by Rev. Sorrel Shamel-Wood
“You said some crazy things when you were on gas and air,” said my husband, “Do you remember?”
We were lying on the bed, with our brand-new baby nestled between us. It was our first night home from the hospital.
I frowned. “Kind of…” the thirty hours of active labour were a blur and the memories only returned in flashes.
“You said, about the nitrous oxide: is this what all the kids are doing in the park? If so, I want to join them!” We both laughed. And then, the tone of my husband’s voice shifted to serious. “And you said that you were suffering so much because you aren’t holy enough. Do you remember saying that?”
I squinted. “Yes. I think so.”
He turned to look at me. “You do know that’s not true, don’t you?”
I traced the outline of the printed duvet cover with my finger. “Isn’t it?”
I come from a line of women who, generally have pretty straightforward births. I had naively assumed my experience would be similar, but it had turned out to be prolonged, complex and at times bordering on traumatic. As a practising Christian, I found myself thinking in the space between contractions: did God really place this curse upon women deliberately, as a response to sin? Isn’t that… well, frankly, vindictive? How do I feel about that God? Is that even a God I want to worship?
In Genesis 3:16, God speaks directly and pronounces this curse upon Eve: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children”. Christians read this as part of “the fall”: the consequences of humanity’s decision to turn away from God.
Does this, therefore, mean that my painful childbirth experience was directly related to a lack of holiness? According to the Church Fathers and Catholic Church tradition, Mary was exempt from the pain of childbirth, because of her purity and because of the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ.
For example, St Gregory of Nyssa said: "His [Christ’s] mother’s burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. (Homily on the Nativity, AD ca. 388). St Augustine stated, “In conceiving thou wast all pure, in giving birth thou wast without pain” (St. Augustine, Sermon on Nativity). St John Damascene said of Christ’s birth, “as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it” (On the Orthodox Faith, IV, 14) and in his Psalter of the BVM, 62, St Bonaventure exclaimed, “For she hath conceived thee in virginity: and without travail she hath brought Thee forth”.
For the writer of 1 Timothy in the New Testament, childbearing has a redemptive quality for women, who are deemed to be more responsible for the fall than men. 1 Timothy 2:14-15 states: "[A]nd Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."
This is a passage I have always found particularly difficult: does it mean that women who cannot, or do not, have children do not have a chance of salvation? How does that accord with St Paul’s suggestion in 1 Corinthians 7 that it is preferable to reman single? The - frankly toxic- theology that childbirth pains are deserved and perhaps even redemptive has led to some horrifically abusive practice in Christian history. For example, in the notorious mother and baby homes in twentieth century Ireland, women were purposely denied any form of pain relief during labour and other pre and post-natal care, including stitches, because the pain was believed to be redemptive. Furthermore, St John Damascene’s pronouncement that painful childbirth only ever follows pleasurable sex is demonstrably untrue and highly problematic to the point of being outrageous, not to mention triggering for victims of sexual violence.
So, how are we to make sense of the relationship between painful childbirth, sin, holiness and redemption? It appears to me that a comparison with the curse God gives to the man in Genesis 3:19-17 is somewhat revealing. God says to the man: [C]ursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground."
Just as God punishes the woman with painful childbirth, so he punishes the man with a frustrated relationship with the land. Man’s work, previously a joy in the prelapsarian paradise, becomes fraught with difficulty. So, does Church teaching therefore proclaim that man’s work should therefore be made as difficult as possible, in order for it to have a salvific effect? Of course not. In fact, in the Church of England prayer cycle, every Monday of Ordinary Time includes a prayer for “Those whose work is unfulfilling, stressful or fraught with danger”.
Suffering, be that in the labour of childbirth or in the labour of work, is often dangerous and difficult. It seems that this is inescapable in a world that is fallen from a state of perfection into one of sin and decay. However, this painful labour does not have a redemptive quality. If we accept the Christian narrative of the Fall, then we must also accept the next stage of Salvation History: salvation through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only suffering that has a redemptive, salvific quality is that of Jesus’s suffering on the cross. The only childbirth that has a redemptive quality is the Incarnation. Any other instance of suffering being inflicted on another human, especially in an unequal power relationship of oppressor and oppressed, is evil. Any narrative that claims such suffering is redemptive is particularly evil.
Suffering is part of a fallen world, and the times in Christian history when the Church has colluded in and perpetrated in the inflicting of suffering on the vulnerable represent the darkest, most evil chapters in its history. If painful childbirth and frustrated work are symptomatic of the Fall, then the times and places in the world where this suffering is the most pronounced are necessarily the most fallen. These include the bombing of maternity hospitals, the higher infant and maternal mortality rates in developing countries and in BAME women in the UK, human trafficking and slavery, zero-hour contracts, the gig economy, resistance to unionisation, Pro-life legislation taken to the extreme that it endangers the lives of pregnant women, unsafe work conditions and failure to pay the living wage. Conversely, the Kingdom of God is in evidence where childbirth is safe, and where labour is fruitful and fulfilling. Part of Christian vocation is, therefore, to strive to help build those aspects of the Kingdom on Earth.
Common Worship: Daily Prayer. https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/daily-prayer/prayers
O’Sullivan, Claire. Midwife’s memoir reveals the horror of Bessborough https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-20271158.html
Marshall, Taylor. Mary's Painless Delivery of Christ https://www.catholicfidelity.com/apologetics-topics/mary/marys-painlessness-in-childbirth-by-taylor-marshall/
A note on terminology: Throughout this article I refer to pregnant people as “women” because I am responding to biblical and Patristic texts whose understanding of the relationship between the Fall and childbirth is predicated on a gender binary which, like many other aspects of these texts, has since been problematised.
Reverend Shamel-Wood completed an MSt in Hebrew Bible in Oxford in 2020 and a BA in 2019. They are now a curate in the Church of England and currently on maternity leave.