belly will expand, her breasts will enlarge, her feet will change, her ligaments (all of them) will loosen and the once graceful and deft will quickly become, shall we say, a bull in a china shop. On a confessional note, I bump into more walls, door frames, and banisters than I care to admit. My large belly has actually turned on and ignited gas burners on our stove. My husband got nervous one night, because he was certain I’d burn my belly reaching up over the stove to get something down from the cabinet above. At this stage in the game I can’t actually just sit up from a lying down position, but have to sort of do this roll thing and throw in a grunt or two. And that’s just what I’m willing to share. Every month that progresses by, she will lose more and more of herself and who she was. Every turn through out the pregnancy changes her, for good–there’s truly no going back to what was.
While the physical symptoms present themselves in such tangible ways, there are yet more concerns for the pregnant woman that lie just under the surface of the physical in the emotional and intellectual. Fear. I am not only losing control of my body as it seems to completely hand itself over to this process of growing this life, but I am in the midst of a deep, spiritual awareness that I’m not in control and that awareness brings with it fear. Humanity in general does not like to be out of control; we’d rather be God than confess that we need Him. This truth is ever present in the life of the pregnant woman. What do you mean there’s, technically, nothing I can do to guarantee a successful result?! Fear (and anxiety, it’s sister) is the tantamount emotional and intellectual response to the realization that one is not in control. And fear is the exact emotion she will feel (some of us more and some of us less) during the entire pregnancy, for there is no definite to lay hold of; confidence is pure illusion.
For me, fear rears it’s head frequently. I remember remarking to a friend when I was pregnant with my first that I wish I had a window that I could look through to see if everything was okay with my baby. I want there to be something that I can do to ensure a good result: I won’t drink coffee or alcohol, I’ll avoid noxious odors and certain foods with old-wives tales linking them with miscarriage (from any culture), I’ll happily stop running and other activities that could result in loss or damage to the baby. But still, even if I do all of those things, there’s no guarantee. Even currently being 38weeks (almost 39) pregnant, I still have that lingering concern about whether or not everything is okay, and I have it everyday. Throughout the first trimester, I was concerned about miscarriage; then through the second trimester, concerned about late term miscarriage, still birth, the results of tests; and, now, as I approach the end of the third trimester, my concern lie in her movements throughout the day, what the outcome of labor and delivery will be, is she really healthy (mentally and physically), and will we be okay through the c-section/recovery. As I go through my day without taking hold of the concrete answers I desire, and made aware of my inability to do anything, I am thrust to my knees (sometimes very literally) at the foot of the Cross, asking for help to make it one more day, to take one more step through what seems to be a thick fog. Each breath accompanied by honest confessions of fear and weakness and heartfelt pleas for His mercy. The more I progress through this pregnancy I made more and more aware that while the end will hopefully result in the bringing forth a new life into this world, there is something between here and there and that something is death.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
From conception to birth, the woman is thrown to the foot of the Creator’s throne, dependent on His will, His mercy, and His strength through her weakness. Everyday for nine months, she will make this journey; everyday she will hand herself over to the death of herself; everyday she will be much more different than the day before; everyday she will join her voice with Mary’s, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Everyday she will die, only to be raised up anew.
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.
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.
And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” … [Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam 1:8-11)
Affliction; this is the word Hannah uses to describe her childless state, her barren state, as she prays to God (actually, it’s more like pleading and begging). Hannah is afflicted with grief and sorrow. She is distressed and she weeps bitterly. She can’t eat, she laments (the deeper connotation of the word translated as “weep”), and she is not merely “sad” as a “feeling of blueness” as we would casually say, “I’m sad today.” It would be better to render the question from her husband, “why is your heart sad?,” as “why is your heart broken?” Anyone reading who has suffered a broken heart knows that this feeling breaks through the floor of sadness into a realm that effects both the mind and the body in painful ways. A broken heart is described as such because the heart actually feels broken; there’s an ache or a piercing pain that seems to ricochet through the fleshiness of the heart muscle–it’s not merely metaphorical. Hanna experiences this depth of broken-heartedness.
A longing and a desire gone unmet.
Hannah is barren; she is without a child. Hannah isn’t over-reacting about her childless state. The way the story is told seems more like a snapshot of her life at this one moment of her distress over being barren rather than a wholistic picture of what Hannah has been suffering–Hannah’s story practically opens the book of 1 Samuel. In v. 5 there is the mention that the Lord had closed her womb. And then from there, we jump right into her peaking distress and broken heart. In this way–the way the story is told–we miss out on the beauty that is the climactic point of Hannah’s distress and weeping. She is wholly consumed by hope deferred; hope deferred doesn’t merely occur because hope has been deferred once…but over and over and over again. Hannah has been pushed to the brink of the cliff that leads to despair, to death.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Prov. 13:12)
Hope deferred makes the heart sick and this sickness steals life from the victim. Hannah has spent who knows how long longing and yearning for a child. Think of the numerous months coming and going, each one delivering it’s “no” and “not this time” to Hannah’s heart–hope sprung, hope dashed. And the deferral of her hope has made her sick: she can’t eat, she can’t stop weeping bitterly, she is inconsolable. This is a picture of a woman who is not well, who is suffering intimately with the brokenness of a very fallen world. When hope has been deferred for so long and dashed against the rocks so many times, one begins to long for not-hope. The deferral of hope can make one so sick that they wish for hope to take flight and to vanish, never again to alight on the heart–for, to the suffering soul, to live a life vanquished of hope seems better than to have hope yet once again only to have it dashed…yet once again.
And so it is with those of us who have suffered with infertility or loss or both. In both infertility and loss there is a hope, a real, tangible, hope that blossoms and the real hope that is shattered into what seems like shards upon shards. And each time this hope is dashed, there is a death. And it is this death that leaves the woman a different creation the next day. Out of all the experiences surrounding fertility and birth, it is those who suffer from infertility and loss who get the one two punch of Gen 3–the curse rears it’s head both in the inability to get or to stay pregnant (pain increased) and the all to alert awareness that death still marches about the earth creating casualties, leaving scars. These are the women who will enter into the battle that wages to bring forth life (my life for this one), who will face death, and who will exit the battlefield marred.
And yet, out of this real encounter with death, with “no,” with “not this time,” there is life: for she is a new creation out of this death–never to be the same again. For it is she who has suffered death that knows what life is; it is she who has not born new life who understands–on a deep and visceral level–just how miraculous new life is; it is she who has wept bitterly and cried out for relief who knows from Whom joy and comfort come; it is she who knows the failure of the very thing she was uniquely gifted to do who finds her very person not in the sum of her working or not-working parts, but in the totality of The One who has born the brokenness of the world (and of her body) in His body and who has dealt death a death-dealing blow. And while she has not brought forth new life quantified in onsies and diapers, she is the epitome of new life, for it is she who declares even in this darkness: life.