A year or so after my first child was born, a pregnant friend and I were chatting about her plans for childbirth. She was unsure whether or not to use pain medication and wanted my opinion. I shared with her that I thought pain medication was a reasonable choice but that I was very grateful for my unmedicated experience, which had been difficult but also empowering.
“But was it the worst pain you’ve ever felt?” she asked.
“Um.” I swallowed hard. “Yes.”
She got the medication.
I’ve brought three more children into the world since then, and I have no desire to make light of labor and delivery. You who have been there understand me. Ouch, right? I’ve been blessed with healthy children and healthy, though difficult, births, but I know it is not that way for everyone. And although three times I’ve delivered joyfully without an epidural, the fourth time I gladly and freely accepted one. As I looked over at my husband, tears flowed down my face: “Oh, honey, it doesn’t hurt anymore!”
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So I want to be real about all this.
As young Christian women, many of us long for the gift of children in marriage. But this doesn’t mean we don’t also have our apprehensions and even fears about it. Will we be good enough mothers? Will we be able to take care of both ourselves and our children? And not least of all: How much is this going to hurt?
Well, joy and pain are both part of the package. Soon after Christ’s birth, Our Lady learned that her heart would be pierced by a (metaphorical) sword. We other mothers know to expect nothing less. We are lucky enough, of course, to have a deep Catholic theology of redemptive suffering to lean on when we face personal trials. Yet it is only human to experience fear in the face of something that not only brings pain but is, unfortunately, greatly disrespected and misconstrued by our American culture at large. Actual childbirth is almost nothing like it is on TV.
While preparing for motherhood in this fearful context, however, we often fail to anticipate one of the most essential parts of the experience of childbirth: the profound, unique way that the pain of labor and delivery unites us with Christ. The sense of union with Our Lord can be powerful, even if we are a bit, shall we say, distracted from the spiritual experience of labor at the time, and sometimes only realize what has happened to us in hindsight.
In childbirth, we allow our bodies to be placed almost literally on the cross, laying down our lives for Christ’s littlest ones, whom we have carried in the tabernacles of our bodies for nine months. Unlike Christ, we are not innocent, but like him we do offer ourselves up willingly and wholly for crucifixion with our marital fiat.
But then, the moment the baby is placed in our arms, the crucifixion is over, and we experience the fullness of the Resurrection. It’s about resurrection, friends! It is not the pain, but the life!
That is the true story of giving life through our children. It is a crucifixion, but that crucifixion is wholly conquered by the resurrection of being co-author with God (and husband) of an eternal body and soul. It is Easter, not Lent.
This is no less true in miscarriage than in live birth. You, mother, have laid down your body and had it resurrected in another eternal person, living or otherwise. That child now exists forever and was born of your sacrifice. (If a mother you know has lost a baby, take the time to write her a note and tell her “thank you” for the gift of her child, which she and her husband have given to the Church and the world.)
We women need not shrink from the sword.
Indeed, after giving birth for the first time, I sat holding my baby and laughed out loud at the ridiculous idea that women are weaker than men. Different, yes; weaker, no. Men have their own crucifixions and resurrections. But can they ever enter into these mysteries in the striking, devastating, gloriously life-giving way of a mother?
Women do not need to be like men in order to be like Christ. God has prepared a union with himself specifically for you. So just shake your head and chuckle if someone thinks childbirth is demeaning or disgusting or that women are less beloved by God than men. For it is we women that Christ, ever-loving, has invited in this special way into his very heart.
And if you are called to this beautiful mystery of childbirth, don’t forget the secret at its heart: our pain is also one of our greatest blessings. Childbirth is amazing. It is our own precious gift.
Do not be afraid, sisters! Do not be afraid.