To the Pain

I wrote this several months ago but remembered and reread it this morning, as childbirth is fast approaching for me again. I hope it will be a blessing to one of you in pain. I have unwittingly memorized a great many board books recently, and as one of our favorites goes, We can’t go under it. We can’t go around it. We’ve got to go through it.

After many hours of contractions and pain and surrender for Rebekah, the nurse came in and said, “Moment of truth.” She checked for dilation and found her still at 2 centimeters. “No progress.”

When the nurse left I took the mother’s hands in mine. “We keep going,” I said, and we did.

I’ve been preparing to help this friend through natural childbirth for months. Even though I’ve done this many times now, and experienced it myself only recently, it is still something I must turn to deliberately and focus on. Maybe there was a time when women generationally taught and served each other enough that birth came naturally to them, but that’s just not the case for us today. Obstetrics, being part of the medical system, operates as a surgical machine, having just a little slot for the human soul. Please don’t misunderstand, I love and appreciate so many medical workers. I am in fact married to one, but as he is humble and honest, he will be the first to tell you how discouraging his work can be and how often the system fails the patients.

Rebekah loaned me a book called The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth, and in it Henci Goer says,

…many anesthesiologists, doctors, nurses, and even some midwives tend to live in a black and white world. They believe that labor pain has no value, mastering labor pain has no value, epidurals have no defects. These beliefs color perception in ways that are obvious to those who don’t share them but invisible to those who do.

I haven’t really come to speak to you about childbirth. I realize many readers would find it hard to relate to that subject. But pain is something we’ve all experienced, some of us every day, and this line above carries into all kinds of suffering: They believe that labor pain has no value, mastering labor pain has no value…

These are lies. Pain has value. Experiencing pain has value. The things we do to comfort one another, they matter. The company we keep in suffering, it matters. The life-giving words we speak make a difference. We are so much more than our chemicals. What we believe can change the world. Dilation isn’t the only indicator of progress in labor, not any more than income is the only indicator of value or productivity of worth or followers of talent or weight of health or beauty of loveliness.

Childbirth is a deeply emotional and psychological event, because of the level of pain involved and because of the significant work being done, and I have seen first hand the radical difference in approaches to care and the results that follow, both in the tangible moment and in the mother’s mind and memory. I imagine other kinds of trauma would be quite similar.

An old friend, Mrs. Ruby, has been in my thoughts lately. When she was a little girl, she got ringworm in her scalp, and the doctor’s prescription was to shave her head and apply tar pitch. This didn’t work and was reapplied until eventually another method was used and she recovered. But this kept her isolated for a couple years and put her behind in school. When I imagine my five-year old niece Adah, who loves looking pretty, having her head shaved, it breaks my heart. It would crush her.

This was a story Mrs. Ruby told me many times. It’s funny how we grow and experience all kinds of overwhelming pain— in marriage, in the death and sorrow of our children, in broken friendships, in shame, betrayal, loss, let alone in physical suffering— and yet every time I’ve sat down with an elderly person, all bent over from the weight of years, to hear their story, they tell me not about the greatest pain, but about the first.

I’ve written about Mrs. Ruby many times because she was the most radiantly happy and yet mentally present woman I’ve ever known. She was a true Christian, having faith until the very last breath, and she did this uniquely. 

Mrs. Ruby refused her pain medication. I’m not advocating this, I’m just telling you what happened. She looked toward the ray of light from the window, clenched her little mouth and would not be fooled or coerced. I don’t know her reasoning, but I do know that she preached in those days with a clarity and energy that wouldn’t have been possible under morphine, and also that it seemed like those around wanted her to shut up just as much as they wanted her to be comfortable, but she didn’t care. She preached on love. She said love is what brought us here. I wasn’t sure if she meant herself or me or us all, or if she meant to the hospital bed or to her sick-room or to the world itself. But when I think about the pain she was in as her body was wasted away, and yet all she still wanted to say about Christ’s love, it is astounding.

 Love brought us here.

It makes me think of the line in “How Deep the Fathers Love for Us”: It was his love that held him there until it was accomplished. When we consider the cross of Christ— what value his suffering had!— and a profit so glorious it radiated down the past and into the future a new and worthwhile significance to our own. Can you imagine someone approaching the Son of God on the cross and checking his pulse? “No progress,” they might have said, but every minute of his pain was a profound and infinite storehouse of treasure to those he loved, and those who love him. The world was blind.

It’s hard to describe labor contractions, for they are unlike any other kind of pain. When I was newly married and newly pregnant, I had a urinary tract infection that was so bad my urine was bloody. That was the worst pain I’ve ever had, but it was steady. I just laid in bed and groaned. My husband came home from work and I wanted badly to look pretty and have dinner ready for him, but I was utterly broken. I remember thinking, maybe I won’t die right now, but this pain will come again some day and this is how I will die. It was like a long beating from my own personal enemy. I survived, but at some point he will come again and kill me.

But contractions are like all-consuming waves of mounting pain, rising to a peak of dizzying fear. The little breaks between are just long enough to look around desperately for an escape, just long enough to anticipate the coming of another mountain. Just long enough to ask yourself what the hell you were thinking. But this is not what I tell my friends as a doula. I tell them another true thing: This pain has value. Mastering this pain has value. The only path to the second is to believe the first.

And something else, a miracle: in a moment, you will forget with joy. You can’t believe it now, but it’s true. You will even perhaps, in a year or two, be willing to do this again. 

Henci Goer was right to say belief colors perception. It is faith alone that can bring both the laboring young and the dying old through the pain to remember the greatest truths: We owe our lives in every sense to the pain of others– from the labor of our mothers, to the sacrifice of those who provide and protect and stay with us, preach to us, through all kinds of suffering, and ultimately to the great sacrifice of Christ–

And it is love— always love—that brings us here. Here to the pain, here through it, and beyond.

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