Reviewed by Christiana Peterson
Rachel Marie Stone’s stunning new book, Birthing Hope, is a memoir awash with the stories and metaphors of birth, pain, fear, and death, and ultimately, hope. In the first pages, she recalls both her early adolescent baptism in the Sea of Galilee and her corresponding fears of water and drowning. Then she interweaves stories of the births of her own two children with the traumatic circumstances of birth in a Malawi hospital, where she observes women in labor during her doula training.
These parallels and counterparts—new life against the fear of death, personal trauma next to secondary trauma, individual pain beside universal pain, birth with death, fear with hope—fill out the landscape of the whole book. She tells the complex and sometimes harrowing stories of her own family members, of their personal contexts, their faith (or lack thereof) and how the anxieties and sufferings of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents were ushered down to her.
Most touching, for me, were not only her descriptions of childbirth, but the meaning she makes of pain. The history and theological understandings of pain in childbirth are fascinating, disturbing, and, at times, laughably naive. As Stone notes, early male theologians declared that, because childbirth pains were viewed as Eve’s curse in Genesis, any attempts to offer pain management to women was “an affront to God’s wishes”; also, this pain supposedly taught women “temperance” and “reason.” On the other hand, the therapist Helen Wessel, wrote a book in the 1970s for an evangelical audience arguing that pain in childbirth wasn’t actually Biblical or inevitable. Wessel suggested that any pain a woman felt was merely her own “physiological or physical tension,” not the “birth itself.” (56) In either case, it seems that women cannot escape being blamed for their pain.
In reading Stone’s book, I recalled the births of my own four children. Like many women, I chose to give birth without pain medication but was reticent to talk about what these births truly meant to me, lest I offend. It became a sort of quiet truth I shared with few friends. With my first birth, I was swept up in this notion of Wessel’s that birth could be both natural and pain-free: that with self-hypnosis, I too could avoid the pain of birth. Yet during my actual labor, the pain caught me off guard and I couldn’t get a handle on it. When it was time for the baby to emerge and my midwife told me to bear down, all that classwork had failed to train me to push the baby out.
If Stone had been my doula during my first birth, I imagine she might’ve done what she does for her readers. I imagine that she would have midwifed me down a tender path of accepting pain. “Childbirth just hurts,” she says, and her compassionate and generous writing offers space for women who decide to feel the pain of birth when so many other options are available. (In her own birth experiences, Stone is forced to forgo an epidural because of a medical condition.) She writes poignantly about her friend Micha, who decides to have pain in birth because of her earlier miscarriage. “I felt like I need to hurt,” Micha says, “and even to bleed. As if my body needed to grieve too.”
Childbirth, regardless of how a baby is born, hurts, yes, and life just hurts sometimes, too. Feeling the pain of childbirth can become a point of reference for other kinds of pain. After my labors, birth and death became so connected in my mind that I often wondered if death would feel like childbirth. Stone recalls, in the moments in birth when she didn’t think she could take it anymore: “Giving birth is what I think of when I think of Jesus’ death…sometimes the present moment is hell, and your only song is lament.”
Reading Stone’s book I am reminded of the solidarity that binds all who give birth, in spite of our desperate attempts to avoid our own suffering or the suffering of others. What happens to the birthing women of Malawi as they labor in a country with the worst maternal care in the world happens to all of us. The trials and sufferings of women and children at the U.S. border happens to all of us, whether we choose to do anything about it or we turn away and nurse our own aches instead.
I don’t know how Stone felt after writing this book but I can only imagine that there is a measure of loss in the writing. As Mary Karr says about writing your own story in The Art of Memoir: “I’ve said it’s hard. Here’s how hard: everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” Drowning is an apt metaphor for Stone, for her early fears of water, for the liquidity of childbirth, but also for the ways she uses baptism both literally and as a metaphor.
Writing our stories can be traumatic but there is also a measure of healing in the telling. As she offers up this intricate mix of healing and pain, maybe Stone is both a doula and a baptizer. For when we arise from the waters of her words—even as we have been witness to hurt, grief, and pain—we see that she has deftly fulfilled her role as a doula: hope has indeed been birthed in us.