Birth and the Unknown

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I was fairly certain that God had abandoned me. Perhaps I had done something wrong. Perhaps all of those questions made me unworthy. Perhaps I simply wasn’t able to access the Divine.

It was the same despondency I felt after going through the temple for the first time. What was promised to be the most uplifting and spiritual experience of my life became one of fear, disappointment and a deep-seated discomfort that made me question if the problem was me or God or some combination of the two of us.

This time, it was childbirth.

As a Mormon woman, I had been raised my entire life to believe that pregnancy, birth and motherhood were God’s highest callings for me. I took that directive very, very seriously. But shortly after having my first child and completing my graduate work, the big questions about my place in the Church and feminist concerns appeared in the periphery. Despite my best attempts to push them out of my line of sight, they sat there, creeping ever more into my direct view.

I searched out anything that would help me synthesize the beliefs I was raised in with the ever blossoming realization that women’s power and authority were severely lacking in my faith tradition. In my quest, I came across the writings of a few women who had attempted to theologize birth and lactation as ordinances–a way to prescribe uniquely feminine power that simultaneously offered explanations to uphold the current structure of the Church.

I ate it up.

I told myself that the reason I had not experienced this feminine power was because I had never truly tapped into my femininity. Since I was currently pregnant with another baby, I vowed that I would do everything in my power to access the divine through birth.

Since my first baby had been born by cesarean, I told myself that as much as I hadn’t planned or intended for that to be the story of his entrance to the world, it was obviously my fault for not doing x, y and z properly. But this time would be different. This time I would have the perfect, natural, godly, womanly birth upheld by these same women who offered answers for my questions of faith and feminism. My questioning heart would be quelled and the feelings of powerlessness I currently felt in my faith would be replaced with empowerment.

As the day of my baby’s birth drew near, events and complications arose that threatened to thwart my efforts. In a moment of absolute surrender, I called out to God, begging and pleading to please let me have this birth I wanted so I could feel at peace with my role in the Church–so I could know the godliness and peace I had come to accept as promised.

But that wasn’t my story. That complication lead to birth trauma and yet another cesarean. Birth-as-an-ordinance theology with all of its suggestions that if I simply seized the power that was waiting for me, I would feel the promised empowerment of birth and motherhood, stood as a testament to me that either a) God despised me and didn’t want me to feel peace or b) perhaps that God wasn’t actually there at all.

The questions that had once been pushed aside roared onto the main stage, but this time they were accompanied by the belief that not only had I failed myself and my baby, I had also failed God. Or perhaps, God had failed me.

As I celebrated the birth of that baby these three years later, I want to say that peace arrived, that everything fell into place, that the questions were answered and suddenly everything was made clear. But the truth is that the questions of power, authority, godliness and faith–my own and women’s generally–have moved in forever. The difference between now and then is that I’ve mostly made peace with their presence. No longer do look for or put trust in the answers that prescribe “as soon as you _____________ (insert: go to the temple, serve a mission, get married, have children…), you’ll understand.” Instead, I have come to accept that we all come to experience God differently, that just as we are unique human beings, we have a unique relationship with spirituality and the Divine.

In fact, if there is anything that birth taught me, it is a surrender to the unknown and the Unknowable.

Amy

Mother, writer, dreamer, hopeless romantic, opera singer, reader, researcher, lover of Jesus, Mormon and a feminist. I spend my days taming toddler tantrums and kissing boo boos. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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7 Responses

  1. Marguerite Hart says:

    I loved your article Amy! I have struggled with the same issues and questions and like you I do not think I will ever be totally rid of those questions. I have learned to live with them and find a kind of peace that will have to sustain me for now. I have always been very independent and Heavenly Father knows that. He knows I am a hard-headed and stubborn kind of gal and we have made peace between us, He and I! Take care Amy! xo

  2. spunky says:

    This is a beautiful and powerful essay. I was anxious about reading it– still reeling for the burns of infertility and exhausted by birth associated with womanhood. But you hit the nail on the head for me. I don’t know what God wants for women, but I am positive it is not something that is found only, or if at all– through birth. I really appreciated this essay, and I think a lot of infertile women will as well. Thank you.

  3. I remember when I had my first child. I confess I was less educated on feminist theology than you; it had never occurred to me to see birth as a kind of ordinance. But I had heard, over and over, that after the birth, when I held the baby in my arms, joy would replace the pain. After a three day labor and four hours of pushing, I did not feel joy. I felt pain. Lots of it. And I couldn’t even hold my baby because I was too weak.

    When men tell me that women “get” childbirth instead of the priesthood, I know they are imagining that birth is somehow a rewarding spiritual experience in a way it absolutely is not to many women who have actually lived that experience.

  4. Quimby says:

    Bah. I know a woman who puts so much stock into vaginal birth, she’d rather miscarry than have a fairly routine and simple procedure which would likely allow her to carry to term, because it comes with an increased risk of needing a c-section. I know there’s also a school of thought out there that you can’t truly love your children unless you pushed them out of your vagina. Bull. I have two amazing kids, both born via c-section, and it’s hard to imagine I could ever love them more than I do. (But then my kids are awesome. They’re the best kids in the world, so they’re easy to love. ) I am so grateful the medical science exists because without it, my oldest would’ve died, and I likely would’ve died too. So my cervix didn’t dillate. I’m worth a lot more than my cervix, and so are my kids!

  5. Jess R says:

    I used to really get in to the whole motherhood-equals-priesthood thing, too. It was easier for me to buy in to that theology than confront the fact that women in the church have no *real* authority. I now, too, have a testimony that there is far more to Womanhood than biology, or child birth, or a set trajectory of life events.

  6. Jenny says:

    That’s beautiful Amy! I can relate to that mentality, thinking that if I just did_____ I would arrive at my power as a mormon woman. If I just sacrificed more for my family, if I just had one more kid, if I just keep nursing my child despite the fact that breastfeefing is causing me daily migraines, etc. I think any theology that makes you feel like God isn’t there or God doesn’t care, is lacking in it’s explanation of an infinitely loving God. And any theology that deepens the gaping wound of mommy guilt is bound to be steeped in patriarchy. I loved reading about your journey to rise above that, and I especially love your conclusion: “In fact, if there is anything that birth taught me, it is a surrender to the unknown and the Unknowable.” That is a beautiful and sound theology, based on authentic feminine experience.

  7. Rachel says:

    These are really important words. Thank you for writing them, and sharing them. I was able to give birth to my daughter at home, which was my dream, but I also know that that is most definitely not everyone’s dream, that not every woman is able to give birth the way that she wishes, and that some who want very deeply to give birth may not be able give birth at all. All of things complicate birth as ordinance, or birth as heavenly power. At the same time, I want to hold place that there is something important there (though it is not the only important thing), and that it can be a powerful experience for some women.

    This may be why I love your conclusion: “I have come to accept that we all come to experience God differently, that just as we are unique human beings, we have a unique relationship with spirituality and the Divine. In fact, if there is anything that birth taught me, it is a surrender to the unknown and the Unknowable.”

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