I’m not really sure how much I learned about pregnancy while growing up. In church and Sunday School I was told that children were a gift from God — if one did get pregnant, it’s because God wants to use you as a vehicle for his creation. This is why abortion is “wrong” — it’s thwarting a plan that God has set in place. No matter the circumstances (whether you chose to have sex or not) — you were chosen to have that 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, or B) even if Jesus did, Mary wouldn’t have minded at all because she’s holy and perfect, too.
That doesn’t really help the rest of us, now does it?
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 — I figured if I was ever pregnant I’d 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?
I didn’t feel like I was having a baby… I felt like I had become the baby.
Now that I’m actually pregnant, I’m realizing it’s not quite that easy. I actually really dislike being pregnant. I felt awful for the first four-and-a-half months. By “awful,” I mean specifically that I thought I was going to throw up at any moment around the clock. 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 also 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’m sure 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 normal.
Before she was pregnant, Amy was a regular church-attending Seventh Day Adventist, and after? Not so much.
Once I start brainstorming about pregnancy and religion, I quickly become overwhelmed by the number of things that could make the whole experience easier for women. There is so much that needs to change. One example? 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.
We should also 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 — 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).
Finally, we should also encourage women to talk about their experiences of pregnancy — especially when they do not conform to expected narratives of pure bliss and gratitude.
Comments on Reflections on the difficulties of pregnancy by a Roman Catholic feminist
Beautiful way to phrase it. And congratulations on the baby in the near future. Keep holding on, and soon he will be in your arms.
You are so very right! Babies being a normal part of our culture, so that we naturally accomodate would be so nice…and is necessary…I was never taught that Mary didn’t have pain in childbirth…how funny… (I’m Catholic)
If pain in childbirth is part of God’s punishment for Eve’s sin then it would follow that Mary – being born entirely without sin – should not have had a painful delivery. Strictly speaking. (I very vaguely recall learning something similar. Many eons ago.)
However, I can’t imagine why the rest of us should expect that exemption to apply to us.
Personally, my early impressions of pregnancy were formed not from anything anybody said but from watching my mother throw up a lot. lol
Wow – Mary entirely without sin?! That is not a biblically based idea. *not catholic here, bible-based christian. 🙂
Catholics are “bible-based” Christians too. They just don’t believe in sola scriptura. They understand that the Bible is part of the way that God reveals himself–but that he also reveals himself through Holy Tradition (which is different from tradition little “t”) and the magistrum.
Yup. Fun factoid: Unlike what one might assume, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in the Catholic Church, celebrates the conception of Mary, not the conception of Jesus.
And should we revise this opinion of Jesus not crying, not needing his “swaddling clothes” changed and not ever being colicky?
All babies have needs, and we don’t consider it a sin when a baby cries or demands attention, so why do we pretend that Jesus didn’t do that? And remember–Jesus was about his Father’s work. In Luke, Mary and Joseph discover him missing when they left Jerusalem, so they had to return to search for him (Jesus was in the Temple the whole time.) Mary was left to panic, wonder where the child she birthed, where the child she was raising, had gone. Was he stolen? Had the Son of God gotten lost? I can’t help but imagine that this was not the last time something like this happened!
I remember as a child being utterly fascinated by the question “Did Jesus Poop?” I would ask people ALL THE TIME much to my mother’s horror 😀
Didn’t they just say ‘yes’?! LOL
OF COURSE Jesus pooped. But because he was Jesus, he changed his own diaper and did his brothers’ and sisters’ laundry, too. Mystery solved. 🙂
I was 8+ months pregnant very close to Christmas. That winter is on the short list of the most interesting and truly touching religious experiences of my life. I have been Catholic in practice since birth but have been Agnostic as far as absolute feelings of faith are concerned. However, that winter I felt a connection to the idea of Mary’s hardships, from riding a donkey across the desert in the same painful condition I was in, to the birth in a cave-stall, to having a son publicly executed. It was an emotional Christmas.
I think one of the most interesting stories in the Bible, also one of the very few where Jesus is talked about as a child, is when his parents lose him and they find him back at the Temple. Their reaction is to ask him why he ran back there and tell him how it made them feel. I think it is interesting because this is characteristic of the ideal mother I would like to be… responding calmly, explaining my feelings, and talking to my kids like intelligent self-willed beings. I guess through stories like this, I’ve come to feel they are snippets of idealizations, and I too am still working out where idealizations have their place and where they need to be dismantled. Surely if nothing else, the kind of discussion and changes you’re talking about are a great starting point.
By the way, Catholic Feminist Thought sounds like a fascinating area of study.
Thanks for this comment.
I was pregnant one chrismas and had a baby the next and it was those 2 years that I really felt a connection to Mary for the first time (am a quaker), and also the first time I really understood, on a gut level, the fear of their flight into Egypt and the tragedy of Herod condemning the babies to death. I emphasised with those mothers so much.
The Coventry Carol’s always been among my favourites but it breaks my heart now.
I remember being about 8 years old and my mom lecturing me on the theological inaccuracies of that line in “Away in a Manger” that states that Jesus didn’t cry. I do remember thinking “just let me sing the song”! (this just made me think of that)
Recently my parents helped pastor a church in New Zealand where if a mother was nursing she could just pop out a boob if she needed. Frankly I would love to see that over here!
Thank you so much for posting this! I am in Lutheran seminary now and 16 weeks pregnant with my first child. I also had to endure a chaplaincy internship at a level 1 trauma hospital during the majority of my first trimester (my last day is tomorrow, yey!). This experience at times has been unbearable. I like to be in control, and I never realized just how out of control I could be until I became pregnant. I had nausea, fatigue, migraine headaches, all the while striving to live up to expectations because my mother always told me that being pregnant is not a handicap…. my supervisor laughed and said my mother didn’t have to run around a hospital all day (great guy, ex Catholic priest!). I think that it is soooooooooooooooooooo important to emphasize to the “well-meaning” church folk and the world at large that no two pregnancies are the same, and sometimes no matter how “virtuous” you may be, being pregnant just sucks and makes you question why you wanted this in the first place! That’s reality. I always imagined the pain of childbirth as being the great sacrifice of motherhood, no one ever told me how great a sacrifice the entire pregnancy is! I know it will be worth it in the end when I get the prize at the end of the marathon… but still.
This is such an interesting perspective! And I very much agree that the language and expectations around the physical experience of pregnancy can be very misleading.
I’m currently 16 weeks pregnant, and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a relatively symptom-free experience in terms of nausea, fatigue, etc. I’ve had some back pain, but so far no heart burn. I do, however, have gestational diabetes. It’s interesting to me that I have not been physically uncomfortable, but I’m still experiencing this sense of isolation because while I’m happy to be pregnant, it’s also bringing up a lot of body-image stuff and self-loathing.
I wish there were more positive, less self-blaming resources available for women who are experiencing various types of complications. Or just more public knowledge, because the judgements and advice I’ve gotten for how to deal with the gestational diabetes have been way off-base and apparently without a modicum of actual knowledge on the subject.
It would also be helpful if more women were open about feelings of ambivalence about their pregnancies without being vilified. Reading articles about women who are blissed out through their entire pregnancies just makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.
When I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes I got so angry at my baby – and then so guilty for feeling angry at him. It turned into a pretty viscous self hate spiral. Everyone talks about post-partum depression, but perinatal depression is a thing, too. I got on a very low dosage of zoloft (despite refusing medication for depression all my life up until now) and almost immediately felt better. The annoyances of hunger and diet management were just that, annoyances. Don’t be afraid to talk to 1) admit you’re having issues and 2) look into getting them treated.
I think it all depends on the Church, but I totally know what you mean. I went from a fairly Evangelical church when I just became a Christian (We did a sermon series on sex, mainly referring to Song of Songs so it was pretty open) to the Catholic religion. Tough adjustment! I do hope that as I become more involved in the Church that this is something I can change. I really think that since the Church puts women on such a high pedestal in so many ways we should be realistic about pregnancy and childbirth while still glorifying it… Not that it is the only thing women are good for, but that it is something we do wonderfully 😉
I am not Catholic (grew up Episcopal), but in my experience, a lot of the issues you highlight are issues across a lot of Christian congregations whether they be Catholic, Lutheran, or Evangelical. It seems to be different in areas where the culture of birth is different. Obviously, my experience is limited, but that is just my personal observations.
All the issues of faith and theology aside (I’m an Anglican Christian, so I have thought about some of these issues a bit too), I just have to say that this:
“Now that I’m actually pregnant, I’m realizing it’s not quite that easy. I actually really dislike being pregnant. I felt awful for the first four-and-a-half months. By “awful,” I mean specifically that I thought I was going to throw up at any moment around the clock. 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.”
COMPLETELY describes my life right now. I’m 16 weeks pregnant and utterly miserable in terms of how I’m feeling.
While I can’t really indentify with the religious aspect here, I’m right there with you on the pregnancy not being all flowers and loveliness bit.
I’m 22 weeks and only stopped feeling HORRIBLE a few weeks ago, but noone wants to hear a pregnant lady say she’s not enjoying it.
Yes. Everytime I complained my boyfriend would quip “You wanted to be pregnant!” Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean that I have to live in denial of the fact that I’m uncomfortable. Nor does the fact that I wanted to have a baby mean that I *wanted* all the other BS, its just an unavoidable side effect.
Until you said it was within the range of normal, I have been thinking for a year and 9 months that I was abnormal… No better yet, that I was weak, weak, weak. That is was my fault I was sick, scared, in pain, and then so very low. That I was alone. Thank you.
I grew up roman catholic and went to catholic school for over 12 years. At church and school they taught us that Mary was the pinnacle of woman-hood and was born without sin because she was chosen by God to have his son. That abortion, for whatever reason, was horrifically wrong (complete with movies). They didn’t much say how pregnancy affected a woman’s life much less her marriage and life. My Mom on the other hand, taught me that abortion is not wrong. Some women are just not meant to be mothers and/or go though pregnancy because it is so difficult. She never once told me that being pregnant would be easy but that it is really tough. That helped me a great deal. I also, told that to my friends at the begining of thier pregnancies and it helped them. They would tell me afterwards that they figured out I wasn’t kidding about the struggle of it, even when it’s a typical healthy pregnancy. LOL
I’m pregnant with my second child and even though this pregnancy is going sooo much better then the first, I still have had my tribulations. But I get through it because I know that I am good Mom, love my first born son very much and I’m tougher then anything my body can toss my way!
This is a wonderfully written post, and I wish I could shout it from the mountains! I, also, LOATHED the beginning of my pregnancy 4 years ago… but now I can’t wait to be pregnant again. Having a supporting partner is soooo important! Not someone who does everything, but someone who helps you do what you can do!
“Roman Catholic Feminist” is the best thing I’ve ever read.
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.
Please allow me to love you harder.
Super lame story: Before I sort of fell back into being Catholic (I chose not to be for about a decade, and came back around as an adult), my mom wanted me to go see The Passion with her, because my step-dad refused to. All-in-all, whatever — it was a movie about Jesus, sure. But the scenes that showed Mary and Jesus as a child were by far the most moving, because I stopped and thought, “Whatever else Mary may have been, she was first a mother who had to watch her son suffer and do nothing.”
Mary was kind of hardcore.
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