When I was pregnant with my first child, I asked my mother about labor. This woman who gave birth to her first on her own kitchen table (her mother and mother-in-law in attendance) hardly looked up from her work to say, “It’s not that bad.” Though she nearly bled to death after the birth of each of her children, she said little more when I asked for details. She did indicate that the labor was actually harder on my father. I thought she was joking, but he confirmed her account of his dismay at her experience. He decided after the first labor that he could never put her through that again—they should have no more children. As their fifth child, I’ve always been grateful my mother changed my father’s mind.
Dr. Kartchner, trained by the Army in World War II, prepared us first-time parents for labor by explaining that labor was not pain at all—simply pressure. Our son came breech and pale blue into this world after eighteen hours of intense “pressure” at two-minute intervals. Labor is hard enough. Exhausted and relieved, I was not inclined to correct the good doctor as he stitched up the episiotomy, nor was I interested, later on, in contradicting my mother as she taught me how to bathe our child. I’d had firsthand experience of my limits, and it seemed to me that the pain or pressure was sufficient that God might have found a better way of delivering my children.
I was for a time convinced that women were indeed the braver of the race for simply enduring labor through all the millennia it took to bring us Demerol and epidurals. That superiority complex was short-lived; I had not yet felt the dreadful pull to stay at bedside watching writhing pain tear at someone I loved, and praying that God either take away the pain or make me strong enough to bear it, too.
I’ve glimpsed a bit of what fathers feel at the birth of their children. A coworker, a proud first-time father, modestly acknowledged at lunch one day that he had helped produce the world’s most beautiful child. He assured us his wife was recovering nicely, and our talk turned to pregnancy, labor, and birth. He paused mid-sentence, recounting his wife’s struggle; he had no words for what he felt. An experienced father of four explained that his first child came only after a very hard labor and significant short-term injury to his wife. “The next day,” he said, “I looked at myself and everyone I passed on the street, and said in my heart, ‘You did that to your mother!'” It took him some time to recover from the shock. The fathers round me mumbled agreement about labor’s difficulty, shaking their heads and looking away in silent frustration at their own helplessness in the process of birth.
As I listened to what seemed to be their judgment that their respective wives had suffered far more than ought to be necessary, I found myself leaning across the table trying to comfort them. Though I couldn’t discount the distress they described, the only words that came to mind were my mother’s “It’s not that bad.” What I meant, I suppose, is that those labor pains are not without purpose.
After four labors and one emergency C-section, I have not forgotten the heaviness of the child pressing to be born, but neither do I dismiss natural birthing as superfluous suffering. What is it I think that I have bought by my maternal pains? Certainly my friends who for years hoped for pregnancy, endured medical tests and self-doubt and grief, love their adopted children no less than I love the children of my body. I am also quite sure that there are many ways of learning love other than through offspring, but in my life, along with my parents and my husband, my children have worked a profound change in my ability to care for others.
I am forever altered by the carrying and the laboring for my children. Slow learner that I am, it took the birth of my first child to see each person as someone else’s child, someone else’s pain and joy. This radical restructuring of my world left me unable to bear some of the misery we inflict on each other. Whether real or simulated, I cannot watch the maiming or killing of anyone’s child, no matter the age.
This could be sentimentality, but I prefer to think that in that relatively short time when body and soul are straining to bring forth the daughter or the son, some of us grasp for the first time that each irreplaceable life requires faith, patience, and more pain than any of us would choose. Labor gives life, and the long wait between conception and birth instills gratitude for each delicate finger and toe, and appreciation for the beauty of the human body and all its functions, right down to the last sleepy burp and snore of the infant snuggled at shoulder.
A relationship that began with the biological connection between parent and child may, through labor and with astonishing speed, become a fierce, inarticulate urge to protect the vulnerable newborn whose face is seen only after long months of worry, long hours of effort. Maybe it is the work of motherly or fatherly nurture that brings about a change of heart linking us with those who have gone before us, with those who will live after us. As our children grow, we are invited to become patient and less selfish through the presence of dependent innocents or the pique of aggravating adolescents. As we and our parents age, we are, in recognition of our own infirmities, enticed to be more forgiving, more repentant, more compassionate. Perhaps it is this witness of familial love that gives us hope beyond the present: we were not made to turn to forgotten dust.
We are each of us bought through someone else’s pain and taught by our own suffering that every day’s breath is an infinite gift. We are none of us simply biological creatures. Like sparrows and lilies, we are known and accounted for; clothed by more than mortal flesh, the end of our creation is joy.
Camille S. Williams is a poet. Her article “Abortion and the Actualized Self” appeared in the November 1991 issue of First Things .