Pregnancy and Childbirth: A Theological Event
by Rachel Richardson Smith
Ms. Smith is enrolled in the master of theology program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 19, 1079, p. 1262. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
On January 26, 1979, at 1:31 A.M., I gave birth to my first child, a daughter. My pregnancy had been a very healthy and happy one. The labor and delivery were nothing out of the ordinary. Everything went exactly as the doctors and the books had said it would. I had done nothing that millions of other women throughout thousands of years had not done. My husband and I laughed at the normality of it when, amid the tears of postpartum depression, I blurted out, “Even the blues got here on time!” But something happened that night that neither Steve nor I will ever forget. In the soft lights of that delivery room and in the months following, something happened that profoundly affected my life. I will never be the same again.
Becoming a mother is an experience full of paradox. Labor and delivery were at the same time the most wonderful thing and the most terrible thing I had ever been through. Being a new mother was the most lonely thing and the most communal thing I had ever done. It was both tiring and exhilarating. At the same time that I felt my life had been thwarted, I sensed also that it was fuller than ever before.
In an effort to understand all this, I began to write. I wrote down everything. I began to look at my life and to interpret it. In so doing I realized that human beings are born with the ability to experience God and that this happens in a special way to women during pregnancy and childbirth.
I do not say this in order to exclude men, but rather to include women in the realm of theological endeavor. I say it to illustrate what I believe to be the task of theology: “doing theology” means that we see God in the living of our lives. In the lives of women there exists a unique opportunity to develop a sense of God, and there exists something of the essence of God which, though made known to us in Christ, we missed because women were excluded from the ranks of church hierarchy and demeaned in religious tradition. The question of what in the lives of women we can theologize about has been overlooked because women have been overlooked.
Seeing Ourselves as Human
To develop our sense of God, we must begin by embracing the fact that we are human. We must see ourselves in perspective to each other before we can see ourselves in perspective to God. We must affirm that because each of us is human, we share a common link with the humanness of others.
Seeing ourselves as human entails an awareness that we are finite, that we will die. In the midst of life there is death. Yet being death-denying creatures, raised in a death-defying age, we successfully avoid coming to grips with the fact that we must die. But pregnancy can teach us differently.
I was forced to think about death shortly after I learned that I was pregnant. For the first time I realized that I am a body. My body is me. I think that as women we tend to see ourselves as sexual objects because that is how society sees us; thus we learn to dissociate our “real” selves from our bodies. It is a defense mechanism, a means of survival. Feminism, in reaction to the abuse and misuse of women’s bodies as sex objects, has tended to overlook the fact that who we are as women has everything to do with who we are as bodies.
Biology is and is not our destiny. Having a woman’s body gives us a unique insight into what it means to be human, for our bodies are what is most immediately finite about us all. It is our bodies that disintegrate, that collapse, that fail us -- and that reproduce. It is precisely at this point that women uniquely experience humanness.
In pregnancy a woman’s body takes over. It does what it alone can do. During the sickness and fatigue of early pregnancy, and later as I watched my stomach balloon outward, I felt as though I had lost control of my body. It went ahead on its own and left me in shock somewhere behind. While my mind and my emotions were still trying to absorb the fact that I was going to have a baby, my body was doing exactly what it was equipped to do: growing that baby. It was as though my body were doing what it could do without any help from me.
In the latter months I began to see how pregnancy put me in touch with the oneness of body and soul. The two were no longer separate. My body did things quite apart from my will or my mind, but all of this was me. Though my mind had no control, my body did. For nine months I lived not as a mind within a body, not as a being who can ask of or impose on its body, but as one who is aware of and awed by the growth and movement and miracle of body. In pregnancy I became one with my body as at no other time in my life. I experienced the Hebrew concept of wholeness, completeness, in which there is no separation of body and soul.
Frailty and Finitude
I began to see that even with an unwanted pregnancy, even in the case of abortion, pregnant women are put in touch with their bodies. They must come to grips with the fact that who we are as women, as human beings, is directly related to the fact that we have and are bodies. And where else but in the agonized decision over abortion are women given a unique opportunity to face the frailty and finitude of human life? Where else but in the decision to give life or to quench life do women so painfully find themselves confronted by the finitude of their own lives and the lives within them?
Developing a sense of God must be preceded by an awareness of our own frailty, our own finitude, our own death. Knowing that we are humans who can give or take life entails an awesome responsibility. Inherent in this responsibility is an ethical decision which only the individual can make. In the making of this decision we see that we are indeed not God. We are not even playing God. We are painfully human, trying to do what we perceive to be good and right. This fragile decision is not easy, but it can be a part of our religious growth. Abortion can, if approached correctly, serve toward developing a sense of God.
Whether one miscarries, chooses to have the child, or chooses to have an abortion, a woman who has been pregnant cannot deny the fact of that pregnancy. Whether it comes as a welcome event or as a crisis, pregnancy in and of itself can serve to link our own humanness to the humanity of others.
Until my own unplanned pregnancy was confirmed, I had unknowingly considered myself to be apart from the mainstream of feminine -- perhaps even from human -- existence. I was relatively young and well educated, financially better off than many women, more attractive than some. I had never stopped to consider how I fit in with the family of humankind. Never, that is, until several weeks after my pregnancy was confirmed when I went downtown to eat lunch with my husband. There on a crowded street I saw women as if for the first time. I saw an old woman with wrinkled skin and shriveled breasts, and I thought: she was young once. She was loved in the night, and she probably bore the fruit of that love. And I wondered how she felt about it then, how she felt about it now -- whether it had changed her as it was changing me. I saw black women with their children, and I knew how some of them felt physically and emotionally when pregnancy came to them. It occurred to me that day that I had entered the mainstream of human existence. I felt a link with every woman.
The Paradox of Incarnation
Pregnancy is a great equalizer, providing a common experience for the majority of women. It is something that only women can experience. I found that being pregnant is like entering a great, friendly club. Women of all ages, all races are eager to talk about their pregnancies. They remember the details of every single one, and though each is essentially the same, each has an element of mystery and uniqueness. While pregnancy separates us one from the other, it binds us together in a profoundly human experience. It is this paradox of uniqueness in the midst of commonality, of mystery in the midst of bodily process that makes pregnancy a theological event in the lives of women. It is within this paradox that pregnancy can teach us the meaning of incarnation.
In pregnancy a woman’s body is not her own. The primary occupation of that body is the housing and growing of a baby. The mother, as the residence for this other being, is filled with a sense of its value, which is apart from her own sense of value. Though intricately bound up with this being, she is distinct from it. The two are one, and herein lies the paradox. The pregnant woman is both herself and this other being. The two are distinct from each other, though they are not separate.
This too is the paradox of incarnation. God and Christ are the two in one. God is both Christ and other than Christ. Though not separate from Christ, God is distinct from Christ. Christ does not contain God; Christ is not all of God, as the newborn baby is not all of the mother. But in Christ, God gives birth to God.
There is yet another way in which the relationship between incarnation and pregnancy can be approached. Christ was in a real sense pregnant with God, heavy with God. Christ became one with another. His body was not his own; it was given over for the purpose of another. Both pregnancy and incarnation involve the feeding of one life on another. The one lives in and through the other. The unknown and the known are together within the same body.
Perhaps our overuse of the imagery of Christ as Son of God has blinded us to a more inclusive human imagery. It was not the maleness of Christ that made him human. He was human because he possessed a body, and through his body he was made to suffer. As a woman suffers in childbirth, so Christ suffered in the birthing of God on earth. Christ as human was the child of God, as all of us are children of God.
The Mystery of Otherness
Developing a sense of God requires that we see our humanity in perspective to that which lies beyond. We must give in to the realization that there is some otherness that pervades our human existence. We must admit that there are things we cannot do, and accept that there are things we cannot know. We must say Yes to mystery and learn to live at peace with the unknown. Here miracle and mystery combine to force upon us a glimpse of God.
For many of us -- male and female alike, religious and nonreligious, churched and unchurched -- pregnancy and the birth of our children are the most graphic illustration of otherness we will ever know. For many of us it is the only time in our lives when we truly stand in awe and are overwhelmed by wonder. We see with our own eyes the bulging belly of a woman and know that there is a child; yet the child is unseen. We feel with our own hands or even within our own bodies the decisive punch and kick of a life that is yet unformed and know that still there is life. It is evidence of things unseen, this stirring of life. It allows us, however briefly, to share in the miracle of creation.
As we look at our children, we can hardly believe that they are ours. In the delivery room, the mother and father are now left alone to study this amazing being that is so much a part of them, yet distinct from them. We inspect our newborn from head to toe, feeling the shape of its head, the smoothness of its skin, the warmth of its body. It is beyond our comprehension that this human being, this other, was once hidden from us. Only minutes ago it was unseen; it was mystery. Now that it is here we still cannot grasp the reality of it all. We wonder at it. We are awed by it. We are thankful for it. At the birth of our children we are called to worship.
Worship compels us to confront mystery with awe rather than fear. Worship requires that we be still in the presence of something far greater than ourselves. Looking inward, we see what is beyond; we are in harmony with that which we cannot know. In worship, as in childbirth, miracle and mystery meet and are at home. Worship for men and women alike is a birthing experience. God becomes midwife to each of us, lifting us to a level apart from our daily existence, inviting that which is creative and mysterious and miraculous in each of us to meet that which is all-creative and all-mysterious. In worship, we are indeed born again.
The Serpent in the Garden
Developing a sense of God requires that we discover our own unique humanness. We must know who we are in the context of the greater human family and in relationship to otherness. Recognizing that we are indeed human, we must learn our own particular strengths and weaknesses, our own special gifts, our own neuroses. I know of no better catalyst for this kind of self-examination, this intimate acquaintance with oneself, than the crisis of having a child.
For mothers and fathers alike, the demands of having a child are far greater than could ever be anticipated. No matter how well we prepare ourselves for the coming of this new person into our lives, we are still unprepared for the reality of it. The crisis of having a child is like the serpent m the Garden of Eden; it brings with it knowledge of a different sort, Often it is the end of innocence for the marriage relationship. One feels cast out into a less friendly world where there is unending work to be done, pain to be endured. New questions must be asked, and most times there are no perfect answers. Exhaustion and tension make insensitivity, unresponsiveness and carelessness all too easy. Things like sex, long talks and time alone take a back seat to the mere mechanics of dealing with a baby.
These new tensions bewilder us; these new demands make us feel inept. We are tired. We argue. We don’t apologize. Even as we wonder if we will ever be the same again, we realize: No, we will not. We come face to face with our own limits and those of our spouse. We admit that there are things in our spouse we don’t like and things in ourselves we like even less. In the midst of the miracle of birth we confront the darker side of life. We have experienced the fall.
But sometimes there are advantages to falling. Grace, wonderful gift that it is, comes when we least expect it. It flows from where we are least likely to look. Grace is found within ourselves.
Created in God’s Image
Developing a sense of God requires finally that we become aware of the godlike qualities residing in us all. Each of us, by virtue of the very fact of being human, is like God. As we have seen the promise and miracle in our children, so we are reminded that there is promise and miracle in each of us. We were created in God’s image and thus we are good.
As new mothers, we feel an intense love and overwhelming protectiveness for this wonder that is a newborn baby. It is love that comes immediately, unasked for. It is love for a being who doesn’t deserve it and hasn’t earned it but who commands our love merely by being present in our lives. At the moment of birth, we love our child merely for the sake of loving it, not for what it gives in return, not for what it does for us, not even for the hope that someday it will love us, back. We love that baby simply because it is. We love it as it is, from the moment we see it, red and bloody, squinting and wrinkled. Unlovely, yet lovely. Unloving, yet loved. This is agape, the kind of love God has for God’s children. It is unbounded, unequivocal love for a being which we created, a creature we have yet to know. Agape is mother-love, father-love, miracle-love.
The symbiotic relationship, that instinctual closeness which binds mother and child throughout the first year of life, is one of the most profound in human experience. It is as though the two are one. The mother hears almost each movement her child makes in the night. No matter how soundly the mother sleeps, she and the child awake at what seems to be the same instant. The nursing mother may feel this oneness even more intensely. In nursing, breasts which were once considered very private now become more public. Their function is no longer only to give pleasure but to give sustenance as well. For many, nursing provides the only opportunity for a woman’s body to act in rhythm and harmony with another being without sharing sexually. Essential to pregnancy, childbirth and nursing is a giving of one’s body so that another might have life. It is a sweet communion, sensual but not sexual. God’s love for us is sensual; it is a love we can feel. God is forever calling us back into a symbiotic relationship, asking us always to share a particular Oneness, a harmony of life: salvation.
We desire, as God desires, to give our child a sense of identity. We want to instill in her what is best about ourselves, to give her the highest of our values, the finest of our beliefs, the depth of our wisdom. We want our child to be as we are, but better, more assured, suffering none of what we suffered, wanting not for what we wanted. All this is balanced by our awareness of the child’s need to find her own identity. In our better moments we know that in order to mature at all, our child must have space to grow, room to experiment, freedom to accept or reject all that we have so carefully taught. We know that even as we give birth to, nurse and raise our child, we must someday let her go. We realize, as did God, that our child must have her own free will.
Good and Evil
In this way the work of the womb is similar to God’s experience in Eden. In order to give life, it must expel life. It is perhaps ironic that in casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden, God’s curse upon Eve closely parallels God’s own experience. God too experienced the pain of childbirth, the frustration of having a wayward child, and yet found within the capacity to love and love again,
With this free will come good and evil. The coming of a child can be a mixed blessing -- a microcosm of the problem of evil. Something so pure and innocent can also be demanding and unrelenting, selfish and manipulative. When we ask how God, if God is good, could create an imperfect world, we must remember our own creation -- our own children, good and imperfect as they are. When we ask how God, if God is all-powerful, could create an unjust world, we must remember our own attempts to instill justice and morality in our children, and we must remember that it is their choice to accept or reject our sense of justice, our definition of morality.
There are days when we don’t like our children, when we may even wish that we had never had them. There are times when we resent their demands. Sometimes we wonder if they will ever learn; we wonder what will become of them. Yet despite it all we love them. They disappoint us again and again, but when they come to us and ask for help, we give it to them. We give it to them because we gave them life and in the beginning we saw what we had made, that it was good.
A Theology for Us All
The mystery of God is like an unborn child. We cannot know God, but we see evidence all around us confirming that God is. Our lives and our world are pregnant with evidence of God. Our task is to learn to feel its punch and kick as well as the faintest stirrings of the divine mystery as it moves within us. Pregnancy and birth can be a faithing experience, one that makes women aware of what they hold in common with the greater human family. Childbirth and pregnancy confront us with the Otherness we so easily explain away in other situations. It causes us to examine who we are as unique human individuals, and it shows us how we are like God.
A theology of pregnancy and birth is a theology for us all. It is a theology of hope, of birth and rebirth. It is a theology of life.