Growing up I’m not really sure how much I learned about pregnancy.  In church and in Sunday school, I was told that children were a gift from God and that if did get pregnant it was because God wanted to use you as a vehicle for creation.  This is why it was absolutely wrong to have an abortion—you were thwarting the plan that God had already set in place.  No matter the circumstances—whether you chose to have sex or not— you had been chosen to have a baby.  Just like Mary.  Mary was young and afraid, but she accepted the plan that God wanted to enact in her and as a reward she was given a perfect son, a saintly partner, and a painless childbirth.  I never considered whether she lost her mind trying to deal with Jesus wanting to nurse throughout the night or crying for hours on end.  This was probably because these issues weren’t really on my radar.  But if they had crossed my mind, I’m sure that I would have reasoned one of two things—either a) Jesus wouldn’t have acted like that to begin with because he’s God, b) even if Jesus did, Mary wouldn’t have minded at all because she’s holy and perfect too.  On television and from certain (impolite) male family members, I was told that the stomachs and breasts of pregnant women grow larger.  The breast increase was a particular gift for men and perhaps served to keep them still sexually interested in their otherwise potentially less attractive partners.  All in all, I thought pregnancy must not be that bad—if I’m ever pregnant I’ll be getting the gift of a child and extra sexiness (read: the ability to excite men) all in one package deal.  This is pretty much salvation for women, right?

Now I’m actually pregnant and I realize it is not that great.  I actually really dislike being pregnant.  I felt awful for (not just the first three months, but really) the first 4.5 months.  By “awful”, I  mean specifically that I thought I was going to throw up at any moment day or night 24/7.  I often did, and when I didn’t I usually felt even worse.  I couldn’t open my refrigerator door, I couldn’t cook or prepare my own food, I couldn’t food shop.  The smells were too intense and the nausea was too debilitating.  I didn’t feel like I was having a baby, I felt like I had become the baby.  I was totally reliant on my partner for everything from food, to transportation, to cleaning up.  This, by the way, didn’t create the best conditions for building confidence in oneself as an adult and therefore capable of soon taking care of another human life. I felt like a failure as an adult and as a woman.  This, in turn, produced a lot of anxiety and even more intense nausea.   I woke up multiple times a night with nausea and couldn’t go back to sleep.  And, this was a healthy pregnancy.  I laughed when I read the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ letter to the Department of Health and Human Services protesting the inclusion of contraception and sterilization among illness prevention measures on the grounds that pregnancy is not a disease because, I can tell you from my own experience, it sure felt like a disease.  I appreciate the sentiment that pregnancy is a natural thing that happens to women’s bodies and shouldn’t be over-medicalized (though I don’t think this isn’t exactly what the Bishops intend to get at here), but it doesn’t change the reality that if you had told me I was dying of cancer in those first 5 months I wouldn’t have been surprised.  In fact, I would have felt relieved for an explanation of why this felt so bad.  Surely every woman’s experience of pregnancy is different.  I had just never known before that this much suffering in pregnancy was considered perfectly within the range of the healthy and normal.

There’s so much that could make pregnancy easier for women.  Once I start brainstorming on the topic, I quickly become overwhelmed.  There is so much that needs to change.  I’ll just offer a few thoughts here.  First, it would be a lot healthier if we adopted realistic language about pregnancy and childbirth in religious settings.  We should talk about how bearing children is really difficult and becoming frustrated with the process does not mean that one has failed to accept any potential gifts that might exist alongside of the challenges.  In churches that emphasize the role of Mary and, in particular, Mary’s role as mother of Jesus, we should be honest about the fact that Mary probably experienced a lot of pain and suffering—not only in childbirth, but also throughout the course of the pregnancy itself and into early motherhood.  Her virtue is not defined by the degree to which this pain didn’t affect her, but instead it is defined by the degree to which she faced it head on, asked for help when she needed it, questioned God directly when she was confused and unsure (Lk 1:34), and just simply held on.  Second, we should emphasize that childbearing is the work of a community, not just an individual.  Partners aren’t being extra nice and good when they help pregnant women by doing all the dishes, the food shopping, or the cooking.  This is what has to happen for these women to survive, i.e., to stay both physically and mentally healthy.  People in the broader community have to make accommodations for pregnant women and nursing mothers in the workplace, in church, and in social settings.  This might mean having to get over the fact that a mother might have to nurse her infant in the middle of a church service (yes, right there in the pews!) in order to both keep the baby quiet and the mother participating in the worship without excessive interruptions.  This could mean that friends of the woman may have to make a point to check in on a pregnant woman or new mother with extra intention to ensure that she doesn’t slip into post-partum or pregnancy depression (often brought on because of the isolation that follows from not feeling well physically).  Third, we should encourage women to talk about their experiences of pregnancy, especially when they do not conform to expected narratives of pure bliss and gratitude.

14 thoughts

  1. I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the “smugness” of many pregnant women – women who act as if they have arrived. It seems that pregnancy and motherhood are the keys to happiness, fulfillment and wisdom. It’s almost as if (christian) pregnant women feel relieved that they are completing the task. Worse, many don’t seem to value the opinions of single women or married women without children.

    What are women trying to prove??

    I believe this is one of those areas where WOMEN are guilty of perpetuating the idea that we are baby machines.

    Would love to hear your thoughts…

    1. I honestly have never been close to any pregnant women who have adopted an attitude of smugness. I wonder whether that kind of vibe is usually directed toward those who observe the woman from afar and if whether most pregnant women, within a relationship characterized by trust and intimacy, would reveal more complex emotions about their present state. Either way, I think it is certainly worthwhile to think more about whether internalized oppression influences the degree to which women project socially acceptable forms of self-evaluation, as you suggest.

  2. Julia,

    Thanks for this post! It’s great! I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement about encouraging women to speak honestly and openly about pregnancy. I’m not pregnant, nor have I ever been pregnant, but I am incredibly nosy. This means I tend to ask questions that border on impolite, but I have discovered that pregnant and formerly pregnant women LOVE to tell me about all the crazy things that happened to their bodies during pregnancy.

    What I’ve heard repeated over and over in these conversations boils down to this: “No one ever told me [insert gross, weird, uncomfortable thing here] would happen. All I ever heard was ‘You’ll love being pregnant!'” For most of the women I’ve talked with, this created anxiety and concern, since the only person they had to ask questions of was their doctor. Honestly, how often do we get to “talk” with doctors?

    This idea of the serene, unflappable, holy pregnant woman may not be untrue, but is a narrow enough interpretation to seem that way to many. A more realistic view of pregnancy could do much for women, and for viewing the Christian life. I think about the Christian life as a relationship of love, with God, myself, and my fellow human beings.

    But I know that relationships are messy, complicated, at times uncomfortable, require lots of work and effort, and, in the end, worthwhile and beautiful. What more intimate relationship could there be than actually building another human being inside our own bodies? Some days you want to vom from the effort of faith, hope, and love, and other days you simply stand in serene and silent awe of the work of God–that sounds a lot like being pregnant or being Christian. Maybe if we could look at pregnancy more realistically, we could also start being better Christians.

  3. It seems to me that the healthiest approach to pregnancy… in the churches or wherever… needs to strike a happy medium between rose-tinted pictures based upon certain ideologies on the one hand, and critical views that do just as much to harm a woman’s sense of strength and ability during this season on the other.

    We have a dear friend who was visiting while in med school, and was discussing with us how grossed out he was during his OB rotation. I think he was honestly trying to make conversation with us about an awkward topic (we’re a pretty “birthy” family, in contrast he’s not very interested in having kids). But the honesty of immediate revulsion or frustration is probably best restrained and set in the context of the pregnant woman’s broader situation. A lot about pregnancy could be considered “gross”, but it’s how we all got here after all, and it’s really no more “gross” than anything else about our bodies. A lot of it is painful, but the women who go through that pain are equipped with a strength that should impress themselves, their partners, and friends. This is really the center of my wife’s work as a doula — working with women to empower them and let them know that, yes it’s painful, but you are able to do this. Yes, the doctor knows a lot more than you about birth, but you are able to speak for yourself and stand up for yourself and say “no” to their strong-arming if you want to do your pregnancy or your birth differently. This is your baby and God has made you capable. The difficulty, of course, is that this can sound a lot like “You better be happy and smiley about your birth, and don’t you dare have any regrets” …exactly the sort of approach should be avoided.

    I also think [fyi… this is a bit of a soapbox!] that doctors can create as many problems with all of this as various teachings of the Church. OB/Gyns are specialists who only really need to take high-risk pregnancies. When (and mostly this is a U.S. problem) OB/Gyns are the norm even for low-risk pregnancy care, mothers get an extremely skewed view of their situation because of the over-medicalized stance of specialists who can sometimes push interventions rather than work with the mother and let the mother control her own pregnancy. It’s no wonder that women feel stupid, or ashamed, or incapable when they’re only fed intermittent bits of information, when doctors freak out at 40 weeks and pull out their calenders to schedule an induction, when women are relegated to a bed in exposed and counter-intuitive labor positions simply for the convenience of the MD, etc.

    I appreciate your last paragraph about ways to make pregnancy easier for women. As the partner of a mother of two, I also think it’s necessary to emphasize (as you did) that your partner’s support of you falls into the same category as the nursing-friendly parish, or the friends who check up periodically post-partum. You’re not a failure because your partner went to the grocery store for you or did a lot of the normal tasks that you used to do. It just takes a village. From a dad’s perspective, I know that when my wife was pregnant, I always felt like I was hardly doing a thing… whatever extra I did in terms of cooking or cleaning or errands, it certainly didn’t begin to match up to the job she had to do. Whatever inconveniences it led to for me, she certainly had to put up with more. Partners have it easy. They should get over themselves and pitch in. :)

    Sorry, this is long. I enjoyed the post a lot.

  4. Hey Julia, I had fun talking to you about pregnancy in New Rochelle. You’re probably the only woman I’ve ever met who really was interested in hearing about the largely un-talked-about (and for the first-time pregnant woman, unprecedented) bodily changes that occur. Kudos to you for that. I was watching, and you didn’t blink once!

  5. Hi

    This is such a helpful post. I’ve never been pregnant, but this gives me a real insight into it and into how I can help friends who are! More than that, it’s a great model of what church can be – a community of openness where we can be real about who we are, even though that may look very different.

  6. Thank you for this post – so thought provoking. You and a post from a friend inspired me to blog today and there has been some good feedback.

    Your honesty about your own pregnancy is refreshing and reframes not only the rarified experience that is put out there, but also reframes the theological conversation. I really appreciate all the things you said – thanks again.

  7. Thanks so much for this reflection. I’ve always thought the Immaculate Conception sounded a lot like a kind of Marian Docetism. Not only have we had to contend with the idea of this “Superman” Jesus who feels no real pain nor suffers as any human being would (hence being “fully human” in addition to divine) it extends to Mary, too.

    Hauerwas likes to say that Christianity isn’t about explanations–it’s about how to deal with a suffering world that is without explanation. Your points about pregnancy and childbirth being nothing less than communal and social really speak to this.

  8. Thanks so much for the reflection! Spot. On. While my pregnancies weren’t as difficult as you describe, I shared many, many of the same thoughts and insights, esp as a WIM.

  9. Thanks so much for this! While my two pregnancies are now over a decade in the past, I still have some vivid memories of the startling, overwhelming misery of some aspects of being pregnant (and giving birth, but that’s a whole different conversation). And some of the bodily changes are permanent–you can return to the same weight, but discover you have a much different body shape now. And then there’s the fact that some things just don’t work the same after pregnancy . . . in discussing the many changes we’d gone through in giving birth to our children, a friend of mine said something to the effect of, “Y’know, pregnancy is a miracle. An absolute miracle. But it’s not SUCH a miracle that it doesn’t do some serious, permanent damage to a lot of us . . .”

  10. Congratulations, Julia! Also, many thanks for this post. This is exactly why WIT is such a wonderful blog. The “changing demographic” and generational differences among Catholic theologians (including and especially women) needs this kind of reflection. Hurrah!

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