Contemporary Western hospitals offer – and at times impose – an ever growing range of medical interventions to the labouring mother. These are sometimes life-saving. Yet they often also come with risks that should preclude unreflective usage. In light of this, a small but growing number of young parents and parents-to-be are rediscovering the beauty and the benefits of natural childbirth – that is, of seeking to allow one of human life’s most integral and mind-blowing events to take its natural course. Alongside certain health benefits, this rediscovery, I wish to suggest, is of direct significance from the perspective of theological anthropology. For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God.
The birth of a child begins perhaps with excitement, perhaps with fear, but in any case with pain. At the beginning, one might still be oblivious of the extent to which this pain will gradually undo one of our most cherished dispositions – that of being in control, and of being able to withdraw from whatever threatens our autonomy. Even the pain seems, initially, to be what we want, what we have long been waiting for. In a sense, we still ‘possess’ our body. As labour progresses, however, our posture of self-control increasingly crumbles. What we begin to experience is something we have not signed up for at all. The indescribable scope of the pain that simply overcomes us is entirely unexpected and uninvited. We are faced with something we are sure we cannot shoulder. Like when reaching a new stage in the spiritual life, we want to run away, for the sake, it feels, of preserving our very life. (This is where, in an un-induced childbirth, the first medical intervention – the epidural – usually comes in).
In order to continue the process naturally there is, as any midwife will (in one form or another) confirm, only one strategy: to let go. To let go of being in command, to let go of the need to maintain a dignified appearance, to let go of our attachment to comfort and the picturesque, and above all, to let go of our human rationality, which tells us that it is impossible. Instead of fearing for our life, we are called to trustingly place our life in the hands of God. We may feel that we may not make it. More viscerally than ever before, we become aware that our life is not our own, that everything hinges on God’s will. To this we can now only surrender, humbly and hopefully.
Such a profound act of self-surrender does not in any way put an end to our suffering. Yet it brings with it an unknown peace that makes the suffering bearable, even as it gets greater still. And in allowing us to hand ourselves over to the present moment, it allows us to meet Christ crucified, there with us: fragile, aching, undone.
And just as we have entered into this fellowship most deeply – everything is miraculously made new! We are met by new, unknown life, and a sense, not merely of relief, but of an unknown, perfect bliss. In the matter of an instant, the pain that was is cast into oblivion and we are overcome by an unspeakable awe and love that extends to all the world, to the unknown creature before us, as much as to our spouse and companions, and the nurse who only just popped in to the room.
This, then, is how life comes into the world. In experiencing the birth of a child, we are blessed with a spiritual lesson. If we let ourselves in for it (and provided, of course, that we encounter no complications), we are given a glimpse of how and why to enter into the abyss. We are taught, almost by force, a self-surrender that is entirely antithetical to our worldly disposition, yet that allows us to meet Jesus, who has come so that we may have life (John 10:10). Indeed, in giving birth to a child we receive nothing less than a foretaste of the beatific vision.
All things being equal, then, the pain and labor of natural childbirth can be a spiritual blessing and resource. It teaches us that, with God, all is possible and that, from our suffering, new life can spring. For this reason alone, we must continue to aspire to and value natural childbirth. For, if we believe in life after death, then our positive experiences of suffering in the context of giving birth might give us hope also with regard to suffering in the context of approaching death.