Birth is Death is Birth

Today my oldest son turns 8. It is also the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, hands down my favorite spiritual writer of our time.

As I contemplate the birth of my son and the death of my hero, I circle back to a truth that rarely escapes me: birth and death are inextricably connected. There’s so much more death to birth than I think we realize.

Death is part of a much greater and much deeper event, the fullness of which we cannot comprehend, but of which we know that it is a life-bringing event….What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning; what seemed to be a cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage; what seemed to be defeat proved to be a victory; and what seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope. Suddenly a wall becomes a gate, and although we are not able to say with much clarity or precision what lies beyond the gate, the tone of all that we do and say on our way to the gate changes drastically.

Henri Nouwen

Every birth I attend as a doula cements this truth in my mind. As I prepare my clients for their labors, they confide their worries, their fears, their anxieties to me.

“What if I can’t handle it?”

“What if the pain is too much?”

“What if I’m unpleasant/too loud/too demanding/not able to speak up?”

Each prenatal visit finds me steadying them, reminding them of what is true, reinforcing their purpose in this event, reminding them that this is sacred work that they do not have to do alone.

And every birth finds my clients face to face with those worries. Looking those anxieties straight in the eyes, nose to nose with the very things they fear will overcome them…and every time, they conquer.

What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning.

What seemed to be the cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage.

What seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope.

I have seen so many walls become gates, so many women die to themselves, their very identities cracking open to let in new life. I have experienced the despair of transition that signals the imminence of breakthrough, of birth.

Women and men do not walk away from their births unchanged. The person they were before that baby enters the world is not who they are when the midwives finish up and the lights go back down. Birth requires death. Death requires transformation. Transformation becomes a gate to higher levels of holiness and a new understanding of the human experience.

Today I’m pondering all this as I celebrate my newly minted 8 year old, my biggest baby and most peaceful birth. I’m pondering his birth as I think of all the ways we’ve cumulatively died over the last couple of years: so much suffering, so many disappointments, and looming monsters that have forced us all to face fears we never even verbalized.

Our labor is long and hard, fraught with complications, progress alternatively piercing us to the core and seemingly stalling out. If we only view our life experience as hardship and pain, it’s certainly tempting to medicate ourselves with whatever will numb us out. There’s plenty to try: shopping, porn, hidden stashes of cookies, crime dramas that drown out reality. endless hours of scrolling. Of course epidurals and medications aren’t inherently bad. In fact they’re a very effective tool. However, if our motivation in using them is total avoidance of the experience, they’re less of a help and ultimately disappoint. A good epidural takes the edge off while allowing the patient to actively participate in her labor. I fear that many of us would rather feel nothing at all than engage in the dirty work of living. I fear that of myself, most especially.

If we neglect to view our labor through the lens of eternity, we hug up against the wall without ever allowing it to become a gate. The temptation is always there to focus on the hard stuff without letting it transform us. Yes it feels unrelenting, but each contraction brings change, each pain brings progress, each ache is an opportunity to allow ourselves to gradually open up and birth new life into the world.

I don’t know what God is calling you to bring into being. I’m not sure if you’re living in the expectancy of a growing baby, a growing dream, or a growing desire to commit yourself to hard work worth doing. Perhaps you’re living in the static of just honestly not knowing. I don’t know what your fears are, but I’d guess they have something to do with not being good enough for this thing you’re being asked to do. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll fail. I hope you do. I hope you fail and fail well. Maybe you’re afraid of change. Transition is definitely the hardest part of life and of labor. It’s that point of no return when we find ourselves just done with the job at hand, but too far in to turn back now. I’m sure there are nagging doubts and imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. There are for me. That’s why I write as infrequently as I do, even though I know this is the hard holy work I’ve been tasked to do.

There’s no way for me to know where the gate leads for any of us. I can’t predict what horizons lie on the other side. But in all the haziness, I can remind us of what I know is true. I can remind you of what I know without a doubt. You were chosen for this purpose. You are the only one who can birth this child, this idea, this dream, this product into the world. You are necessary to this specific labor. This will be incredibly hard, but it will not overcome you because it comes from you, from a place deep inside you that is fed by the Holy Spirit and sustained by the communion of Saints. If you approach this birth through the eyes of eternity, you’ll see that you will never labor in vain. If you allow yourself to be transformed, the Lord will use you as co-creator, you will be a channel through which newness enters the earth.

Birth is death is birth. One requires the other. One begets the next. Each is heartbreaking, good, and beautiful. Both will wreck and ruin us in all the best ways.

So my prayer today is one of humility and obedience.

Lord, let me do this work not for what I will gain from it, but because it is what you have called me to. Help me to be faithful when strength is failing and humble in my pursuit of holiness. Let me submit myself to suffering, use it all to transform me into the person you created me to be. Use me as an instrument of your grace and help me to truly desire all these things I pray for. Let each and every death bear forth a birth more spectacular than the last. Grant me eyes to see it and the courage to run tirelessly towards every dead end that leads to you. Amen.

Natural Childbirth: A Series

So, I’ve got birthing on the brain and I wanted to start a dialogue with on natural childbirth. I’ve been having a conversation with a friend who is preparing for a natural (unmedicated) delivery after having previously given birth under induction, etc. What’s really struck us, and what I’ll be focusing on in this first post, is the initial negativity that most people have regarding natural childbirth.

 

As Everett’s arrival gets closer, I find myself gearing up for one of the most transformative and soul-satisfying experiences a person can  have. I can’t begin to tell you how totally psyched I am. Seriously, can’t wait.

 

 

Mama, Daddy, and Ev at the Bean in Chicago.

 

 

And I know I’m not in the majority here. I’ve been blessed to find some really great online communities of people who are as excited as I am, but more often than not, when I’m out and about in the “real world” and the subject comes up, I’m greeted with emotions of horror, put-downs, negativity, or self-depreciating comments.

 

Why is that? Why is it that our culture is so incredibly negative regarding the “earth-shattering” idea delivering babies without drugs? I believe that, ultimately, it all boils down to fear, ignorance, and intimidation.

 

Unfortunately we’ve got a long history of negative imagery deeply embedded in our minds. Think about every movie you’ve seen in which a woman is depicted giving birth (natural or otherwise). What happens?

 

Looks pleasant, doesn’t it?

 

There’s always a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. People panic, run for hot water. We find out that Prissy “don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies, Miss Scarlett,” and then Prissy gets the biz slapped out of her. Hateful words are shrieked across sterile hospital rooms. The doctor bumbles around and the hysterical mother usually casts blame on the father, as in, “YOU did THIS to MEEE!!!”  I cannot recall one instance in which birth is depicted as a peaceful experience. I’m sure one exists, I just don’t know where.

 

Now, I get it. “Knocked Up” just isn’t as funny without all the scrambling and the chaos. And it’s genuinely hilarious to think of Bill Cosby’s wife literally pulling his lower lip over his head. But if these are the only images of childbirth that are out there, I mean really getting out there to a large audience of young women, what message are they receiving about the miracle of bringing a new life into this world?

 

And the blaming of the father? The screaming of condemnation that he is solely responsible for the allegedly horrible situation in which the mother finds herself? What does that say about our culture’s view of sex and responsibility and the gift of children?

 

Besides a boatload of cultural misconceptions surrounding childbirth, I think the main thing to combat is the simple fact that the average Joe has no idea how the female body works, much less how it works specifically in childbirth. Blame public schools, cultural stigmas, shyness, over-protective parents, whatever, but let’s face it we just don’t know our bodies.

 

 

Pretty much sums it up…

 

 

For many years I considered myself fairly well-informed on the female anatomy. It wasn’t until I took a Natural Family Planning class that I realized how little I really did know. Later, when we were expecting Maggie, we researched and learned even more, and I felt like I was an informed parent-to-be; I felt like I knew enough.

 

But it wasn’t enough. Not enough for me to trust my initial instinct to wait for labor to begin on its own. Not enough for me not to be tempted by the alleged ease and quick pace and “routine-ness” of an induction. Not enough for me to avoid being in labor for eighteen hours. You can never know enough.  When I became pregnant with Lily, I hit the books hard and never looked back. I was intensely more satisfied with my second labor experience and I credit that to my continued pursuit of knowledge. Never stop learning. Never.

 

Ultimately, guys, we’re mammals. We need to understand that the female body was gorgeously created to give life. Childbirth is intuitive for the body, but not the mind. We have to re-introduce ourselves to our bodies and get to know them intimately to get the best results.

 

I understand that medications can be helpful and that they can make things a zilliondy times better for us in the right situation, under specific circumstances, but I will never be comfortable with the idea of medicating the body when medication isn’t required. It is counter-intuitive to chemically change the dynamics of a machine that is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Period.

 

I know that natural childbirth is intimidating. It hurts. A lot. Is it the most horrendous pain of all time that no one alive can live through? Not even close. And the way I look at it is that, based on the research that’s out there, a drug-free delivery is the best option for my babies, so why wouldn’t I be willing to sacrifice of myself for them? Labor is not forever. It is completely doable. People climb mountains and run marathons. Childbirth is no different. It’s a physical challenge to the absolute extreme that will take you to the edge and back…and that’s why it is so incredibly rewarding.

 

 

 

 

I think a lot of women don’t choose natural childbirth because they’ve been told they can’t do it, by society, by other women, by themselves. I’ve literally had people tell me that I’m crazy for wanting to deliver naturally. I’ve been told, “Don’t be a hero, take the drugs.”

 

I’ve often wondered what makes women so negative about the birth choices of other women.   It may be that they don’t understand the desire. It may be that they don’t feel capable and, when met with someone who wants to try, they feel threatened.

 

Maybe they’ve met one too many of those “militant” people. You know, the kind who use their lifestyle choices -which are fine in principle- as weapons to make you feel like absolute garbage.

“I don’t eat that I’m vegan.”

My child wouldn’t know about that…We’re a screen-free family.”

“I delivered my baby on top of Mount Kilimanjaro with only a                                  Sherpa to attend me.”

 

 

Regardless of the cause, I think it’s a shame that women aren’t more empowering of one another, specifically in regards to childbirth. While I’m as pro-natural childbirth as they get, I will never condemn another woman for the choices she makes in delivery. Every woman, every pregnancy, every delivery is unique. I am not the one who walks that road. I only take my own and I don’t think that belittling someone based on their childbirth choices helps anyone.

 

But I do want people to learn. I do want people to give natural a chance. Most importantly, I want to foster a community of women that is encouraging and uplifting. I want my stories and your stories to be an encouragement to others who may be considering natural childbirth, but never though they could do it.

 

Because self-doubt is the biggest enemy. So many women who initially want natural births cave under the negativity, they believe the lie that says they aren’t capable, and they give up before they’ve even begun. And it’s a shame, because you really can do it if you want to. Really.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I’m not even really all that professional in general, so I’d suggest that you get out there and decide what you think for yourself. And then come back here and tell me about it, ’cause I want to know what you think! This series is meant to provide my personal opinions and to foster dialogue, so chime in and consult a trained medical professional if need be. But definitely chime in! 🙂