It was the gown that finally broke me.
That ugly, faded, worn so many times before me, hospital gown. After 45 hours of labor, I stepped into a sterile hospital room and looked around at everything I hated about that place. I took a deep breath and tolerated the machines, the curtains, the cold bassinet they intended to put my baby in, the harsh lighting, the vinyl floors, the IV drip I’d soon be hooked up to, the mechanical bed with scratchy sheets. But when my eyes fell upon that gown – that hideous cotton drape that was going to turn me into a patient – my heart gave one final plunge into despair.
For me, the hospital gown was the final step to making my birth medical and I feared that it would strip away everything primal that had risen up inside of me. It symbolized everything I was losing. I was never supposed to be in this room, never supposed to be told what to wear. I was supposed to give birth naked in my bedroom, in a pool in my husband’s arms. No needles. No machines. No nurses. No vaginal exams. No cold bassinet and no harsh lighting. No freaking rules. I was supposed to be at home where it was safe and peaceful – where I was in control. However, after two days at home my baby was getting weak and my plan needed to change. I walked into that hospital terrified, my body quaking with contractions and grief. But half an hour earlier I was told that my daughter’s heart tones were no longer varying, and I became a mom. So with tears pouring from my eyes, I sat down on that horrible bed and put on the stupid gown.
Birth has been part of my life since I was a young child, and I have loved it and I have longed for it. I can still feel the excitement that would run through my veins at twelve years old when my midwife mother would pull me out of bed in the middle of the night to go with her to a birth. My brother and I would be deposited in some out-of-the-way location, a spare room or a corner couch – but I would lay awake, watching and listening until my eyes were so heavy with sleep that I couldn’t stand it any longer. And somewhere along the way, I learned that birth was sacred.
As I got older I went to fewer births and my mother finally retired, but the feelings of birth never left me. I would think of it and remember the way my mom would wear her watch on the inside of her wrist to time contractions, and the way her brow would furrow as she counted a pulse. I would think of the smells of home birth – candles, casseroles, herbs and oils, blood and fluid. I would think of the sounds of soft music, women laughing, the guttural moans of transition, and the silence that briefly precedes the cry of a new baby. I would think of these things and look forward to the day that my own home would be filled with the bustle and anticipation of bringing forth new life. I dreamed of it the way that many young girls dream of their wedding day. Before I ever truly longed for motherhood, I had a yearning to give birth.
So this past January when I learned that I was pregnant, there was never a question about where I would give birth or who would deliver my baby. I spent my entire pregnancy envisioning a successful home birth. I practiced breathing into pain instead of shutting it down. I believed, from the depth of my soul, that I was designed to give birth and that my body knew what to do. And when my water broke that Friday morning, I was not afraid. I was ready. And when the full throws of labor finally overtook me on Saturday evening, I was a rock star. I was woman: powerful, fierce, brave. I gave in to the part of me that was instinctively animal, and I knew how to labor. I have never felt more alive or sure of myself than I did in those hours.
But loving labor and being good at labor was ultimately not enough. I wasn’t progressing like I needed to be after two full days of broken water and the baby inside of me was exhausted and weak, and she was not descending. So with no good options left, we did the one thing that I’d refused to let my plan take into consideration: we got in the car and drove to the hospital.
Over the next twelve hours I would submit to every single intervention that I was terrified of and starkly opposed to. I would have a needle put into my spine to allow my baby to rest. A needle in my spine. (You need to know that I am so afraid of needles that I literally have a panic attack over a simple finger prick). I would have continuous fetal monitoring and a blood pressure cuff strapped to my arm. I would endure countless invasive exams just to be told things that were meant to scare me after each one. I would allow exactly one dose of Pitocin to buy myself more time. And eventually I would make it through the part where I wanted to give up, and I would fully dilate and start pushing – only to have it be unproductive because her head was wedged into my hip in such a way that she could not move down through the birth canal. Then and only then would I say yes to surgery, where I would have my little girl pulled from my body while I laid helpless and numb, fighting with every ounce of strength I had left to keep my eyes open long enough to meet her.
Hattie Cole was born at 9:01 on a Sunday night, perfect and healthy and beautiful; but for more than a week all I could do was cry. To say I was angry at God would be putting it mildly. It took me several days to bond with Hattie, and I blamed him directly. I couldn’t shake the anguish I felt when I realized I had no memory of holding her for the first time. I was overcome by the fury that raged inside me when I remembered laying in the recovery room watching my family cradle her in their arms while I silently struggled to control the violent shaking that the drugs had caused. I didn’t know how I could forgive him for the fact that even though I’d planned meticulously for my daughter to have a calm and gentle transition into the world, she was instead born abruptly and into chaos.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me…
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
-Psalm 51: 7-10, 17
For weeks following Hattie’s birth, this is the passage that ran through my mind. I knew that my bones had been broken by God. I knew that I had a broken spirit and a contrite heart. But what I didn’t know was why. I believed (and still believe) that my desires about how I wanted to give birth were good. They were well thought out and were based on what I truly thought was best for my baby. I wanted a drug free home birth because I believed that it was the right decision for us based on years of research and personal experience. Beyond the science and statistics though, there was a deeply rooted spiritual desire surrounding birth for me. I wanted to feel the pain of birth because I wanted to celebrate God’s perfect design for a mother’s body. I wanted to be brought to the end of my physical self and cry out to him for the strength I needed to bring my child into this world. I believed that birth was sacred because God had created it to be so, and I was furious that he formed my feelings around birth and then took it away from me in the end. Over and over again, I asked him to show me why.
The answer came upon me heavily and in a single word: idolatry.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore what is earthly in you…which is idolatry.”
-Colossians 3 1-5
The desire I had for childbirth was not inherently bad; but in the sin of my flesh I made it so. In my desire to give birth naturally at home, I was arrogant, prideful, and obsessive. I wanted it so badly that it began to permeate my life in a way that took precedence, at times, over God. I know that it was an idol because the pain I felt over losing it was disproportionate to the loss itself.
I lost an experience, but I gained a child. God is merciful to me because in changing my birth plan, he helped me to believe what I had previously been unsure of: I wanted to be a mother more than I wanted to give birth. The way in which she was born does not have eternal implications, but she does.
It was easy to accept my idolatry in this area, because I recognized it so clearly. I processed it, I repented of it, and I worshipped God because he is so jealous for my affections that he will stop at nothing to secure them.
But even after I accepted that the idol of natural birth had been taken away from me, there was still an aching in my spirit that I couldn’t get past. I kept returning to the passage from Psalm 51, ”let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” I have felt those words so deeply for these past months, but it wasn’t until I started writing this that I fully understood why: The breaking of bones is only painful if those bones are a part of you.
Not only had I taken a once pure dream and turned it into a thing that I worshipped, but I had made that dream and the ideals that surrounded it a rock where I began to build my identity. I carved it into a god and made myself its most devout worshipper. I built my hope on an earthly dream, however wonderful that dream was. And when that dream died I was left a foolish zealot without a god.
I identified so deeply with the values I hold about childbirth, that when things went awry it was more than something I needed to mourn the loss of. Instead, it shook me to my very core. I was humiliated because I didn’t turn out to be who I had claimed to be, and I wasn’t sure what that meant about who I actually was.
But my God is faithful to never let me turn out to be anything other than his – so when I forget who I am, the God of Israel speaks over me once again,
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
The transition into motherhood was a difficult one for me because when I didn’t become a mother the way I’d envisioned I would, it was hard for me to feel like I’d become a mother at all. For weeks, I felt like a phony.
But my Lord is full of kindness in his dealings with me, and his discipline is never in vain. Slowly but surely, he has been healing my sorrow and replacing it with joy and peace. And he is showing me that motherhood is not at all dependent on the avenue by which it occurs.
I always wanted to be able to tell my child that I became a mom through suffering and self-sacrifice. That I felt every birth pain in order to bring her earth-side. That I was pushed to my absolute limit and that God carried me through. That I was the first person to hold her and the first person to love her. That we were connected from the second she was born. And for a long time after Hattie’s birth, I felt like I was robbed of my ability to tell her these things.
But recently, the Holy Spirit has shown me that it’s all still true – and it’s more true than it ever would have been if I had given birth the way I’d planned. The physical sacrifice I’d wanted to tell her about was small compared to the emotions I had to fight through when nothing went my way. Not only did I reach my limit physically, but I had to rely on God to bring me through things I had feared since I was a child; and he was good to me even though I was mad at him.
Although the hours following her birth were far from the time of bonding that I still ache for, I had wrapped my arms tightly around my womb and spoken love over her before anyone else knew that she existed, and again each day until she emerged into the world. And the night she was born we didn’t get to connect the way I desperately wanted to, but when she was pulled from my body she turned to the sound of my voice. She stared wide into my eyes and though I could barely keep mine open, I looked back at her with everything I had left – and in that moment we knew each other. She knew me and I knew her and that gaze was full of more love than I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I’m her mom.
Her birth story does matter, because birth is sacred. God’s designs are flawless, and this was his perfect plan to bring her to me. It was more painful than I could have ever imagined, but that pain was full of purpose and beauty and grace.
And so my broken bones rejoice.