God Wants to Be Your Midwife
By Becca De Souza
Meeting a God who brings comfort rather than control allows our pain to give birth to joy.
I sat in my therapist’s office, moments after a panic attack, staring at the floor feeling surprisingly calm in my body, which had been absorbed in terror only minutes earlier. My therapist asked, “can you hear the birds chirping outside?” I could and I soon heard, “I think that’s enough for today. I’ll see you next week.”
I had worked in pregnancy support for many years without realizing the impact of my own traumas on my body and mind. A PTSD diagnosis in late 2016 was welcome news as I lived with sometimes debilitating symptoms for over a decade.
I spiritualized my symptoms so wholeheartedly without knowing the nature of trauma or how we carry it in our bodies. I worshiped them away (briefly), I repented of fear, asked Jesus where he was in my darkest moments, and forgave everyone I could think of, even God. My spirit was free, but my body was still terrorized.
The concoction of hormones and chemicals that had kept me alive through multiple experiences of trauma continued to haunt me. Hyper-vigilance, catastrophizing, traumatic anxiety, and sleep disturbances were completely normalized in my life with three small children. The upheaval of motherhood disguised my undiagnosed mental illness and I convinced everyone that I was ok until it was clear that I was not.
A decade earlier I was in a populous West African country volunteering in mother/child healthcare with a small team of skilled birth attendants. Working alongside local midwives and doctors, we supported laboring women in a government maternity hospital. We saw the strength of mothers as they brought their babies into our beautiful and terrible world. For three months we rubbed their backs, monitored contractions, encouraged them in their power, and did what we could to ease some of their ache. Again and again, insurmountable pain gave way to ecstatic joy.
Our time there ended tragically as a van accident took eight lives and sent nine of us to hospital. Many who survived would live with significant physical injuries. I woke up in a tiny clinic in the bush, doctors and nurses rapidly working to care for those most in need. Fast moving vehicles and physics can be devastating to hopes and futures.
I was flown back to the US to recover and quickly found myself under the weight of grief—my own and everyone else’s. So many dear people I loved died that day and the theological wound was as undeniable as my broken bones.
The notions of God as Powerful Hero, Controller of Life and Death, Protector of the Righteous—those illustrations I had heard so many times in my evangelical upbringing completely failed me. In the following months my broken heart was wide open to encounter God anew: First One on the Scene, Hands Covered in Our Blood, Weeping with Those Who Weep, and One Singing Songs of Hope.
The groaning and labor pains of all the women I supported had found a place in my own body. The only picture of God that made any sense to me, the only words that resonated true with the new world I found myself in was God as Midwife. If our mothers had named the Holy One, would God have firstly been midwife, continually welcoming new life in even the most excruciating circumstances?
Birth can be the most powerful experience of a woman’s life—when the variables align as they should, when body and baby and mind and circumstances cooperate, there is possibly no more brilliant picture of redemption. Endless hours of intense waves of pain, a woman moving her body and groaning intuitively, the beautiful cocktail of oxytocin and endorphins and just as she declares the end of herself, the light breaks through. She brings her precious baby into the world, screaming glad deliverance cries on her chest, the sweetest surrender of pain to joy.
In John 16, Jesus uses birth imagery to describe the hopelessness and loss that those who love him would soon feel and yet, their sorrow would turn to dancing, like a mother with a fresh babe on her chest.
Birth’s power for joy and redemption is entangled with its unpredictability. Labor and birth can be as magnificent, or as devastating as the ocean itself. Most women left undisturbed would birth safely and beautifully, but within nature there is spontaneous need for interventions as well. The World Health Organization says 10-15% of women will need cesareans or other interventions as they give birth in order for mum and baby to stay safe. 99% of maternal suffering and death in childbirth occurs in the majority of the world, where global inequity leaves some countries with less than half of their births supported by a skilled birth attendant. When midwives are present at a birth, they can make all the difference.
Birth trauma is much less about how the labor and birth progress and much more about how the mother feels while it’s happening. If she feels alone, afraid, ignored or disempowered in decision making, she’s much more likely to feel traumatized by her experience of birth. A woman well-supported even during an emergency can experience less trauma than a woman with a normal physiological birth who perceived abandonment or disdain by her care providers.
Highly skilled midwives attended all three of my births in Australia, on Dharawal Country. My first full-term labor was one that needed life-saving interventions. My midwives used their deep wisdom, resourcefulness, intelligence and compassion to support me to do what only I could do. They could not give birth for me. They could not miraculously extract the baby from me in a painless way. But they could be with me, in the truest sense. Their presence gave me confidence and courage, their quiet voices comforted me deeply. Their watchfulness and skill gave my son the care that he needed to survive.
Another midwife was present through one of the longest and most desperate nights of my life as I labored with my daughter. When she was born my midwife laid her on my chest, sharing deeply in my joy and my relief.
In my third and most endorphin-filled birth, it was not until I saw photos later that I realized how quiet but close my midwife was as my son was born. In the depths of transition though I felt completely alone, her presence was giving my body courage in my life’s most vulnerable moment.
God is not in control of what happens in our lives, in the same way that a midwife is not in control of how a birth unfolds. And yet, her presence can make all the difference: she brings a multitude of comfort measures, deep knowledge of normal physiological birth, and that which might need interventions. She spends endless hours keeping watch, reminding us of our courage and strength, and tenderly showing us that we are not alone. How much more is God eternally resourceful, utterly creative and wise, understanding all there is to understand, and bringing the most possible good out of every moment by moment by moment?
We join God in confronting long-standing systemic injustice, subverting the destructive plans of the empire as midwives Shiprah and Puah did in the Exodus story. More often we hear the groaning of Romans 8, the labor pains of all creation that find reverberation in our own bodies as well.
God is with us; families, neighborhoods, people groups and nations, this whole wildly spinning planet are all promised that the dreams of God will indeed, one day, be born alive.
I work with pregnant women who lack the support they deserve in this tremendous rite of passage which is birth and motherhood. If I relied on an all-powerful God who always brings miracles to those who pray, I would be irrevocably disappointed. For example: Why didn’t the baby turn enough to avoid the cesarean for the mother who already had suffered so much trauma in her life? Why hasn’t my client been rescued from the addiction that’s now seen her baby removed from her care? How can God fail to provide housing for a single mother who has experienced enough instability for a dozen lifetimes?
Fortunately, that’s not the God I’m looking for anymore. I know the God who sees disappointment and enters in, who accompanies us to the psychologist’s office, a God who leaves a meal at the door and offers to hold a fussy baby.
God is a midwife named Emmanuel. God with us in our most catastrophic pain. God with us as the devastation one day surprises us with new life. God with us in all the days and nights in between.
I have never found God absent in my darkest nights, even when the pain has threatened to swallow me, and the future has felt completely chaotic. God has always stayed close, putting pressure on my lower back, whispering truth to my inconsolable heart, hands covered in my blood, tears falling with my own. She hasn’t been in control of or responsible for my pain but is always present, always welcoming the most possible good, the healing, the new.
Becca De Souza lives as a guest on Dharawal Country (Wollongong, Australia) although she grew up in the US and is a proud Shawnee descendant. She works as a trauma-informed doula and birth educator and graduated with a BA from Messiah College in 2004.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love