The Birth of Beauty and Suffering / by Joellyn Hoekstra

I’ve now had a small plethora of birth experiences. My first was a cesarean section under general anesthesia. That means I was put to sleep for it. I don’t remember meeting my boy. Thank goodness there are pictures. My last was the complete opposite. There was hardly even time for an IV stick. I’m one of those weird people who has actually looked forward to the laboring and delivery of my babies since I was a young girl. It’s a kind of strange obsession I have. I even wanted another baby just minutes after Lottie’s birth (I know, I’m one of those crazy people). Many people tried to comfort me after Silas’ birth by reminding me that at least I have a healthy baby. Absolutely! Of course, I am beyond thankful to have my little guy. That’s not what I was missing. There are many mysterious and beautiful things going on during the birthing process, and I left his feeling like I had lost something. 

There are really two completely separate yet totally related processes going on during labor and birth. A woman is becoming a mother (or a repeat mother). She is going through a massive transition, regardless of how she has chosen to birth. There is also a child entering the world, and the two come together beautifully in the end. The mother and her perspective on this event in her life cannot be overlooked. Likewise, the child cannot be ignored, and the two should be kept safe, mother’s wishes and dignity preserved—even in a c-section (maybe even especially in this scenario). It saddens me to know how difficult it can be for a birthing mother to find a care provider who respects these two happenings individually and together. All births can be done well and carefully all the while empowering a woman in a mighty way. 

I had the opportunity to share Lottie’s birth with my sweet older sister, my incredible husband and my supportive mother-in-law/doula (two for one!). It has been important to be able to debrief with them since I have delivered my girl. My sister mentioned that it was profound for her to watch a natural birth and see the work with each contraction. She has been thinking about how this reflects a picture of our walk through life. She is so right and so wise. Our initial instinct is to fight and wrestle with grief or pain. It was powerful for her to see the contractions intentionally embraced and handed over and out of my control. We grow in the presence and process of pain and suffering, and we need people by our side. I couldn’t have done it without them.

We western folk have a real fear of pain and suffering don’t we? We have found various ways to numb it. Social media, alcohol, drugs, sex, narcotics, and baby head sniffing just to name a few. For me the birth process is an opportunity to practice suffering well. I don’t expect every woman to have this perspective. I know that I’m not the norm, but just entertain this thought with me for a moment. I longed to let myself rest in the hard contractions. It has struck me since that when I met each contraction ready to handle it with deep slow breathing I could actually rest (almost sleep) through it. When I was caught off guard and unprepared to meet the next contraction, I would be struggling and noticed that I felt stuck in whatever position I happened to be in when it hit me hard. A contraction can knock the breath right out of you when you’re not ready for it. What is the value in expecting suffering and being prepared for it in advance as believers in Jesus?

The birth process provides opportunity after opportunity (like every 2-5 minutes) to practice staring difficulty straight in the face and experiencing the courage and strength you find to get through it. I didn’t want to numb it. I didn’t want to fear it. I have been changed by my births. It’s all woven together here. The beautiful and the dark are present simultaneously throughout the laboring. It’s truly a small glimpse of the life journey. Birthing is a massive sacrifice on the part of the mother, giving all of herself to bring life into this world. What an incredible offering of the self. It is so worth the hard work.

Well-meaning Christian brothers and sisters have told me to protect myself from pain before. A few years ago I spent time in Uganda caring for vulnerable, sweet babies. One in particular, a precious boy who was so sick at the time that many people were worried he might not live. I specifically remember a friend telling me not to get too invested in him because I would be hurt if he didn’t survive. So I trusted God, and I ignored that person. I just loved that baby even harder. I cannot even begin to imagine all that would have been lost in my soul if I had taken this advice. When we go through loss and it hurts us, I think that’s a really good sign. Some of my hurts are the best things about me. They were deep enough to change me. I love those parts of my heart. Jesus is there. I wouldn’t take them back. I wish I had a stretch mark or physical scar to show for some of the deep love and hurt I have been able to experience with God by my side. 

I have felt so much joy with the coming of my new girl child. There are many emotions and such incredible highs. All the while, I have had friends and family who have experienced loss and heartache in these very weeks. There is a time for rejoicing and a time for grieving. Sometimes they happen all at once. How do we process this? Why am I holding a fresh new life with all the beauty and excitement that comes with her while others are empty handed? I did nothing to deserve this. Neither did they. My prayers were not more fervent and theirs were not lacking. Suffering is so hard. I don’t have the answers. I only know that God is good. I can rest in that truth in the midst of the unanswered questions and pain.

Sometimes we don’t like to acknowledge it, but the Bible talks about suffering. A lot. We’re told to expect it as believers and even to embrace it. That’s hard to swallow in the midst of real, true suffering. We need God in these times. He knows that. We grow and we learn to trust Him and to love Him more. We are only here for a time. Our present suffering is nothing compared to the future glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). We are obsessed with knowing how our lives will play out. That includes birth. It’s inconvenient and unpredictable. It seems to be incompatible with our societies obsession with comfort.

Birth presents us with beauty and pain all at once. We need support. Can birth be an opportunity to practice engaging and embracing suffering? I’m thankful to have had support, and I long for this for every other birthing mom. Can we suffer well? Can we come alongside our brothers and sisters and encourage them in suffering? Can we love knowing that it might hurt us? Are we encouraged to do these things or commanded? I don’t know what kind of suffering you’re facing now, but I long for you to be supported well and surrounded like a mother in labor. Fully embracing and acknowledging the hard work you are doing. I long for you to be prepared for it and loved well through it because you are not alone and because you are hoping and trusting in Jesus. I long for you to breathe deep and give your pain to Him. There is light in the darkness. There is glory in the end. 

-JBH