Until very recently, I have always read Genesis 3:16 in a very specific way. This is the famous (or infamous) verse in which God declares the consequences of Eve’s sin in the Garden. In it He states, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.”
To me, this verse has always meant one thing and one thing alone: labor pains. Fortunately, God also allowed for the invention of the epidural. Problem solved!
A year ago I would have shouted a hearty and optimistic, “YES!” Today, I’m not so sure. I can’t help but wonder if this consequence of sin is about more than labor pains. I wonder if it is more far-reaching and complex than I have ever given it credit for. After all, this is a state of brokenness that impacts all women, not just those who are able to give birth biologically.
Take a step back from the process of labor and delivery. Look at the larger experience of womanhood, and notice how much pain, fear, vulnerability, and desperation exists between women and the process of child-bearing — long before a woman ever conceives.
First, think of the culture of fear that surrounds having children. Children are often talked about as life-ruiners, a rhetoric connected to increasing delays in childbearing, as well as many decisions to abort pregnancies.
Think of women who struggle with infertility and the heartbreak that accompanies this struggle. This agony is nowhere more clear than in the Old Testament, as women like Sarah and Hannah yearn and weep for children.
Consider single women who desire to marry and have children, and must face the possibility of never even being able to try.
Then there is the process of pregnancy itself, a time that should be filled with hope and excitement, but instead invites discouraging and depressing “advice” from older moms. At a time when I am already feeling overwhelmed and scared, many well-intentioned women contribute to my fear, warning me about how I will “never sleep again,” how my body will “never be the same,” and other cheerful predictions about how difficult my life is about to become. While I understand the need to prepare for the challenges of motherhood, the negative advice seems to come more frequently than the positive.
And then there is the guilt of pregnancy and motherhood. Every time I take a sip of caffeine, I feel the need to loudly explain to everyone around me, “Please don’t judge me! I consume FAR less than the recommended 200mg limit, and my doctor says that caffeine in moderation is perfectly fine!” When it comes to food and activities during pregnancy, there are so many do’s and don’ts! Plus, Ike and I are taking a birthing class in which epidurals are talked about as though they are a total failure on the part of the mother. I also attended a breastfeeding group that was incredibly intense and scared me so much that I probably won’t go back. Many women have extremely strong opinions about pregnancy, labor, delivery, and parenting, so it’s easy to feel judged if you don’t live up to their standards.
And finally, the pain of childbearing does not end after the baby arrives. Decades later, children can still break their mothers’ hearts.
Now I don’t want to be a downer about all of this. Children are amazing miracles and I can’t wait to meet my son. Every time I feel his precious kicks and rolls, I can’t wait to kiss his cheeks and squeeze his tiny thighs. I can’t wait to see Ike as a dad, and I can’t wait to grow in my relationship with God while I grow as a parent. What’s more, this pregnancy has already strengthened my marriage and my faith.
The only reason I highlight the many “pains” of childbearing is to show that many of them are actually unnecessary. In fact, we might even be the source of this “childbearing pain” in one another’s lives. But it doesn’t have to be this way. While we cannot shield ourselves from the effects of the Fall — not entirely — we are a redeemed people whose call is to model the redemptive work of our God. In the same way that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to overcome the effects of sin, we are called to do the same.
When it comes to the pains of childbearing, we can work toward redemption in a number of different ways:
- Being sensitive to and comforting friends who struggle with infertility
- Embracing single women into our family lives and the raising of our children
- Being honest with mothers-to-be about the realities of motherhood, but also casting a vision of hope and joy that is consistent with Scriptural language about the blessing of children
- Creating a culture of motherhood that is not competitive or judgmental, but is loving and supportive
- Making space for the vocalization of parenting struggles, while also guarding our language about our children so that it does not devolve into complaining
- Speaking truth into one another’s hearts so that we can all remember, at the end of the day, that our children’s paths lie in the hands of God, and they are not ultimately ours to control
In many churches and in many small groups, this kind of redemptive work is already happening. Women are supporting one another through the hills and valleys of motherhood, and in so doing, they act as agents of hope and resurrection. Even so, as a mother-to-be, I would ask many of you to remember that the pain of childbearing comes not from labor alone. It is a pain that takes many forms, and it can even come from other women.
Fortunately, God does not require us to bear this pain without hope. He sent His Son and He created His church, all with an eye to redemption. Let us be women who do.