I have never felt this way so much as I did when I gave birth to my first child. I remember thinking that if I just left him laying on the bed, just walked away from him, he would die. I couldn’t believe how all-consuming his need was for me, how he searched for my milk, my comfort, my sustenance every hour or two around the clock, every single day. I had never experienced this kind of terrifying dependency. I’d been responsible for other people on many different levels and even in “dangerous” parts of the world, but this sense of responsibility, well, there was nothing like it. Exacerbated by a wild postpartum hormone cocktail, it could nearly crush my heart if I let my thoughts wander rabbit trails to all of the possibilities of us being separated.
After an emergency instrumental birth, substantial haemorrhage and a 30-hour separation from my son at different hospitals, I finally found myself at home five days later with a healthy baby, but also with the signs of a uterine infection. There is a smell that accompanies life-threatening infection. It’s the smell of death, very literally. My husband and I called our midwife (who would come in the morning) and stayed awake together in the night, neither of us wanting to speak out how terrified we were. It wasn’t just the infection, not just grief over the trauma of our son’s birth; we had slammed into this new world with no maps, carrying an overwhelming weight of responsibility wrapped up in this seven pounds of baby boy.
Postpartum infection is one of the leading causes of maternal death in the world and 99% of any kind of maternal death occurs in the developing world. My own infection could have becoming life-threatening, but I was minutes away from the right antibiotics and world class healthcare. Within a few days I was on the mend. The infection was gone, but the sense of vulnerability was not.
Last week I gave birth to my third baby; it was beautiful, uncomplicated, and yet that sense of vulnerability continues to ebb and flow. I am faced with two options: run from it to whatever comforts and distractions I can find, or stay in those fears, no matter how “irrational” they may be, allowing them to connect me to women around the world.
I’ve met Sudanese refugee mothers in Cairo who have lost multiple children to diarrhoea in the midst of a twenty-year conflict. In the same city, I drank tea with an Iraqi woman who longed to return to her beloved homeland where she had lost numerous family members to war. Most Syrian women are living under the threat of violence or trying to make a new home with minimal means in an unfamiliar place. I remember visiting a mama in South Sudan after attending the birth of her eighth child, and the very next day she was re-thatching the roof of her home. A high percentage of women in the world are pregnant or birthing babies and trying to raise their children in safety, just like I am, yet they do so in the valley of the shadow of death. It’s so easy to simply forget about these women and enjoy the luxury of irrelevance I have to most of the bad news on the BBC. Or I can remember, but use the stats and headlines to criticize myself, dismissing my own feelings of vulnerability as unrealistic.
I spent about three months in South Sudan and found an incredible woman named Miriam to mother me while I was there. She taught me to carry water on my head and scrub my clothes properly, but I learned the most from her capacity for empathy. I would often spend the late evenings sitting at her fire, shelling ground nuts and getting her perspective on the Canadian boy I was emailing, the one I was starting to love and eventually married. She would tell me stories from her 27 years as a refugee in Uganda, stories that terrified me there in the darkness and broke my heart. And while she shared these sobering words she would sit next to me, stroking my hair.
In her words and with her touch, in the space she created in her own life experience for an American girl, I learned something I desperately needed to know: God’s heart is big enough for us all. There’s no comparison, just Divine compassion and a desire for Her children to care deeply for one another. God doesn’t judge us according to our level of suffering or pain, but chooses in freedom to dwell with us there, present like an ancient midwife, hands covered in our blood–comforting, protecting and healing. As we experience that Maternal Presence in our own pain, our capacity to care for others in front of us and across the ocean will slowly grow.
As William C. Placher writes in Narratives of a Vulnerable God, “If God will be with us in our suffering, and God’s love sustains us, however, then we can dare to love and live the risks entailed in the realm between heaven and hell where we dwell and to which God freely came.”
The intense emotions we occasionally (or frequently!) experience as women can be gifts that draw us closer to God and to the rest of the world.
Let’s light a candle and feel them connecting us to women around the world, our sisters, many of them who really do have reason to worry and pray in the night. Rather than hurriedly extinguishing those feelings and fears that create sparks in our hearts, we can let them burn awhile in intercession.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8 that it’s not only creation groaning with labour pains, but because the Spirit of God lives in us, we groan as well. If we can stay in these universal labour pains as they ebb and flow through us (rather than self-medicate or shame ourselves), our hearts can be enlarged.
As personal and unique as those feelings are, they may not be just about us. Especially when we sense the naked darkness of it all, can we let them linger, present with the One who is both fully vulnerable and completely trustworthy? Let’s carry them running into God’s arms, where there is not a hint of darkness, only the promise of all things new.
Becca spent five years working in mother-child healthcare in beautiful places like South Sudan, India and Nigeria. She has dreams in women’s health and education brewing but now spends her days with a newborn in arms and chasing two toddlers around the post-industrial Australian neighbourhood she calls home. She writes about non-violent parenting, grief, spirituality and justice at exilefertility.com while keeping a fairly messy, but welcoming, home with her Canadian husband.
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