My third child came into the world weighing just under 11 pounds, a fact that elicited awe and pity all round, especially when they discovered I’d had him the old-fashioned way. Despite his size, he was my easiest. I delivered him sitting in a tub of water, coached by a midwife, and completely relaxed after several weeks preparing with hypnobirthing techniques. I focused on staying calm, and let my body do the rest.
Years later, watching the British drama Call the Midwife on PBS, I find myself in tears each week as I relive the intense wonder of childbirth. Set in a community of midwives in post-war England, the show depicts women in a different era enduring the timeless challenges of labor and delivery. It was interesting to note a shift in the most recent season: as England’s healthcare system expanded in the ’50s, more women began to give birth in hospitals with physicians rather than at home with midwives. The show leaves me wondering how I’d given birth 50 or even 100 years ago.
Women, especially in developed societies, have access to better information and medical care than ever before. We are indebted to the contributions of people like Elizabeth Bing, one of the founders of Lamaze, who died at the age of 100 last month. Bing began working to overhaul obstetric care at a time when women were heavily sedated for labor. Instead, she believed in mothers being “awake and alert” and sought to prepare women to make informed decisions throughout the process. She focused on teaching women to trust their innate ability to give birth, although the breathing exercises probably remain the most renowned aspect of Lamaze fundamentals.
I applied Lamaze breathing methods for my first delivery, but when friends told me that hypnotherapy could make for an even more relaxed and empowered birth, I was willing to listen. Like Bing’s lessons, the hypnobirthing program encouraged deep relaxation and a “freedom from the fear that prevents your muscles functioning as nature intended.”
I was apprehensive about the new-agey approach. The visualization exercises included things like imagining warm, liquid light flowing through my muscles (which I found very relaxing), but also imagining myself traveling up out of my body, up through the atmosphere, floating among the stars and being “one with the universe” (which I found weird and eerily like astral projection.)
Some friends found such exercises spiritually worrying, but—rationalizer than I am—it was relatively easy to substitute more biblical images of creation and God, trusting in his sovereignty. We do not need to take comfort from being “one with the stars, safe and powerful” if, in truth, we are “safe and powerful in the hands of the One who made the stars,” and when my teachers coached us to trust our bodies’ deep and ancient wisdom in the birthing process, I could nod in agreement: “Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Learning to listen to and trust my body was one of the profound lessons of labor and childbirth for me, and it formed the backdrop for reading spiritual director Tara Owens’ new book Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone.
Owens reminds us that God created us as embodied souls, and our physicality is crucial to living wholly in his image. “Our bodies teach us about God, and God communicates to us through our bodies,” she writes. My experience of growing to trust the goodness of my created body through the lens of labor and delivery certainly made me aware of the divinely physical in a way I hadn’t been before.
But even our made-good bodies fail and let us down, and painfully so. Owens herself suffered a massive heart attack in her early 30s, a shocking reminder of her own frailty. Sometimes babies cannot be born naturally. Infant and maternal mortalities remain heartbreaking realities a fallen creation. Apostle Paul poignantly describes the world awaiting its physical redemption as “groaning as a woman in the pains of childbirth.” (Rom. 8:22).
I’m grateful to have delivered my children naturally, but also for the life-saving cesarean sections without which my sister and nephew would not have made it into the world. We can celebrate the wonder of our physical bodies, while also appreciating medical intervention when things don’t go as they ought.
But it is the ought, written into our DNA, which points to something we are perhaps slow to recognize, and which Elisabeth Bing and Tara Owens have helped me notice afresh. These physical bodies are impressive and able and trustworthy in more ways than we imagine. They’re better able to withstand the rigors of life and childbirth than I had given them credit for. In an age of mind-over-matter, we would do well to learn to listen to our bodies when they tell us they are hungry, or full, or tired, or when they are ready to start birthing the baby they have been sustaining for nine months.
When asked about her legacy in an interview later in her life, Elisabeth Bing said: “I hope I have made women aware that they have choices, that they can get to know their body and trust their body.” Yes, indeed. We have not yet been remade in Glory, but the bodies we have now are good nonetheless: cracked but capable vessels for the abundant, embodied life that Jesus calls us to.
Bronwyn Lea is a South African-born writer-mama, raising kids in California and raising questions about faith, family, and culture at bronlea.com. Her writing has appeared at RELEVANT, Momastery, Start Marriage Right, and Think Christian. Find her online on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter (@bronleatweets).
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