Book Review: The Gift of Giving Life
My first appointment with the midwife for my first pregnancy found me sitting in a rather shabby house in Mesa, Arizona. It had been converted into a medical office but signifiers of its uniqueness were all around–the hazy, purple, new age-y posters depicting abstract figures of mother and child, Native American relics and rugs, the strung prayer beads and buddha figurines–it was everything you would expect from a midwife’s office. The appointment was typical, my midwife checked my blood pressure, measured my stomach and then maneuvered the fetal doppler until she found my baby’s heartbeat. As I was buttoning my pants and preparing to leave the midwife asked why I was pursuing a “non-traditional” birth? It was a question that perplexed me and I think I responded with something non-committal about not trusting the medical model of birth but that wasn’t entirely true. What I wanted, but didn’t know how to articulate, was to feel connected to other women–to feel like I was surrounded and supported by my sisters and fore-mothers as I transitioned into motherhood.
I was reminded of this scene as I read The Gift of Giving Life. During my first pregnancy I was desperate for birth stories–especially stories from women like me–and they were surprisingly difficult to find. My mother’s births had all been scheduled c-sections, I had no aunts present to share their experiences and the women of my ward just weren’t willing to talk about this topic. I was literally starving for information and stories about birth and all I had were the horrible shows on TLC. During that most important time in my life I echoed the question Lynn Callister asks in her lovely forward to the book: where are the mother texts? I believe that The Gift of Giving Life goes a long way to filling this huge void in our Mormon literature.
I should say, in an effort for full disclosure, that the editors of this book contacted me and asked if they could publish an essay I wrote about the birth of my first son. Upon the publishing of The Gift of Giving Life, I was then asked if I would review the book for Exponent which I am thrilled to do. So I am not, perhaps, the most objective reviewer. But despite my conflict of interest, it truly is a beautiful book. I was first struck by the cover with its subtly suggestive flower petals reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. At 521 pages it can be an overwhelming read but the essays are well written and the birth stories are so compelling that I finished this tome within a day. I particularly liked the way this book was structured, finding it especially conducive to easy reading. The editors borrowed the structural style of Our Bodies, Ourselves in that the book is anchored by thoughtful, informative essays and then surrounded by the personal birth experiences of women.
Even though I have now birthed three children and the birthing process is no longer a mystery, I still find myself craving birth stories. Birth is an experience that many women share and it is hard not to feel connected to other women through it. What is particularly lovely about The Gift of Giving Life is that all of the stories, no matter what the circumstances surrounding the birth, acknowledge the profound nature of pregnancy, labor and delivery. The birthing process has become so normalized and controlled by the medical model of birth that it is often easy to forget what a miracle it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death in order to escort new souls into the world. Each contribution to this work openly claims birth as the spiritual and hard work it is.
Besides the birth stories, which I always love, I want to highlight a few important contributions that The Gift of Giving Life provides. First, this is a book that openly and unapologetically acknowledges Heavenly Mother. Though there are some of the typical reasons given for Her apparent absence I appreciated that they tied this female experience to our Female Divine. I also appreciated that there was no judgement made on the different types of birth women choose. Though the majority of birth stories were of women who had chosen unmedicated births, there were stories from those who had chosen and gloried in Cesarean sections, epidurals and unassisted births. In a time where women are pitted against each other for the choices they make I applaud the editors of this book for refusing to play into this warped dynamic.
Though I loved aspects of each and every section, the one that was the most profound for me was the section on Preparation and particularly the essay by Robyn Allgood on Mother-Centered Baby Showers. This essays explains what a Blessingway is and gives some ideas on how to plan such an event for the pregnant women in our lives. I have had the opportunity to attend several Blessingways and I firmly believe that every expectant mother should be given this gift. At the end of this essay, Heather Farrell included the text of the one “mother’s blessing” we have recorded. This blessing is unspeakably beautiful and I must say, the fact that I could not be given a physical blessing like this by my sisters is of everlasting sorrow to me. For me, the approved expression of women’s power through faith, prayer and fasting is not enough.
If there is one complaint I have about The Gift of Giving Life it is that I yearned for a little more diversity. The contributors are overwhelmingly white, married and middle-class. Of course this is not unique, Exponent II also struggles with this problem. But across the birth literature there seems to be a lack of voices from women outside of the mainstream: single mothers, lesbian/transgender/queer women and those who are childless by choice. And while there were many essays that talked about infertility and/or miscarriages, there were none that did not have a happy ending.
I also want to add that generous people, including Mormons, can have differing opinions about abortion. I appreciated that The Gift of Giving Life did not shy away from this topic, in fact they included one incredibly poignant personal essay on spiritually healing after terminating an unwanted pregnancy. But I felt that when abortion was addressed in other places throughout the book there was only one opinion given and that opinion was abortion is always wrong unless it is to save the life of the mother. It would not have been impossible to find thoughtful, nuanced writings from Mormon women on the pro-choice side of this debate because those essays have already been written.
All of these voices and experiences are valid and until we start including them we cannot understand the full gambit of what it means to give life. This is what I left The Gift of Giving Life with–there are so many stories that we women have to tell and all of those stories are absolutely vital to understanding womanhood and in extension, divine womanhood. In one of my favorite passages in the book, Rebecca Overton quotes her mother as saying “[I]t is in birth…that a woman must show her trust in herself, her trust in God, and be consciously involved in a deliberate act of creation by giving her heart, might, mind, and strength to what is before her.” It is this act, Rebecca argues, that allows us to become “goddesses in embryo”. And while I agree that my births, and subsequent motherhood, have certainly aided in this process I also believe that becoming goddesses–becoming divine–requires so much more than this one experience that only some women get to have.
I see The Gift of Giving Life as one of the first in hopefully many texts on a variety of female experiences, texts that help us explore our innate divinity. I honor what the editors and contributors of this remarkable book have done. They have truly provided us with a mother text…and this is a beautiful gift.
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There is a coupon code for 10% off a copy of The Gift of Giving Life. Click here and after you add the book to your cart use this coupon code: GWFWXR3F. This code is good until Father’s Day 2012.