In quiet hallways and private corners, I’ve made my confession to trusted friends. Guilty and ashamed, but seeking solace, I have admitted the truth: I hate being pregnant. Now, in the throes of my sixth round of this freely chosen misery, I have decided to speak openly. We religious types rarely, if ever, publicly address the real burden that pregnancy puts on women. Instead, we jump ahead to the value of the life she carries. Unless we find ways to acknowledge this aspect of the experience of women, our defense of the truth that every human life has value risks ringing false.
Pregnancy can be deeply disturbing. Granted, some women consider pregnancy to be a precious moment in their maternal history. Instead of vomiting, these women glow. But many women experience an unsettling mixture of the glorious and the grotesque. Here aloneduring pregnancydo intense nausea, constant fatigue, digestive chaos, and hormonally induced depression fail to earn the title “illness.” The body is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. A brand new human person is being fashioned by drawing from the mother’s physical resources. It’s wonderful and awful at the same time. But how often does pro-life rhetoric acknowledge this twofold reality?
Women immersed in a religious landscape frequently feel pressure to act happy and bear their maternal miseries with pious silence. Lamenting pregnancy seems to border on blasphemy. We who sincerely desire to build up the culture of life, who seek to welcome children as the supreme blessing of marriage, we who worship God as the source of all life and declare ourselves to be his servants, we are not in the business of inviting pregnant women to cry on our shoulders. We don’t even acknowledge that it’s normal to feel sad. We’re too busy rejoicingrightlyover the precious gift of new life.
In the National Organization of Women and the architects of the supposed War on Women, the painfully pregnant have a listening ear. Although the conversation is rarely about the ills of pregnancy, NOW and WOW openly admit that women don’t always want to be pregnant. They offer an honest recognition that pregnancy is not every woman’s dream job. Mixed in amongst a slew of lies about the status of unborn life, the feminists offer a reassuring dose of reality. Sometimes, pregnancy stinks.
I am a fortunate woman. I have a devoted husband, a faith that comforts me, and a vast network of supportive family members. When I am pregnant, meals show up in my freezer, aunts appear at the door to babysit, and people keep me in their prayers. And still, I detest the experience. I can only imagine what it must be like for a woman who bears an unwanted pregnancy without the support of family or the benefit of faith. What if she is poor? What if the father has threatened to leave if she doesn’t abort? Suppose she must face social shame because of her situation. Truth demands us to admit that pregnancy can be a personal disaster for a host of reasons. If a woman in such circumstances is not among the glowing ones, what is to keep her from making a beeline to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic? How easy it must be to believe that the Republicans and the Religious Right who stand in the way are waging war on her.
I clearly recall the ring of “protection” that clinic guards made around girls coming in for abortions on Saturday mornings in Pittsburgh. About fifty of us gathered to pray outside of a clinic there. Every time a girl approached the facility, a crew of five yellow-jacketed vigilantes surrounded her in the parking lot like a swarm of hornets, clasped hands, and escorted her into the doors so as to protect her from . . . us. Twisted as it was, it appeared that these female thugs had the best interest of the girl at heart and that we were actually her enemies.
How can we convince vulnerable women, and secular society, that we are not the enemy? We need to begin by acknowledging the apparent disconnect between our self-proclaimed love for all life and the perception that we don’t care about suffering women. We do of course, it just isn’t clear to the public eye. Our compassion is there for all to see, but only in those realms where the liberal media refuses to tread. Countless religious men accompany their wives, daughters, and sisters through the trials of pregnancy by offering ongoing emotional and physical support. Countless grandparents, parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and neighbors of faith spring into action when a woman they know is expecting. Our pregnancy centers, our pastoral support programs, and our ministries for expectant moms reveal that we really do care about women, not just their babies.
But right-to-life billboards and bumper sticker declarations do little to confirm this reality. Our political debates and pro-life media outlets are generally focused on other issues. And as I already mentioned, the default religious response to pregnancy doesn’t typically consider women’s personal concerns. All this creates an atmosphere that seems, at best, ignorant of the trials of pregnancy and, at worst, like a callous crusade to make struggling women even more miserable.
Honestly recognizing this situation is the first step towards more genuinely addressing the whole spectrum of our values. Privately, we can do better at validating the struggles of the pregnant women we know. Flowing from this, in our public discourse, too, we should begin to validate the difficulty of pregnancy instead of simply enumerating its merits. Can men resolve to think, write and speak more openly and more often about their admiration for what mothers endure, for their strength and perseverance? Seasoned moms, too, could contribute by sharing their stories with other women and with culture at large. Yes, we have had awful pregnancies. Yes, there were times we wished we weren’t pregnant, but we are very glad we didn’t give up. Maybe the arsenal of pro-life bumper stickers could be fortified with a slogan as simple as “Pregnancy is worth it.” I’m on round six because my children prove to me with every breath they take that even when pregnancy is excruciating, it’s still worth it.
“Women will be saved through childbearing,” St. Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy. If bearing a child in one’s body is salvific, it is because the experience leads us into the redemptive mystery of the cross. As Christ offered his body and shed his blood to give us life, so too every mother offers her body and sheds her blood to give life. The new life every mother brings to the world follows the “Passion” of pregnancy and labor. Let’s not pretend the Resurrection should come without the cross.
Gina Loehr is the author of four books from Servant Books and a theology instructor at Marian University of Wisconsin.