My wife’s most recent labor changed everything.
To the woman walking her dog down our street around noon a week ago, it was likely just another beautiful spring Saturday. As she passed our living-room window she may have been considering her to-do list, the sound of the birds, her heartburn, or any number of the mysteries of the universe. Chances are, however, her mind never wandered near the truth of the miraculous happenings just beyond the window and drapes 10 feet away. As she left our vantage, I wagered the timing ripe for a jest on just this fact. It was good for a laugh, a moment of levity generally appreciated by every woman I’ve witnessed deliver a child (a grand total of 1). What’s funnier still, is that I, who have only witnessed labor and never labored myself, would wager to write about labor and delivery.
To labor for and deliver a child unto the world, though, is no laughing matter. Such a feat requires the exertion and focus of running a marathon–without the fun of changing scenery or the thrill passing that racer right in front of you. No, laboring is like a marathon where the runner doesn’t set her own pace, and the finish line moves. What’s more, if you are in a hospital setting, it’s like trying to run a marathon while having needles poked in you, fluorescent lights on you, strangers talking about your “progress,” beepers beeping at you, and instead of wearing your favorite running-shorts, -shirt, and -shoes, you have to don a 1980s track suit and velcro New Balance shoes (the ones your Grandpa has). [Full disclosure, I own a pair of these.] Perhaps the most important difference between the marathon and the labor unto birth, though, is this: for the runner, the cramping, fatigue, nausea, thirst, and pain might overwhelm, and she might well decide to throw in the towel halfway through the course, ending her race with a sad but understandable failure. Not so for the laboring woman, though. Ironically, unlike the runner she cannot stop, yet “giving up” is among the more successful strategies she could employ. While no runner ever completed (let alone won) a marathon by giving up, many a birth story I’ve heard (or witnessed) hinge on just such a surrender, a giving up, an admission of impotence, a desperate petition to the Lord for respite. Common phrases include: “I can’t do this! I’m going to die! From now on, we’re adopting!” A whispered prayer, “Jesus, just one break here, Lord. Just one break.” An earnest request – “pray for me.” It seems common for a woman to find her road through labor to delivery shortened by a move found in no athlete’s playbook anywhere ever: surrender.
Wait a second. This blog is supposedly about Catholic arts, literature, poetry, and theology. NOT sport psychology. Hang with me. We’re almost there. Bear with one more series of athletic tropes.
As an athlete, I knew the most important ingredient in victory was the “eye of the tiger,” wanting it more than the other guy, pushing harder, digging deeper, and all those typical metaphors. You get the picture. Well, as a husband and witness to 6 births, I have learned from my wife that some of the typical strengths of the athlete are the bane of labor and delivery. Chief among them, I found, was my favorite… “trying harder.” The laboring woman has little room, it seems, for “trying harder.” Relaxation, comfort, even the appearance of sleep, befit the laboring woman best. No adrenaline allowed! If there is work involved, it is the work of relaxing, of getting out of the body’s way, cooperating with the mystery of the labor of which the woman both is and is not the agent. She at once labors and receives labor. She simultaneously delivers the child and is delivered of the child. How strange, mysterious, and wondrously perplexing! I couldn’t let these paradoxes go.
The theologian in me had to find or give an account of this reality. Ina May Gaskin and Dr. Bradley (in their many books) both offer strong analyses of labor and delivery suggesting and developing psychological and physiological accounts for the importance of surrender in labor, but they don’t satisfy the theologian, or any spiritually curious person. For example, Bradley describes labor has having three emotional signposts accompanying the three stages of labor: excitement, seriousness, and self-doubt. The woman tends to experience self-doubt during the final stage before pushing, namely, transition. Bradley notes that the coach (husband) should celebrate (inwardly) this sign, as bearing witness to the near end of labor. The husband must simply reassure his spouse with praise, expressions of her progress, and encouragement. Bradley does not, however, offer overmuch explanation for whether the self-doubt is instrumental toward or merely a sign of the near terminus of dilation in labor.
Some interesting theological work on labor and birth exists (e.g., the Episcopalian pastor Margaret Hammer’s Giving Birth), but it wasn’t until my wife described her own moment of abandonment and surrender during this last labor that I realized I was still barking up the wrong tree. The theological key to this puzzle, she told, me, is the birthing tub. Now, you are thinking I’m just crazy. Humor me for a few more sentences before checking your Snapchat feed. My wife loves to swim. She’s most comfortable in the water. She reported to me that the change happened for her, she was able to surrender in total abandon to the labor when she was sitting in the birthing tub, and she realized that she was not really in a birthing tub at all, but she was enveloped in the arms of the God who would bring her through this labor and delivery. She could relax through the contractions, rest when they abated, and cooperate with the grace of this passion, this redemptive gift of self in labor for the life of a child. Only by sitting in the arms of the Father could it be done. This had been her longest labor, and her turning point came with this realization of the Father’s grace in the birthing tub. What God wanted to do for her, in her, without her yet with her. It was mystical prayer. It was no longer acquired labor, but infused labor. It was an experience a person cannot demand but can only prepare for, and remove the obstacles to. The best labor is a gift, received when the toiling mother finally steps out of her own way and into the Lord of life’s way.
My wife’s image of the birthing tub as place of rest in the Father’s bosom, a place where “doing nothing” actually gets the most done reminded me of two other notable “water” scenes that splendidly juxtapose her own experience (thank God). They both deal with the fundamental theological reality behind labor and delivery: humility, gratitude, and mystery over-against pride and lust for power.
Consider the first literary exemplar: Dante’s description of hell’s very center in Canto 34 of the Inferno.
“The emperor of that despondent kingdom / so towered from the ice, up from midchest, / that I match better with a giant’s breadth / than giants match the measure of his arms; / … I marveled when I saw that, on his head, / he had three faces / Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out, / as broad as suited so immense a bird: / I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide. / They had no feathers, but were fashioned like / a bat’s; and he was agitating them, / so that three winds made their way out from him / and all Cocytus froze before those winds.”
Satan, a hairy, three-faced giant with six bat-wings grotesquely appended to his head, sits frozen in a lake congealed by the icy wind from his own furious wings, their endless beating stemming from the font of his own abysmal pride. Satan’s pride, we see with Virgil and Dante, bears the fruit of impotence. His labor brings naught but death. The harder he tries, the stiffer he lies in the ice of his own making. It is, moreover, his desire to be God that imprisons him and sends the wind of his error to chill the bones of any who behold his fate. The laboring woman, therefore, magnificently contrasts Lucifer. Her labor bears fruit best when it approaches the receptivity of the new Eve, the Immaculate One who said as no one had said before, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.” The laboring woman is truly the subject of the labor, but subject of its activity as gift received rather than act consciously undertaken.
Consider the second: Milton’s musings on the great fallen angel in the first book of Paradise Lost.
“So strecht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence / Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven / Left him at large to his own dark designs, / That with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation, while he sought / Evil to other and enrage’d might see / How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth / Infinite goodness, grace and mercy / On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself / Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d” (Bk 1, lines 209–20). Satan here lies cast into a burning lake, the raging flames symbolizing the raging pride and rebellion of his own heart against the God he would not serve. He would rather “reign in hell than serve in Heav’n” (bk 1, line 263).
Satan’s hateful rebellion against God, full of passion for power, leads to his own impotence in Milton’s imagination as well. God abandons Satan to his vice, allows him to pile up burning coals upon his own head. The more he grabs for power, the more Truth and Power takes hold of and turns his evil to an opportunity for grace upon mankind. Fastforward to the present day, and we see our technocratic society faces the temptation to attempt mastery over every mystery of human life. Our passion for control, for power, to put creation at our service rather than serve the God who created extends even to the realm of a woman’s labor and delivery. The more women (and men) see birth as a procedure to technologically or psychologically or physically master, the more thrown down they will find themselves. Labor and delivery is not a puzzle to be mastered but a mystery to be received from the hand of a loving God. To be at the service of God in the labor rather than to reign over the labor is the challenge.
It seems to me, therefore, that the warm waters of my wife’s birthing tub could at any moment have been one of three things: the arms and bosom of the Father of life; the frozen lake or self-defeating pride; or the burning Sulphurous wave-pool of passionate rebellion against the God and the natural activity of labor that God created.
The suffering of labor and delivery, it seems, can serve a pedagogical, as well as redemptive function. The woman learns (and teaches her husband) that progress (whether moral or in labor) comes from cooperation in God’s activity, not as over-against my own activity, but as ennobling my own. “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain” (Ps 127:1). The woman is not the master of the labor, but she cooperates with the graced and natural mystery of laboring for and delivering the child. To labor is to learn and teach humility. As to its redemptive character, the woman’s labor can be joined to Lord’s suffering on the cross. A woman might offer her labor for the sake of her child’s soul, for any intention. I have heard firsthand miraculous effects of labor abandoned to God in union with the cross. Moreover, the practice of laboring in grace, praying with and through contractions, disposes the woman (and frankly anyone else witnessing such an event) to radically reconsider the meaning of any and all sufferings and what might be done with those sufferings.
I, for one, cannot but see anew the daily crosses of life from a different vantage, now that I’ve witnessed these six miraculous deliveries of my wife. Having been seen from the birthing tub, the world can never be the same. Every cross is an opportunity to freeze in pride, to burn with passion for power, or to rest (though not without pain) in the bosom of the Father. Thank you, women who labor, for showing us the way.
Immaculate Mary, pray for us!