The following is a guest post written by Stacia Guzzo. She received her MA in Theological Studies from Loyola Marymount University and is currently working toward a MDiv through Fuller Theological Seminary. She is also in the midst of completing certification in Childbirth Education and periodically serves women in her community as a labor doula. She has taught on the elementary and high school levels, led retreats, and spoken at regional congresses through the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese. She lives with her husband, son, two dogs, two cats, seven chickens, and five beehives on a small homestead in Tehachapi, California.
“Hands!” The young woman gasped as the next contraction swelled. I quickly put the wet washcloth I had been using to dab her face back in the small bowl of water beside me and grabbed her hands. She squeezed them, moaning low. Her husband stood behind her in the birthing tub, pressing on her hips. Two midwives stood in the background, their encouragement silent and strong. The dim light of dawn was beginning to shine through the window of their home. In another room, the couple’s two-year-old son slept.
Earlier that morning, my friend and midwife had called at around 3am. “Are you ready to go to a birth?” She whispered with a smile in her voice. I was so excited—my clothes had been laid out for a week and a half, and the coffee had been ready in the percolator each night before bed. “Yes,” I whispered back. “Absolutely.” On the forty minute drive to the laboring woman’s home, I gave a quiet prayer of thanks for this opportunity, this honor, to be a doula. I had birthed my own son at home only seven months before, and had slowly begun to develop a growing understanding of the need for women to support other women during this sacred threshold of birth. I had begun to attend breastfeeding support meetings, met other like-minded women, and surprisingly was asked by my pregnant friend at one of the meetings if I would like to be her doula. My midwife—also her own—was extremely supportive of the prospect. And thus, there I was at dawn one warm August morning, grasping the hands of a woman whom I barely knew, telling her I had been there. That I knew she was strong. That I wouldn’t leave her side. And that she could trust her body.
It was a transcendent experience to watch a tiny girl breathe her first breath that day. The threshold between womb and world is so thin. It’s almost unbelievable to witness—one moment, a woman struggles through some of the hardest work she will ever do. The next, there is a warm, wriggling little being on her chest, learning to breathe and adjusting to the light. It is a process that is magnificent and perfect in its design.
The tradition of women helping women during birth was commonplace until the Industrial Revolution, when urban overcrowding began to drive women away from their extended families. Nuclear families became more self-sufficient, and two things then happened: older women stopped being able to pass down their knowledge to the younger women, and young girls stopped observing the wisdom of more experienced aunts, grandmothers, and even sisters. Women began to move to the sterile environment of the hospital to give birth. Birth became perceived as something for women to fear. Additionally, it was expected that women would either be alone or with strangers during labor. No sacred space. No maternal affirmations. No transcendent moment. No reverence for the first gasp of tiny lungs. Birth became known as “delivery.” But who was the deliverer? And from what?
Scripture rightly observes that “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21 NIV). I myself can attest to the truth of this: yes, there was pain. I labored with no medication, choosing to feel each contraction to its fullest, each ebb and flow within my womb as my son began his journey away from the safety of my body and toward the outer world as an individual human being. But my pain did not necessitate suffering. Indeed, the anguish the Evangelist describes, while acute, pales in comparison to the joy of holding my new son against my chest. My body sighed in relief, and on that day I was also born—into motherhood.
One of the reasons the authors of Scripture included so many references to labor and birth—many as points of comparison to the suffering of a people or a person—was due to its cultural familiarity. While the birth experience was certainly confined to the world of women, its impact on a woman was far from secret. Paul refers to the groaning of the world as that of a woman in labor (Romans 8:22) and [First] Isaiah refers three times to the pangs of a woman in labor as a means to describe comparable distress (Isaiah 13:8; 21:3; 26:17). The pain of labor resonated with the cultures that received these writings, and the need for comfort, for support, and for compassion was (and remains) palpable.
That night, as I squeezed my friend’s hands, spoke affirmations in low tones, and brushed her hair from her sweaty forehead, I acknowledged to myself: women need the support of other women. I say this as a woman deeply in love with my husband and madly devoted to my son. Yet the strength of women supporting each other in the midst of seemingly unconquerable trial, and the wisdom of the generations who have trod the path before—these carve out spiritual nuance in our understanding of our Creator. It instills compassion—a word which comes from the Latin stem compati, meaning to “suffer with.” It is yet another way in which God draws us closer to Godself through one another. And as I saw my friend look into her daughter’s eyes for the first time, surrounded by her spouse, her doula, and her two midwives, I saw that she understood the feminine connection in a new way. Perhaps one day, she will stand witness as her own daughter cries for the hands of someone who has been there.
And she will grasp them firmly.