“You’re still at six centimeters,” the nurse midwife said after checking my cervix for dilation.
I turned to my husband with wild eyes.
“We’re still at six centimeters,” I repeated.
Despite the medical interventions I already had undergone – the synthetic Pitocin pumping into my blood stream through an IV, the manual breaking of my bag of waters – I wasn’t even one centimeter closer to delivering my baby than I had been nine hours earlier.
I closed my eyes, absorbing the news. My breathing grew shallow; I could feel the panic in my throat like a hard knob. The past nine hours of contractions didn’t “do” anything.
Some women experience textbook labors where everything progresses in timely, ordered stages. Pre-labor, active labor, transition, pushing. But many women I have talked with describe how unpredictable their labor was, how unprepared they were for the slow, hard work it is, unaware of how labor can stall and stop all together, for hours or even days.
In almost every birth story, there comes a time when the excitement of meeting the new baby has vanished, when the overwhelming, pounding, spiting, relentless contractions crash down like waves. That is the moment when the mother needs her doula to encourage, uplift, and bolster her. Look in my eyes, the doula might say. You can do this; your body was made to do this.
Some women turn inward and zone-out, they find a place deep within themselves. There is a sense of letting go, of first kicking to swim to the surface and then floating, letting the waves do the work, but staying above the water, not allowing the waves to drown you in their all-powerful, relentless movement.
Other women get lost under the surf, they panic, and they lose all control. Maybe they don’t have a supportive medical team, maybe they are beyond exhausted, maybe they hear discouraging news about their labor’s progress and they can’t see any other way forward.
“I just need to get through this!” I said, crying between contractions. “I need this to be over.”
We were entering our third night of labor, our eyes bloodshot and our limbs heavy, as though filled with sand. My husband squeezed my hand as the midwife explained that I might need an epidural to help my cervix relax. Extreme fatigue can cause women to tense their muscles and prevent dilation, rendering hours and hours of contractions as ineffective.
This wasn’t in the birth plan; this wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I had high hopes for an unmedicated birth.
“Yes,” I said. “Do it.”
After waiting for an excruciatingly long time for the anesthesiologist, I had a needle inserted into my spine. My body relaxed. The contractions continued, but I couldn’t feel them. And in just 30 minutes, I had dilated from 6 to 10 centimeters. I was able to vaginally birth a 9 pound 11 ounces healthy baby girl.
Does God ever feel that discouragement, that exhaustion? Does God feel the pain of a non-progressing labor? Does God ever look around wildly for rest, for pain relief, for a break in the relentless, ineffectual pain? Does God ever look at the world – with its vast inequalities, its senseless suffering – and wonder if these labor contractions are really working to bring God’s kingdom?
I think about the moment in the garden, the moment when Jesus knows true fear, when he sweats blood and asks God, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me. Don’t lead me through the pain of crucifixion, the agony of nails in palms and soles, the terror of broken bones.”
Jesus asked even though he knew his death would mean the redemption of the world; he knew that all sin and sorrow would be washed away. He knew all these things, yet it didn’t stop him from asking God to take away the cup. Was some part of him afraid that resurrection wouldn’t come? Like a laboring mother, who fears her own death or the death or her child?
I relate to Jesus in the garden. In my own labor, I lost sight of the baby to be born and just wanted it over. I thought I couldn’t go on. It’s amazing to think of God in the same position, God who knows what important work God is doing through labor, but loses sight of the end goal.
It’s cathartic because reflecting on labor is a mixed experience for many women. Lots of us assumed we would be strong and have beautiful natural births. But labor is not something you can learn about from textbooks, it’s not something you control by writing a perfect birth plan. The expectations don’t often reflect the true experience of one’s birth.
In my case, I wasn’t “strong” in the way I thought I would be strong. But Jesus isn’t “strong” in the way I imagine God should be strong – he asks God for another way. He hits a wall of fear. He understands how hard it is to surrender, to trust God to make a way through.
It is now November, the month my baby should be arriving, and I am still aiming for un-medicated birth. I picked a freestanding birth center to deliver my child, one where I will be in a supportive environment and won’t have access to pain relief during my labor. My midwife has assured me that second labors are often easier: the mother knows what to expect and her body has muscle memories to propel the baby down more quickly.
Indeed, I know more this time. I know God as a struggling, birthing woman. I know a God who asked for the pain to stop, who sweated blood in the garden. I know that, even if I hit that wall of exhaustion and muscle fatigue, and even if all the support of my midwife and doula fail to propel me to have to birth I hope for, and even if I have to be transferred to the hospital across the street for pain relief or an emergency C-section – I know that God understands. I hope this knowledge will enable me to have more grace for myself, however the birth proceeds.
And, once I have my newborn son in my arms for the first time, I know how quickly I will forget my labor, how I will forgive the hours of contractions and pushing and pain. This is what I imagine heaven will be like: a relief at finally seeing the new creation, an immediate release of all sorrows that preceded it.