Finding Mary

TW: birth experience

Did she scream? It bothers me, the way we see Mary after the birth, immaculate blue robe, beatific smile, her perky breast that never knew stretchmarks pointing toward heaven. Clean her up for the cameras, I guess. Brush her hair and wash her face so she can look like a Mother of God. It wasn’t her vanity, after all, but the vanity of patriarchs who never were in a birthing room but who painted this moment anyway, without asking if she screamed. I don’t have room in my life for sanitized Mary, the one who looks the way certain types of men want virgins and their mothers to look. I’m old enough now that I only have room for all the parts of life-bringing, the glorious, messy, terrifying experience of birth. I have no space for prudishness that is, after all, erasure. She’s been diminished and weaponized in so many ways. But right now, in this moment, I want to see her as she gives birth, the complete act of life-giving she would have experienced. I want to hold all the parts of that essential birth because what we see in so many paintings diminishes what she accomplished. It reduces her to a before and after photo that negates the miracle itself.

Give me back the laboring Mary their uninformed pigments hid. Give me Mary surrounded by family members who welcome the gore because, without it, there would be no birth at all. Give me companions unfazed by human urine and excrement because that, too, is part of childbirth. Give me strong hands and nimble fingers that apply oils and stretch the vaginal wall, which, if we believe what we’re told, hadn’t stretched for penetration. Let’s step into the fray, not cover it up. Let’s breathe with her through exquisite pain. Let’s draw in eternity with every fresh contraction and expel brittle air through our teeth as agony threatens to overwhelm her. Don’t take away her glory by magicking a baby into her arms; walk with her along the precipice of death.

I want the whole picture of that birth, the smell of endorphins and sweat. I want the capillaries-burst face with eyes rolling back because childbirth is the valley of the shadow of death out of which Mary brought forth a life that is Life. Let me see her exhausted arms pull on her legs as she pushes with another contraction. Even better, I want to see her companions lift her too-heavy legs as they count slowly with her, “One, two, three, four, five and….breathe.” Birth should be a communal event, where a chosen few inject the laborer with courage.

Give me a Mary with cleft hips spread wide wishing to God that this moment would pass. Give me a woman who screams in pain so primal the Matriarchs through generations scream with her. And let me have those Matriarchs with their worn and blessed hands endow Mary with all the power and authority of mitochondrial DNA, the life force that connects us all.

A god who can’t handle the tearing and screaming isn’t a god who has room for me. A god who requires a sanitized birth isn’t a god who can hold all of me while I labor or while I live. If God’s sense of decorum hides Mary until the birth-blood has stopped and she’s been ritually cleansed, how can that god possibly understand what it is to have your body tear itself open, pouring out the waters of life in literal form? My God, the one who doesn’t turn away, holds the entirety of life, including the messy parts. She doesn’t turn away from exquisite suffering; She steps into it. My God is big enough to hold all the blood-filled, agonizing parts of birth and life. My God is a whole-experience god, one who shouts and screams and sings along with me. My God knows the smell of birth, the viscosity of blood and amniotic fluid. My God has room for all of it, every single piece. My God is there, in those private, communal moments, wiping our hair from our face and rocking us as we face the unimaginable. She’s there, in the moments the artists didn’t paint, in the scenes that didn’t make the cut.

I want to reclaim the birth of the Messiah. The conception may have been immaculate; birth never was. Mary must have felt the pain that so many others have felt, the cleaving apart of pelvic bones and the rush of blood and tissue. Jesus didn’t suddenly appear in her arms–Mary clawed and gasped and fought to get him there. And I want to name this, the perfection of this experience, that she, with all her humanity, went through the valley of the shadow of death to set God upon his earthly throne. I will not have her erased. I would give her that glory, well deserved, as part of her divinity. 


Mary is a prop through which women view idealized Womanhood. But what was she really like?

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11 Responses

  1. Mormonish says:

    Amen. No. A-Women.

  2. Cristina Rosetti says:

    I think it’s worth noting that the images depicting Mary as “immaculate” after birth reflect our unique Marian dogma of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Catholics believe that Mary is the Immaculate Conception (not the same as the Virgin Birth). She was preserved from original sin while in St. Anne’s womb, lived a perfect life to be the Ark of the New Covenant, and did not experience the effect of sin.

    As the Immaculate Conception, Catholicism posits that She did not experience the pain of child bearing outlined in Genesis as an outcome of the Fall. Anyway, all that to say, our art isn’t meant to cover-up the reality of women’s birth experience. It is meant to depict our belief in Mary as our Immaculate Queen.

    • Katie Rich says:

      I was just wondering what you would think here, Cristina! I have so little background with the concept of Immaculate Conception, but it is fascinating.

  3. Caroline says:

    Bryn, I think what you’ve done here with Mary – focusing on the messy, painful, triumphant, awesome reality of giving birth — is a great metaphor for what needs to happen more in church productions/videos/magazines/photos (not to mention lessons and talks). I’d love to see more reality and grit in these media, rather than the airbrushed soft glow of smiling families that we usually see. There’s a power in reality. There’s a power in vulnerability, complexity, and in surviving unimaginable pain. I wish our LDS culture was more willing to showcase and discuss the less than pretty, but moving and powerful, parts of human experience.

    • Kaylee says:

      Yes please. Learning to sit with other’s pain–that’s a Jesus skill. I’m not very good at it and I need to see it modeled in lots of contexts.

  4. Katie Rich says:

    Thank you, Bryn. I’ve recently taken more interest in Mary and want to study more about different conceptions of her. The Mormon tradition gives so little attention to her.

  5. Kaylee says:

    This is just lovely. It brought me to that moment, picturing what it must have felt like to Mary, that excruciating, exquisite fullness as Jesus was crowning.

    I’ve read that Mary breastfeeding Jesus used to be the dominant symbol of god’s love for humanity, not the crucifixion. How powerful that would be!

  6. AdelaHope says:

    ” I have no space for prudishness that is, after all, erasure.” Glorious writing, Bryn

  7. Mindy says:

    Thank you for this moving, thought provoking piece.

  8. ElleK says:

    Absolutely gorgeous, Bryn. Reminds me of this art piece/photograph:

  1. September 14, 2021

    […] loved and been moved by books and blog posts that help me consider an earthy Mary who experiences the grittiness of human motherhood. I’m glad […]

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