Like millions of parents who have gone before us, we rejoiced at the faint pink line that showed up on our positive pregnancy test in the early morning hours. We went to work as different people that day. We went hopeful. We went excited. We went with a smile on our faces, knowing we had a secret that no one else knew yet. I remember making my first OB appointment in my car while I was on my lunch break, lest anyone hear my conversation and know that I was pregnant. I wanted to tell people on my terms, in my way.
I never got that chance.
Instead I had to tell my boss that I was pregnant and miscarrying all in the same breath. Just like that, it was over. I was pregnant and then I wasn’t.
Month after month after month passed until the months became years and we still didn’t have another faint pink line. Tests and medicine and more tests and more medicine and surgery all promised something—a baby. All failed us, until one morning we saw the line again.
If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know the story. We miscarried, we were infertile, and then we had the twins. We miscarried again, we had Seth, we nearly lost Ben (and me), but we are here—a family of six, with two in heaven.
Now that my pregnancy journey is over, I’ve thought a lot about how we talk about birth in our Christian community. My birth stories are the ones that women run from at baby showers. I always have to give the “but mine aren’t normal” caveat to the scared first-time mom who hears of all the many ways my births went completely awry—and nearly fatal. Mine aren’t normal. But they did shape me. I see the world through “birth trauma” eyes, and as a result, I’m coming to see that not a whole lot else in life is safe anymore either.
So when I hear the phrase “traumatic birth” I lean in to the conversation. I wonder if I will find a kindred spirit, a woman who entered pregnancy with a host of expectations and walked away shaken and confused.
A few months ago I was told about a documentary that talks about birth trauma, so because this is a topic that interests me, I looked into it. One line in particular struck me as I watched the trailer:
“Is it too much to ask for a woman not to have a traumatic birth?”
I resonate with that. It’s a visceral response to a poor outcome, one we have been told over and over again shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t have to settle for a C-section. We shouldn’t have to settle for formula feeding our babies. We shouldn’t have to settle for our bodies being ravaged by the childbirth process. We shouldn’t have to settle for a doctor or nurse not listening to us in a moment of great pain. These, and many other statements, are the gut responses to things not working out the way we wanted. In one sense, I get the outrage. Our responses to our births range from disappointment to severe depression. It’s no small thing to bring a baby into the world, even more so in ways you didn’t expect. But I’m not sure the question being asked by the documentary is the right one.
Not because I doubt the experiences of women who have had horrible births, or even that I doubt that trauma happened. I believe it can and does happen quite frequently. But I’m most concerned that when we talk about birth we forget the fact that, while our bodies are doing something amazing when we bring forth life, we are also doing it in a post-Genesis 3 world. This means that everything can go wrong (from doctor error to our bodies failing us). This doesn’t excuse bad behavior from medical professionals. This doesn’t take away the pain women endure because of horrifying and traumatic deliveries. This doesn’t even take away the disappointment women feel when it doesn’t go according to plan. But it does give us a theological framework for understanding it. And that’s what so sorely missing from how we talk about birth in Christian circles.
We are not in Eden. This means that even our births and bodies don’t always do what they were made to do.
There is a lot at play here when we talk about birth (far beyond the scope of this post). There are systemic issues that contribute to poor outcomes for women of color (as The New York Times recently covered in an article on African-American women and mortality rates in pregnancy and birth). Doctors and nurses are human, so that means that on some days common grace is not as apparent in their behavior. There are insurance complexities, family dynamics, hospital regulations, and a whole host of things that contribute to a birth going poorly. And most importantly (and the part that so often gets neglected in this conversation), our bodies are broken. Maybe they once did what they were supposed to do, but we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a fallen one, where people get cancer and births are traumatic.
It’s also form of privilege that says these things. To even have the option to consider a different outcome is owing to the fact that we live in a Western society where death isn’t always on the table when we get pregnant. To have access to healthcare is a privilege. To even be able to get pregnant is a privilege. One hundred years ago, women expected to die in childbirth. It was routine. Now it’s not, so when it happens it sparks outrage. But we would do well to remember that this has not always been the case. For thousands of years women have had to deal with their broken bodies in birth. And in many other countries, women are still dealing with this daily reality. We get to live in a society where it is rare, not the norm.
I care about this not only because I have faced my own mortality (and that of my kids) in birth, but for all the women I have met who find their bodies coming up short. I care for the women crushed beneath the weight of mantras like “your body can do this.” What do you tell the woman whose body clearly can’t? What about when her body doesn’t do what it was “made” to do? What about that woman? Or what about the woman who simply doesn’t have a choice about how she births her baby? Is there room for her?
Perhaps we are asking birth to do what it simply can’t do any longer. Maybe in Eden it was all about two pushes and warm feelings as the baby latches on moments after delivery, but I’ve lived long enough now to know that this just isn’t the case. For every perfect story there are probably five telling of something that went wrong. It’s what happens when you live this side of Eden. We can rejoice in the ones that go well, and weep over the ones that don’t. We can hold that tension. Our theology was made to hold that tension with hope.
As I’ve said before, so much of our difficulty with the physical suffering that life throws at us is not because we desire the wrong things, but because we don’t let our theology inform everything.We live in a post-Genesis 3 world, where bugs invade our spaces, births go wonky (and even devastating), and everything is crying out for the redemption of all things (Rom. 8:22).
Let’s love our sisters well, not by pretending that birth is always perfect, nor by contributing to the outrage when it’s not. Let’s hold the tension well. This world is broken. So are we. But Jesus is coming again, and when he does, he will make all things new—even our broken birth stories.