A few months ago, a friend of mine received some devastating news at her first ultrasound: her baby had a fatal cranial defect and probably would not live past birth. No sooner had she and her husband begun preparing themselves to carry their baby to term than the baby died in her womb.
Those who haven’t lived these stories have heard them: stories of miscarriages, of mothers who randomly go into labor at twenty-five-weeks pregnant, of freak accidents, of ultrasounds that deliver crushing news. These stories remind us that pregnancy is difficult and risky, and that sometimes, even when we diligently take our prenatal vitamins and receive great prenatal care, things go wrong. Thoughtful consideration of the physical and spiritual burdens of pregnancy raises an inevitable question: what makes the labor of pregnancy worthwhile if it doesn’t guarantee a happy ending?
In her recent book, Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us About Being Human, Agnes Howard suggests that the only way to answer this question is to put away the notion that pregnancy is a passive waiting period or a clinical condition, and instead embrace pregnancy as “a practice, a period of life shaped by a coherent set of actions to the good of another.” Put simply, pregnancy is moral boot camp. Even as a woman shapes the child growing within her, the joys and trials of pregnancy are shaping her, sanctifying her, and teaching her how to depend on others during this season of peculiar service.
Waiting or Working?
Prior to the development of modern obstetrics, pregnancy was both a physical and metaphysical mystery to mankind. As Agnes Howard relates in Showing, until the discovery of the female ovum, philosophers attributed the work of conception to males alone. Man’s seed was thought to be the only active ingredient in procreation, and woman merely its passive recipient. How procreation actually worked—how a baby came to be—was a question for significant theological and philosophical discourse. Who was ultimately responsible for reproduction, and, perhaps more urgently, who was to blame when things went wrong? From these questions sprang a host of practices and superstitions concerning pregnancy: a pregnant woman’s diet, dress, movement, conduct, and even her imagination could be the cause of miscarriages, birth defects, and congenital disorders.
Though mostly unfounded, these superstitions fostered an important culture around pregnancy by declaring pregnancy itself a thing of great personal and moral significance. The mundane actions and thoughts of a pregnant woman mattered in a profound way, tangibly shaping the life of another human being. Yet this influence was typically framed in a negative light. As Howard notes, it seemed that a woman had “little power to make a baby but . . . considerable power to damage the one a man generated in her.” In light of this uncertainty, it seemed best that a pregnant woman simply refrain from activity to avoid harming her baby. Pregnancy became a forty-week waiting period before birth.
The development of obstetrics did away with the notion of a passive pregnancy. As our knowledge of human biology and anatomy developed, childbirth became safer, pregnancy became healthier and more predictable, and the subject of reproduction became a lot more public, as work that once belonged to the home now belonged to the hospital. The discovery of the female reproductive cell made it clear that women did have an active role in conception, and that a certain set of actions could make all the difference in an unborn child’s development. Recent studies in microchimerism and epigenetics suggest that the relationship between a pregnant woman’s body and her child’s affects both of their physiologies in an even more lasting way than we thought.
Now, if a woman wants a healthy baby, she has a long list of tasks to accomplish throughout her pregnancy. From taking prenatal vitamins every day, to steering clear of certain foods, to exercising just the right amount to stay healthy and prepare her body for labor, a pregnant woman has a lot of work to do before she makes it to the L&D floor.
But while the advancement of prenatal care has emphasized the active nature of pregnancy, it has done little to illuminate the inherent meaning of that activity. In an age when low-risk women can schedule inductions months in advance, nearly anyone can receive anesthesia during labor, and one-third of all births in the United States result in C-sections, pregnancy looks a lot more like a clinical condition than a natural season of a woman’s life. In the standard prenatal care model, a pregnant woman becomes a patient. The avoidance of risk is still her primary task, only now it’s an active avoidance rather than a passive one. Meanwhile, the extraordinary moral worth of pregnancy as understood by the ancients, its holistic discipline of both the body and the mind, has been lost. Modern prenatal care may tell a woman the work she needs to do to get a healthy baby, but it has failed to tell her why the work is significant even when she does not.
Cultivating Virtue in Pregnancy
Only once we understand pregnancy as “a practice, a period of life shaped by a coherent set of actions oriented to the good of another,” will we be able to discern its inherent moral meaning. In this light, the work of pregnancy becomes an occasion for the cultivation of virtue. A consideration of the personhood of both the child and the mother, as well as a true appreciation of the risk and toil involved in pregnancy, elevate pregnancy from a mere physical condition to an opportunity for moral formation.
Pregnancy tests a woman’s character by presenting her with a series of challenges that prompt the development of a set of habits. These habits, whether virtues or vices, involve the whole person. In Showing, Howard suggests that four virtues—prudence, charity, hospitality, and courage—are particularly befitting of pregnancy. A mother’s thoughtful care for her pregnant body and adherence to health guidelines demonstrate prudence. Her sacrifice of sleep, comfort, and mobility for the sake of an unknown other is an act of charity. By welcoming a complete stranger to live inside her body for forty weeks (and then to depend on her body for many more months!), she practices hospitality. And could we not describe her willingness to experience pain and risk loss for the hope of new life as a demonstration of courage?
How a woman chooses to act during those weeks, managing her home while suffering from nausea and sleep deprivation; how she chooses to respond to the debilitating pain of varicose veins; how she chooses to talk about her stretch marks; how she chooses to bear the risk of miscarriage—these choices tell us the substance of her character. They define the posture in which she welcomes her child into the world, and they establish the foundation for her work as a mother.
Yet just as pregnancy affords an opportunity to display virtue, it also affords an opportunity to display vice. Abortion may be the worst form of vice in a pregnancy, in that it signifies the total rejection of the child as a person, but we often see vice crop up in pregnancies in less extreme ways. We’ve all known (and perhaps, at times, have been) the woman whose pregnancies are characterized by complaining, irritability, anxiety, or carelessness. These habits communicate neither charity nor generosity, but stinginess. She is the grudging hostess who chides her guest for using her resources, and then gossips about the matter to everyone around her. Perhaps, on the other hand, we have known—or been—the woman who refuses to admit her weakness during this season. Rather than asking for help when she needs it, she declares self-sufficiency, and in so doing waters the weeds of pride.
Dependency in Pregnancy
The reality is that pregnancy is toilsome, and that a woman will not be able to flourish in this labor if left unaided. Contrary to contemporary ideology, pregnancy is not a private endeavor. In Showing, Howard notes that the Greek historian Plutarch recorded that “the graves of women who died in childbirth, like the men who died in battle, were honorably marked because they signified a sacrifice important to the larger community.” Pregnancies shape communities, not only because they promise to grow those communities, but also because their opportunities for spiritual gain affect more than just the one bearing the child. A woman is morally responsible to her community, just as her community is morally responsible to her.
The daily adversities a pregnant mother faces often compel her to rely on the people around her more readily than she would otherwise. Those she turns to in her moments of fear, doubt, and exhaustion have the power to build up her character or to corrode it. Likewise, how she chooses to bear her child, to suffer hardship for the sake of another, contributes to the integrity of her community.
For a woman to thrive during the forty weeks of her pregnancy, she needs to be sustained by people who are committed to her sanctification. She needs friends and sisters who will check on her, make meals for her, and urge her to press on. When she walks through the doors of her church, she should be met by men and women who want to know how the baby is doing and how they can help. She needs the hand-me-downs, wisdom, and perspective of older mothers. She needs prayer. She needs care providers who not only attend to routine check-ups, but who also empower and equip her in her pregnancy and in her labor. And she needs her husband—to meet her in her weakness, lead her, pray with her, and cherish her. This sort of collaboration requires honesty, trust, and humility. Agnes Howard sums it up beautifully in noting, “We are, all of us, marked by the experience of pregnancy, whether or not we have ourselves been pregnant. A little awe is in order.”
Pregnancy is planting season. The habits a woman forms when she is with child till the soil for the work of motherhood. It is her responsibility, with the support of her community, to gather up all the burdens and oddities and surprises of her pregnancy and plant them for a future harvest. She will not be the only one to reap their bounty.