It has been now nearly a year since I gave birth to my son. The pregnancy itself, though within the range of normal and healthy, was a completely miserable experience. I wanted it to be over as soon as possible and then never wanted to do it again, ever. When asked about how I was anticipating birth to be, I usually answered that I wasn’t nervous at all. I didn’t know why everyone kept asking about it since, really, how hard could it be? It would only last one (or two?) days and I would have a lot of support around me. What made pregnancy so difficult for me was the monotony of feeling awful and alone nearly every day for nine months.
Fairly late in my pregnancy I had a meeting with a faculty member who was advising me on something related to my dissertation project on the topic of sexual trauma. At the end of the meeting she said to me, “Speaking of trauma, when are you due?” I was taken off guard by her comment. As one who I know takes seriously the horrors of sexual abuse and rape (and as one who has given birth herself), I was surprised by the apparent casualness with which she seemed to equate childbirth and a violent act of personal violation. It was meant partly as a joke, I know. And, probably it was not an entirely thoughtful or sensitive one either. But as I would come to find out, there was something true about it.
My experience of childbirth perhaps was particularly intense (30+ hours of laboring at home with the intention to do a home birth, hospital transport in the midst of a tornado warning, 12 more hours of laboring at the hospital, etc.) but everything worked out fine and both baby and I remained safe and healthy. Many women have it so much worse. Yet, for the first 3 or 4 months after the birth I experienced some enduring effects of trauma—flashbacks of pain and fear, bouts of crying, not being able to put into words what had happened to me. I had confronted death in birth, but death had not gone away once the experience was over. It stayed with me and accompanied me in daily living. I didn’t have much energy or opportunity to talk to other mothers about this during my recovery time, but when I did say a few things I almost always noticed an attitude of recognition in their response. If this was something that other people experienced as well, why hadn’t I really heard anyone talking about this before?
Suffering and even trauma, a word used to describe intense forms of suffering that cannot be integrated into the fabric of everyday life, are complex realities. Edward Schillebeeckx is one theologian who acknowledges many different kinds of suffering: “the suffering of failure and renunciation, the suffering of physical pain, the suffering from evil and injustice, the suffering of love, of guilt and finitude“ [“Erfahrung und Glaube”, Christerlicher Glaube in moderner Gesellschaft. Teilband vol. 25 (Freiburg: Herder, 1980) 92]. The suffering (maybe I would call it trauma, I’m not sure) that I experienced in childbirth was not due in any primary way to injustice or evil. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that it was that which “ought not to be”. It is a normal part of life—difficult, beautiful, painful, and blessed all at once. It isn’t appropriate for the meaning that I might pull from that kind of experience to be mapped onto other forms of trauma which are not similarly ambiguous. The trauma of sexual abuse and rape benefit from a clear understanding of suffering as bestowing no kind of benefit to the victim and as entirely opposed by God. Yet, the suffering of childbirth is a different case. But, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t real and it doesn’t deserve discussion. Perhaps there need to be as many theologies of suffering as there are forms of suffering—the suffering caused by love, the suffering caused by evil, and the suffering caused by the ambiguities of daily, natural human being.
Thanks for this, Julia. I think you’re right that suffering which cannot easily be categorized can be difficult to recognize, with all the isolation and loneliness that follow from it.
Thank you for putting this Out There, Julia. Phenomenological discourse is shot through with images of violence, from Hegel’s master/slave dialectic to Judith Butler’s policed performativity. I’m not trying to go too heavy into the theory after a very personal account, but it strikes me that discourse on becoming, being and well-being is always tied in deeply with rupture and loss. Yet, as you talk about here, it simply not right to equate the ruptures and losses that constitute coming to be and living–ruptures and losses I would endure again and again as they form the most basic aspects of being human–with dehumanizing and death-dealing forms of violence. A colleague of mine in Fordham’s philosophy department, Prof. Ann Murphy, is doing work on this. There is an analogy at work between these different kinds of events that makes the words violence and trauma applicable to both, but we need more language to talk about their profound differences in order to get at what is human about something like the trauma of birth or the loss of a parent, and what is wrong about the trauma of rape or hate violence. Thanks again for lending your experience, voice and subtlety to this glaring lack in our phenomenological language in theology and philosophy.
Thank you, Brianne, for articulating this in theoretical language. It is really helpful to read.
Thank you for these reflections, Julia. I’m borrowing your quotation from Schillebeeckx and would like to give proper attribution. Would you be willing to email me your last name? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org; thanks!