Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem) ~ Genesis 35:16-19
Many faithful Christian women have written honest, beautiful things about barrenness and pregnancy loss. Other women have authored praises of large families and the joys of a fruitful, cooperative womb. Today, on the eve of my oldest child’s birthday, I’d like to speak to the women who, without the intervention of modern medicine, wouldn’t be here.
I don’t know if it’s an assumption I’ve made or something I read in a commentary, but I picture the above passage of Genesis as a breech birth with a tragic ending. The midwife was able to tell Rachel the baby was a boy when Rachel’s “labor was at its hardest.” Ideally, the hardest labor would be the crown of the baby’s head. Seems like Benjamin was turned the wrong way.
None of my three babies were breech, but all of them were c-sections. At 42 weeks of pregnancy, my first baby was very content to stay where she was. After induced labor, my body never progressed past 4 cm of dilation, and baby girl’s heart beat was untraceable with each contraction. The hospital Lamaze class taught my husband and I to be flexible with our “birth plan,” but deep down I thought I’d have some say in what would happen. My body had other ideas.
After several hours of labor and an emergency c-section, it became clear that the umbilical cord was around Lucy’s neck and was tightening with each contraction. Praise be to God for spinal anesthesia and quick moving doctors!
Two years later, I was birth “planning” once again – this time for a VBAC. This baby, too, was content to stay where he was. Ten days after his due date, the only signs of labor my body was demonstrating were frequent Braxton Hicks contractions. After a non-stress test, my doctor expressed concern. Baby’s heart rate was reading as a slow arrhythmia during FALSE labor; how would he handle full contractions and moving through the birth canal? I was taken straight to the hospital for a c-section that afternoon.
Two and a half years later, I was back in another OR while my third child was born. There were no delusions of a VBAC with that pregnancy. No rushing. Just a pre-scheduled surgery and anxious anticipation. And there was a happy, healthy baby sister to make us a family of five.
I have three healthy children for whom I am very thankful. But I spent a long time when they (and I) were younger, wondering if our family might have looked different if I’d been able to have children “naturally” or, at least, vaginally. I wish I could tell you I’ve left those thoughts behind as the years have passed but, like the scars of those three vital surgeries, they’ve stuck around.
Conservative Christians have not always helped. In my denomination, as in others, there is a small but vocal contingency that emphasizes child-bearing as a married woman’s primary objective. And, while it is appropriate and important for the church to encourage families to be fruitful and multiply (this is, after all, one way in which the church grows), the heavy emphasis on the command to have children easily becomes burdensome and a source of despair for the barren and for those who require medical intervention or major surgery.
There are other factors to consider, too. I will write in the future about breast feeding and peripartum depression. These contributed to our family timing and size as well. But a younger version of myself would have greatly appreciated an older mom reassuring me that my family size was, in fact, nothing to be ashamed of.
Rachel’s sister Leah bore Jacob seven children, four in rapid succession. If you are a Leah, I rejoice with you and the gifts the Lord has given you! But to all the Rachels out there, please know I see you, too. I rejoice that you have been given the chance to enjoy your child or children, even if you wonder in your heart if there could have been more.