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.