Janel Kragt Bakker is proud mother to Caritas, whose name means "self-giving love." Cara suffered from a debilitating brain tumor and massive hydrocephalus. She was born prematurely on October 16, 2009, and was removed from life support the following day after her condition was deemed untreatable. Janel, her husband Laryn, and their two-year-old daughter Alleia are learning how to live their "new normal" lives amidst their profound grief.
I discovered Janel quite by accident when she referenced my previous writing on a topic that continues to tangle and evade me: our perception of birth and how our notion of our bodies as vessels changes with loss. Janel wrote this piece to be featured in Catapult Magazine, a publication that explores Christian theology. Regardless of what beliefs we subscribe to, the philosophical prompts Janel offers are universal. She expands my hot-headed thinking with grace, and she was kind enough to allow us to share her reflections with you.
Immediately after a woman has birthed her baby, writes midwife Jan Verhaeghe,
Every cell in her body knows and shows her strength. At the end of hours of pain and emotions felt more intensely than at any other time in life, she is exultant. To know the exhilaration, euphoria, and power that comes with the exhaustion and pain of giving birth is truly empowering. After giving birth, a woman knows she can do anything, accomplish any goal.
~ "The Empowerment of Birth." New Life Journal. December 2003.
Verhaughe is certainly not alone is her assessment of the birthing experience. Giving birth has long been associated with creativity and conquest. And among many contemporaries, especially proponents of “natural birth,” the experience of giving birth is perceived as the zenith of women’s empowerment. I do not share this perception. On October 16, 2009, I gave birth to a dying child. The experience was one of absolute helplessness.
Twenty-nine weeks into my pregnancy and two months after receiving the devastating news that Caritas Anne, our daughter in utero, suffered from a massive and likely fatal brain tumor, my body went into labor. Due to pregnancy complications caused by Cara’s condition, my labor could not be stopped. All night my uterus contracted and my cervix dilated. At the appropriate time, I began pushing. Cara’s head, swelled beyond the size of that of a full-term infant by spinal fluid and lesion, would not descend through the birth canal. After I was quickly wheeled into an operating room for a cesarean section, I stared at a partition while a team of health professionals wrested my ailing daughter from my body. She did not cry; she barely breathed. And there was nothing I could do to make things right. I couldn’t even touch my child. While another team of doctors worked to intubate and stabilize my daughter, I did what she could not do and the only thing I could do; I wailed.
As expectant parents dream up their their ideal “birth plans,” young mothers describe their birthing experiences around water coolers or playground equipment, and well-wishers congratulate new parents on Facebook walls, the birthing experience is often closely linked to merit. The fewer the interventions, the longer the unmedicated labor, the more (or less) dramatic the coping with labor pain, the bigger the baby, the higher the Apgar scores, and so on, the more heroic the birthing woman. Anyone who believes machismo is a strictly male phenomenon should listen to newly minted mothers swap their birthing stories. The natural birth movement in particular and the contemporary North American culture of parenthood in general deemphasize the unavoidable fact that no matter how much a woman takes care of her body, knows her body and trusts her body, the birthing experience may go horribly wrong.
As Kate Inglis, another mother of a baby who died, writes,
People anoint bodies in hospital beds with words like “fighter” and “miracle” and “goddess” because of the cultural urge to wrap up formative life events with neat little bows. But in doing so, they silently demote everyone else who dies. Or who screams for an epidural, or who falls apart at the incubator of a one-pound child.
We do not exist or fail to exist — or birth and "fail" to birth — because some are stamped with a rubber imprint of GOOD or STRONG or WORTHY and some are not.
~ The Passing-through of Necessary Spaces, Glow in the Woods.
The fact is that giving birth, like so many life experiences, is largely outside of our control. Giving birth is a powerful event, but the power is witnessed rather than manufactured by the mother, father, child or anyone else in the room. To give birth is to encounter beauty, mystery and transcendence, but to give birth is also to meet grave danger and to be laid bare before cosmic forces that we cannot control any more than we can understand.
portrait of surrender (not of the author), lovingly shared by mainemomma
Receptivity is a central motif in Mariology across Christian traditions. "Here I am, the servant of the Lord," says Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke as the birth of Jesus is foretold. "Let it be with me according to your word." Mary’s openness to the mysterious movement of God is her chief virtue and ours. But opening ourselves to that which is beyond ourselves is dangerous business. The possibility of parenthood is no exception. When a couple open themselves to reproduction, they also open themselves to the relentless pain of being unable to conceive, unable to give birth. A pregnant woman opens herself to being cruelly betrayed by her own body, to standing by helplessly while her child is betrayed by his or her own body. Opening oneself to giving birth is opening oneself to suffering and death-to managing debilitating handicaps, to burying one’s child, to being overcome with sadness at the mere sight of another parent doting on a healthy newborn. Opening oneself to giving birth is opening oneself to hell.
Of course, opening oneself to giving birth is also opening oneself to beauty and transcendence. When I gave birth to our firstborn daughter two years ago, it was indeed an experience of elation and wonder. My husband and I were brought into the presence of God in a unique and profound way as we marveled at the miracle of new life. The veil was also somehow lifted, though in a different way, as I gave birth to Cara. We encountered a God who knows what it is like to watch one’s own child die. And we strongly sensed that God suffered with us and with our daughter.
Some Old Testament scholars define "lament" as the reaction to a belief-shattering experience. Even though I knew better, before I carried and birthed my daughter Cara I believed that if I did what was right, I could expect positive outcomes. This is my lament. Metaphysically speaking, I do not know why bad things happen. I do not know whether God wills them, merely allows them, cannot stop them or something else entirely. What I do know is that I am not fully the master of my own destiny and that one day I will again witness the birth of something beautiful.
~ Janel Kragt Bakker
Reflecting on birth, what do you feel you know? What do you feel you'll never know? What is your lament?