I gave birth in a quiet hospital room, my husband at hand. Until the final moments, it was just the two of us. We moved and breathed in unison. I never felt so married. When the pain became unbearable, I asked him to read the psalms I had chosen ahead of time. He did so in a low voice, kneeling by my side, those ancient words suddenly appropriate for the work at hand. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Ps 46:2-3). All became peaceful. Everything unnecessary fell away. There was a sense of purpose. After it was over, I felt euphoric. Anything was possible. We had made it. I did not understand how suffering could become sweet.
Suffering is a mystery. We are never to seek suffering for its own sake, yet it is part of life. Everyone suffers. Sometimes we even look back on moments of intense suffering with gratitude. Anyone who has witnessed a beautiful death or birth has witnessed suffering transformed. St. Thérèse of Lisieux said at the end of her long battle with tuberculosis, “I cannot suffer anymore because my suffering has become sweet.”
In the struggle to make sense of life and death, of intense joy and pain, Catholic women I know bring narratives of suffering with them into the labor room. Some pray without words or simply slip a saint medal under a pillow. Others have elaborate rituals. At her home delivery, a Mexican-American friend had an altar with an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a photo of her deceased twin sister. She felt her sister’s presence during the birth of her son. A musician herself, she had asked someone to play the guitar and sing.
Some women have friends or family lay hands on them and pray over them before they give birth. Others ask people they know to send their prayer intentions and then dedicate a contraction to each person and their needs. One friend told me, “During labor my husband or sister would read the prayer intentions to me one by one as the next wave of pain was about to crash so I could hold that person with me. I had so much to pray for.” It was incredible, she said, “to ‘bring’ all these people with me during the births of my beautiful daughters.” She also had a carved image of the Holy Family and photos of deceased loved ones as focal points to remind her of the communion of saints.
I do not fully understand how it is possible for suffering to become sweet. Perhaps it results from laboring on behalf of others and not being alone. Christians believe in a God who suffered on behalf of others, and Jesus was born to a woman who suffered on his behalf. Christians also believe in communion with the living and with those who have gone before. One woman told me that after becoming a mother she suddenly felt a sense of kinship with Mary and with other mothers everywhere.
No one can count on seeing their suffering transformed in the moment. No one can count on the perfect birth, or the perfect child, or even on their labor being productive. Sometimes it is just sacrificial. There is a frightening element of self-abandonment to providence that a woman in labor simply cannot get around. Women whose children die in utero nevertheless have to go through the ordeal of giving birth to a deceased baby. This labor is especially difficult because the woman’s body does not go into labor naturally, nor does the fetus move into position the way a living fetus does. A woman in this situation told me she just prayed that the labor would go quickly. Mercifully, it did.
Another woman labored for days without medication before she was rushed into an emergency Caesarean section. She wanted nothing more than to experience childbirth naturally. Major surgery was the opposite of her plan. She was exhausted and frightened when they gave her an epidural, tied her arms down on the operating table and cut her daughter out. She could feel them tearing the walls of her uterus with their hands. “The first time I saw my daughter I couldn’t touch her because my arms were tied down…and she was on the other side of the drape. It was a long time before I could tell that story without crying.”
A culture that demands perfection of new mothers compounded this woman’s physical and emotional pain. Because she had a C-section, she felt like a failure. We forget that giving birth is a good in itself. We want to be successful. We want natural births and happy, healthy breastfed babies—what good mothers are supposed to want and have. In large part, this is for the good of the child and the mother, but it has also become a kind of competition.
In my case, the labor was a gift, but what followed was the most difficult period in my life. Shortly after my son was born, his heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated. His first days were spent in a neonatal intensive care unit. He had two holes in his heart and experienced “failure to thrive.” He did not eat or sleep or gain weight. He had terrible reflux, so eating was painful and everything he ate came back up. He would become tired and frustrated and just cry or fall asleep hungry. I quit everything else in my life to focus on his health. I have never worked so hard or been so exhausted. I have never felt so low. Even though I nursed him constantly for the first six months of his life, he was too weak to nurse effectively. I agonized over giving him a bottle, believing I was a failure. I tried everything. Then I remembered that my son is the good I labored for. A high I.Q. and an excellent immune system—possible benefits of exclusive breastfeeding—are intermediate goods. Clement is the good. So I gave him a bottle, and people reached out to me. Eventually he got better, healed and grew.
My friend, who labored for days only to be rushed into an emergency C-section, wanted to give birth peacefully and to hold her child in her arms. But her needs were secondary to her daughter’s life, so she let go of them, for Cecilia. As the Psalmist says, “May he remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings” (Ps 20:3).
I used to consider it odd that in the Bible women were described as “blessed with children.” It was difficult to wrap my mind around a blessing that involved, among other things, working nights. Yet when I first met my son, I knew in my bones it was an honor to be someone’s mother, to be entrusted with so much goodness.
In common parlance blessing has come to mean good fortune without great responsibility. People who are wealthy can speak of being “blessed” in relation to their material prosperity—a nice car or house, for example. So what about the poor woman who refers to her many children as blessings? Perhaps the greatest blessings are not the kind that demand the least from us.
For Aristotle, a person’s happiness cannot be measured in the moment. It is not always evident amid some trial. It can be known only when a person has stepped back and looked at his or her entire life. Our greatest opportunities for growth and joy often come from our most difficult and riskiest undertakings, even when in the moment we are simply struggling to survive. In the end, many of these undertakings cannot or should not be avoided. C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” Perhaps this is why people often refer to children or grandchildren as their greatest blessings or sources of happiness, even though childbearing and childrearing involve pain.
In the Mass we celebrate Christ’s sacrifice of his life on behalf of the entire world. We in turn offer our lives, our joys and pains.
Someday I want to tell my son the story of the day he was born, on his due date, the Fourth of July. I want to tell him how we labored to bring him into the world and were so excited to meet him. I want to tell him that there were fireflies in the front yard and fireworks in the sky, and that he was never alone—which is to say, it was hard work but beautiful and lovely too.