Giving Birth Taught Me How to Die

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Last month I gave birth to my third child. It was the painful peeling back of twenty-first century comforts that labor always is. Agonizing, and undignified: my life suddenly interrupted by invasive procedures, my mind rolling from the shock of natural processes — writhing and shivering — to the mental disconnect of medicalized interventions.

Labor in the West today is an odd coupling. Our most ancient, primal processes stitched awkwardly together with state-of-the-art technology. I was not having a “natural birth,” and yet much of what happened was unavoidably natural.

As I lay on the hospital bed, waiting to meet my son, two windows opened in my mind.

The Suffering of Life’s Beginning

The first was a window onto birth: real birth, as experienced by billions of women before me. Delivering a child was hard for me, despite every help and convenience, every nurse and doctor who attended me, every soothing drug that seeped into my veins to numb the pain. My body was ravaged. But I had help in every form and a faithful husband by my side — that day and for the many days to come. What would it be like without all this?

My mind flipped through scenes of other women giving birth — scenes I have only accessed through words on a page or images on a screen. Women who give birth alone. Women who have no medical help and confront the harshness of birth without relief. Women who know their child may die — or that they themselves may die — in the process. We in the West have stretched ourselves away from these realities, but lying in a labor and delivery ward, the specter of what birth has meant to billions hovered around me and I could not shake it.

Then came the questions: how could God allow this much pain to this many? The stark suffering written into the script of human beginnings. The lonely lament of women who give birth on the margins, hiding in shadows or exposed by circumstance. And yet God is — as the slave-girl mother Hagar named him — the God who sees (Genesis 16:13).

He is the God who tenderly witnesses this suffering, who meets us in it if we turn to him. And he is the God who alone can truly help, whether we lie on a dirt floor or a hospital bed. Indeed, he is the God who relates to us like a woman giving birth. He is the Rock who bore us, the God who gave us birth (Deuteronomy 32:18). Though a mother may forget the baby at her breast, he will not forget us (Isaiah 49:15). There are no tidy answers from this God. But there is the broken body of his Son, naked and humiliated, dying so that we might live.

The Suffering of Life’s Ending

And then my mind wandered forward. I will never endure the harshness of an unhelped birth. But one day, I will face the harshness of death. One day, my visit to a hospital will not end with a new life in my arms, but with my cold dead body covered by a hot-pressed sheet. The doctors will attempt to help. They will bring their machines and interventions. But they will be running for a train that is gaining speed. In the end, my hands will slip through their fingers. It may be an undignified farewell. Time of death called. The best I can hope for is that my children will be there. My husband, if we follow statistical norms, will have already paved the way. What then will be my hope, as lights flicker and monitors blink?

The story of Lazarus raised from the dead has hung around my mind for many years. Not because of the narrative denouement, when Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” and the man who was dead comes out (John 11:43–44) — though the scene is marvelous. But because of the quiet conversation Jesus has with Martha first. Jesus forced this crisis.

Martha called for him when her brother was sick, and Jesus did not come. He deliberately let Lazarus die, waiting until he had been dead four days. And then he came. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told this woman through her tears. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).

When I come to that final hospital bed, I must believe not just in a man who is my ticket to eternity, but in the man who is eternity itself. Jesus does not just give us resurrection. He is the resurrection and the life. Without him, there is only death. With him, there is a life no lonely death can take away. Giving birth was, for me, a trial run — a window onto the vista of death. The modern-day blinds were drawn back for a moment. He is the resurrection and the life. Do I believe this?