I could certainly dispense with the Christian paradox that suffering is our way to salvation. I would really like to conveniently lose the holy cards I have that call for faithful Christians to pray for suffering in imitation of Christ. And I could definitely skip the hunger pangs and penances the Church asks us to undergo every year during Lent.
Today, with everything designed to revolve around our convenience and comfort, from dishwashers to iPods to elastic waistbands, the very thought of suffering seems anathema. Even though I would much rather suffering didn’t come looking for me, I have found that there is no escape from suffering when a woman becomes a mother.
Once the “positive pregnancy test” elation wears off, the unpleasantness of nausea, fatigue, and constant trips to the bathroom become reality. Beyond physical discomforts, many women, even those completely open to life, find themselves drowning in emotional turmoil: uncertainty over the changes a new baby will bring, worries about enduring months of agony, fear of possible miscarriage, and anxiety about the possibility of having a baby with birth defects.
During my last two pregnancies, I was shocked at how relentless my anxiety was during the first few months. I felt as if I were trapped in a box with no way out of the physical and emotional discomforts I was feeling.
I could relate to women in troubled pregnancies who wanted anything but pregnancy. I understood what they were experiencing from my own desire to escape the endless weeks of nausea, and from my anxiety over how a new baby would change our family dynamic: could I love this baby as much as I loved the children I already had?
But the more I prayed for deliverance from suffering and abandoned myself to the will of God, the more I felt united to Jesus in His sufferings on the Cross and experienced true union with Jesus in the Eucharist. The words of consecration, “This is my Body…This is my Blood,” became alive and intensely relevant: through pregnancy I was truly giving my body and blood for the sake of another.
I began to realize how intelligible and approachable the mysteries of our Catholic faith could be—God did not design a world too complicated for His creation to contemplate. God wants even the simplest among us to arrive at the truths He has already written in our hearts. Uniting my heart to Jesus on Golgotha during each Mass helped me see that suffering during pregnancy is not in vain, but rather God’s way to point a woman to the truth: motherhood requires a woman to give herself totally for the life of another.
Union with Jesus on Golgotha reaches its physical apex for a mother during labor and delivery. There is no way to get to the Easter joy of holding a newborn baby except through labor and delivery, just as there was no way for Jesus to win heaven for us except through the pain and torture of crucifixion.
When I was pregnant with my second child I was gripped with fear at the prospect of again enduring labor’s miseries. One night while praying the sorrowful mysteries I realized that Christ had already walked this road of psychological torture in the garden of Gethsemane.
He knew what He would suffer—and His suffering was far more intense than what I would experience in childbirth—and yet He had the courage to face His fears, overcome them, and persevere to the end. Meditating on Jesus’ selfless perseverance from the garden to Golgotha has guided me through the darkest moments of pregnancy and childbirth.
A woman in labor mirrors Christ on the Cross: contained within the last hours of labor are humiliation, nudity, uncontrollable pain, and a total annihilation of self. Childbirth was not designed by an angry God who hates women; rather Christ redeems the sufferings of childbirth by His own annihilation on the Cross.
Immediately before Christ’s own hour was to come, He proved that he was acutely aware of the paschal dimension of childbirth: “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21). Christ conquered the world and won for us eternal life through His death-agony; a woman who triumphs in childbirth rejoices in the gift of an immortal soul hidden in a mortal body that she now has to nurture and love.
Pregnancy and childbirth mark the beginning points of contemplating the Eucharistic nature of motherhood. The whole course of motherhood, from conception of a child to the mother’s death, reflects the total gift of body and blood for the sake of another. The physical sufferings a mother experiences must awaken her consciousness to plumb the depths of the greater mystery God calls us to understand: God has given us motherhood as an opportunity to unite our souls to Christ in His suffering, His complete gift of self, and His triumphant Easter joy.
It is impossible to find true happiness and peace in a vocation that constantly requires the complete emptying of self—taking endless breastfeeding breaks, wiping behinds, helping with homework, cleaning spills—unless a woman unites herself with Jesus in the Eucharist. He went before us to show us the way, He redeems our sufferings, and ultimately gives us everlasting joy through our call to motherhood.