A Review of "Holy Labor: How Childbirth Shapes a Woman's Soul"

If you are pregnant, or have been pregnant, you likely want good resources to equip you in your mothering. You may read books on pregnancy, labor and delivery, and even how to care for a newborn. But do you look for books that equip you to think through pregnancy, labor, and delivery from a theological perspective? Maybe you do, but, like me, your search has left you empty-handed. I have long wanted a resource that I could not only use for myself, but also give to other women as they wrestle through the deeply theological nature of pregnancy and birth.

Scripture is full of imagery relating to childbirth, nursing, mothering, and the female experience. If you have experienced any one of those things, you now have a category for this and may wonder—Is my experience pointing to something greater? Is the pain in vain? Are these feelings propelling me towards a grander narrative? Is my body cursed?—Or any other questions that can come from something as beautiful and intense as bringing life into the world. This is why I am so thankful for Aubry Smith’s book, Holy Labor: How Childbirth Shapes a Woman’s Soul. Smith is a mother, doula, and theologically literate woman who not only understands scripture, but also understands birth. She has experienced a traumatic birth and a birth that went more smoothly. She has walked with women through painful circumstances and beautiful deliveries. She is equipped to speak about birth from a theological perspective because she clearly knows her bible and she clearly understands birth. This book is a refreshing read for anyone who wants to better understand how pregnancy and birth fit into God’s story.

There are a number of aspects of this book that are worthy of attention. But I will point out three that particularly ministered to me:

1.     Women are not cursed in birth, instead the pain we experience is a consequence of life in a sin-cursed world. Smith shows us that when God laid out the consequences of sin, he cursed the serpent and he cursed the ground. He did not call the woman or birth cursed. While some might say this is merely semantics, it does change how we think about our birthing experiences. We experience life in a fallen world with every painful, disappointing, or devastating birth experience. But we aren’t experiencing God’s judgment. This is a helpful distinction especially as we think about how to minister to women in all manner of difficult pregnancy and birth situations.

2.     We image God in our pregnancy and birth experiences. This has been something I’ve worked through a lot this past year as I’ve reflected on my mothering (and particularly in nursing Seth). For the conservatives among us (myself included), we can be afraid of language that gives a feminine shape to God, for fear of sounding liberal. But the Bible uses feminine imagery to describe God for a reason. If God created us in his image, and then made us male and female, then we must be able to point out the beautiful ways women image God. One of those ways, as Smith points out, is in pregnancy and birth.

3.     There is no perfect way to give birth. Often conversations surrounding pregnancy and birth are filled with language celebrating a woman’s body for all she can do. Smith acknowledges that this sort of overly optimistic language is not helpful, because it not only often leaves God out of the equation, but it also doesn’t leave room for the complexities of a woman’s birth experience. Smith is quick to leave room for the many choices a woman might have before her (whether that be choosing medication, having a C-section, or birthing in a birth center). Her point is not to stir up controversy, but to give women a theological category for pregnancy and birth. In this, she helpfully explains aspects of a woman’s body and its capabilities, while also avoiding shaming women because their circumstances didn’t allow for the birth they wanted. In all of this, she points to the providence of God over birth, which is hopeful for any woman who has been disappointed in her delivery.

I finished Smith’s book thankful for the ways God created me to bring life into the world, but I also finished her book longing for the better world that all of my laboring and birthing efforts are pointing to. I think that’s the point. In the Bible, birth is a metaphor for the collective longing of creation and humanity for our coming redemption. In God’s kindness, he gave this metaphor to women, while also giving them the joy and connection that comes with carrying, nurturing, and mothering children. Her book is a hopeful book for any woman who has walked the road of motherhood and who wants a theological framework for what she knows in her heart to be true.