Tuesday, July 14, 2009

part 5: birth and rebirth

And then, I became a mom.

My doula told me beforehand that I would find it spiritually empowering. I thought that was just goofy talk, so I nodded politely as she described how that sense of empowerment would spill over into all other dimensions of personal and professional life. I couldn't see how giving birth would make me a better theologian.

That was beforeI gave birth.

Many people have written and remarked on the role of their children or grandchildren in bringing them to a realization of the arbitrary limitations of gender within our churches. But that's not what I want to write about. Giving birth didn't teach me the absurdity of gender injustice within the kingdom of God--I was already aware. Giving birth taught me how to love being a woman, a lesson I didn't yet know I hadn't actually learned.

It's not that I ever wanted to be a man. It's just that, till then, being a woman was somehow always framed in the negative. And it was so normal that I didn't even realize it. I--still--didn't think of myself primarily as a woman, except for those instances when I was forced to, in recognition of the limitations of my gender. I still on some level thought of myself as a person, or a student, something generic--"man" in that grammatical universal sense supposedly divorced from actual gender. Female embodiment was sort of accidental, a historical and genetic contingency, and sort of irrelevant. I did, after all, spend a lot of time living in my head.

Pregnancy rewrote my concepts of woman and embodiment. Being a woman was suddenly revelatory, life-giving, positive, superlative, something other but also more than generic "man." I loved my body in a way I never had before; I bought tubs and tubs of cocoa butter not so much out of fear of stretch marks but for the sheer joy of rubbing my growing belly. I reveled in the compliments, which seemed to grow in proportion to my midsection. I had never before felt so beautiful, so at home in my own skin.

Birth rewrote my concepts of spirituality and materiality: who could have known that the most holy moment of my life would occur amid water and blood and shit? Or rather, how could I have missed that messy, bodily, out-of-bounds birthing is at the very center of Christian faith? That birth and rebirth are a privileged metaphor of the spiritual life within Christianity?

Maria was right: it has made me a better theologian.

I don't want to claim that this experience is necessary for a "true" understanding of Christian faith. Not everyone gets to have this experience of birthing: obviously, men do not, but neither do all women. But this is my story. This was my road to wholeness: the birth of my daughter, which rebirthed me, not as the false generic "man," but as a woman. Finally.


Tera said...

I became a mother 7 weeks ago and you've said so beautifully some of the same feelings I have had. Giving birth was an unparalleled experience for me also in appreciating being a female in a female body.

jocelyn said...

I love this. I am constantly frustrated by what girls/women learn about their bodies from the church's rhetoric, both silent and spoken. But this sense of empowerment is striking and often missing from our church discourse. And I love the image of you finding spiritual enlightenment amid such an essentially human/female act--the blood, fluid, grunting nature of it all. It's a wonderful embodiment of the duality of Christ's humanity and divinity. Thank you for sharing.

JTB said...

Tera, blessings! Enjoy motherhood!!!

And at some point when you have the inclination, pick up _Mama, PhD_ and read through it. I found it incredibly helpful for articulating some of the ongoing challenges of being a mom and a doctoral student.

Jocelyn, I often think of a lot of this stuff as "unlearning" the things I hadn't realized I'd even learned, about gender and body etc. It's amazing how much more we teach implicitly than explicitly in our churches...

lisa b said...

I've just found your blog and haven't read much of what you've written, but I plan to spend some time here getting to know you.

Giving birth (at home with midwives) was the most spiritually empowering thing I've ever done. As women, we are allowed to be co-creators through the birthing process, but until we can come to grips with female sexuality, that will not not be seen as being "in the image of God."

Until women can learn to accept their own bodies and the strength that they have, they will not be able to accept their spiritual strength either.

BTW, I'm a Harding/cofC person too. Hang in there.

JTB said...

Lisa, welcome! And thanks for your comment.

I am quite envious of your home birth! Although Clare's birth was ideal, I am aware that my situation was quite unique--a really comfortable hospital setting where the midwives had a long-standing relationship and respected reputation. I would love a home birth for the still hypothetical sibling, but I have a strong impression that this will be quite the "scandalon" for Brent...(he's not being irrational; my placenta didn't deliver, and then the cord broke off, so there was a danger of hemorrhaging that had to be addressed rather quickly. This scares him a lot more than it does me.) Well, perhaps that's TMI, but what can you expect from a habitual blogger...;)