Pain in Childbearing

With both E and R’s births, we went to a freestanding birth center–no pain meds.  Our most obvious reason for this decision is that we believe it to be statistically marginally safer (which studies do back up) and it is unquestionably the better choice for parents who want to avoid a C-section at all costs; chances of a section at the birth center are about a tenth of the chance of a section at any of the local hospitals.
And those are the answers I usually give people in response to the quizzical looks when we tell them our crazy plan.  It’s quite inconceivable why someone would actually choose to endure pain without any overwhelming reason.  (Even if the mortality statistics are slightly tilted in favor of midwife-assisted birth, there’s certainly not a grand difference in the final outcome.)  I expect that these answers are the sum of S’s reasons for supporting natural birth.
For me, though, there’s more to the story.  There really is that aspect which the pagans call “spiritual” about birth, and even about the pain itself.  And it’s very difficult, as a Christian, to coherently talk about that without falling into the earth-mother-goddess paganism that so frequently goes along with it. I’ve never really read an article by a Christian mother, or even a theologically neutral article about it that doesn’t veer straight in to heresy.  Maybe because few Christian women choose natural birth, and so even fewer would conceptualize to write about it.
A few weeks ago, though, I was writing an email to a dear friend trying to explain the mindset that has gotten me through the pain.  It was really complicated to write, because I was trying to express concepts for which the only language I’m familiar with is–pagan.  Unacceptably so.  And yet it was so enlightening to me to struggle through that letter and try to frame things in the context of the sovereignty of God, and it has really helped me to understand birth better.  It has been much on my mind in the days since, and I think it will be useful for me (to me) to hash it out a bit more.  Because at this point, I would choose natural birth even without any medical advantages to doing so.  It’s a horrible experience that I still treasure, in a kind of impossible way.
I know that going into E’s birth, the most important thing in my mind was the historical context.  Birth–the searing pain of birth–is a very particular experience, one that our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation largely completely missed, and yet one that queens of old knew well, and Mary!  What was it really like for that young girl in that dirty stable?  What, really, did God arrange for her?  I was determined to know, to understand.  And what I found was a deeply horrendous experience!  I wasn’t prepared for the sheerness of it.  I thought I could imagine and I had no idea what I was in for!  I had never felt anything as strongly as I felt pain on that day.  It was literally the most intense day of my life.  It broke all my internal meters, so to speak.  The pain itself and the volume of the pain become two different things: beside the pain there’s this awareness that this is a life experience on a completely different scale than anything ever before, and that you’ll never be quite the same person again.
And so the pagans are right on this point: the pain makes you a stronger person.  I was not “dealing” and I didn’t have happy butterflies about E’s birth.  I knew it was horror when it was happening, and I still freely use that word: it was horrible.  So I’m not saying that birth is a beautiful experience.  The end result, sure–but the process?  Not for me.  Birth is a horrible experience.  But it’s a horrible experience that you make it through, and you come out on the other side.  It’s almost like it makes the colors around you more colorful, except in a metaphorical sense.  It changes everything, and nothing.  It’s just so intense.
So by the time R was born, I knew this.  And Genesis 3:16 had taken on a totally new level of meaning for me.  This pain, this unbearable pain, was there for one reason: the fall.  Sin.  A continual reminder, from God, that we are not as He created us to be.  A dramatic presentation of the separation that came about when He cast us out of the Garden.
That’s a spiritual aspect of birth that I can really get into!  Romans talks about creation groaning in childbirth pains until being freed of the bondage of sin, and of us likewise longing for adoption and redemption.  God gave us pain in childbirth–deliberately!  And it really does increase one’s bitterness toward sin to realize that birth is so horrible because of sin, because we aren’t yet made fully glorified before Christ.  It is so desperate, in those moments of unrelenting agony, to stop and realize that the agony is itself a tool and pointer to God, to instill a longing for home–where pain ends.
So I guess it is a very spiritual experience after all, one that I think I would not choose to forego, even if I had no other reasons.
(I am not saying, even the tinest bit, that using pain meds is wrong.  Just that there is an experience to be had without them, and that I am weak enough to appreciate the reminder of just how fallen our bodies are, and how seriously I need redemption.)

learning new definitions

After I wrote yesterday’s post, I remembered a moment I’d had one day when E woke up from her nap–a good year ago, if not more.  And I thought at the time that there was no better definition for how I felt (which was tired, worn, and otherwise struggling) than poured out.  It fit so perfectly.  Parenthood is so often about giving and doing and going on when you have no energy to do any of those things, about realizing that you can’t but you must and so you do.  (Er, not to sound unremittingly negative–I only mean that sometimes there are moments like that.  They seem to be fewer now than they were at first.)

So there I was, feeling the full weight of the phrase “poured out” in a dramatic way that I’d never understood before.  Of course, the next second I realized that I had unwittingly used a Bible phrase in a non-Bible context–and then it hit me like a load of bricks: if this is what being poured out feels like, then that same sort of dire abandon, that extravagant consumption of me-ness, should rise out of being a believer, in even greater measure.

I never cease to be amazed at how much parenthood changes and informs me about things I should have known long before.  It is so gracious the way that God uses everyday, mundane circumstances to impact me eternally.

All of me.

One of the most striking things about motherhood is how it consumes.  One day, there you are, doing the things you want to do, on a schedule you choose (how much choice you really have you may not realize yet)–and then, suddenly, the next day, you’re completely at the beck and call of a small unreasonable creature.  And the only break is one you arrange at the expense of those around you.  (Baby naps, while they may be a refreshing pause in an otherwise busy day, are not “breaks” in my vocabulary, because you have to be quiet, observant, and restrained, and you never know exactly when the nap is going to end.)

And thus it is easy to lose oneself in the vastness.  And it is hard at first.  I read once a theory about oxygen in the depths of the ocean, that there could be a liquid (instead of gaseous) form that could help the lungs deal with the pressure of ocean depths.  I think this was in a fiction book, because I remember very clearly that they talked about how hard it would be psychologically, because it would feel, for a moment, like drowning.  Eventually you would discover that the liquid filling your lungs was oxygenated and life-enriching, but for that dreadful moment, you’d be sure you were going to die as your lungs lost their last tiny bit of air, all you’d ever known–only to be filled up by this alien liquid.  That’s the best description of motherhood I can think of.  One day air, the next day liquid.  Different.  Foreign.  Scary.  Drowning.  But eventually, every bit as useful and good and maybe even better.

The common response this overwhelming transition: don’t give in!  Take time for yourself!  Be your own person!  Have your own identity outside of motherhood!

Indeed, one must not allow one’s children to become one’s idols.  But this response of unabated narcissism annoys me.  I hadn’t quite put my finger on it until tonight, but after reading the umteeth blog about not losing yourself in your kids, I finally realized why this had been rubbing me the wrong way even more than usual: there’s a third way.  It’s not either/or, me or my children.  It’s not a split, some time for me, some time for them; a little energy here, a little hobby there. The thing all this pop psychology can’t account for is that some of us already lost ourselves long before we had kids.  It’s hard to be overly upset about the reassignment of our time and resources when we didn’t count them as our own anyway.  I’ve thrown myself into motherhood without too much fretting about my own lost opportunities because I recognize that this new calling of mine is one I’ve been given, and one that’s an honor.

I don’t mean that I don’t struggle–deeply at times–with the fact that so many of my old ways have been subverted.  There are certainly things about life pre-kids that I miss; a good night’s sleep tops the list at the moment!  But what I do mean is that I consider this a failing, in large part, when it distracts me or dissuades me.  Complaining and grumbling in my heart about this job I’ve been honored to do is well, sin.

A happy mommy does make for happier, better children.  That’s the mantra and the justification of the do-something-for-yourself crowd, and I have no doubt that it’s true.  But the more important question is, what makes a happy mommy–and what should make a happy mommy?  True happiness is not found in serving myself.  The same One Who made me happy before children is the same One Who makes me happy today, and the happiest, most satisfying thing in the world is to be completely consumed, used up, obsessed, and burnt to a crisp in affection and service to Him.

Compared to that, children are about as much work as brushing my teeth.

Sisters and Mothers

I’ve just been rereading my earlier posts, and almost had to laugh–I have not felt very sorry at all that E is no longer an only child.  Yes, yes, I was right about all the little sweet moments I’d lose when R was born, but I hadn’t nearly anticipated the abundance of other sweet moments gained by watching E and R together, by holding them both on my lap, or by all acting like lunatics (as toddlers are wont to do) together.  The gain is clearly more than the loss.

The only thing that caught me utterly unaware was that I’m pretty sure E likes R more than she likes me.  Or anyone else.  She wants to use R’s blanket.  She wants to take a nap with R.  She wants to be just in the same room.  In short, she utterly adores her sister with an abandon that just won’t stop.  I thought it might, but it hasn’t dissipated one teensy bit.

Unless something changes, I’m beginning to realize that I may very well never have the relationship with my girls that my mother had with me.  Which is a little sad, in a completely selfish way.  I love my parents.  I have often desperately needed my parents.  My parents were my entire substantive social world for eons–more or less until S came along.  And then, with moving out (and away) things shifted a bit, but it was more of an expansion than an exchange–we still keep in very, very close touch.  If I need to talk, or need advice, one or the other of my parents is usually at the top of my list.

I have the vague suspicion, and maybe even hope, that E and R may be at the top of each others’ lists.  I know there’s a unique role of parentalness that siblings can’t fulfill (for instance–the aforementioned advice category), but for friendship?  My notion is that sisters may be better.  Longer-lasting, for sure; parents and children are separated by birth on one end and death on the other.

I hadn’t expected this, although I should have.  Mainly it makes me a little bit sad that I don’t have a sister of my own to have been a child with and to grow old with.  And more appreciative of the relationship–the friendship–that I have with my mom.