Pregnancy and childbirth are some of the most significant milestones in the life of a woman and her family. In the modern era, too, our medical knowledge is unprecedented; we know more about the way the human body works, and we can do more to support and sustain it, than ever before in history. Perhaps, though, we are still missing something in the support of pregnant women.
Perhaps, even with the incredible medical support and apparatus available, we are not offering as holistic an approach to pregnancy and childbirth as we could, offering the kind of spiritual guidance that helps women and men see God’s purposes at work in every stage of pregnancy.
It was this intuition that led Jodie McIver to write her book, Bringing Forth Life: God’s purposes in pregnancy and birth (2023). To Jodie’s surprise and excitement, her book was among those shortlisted for the 2023 Australian Christian Book of the Year. Although she didn’t take home the big prize (everyone knew it was going to be Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory, she says), it produced a lot of opportunities to tell people about the book.
Jodie, who lives in the Blue Mountains with her husband, a clergyman in the Anglican Church, and three children, has worked for years in dual roles: working as a midwife on the one hand, and ministering to young women in her community on the other. Those two roles helped her see a huge gap that needed filling.
‘I almost couldn’t believe it when I realised there just weren’t books like this,’ Jodie says. ‘There’s so many Christian books on motherhood and parenthood, but on this experience [of pregnancy], which begins the whole thing, there was nothing Australian that I could find.’
Helping women and their husbands to see the goodness in pregnancy felt even more important because, especially the first time around, it can be an unnerving experience.
‘Often women, as they go into these experiences, can easily feel so down about their bodies because it’s so foreign,’ Jodie says. ‘It’s just changing so rapidly … It’s such a big experience that impacts your body, but also just every part of your life and yourself and your identity.’
In fact, in the book Jodie writes about how confronting pregnancy can be as a kind of ‘gender reveal’:
Indeed, pregnancy is a time when we suddenly become more conscious of our womanhood. Throughout our lives and work to this point, differences between men and women are often downplayed. Pregnancy changes all that … But this is no bad thing. We often haven’t fully appreciated the uniqueness and value of our womanhood up to this point. (p 26)
Having children of her own and experiencing the ‘other side’ of pregnancy care cemented this idea that a more holistic approach was needed. ‘We really need to look at a bigger picture of this and not be so caught up in the pills and prams, but to see how amazingly God has designed this process,’ Jodie reflects, saying pregnancy is a ‘foundation’ through which we can see how God prepares women for the bigger picture of motherhood.
Part of this bigger picture is learning to see how important pregnancy—and childbirth—is in the Old and New Testaments. Up and down the Bible, this aspect of a woman’s life is often the central metaphor used for God’s work in creation. In her book, Jodie takes people through some of the amazing ways in which women are really honoured by God.
Although we might be tempted to see the Old Testament especially as simply the relic of a patriarchal culture, Jodie says, ‘I think what we often take for granted, from the very beginning of the Bible, is that God creates humanity in his image, male and female together. Man on his own wasn’t enough to bear the image of God; woman had to be part of that humanity.’
Moreover, throughout the Scriptures ‘the work of the female body is key to salvation history,’ she says. We see this not only in the numerous stories of miraculous births for women who are infertile, often bringing great heroes and saviours to God’s people, but in that, ultimately, it was through the body of a woman, Mary, that God came into the world.
‘God dwelling in a woman, in whatever bizarre sense that is, obviously gives honour to the female body. He didn’t keep his distance.’
Some of the verses that can confuse people include the curse in Genesis 3 that says women will, after original sin, give birth in pain; the regulations in the Book of Leviticus concerning menstruation and ritual impurity can be hard to wrap our minds around as well. However, it is Jodie’s contention, and the contention of her book, that these need to be interpreted within the overarching themes of God’s honouring of women.
Even though pregnancy and birth are hard and painful, ‘that doesn’t take away from its goodness,’ Jodie explains. These broader themes reframe everything to help us see how womanhood and the functioning of the female body ‘is not in itself a curse. Jesus also brought forth life into this broken world through hard, painful work.’
One of the beautiful things about Jodie’s book is how sensitively and compassionately she writes about loss. Jodie says she felt ‘very nervous’ writing about this because she had not gone through the experience herself. However, in order to gain deeper insight, she spoke to many women who had.
On the one hand, pregnancy and childbirth is a very intense time: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The whole process is invested with God’s life-giving purpose. At the same time, it’s a period when the brokenness of the world can become all the more apparent. How can families—and women especially—find God amid the awful darkness of losing a child?
What is clear is that finding God in that time is a journey. ‘All the wonderful theological truths in the world likely can’t be received at that time,’ Jodie says. But acknowledging the terrible nature of it is an important first step. ‘If we’re really valuing life, then part of that is acknowledging the horribleness of death and the awfulness of it—but knowing that God can work through even death [and] in the long run, can bring hope.’
Through Jodie’s conversations, and this is something she writes about in the book too, she found that many women found themselves connecting more deeply with the psalms, particularly the psalms of lament, following the loss of a child. Although we don’t necessarily connect with these psalms in happier periods of life, during times of intense suffering and inner desolation the psalms can be a lifeline.
[The women] spoke about how they felt their feelings were expressed in those words, and that they were helpful for them in the darkest times, because they met them when they were crying out to God. But they also gently guided them towards hope.’
Jodie points out that on the cross, Jesus quoted Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46).
‘The fact that Jesus himself uses Psalm 22 in his moment of desperation … I think maybe that rings true for people as they suffered, to know that Jesus has been there and he is with them on that journey too.’
Another theme that stood out to Jodie from speaking with these women is the strength that community affords. ‘What’s powerful through the stories of some of those families was how they felt held by their community when they couldn’t pray, or they had no hope, or they were doubting, or whatever absolute darkness they were in. They felt held by their family or church family who they knew were praying for them.’
Although Bringing Forth Life is a book that deals with the ins and outs of pregnancy and childbirth, and while it will undoubtedly resonate with women, Jodie’s book isn’t intended just for women. It’s a book for men, too. The introduction of a new life can change the entire dynamic of a family; everything changes, and for men who want to support their wives through pregnancy in a different way, connecting the experience with a beautiful spiritual purpose, this book is absolutely for them too.
Jodie’s book, Bringing Forth Life, can be purchased here.
Banner photograph: © Carlie Dalitz
Melbourne Catholic27 February 2024
Melbourne Catholic27 February 2024