From the cover:
Written during the months before and after the birth of the author’s third child, Great with Child is an honest, funny, and passionate portrait of the everyday developments and profound transformations of motherhood. Realizing that this third child would in all likelihood be her last, Debra Rienstra set out to chronicle her journey, both to savor it and to comprehend its reach. Through recounting the details of her own story — ultrasounds, labor, nursing in the middle of the night Rienstra lays bare how motherhood can alter and deepen a woman’s views on just about everything else: womanhood, the body, work, culture, God, … everything. Allusions to a wide array of sources, including the biblical Psalms, the poetry of Lucille Clifton, Jewish feminist midrash, and a Better Homes and Gardens baby book from 1953, weave through the narrative, illuminating the way that this primal experience colors and informs women’s lives. Rienstra reveals how — so much more than just an odd assortment of physical changes and fetal developments — bringing a child into this world reshapes the soul.
“The experience of pregnancy and childbearing can be a profound source of spiritual growth for women, but it is one that has remained largely unexplored. In Great with Child, Debra Rienstra brings us far on the fascinating journey of understanding the power and meaning of birth.”Frederica Mathewes-Green
“By about page ten, most readers will wish they could sit down with Rienstra and have a heart-to-heart…. Rienstra reminds us that, though having her third child was a reckless decision, it was recklessness in God, not “recklessness in a void.” And that is a lesson that applies whether you have children or not.”Lauren F. Winner
“Ms. Rienstra explores the way in which pregnancy and childbirth often deepen a woman’s connection to God through the mysterious and uniquely female power of creation.”The Dallas Morning News
“Celebratory, reflective, and gloriously true, Great with Child is the thinking woman’s companion to pregnancy.”Lorilee Craker
“A polished meditation on the body, on creativity and change, on the relations between men and women, and on our relationship with God.”Trudy Bush
Too bad this anger does not currently seem aimed at the great messes of the world. What might happen if expectant mothers everywhere would band together and sally forth, buckets and mops raised in their rubber-gloved hands, and aim that nesting energy at problems like interethnic violence or environmental pollution? Unfortunately, this instinct seems quite determinedly limited to the small scale – kitchen drawers and car interiors. If anything, I want more than ever to shut the big problems of the world out. I am fiercely focused on bringing a child into a world of beauty, wonders, and love, and I can only make that appearance take effect in my own little domain. My nesting is just for the next, not for the whole forest.
Maybe I am moving a little unnecessarily beyond the basic, logistical needs of preparing a bed and getting diapers and few items of clothing together. Clearly, this tiny person is not going to care whether the arms of the pink chairs have been shampooed. All this is obvious to Ron, as his furtive eye rolling reveals. But after all, we are about to welcome royalty into our home. There’s something in my motherly soul that urges me to prepare as if for the arrival of a prince. Wordsworth had this instinctive infant regality in mind, I think, when he wrote in his poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” that “trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” Of course, these beautiful lines do make me wonder if Will was every present at an actual delivery. Probably not. Births are exceedingly earthy affairs, leaving the floor strewn with blood-soaked linens and wads of gauze and various fleshy items that used to be tucked neatly into one’s private insides. But Wordsworth was right about the fresh wonder of a newborn baby’s very first breaths. Out of the earthiness, a star of mystery rises. We understand so much about the body and its processes, about gestation, about delivery, about infant physiology. And yet the personhood, the soul-essence of each infant, appears as a glorious mystery.
It’s hard to know how to honor this properly at the moment, or how to prepare for it. So as women have done for centuries in the face of the great and mysterious events of existence – birth, death, illness, marriage – we clean and cook. We turn to the plainest tasks and perform them with reverence and determination. Sometimes with a ferocity that annoys everyone around. It’s simply a time-honored and productive way of dealing with something we recognize is much bigger than ourselves. For so long, so few women learned how to honor the magnificence of existence with the larger, louder poetry of art, architecture, music, and poetry itself. We’ve learned that now, too. But still the simple responses of the hands, or maybe I should say, the hands and knees, remain. In the face of the profound, we begin with the simple, and work.
This time, I already know the answer: No. It’s true that eventually the baby grows and lands on his feet and walks around, and you do have two hands free, at least for a few minutes at a time. Of course, then children enter a period of several years (sometimes decades), during which they are as civilized and controllable as goats. But even when baby is sleeping and damage control is not the issue, it feels as if you never put him down. People talk about how children change your life, by which they usually mean the day-to-day arrangements of what you do. But the real change is inside. A child changes the shape of your soul. No longer am I only myself; always, always this baby is on my mind, in my heart. Miriam and Jacob altered the contours of my soul before they were born and have settled there for good. Over the years, they have enlarged it, I think, stretching it even more quickly than their small bodies have grown.
This deep alteration is different from marriage, though that changes the psyche, too, or at least it ought to. I’m connected to Ron, hooked together side by side like two kids in a three-legged race (and sometimes about that graceful). But the babies, I carry in every way. So I’m not shocked by Philip as a new bundle on me – I said good-bye long ago to my independent, streamlined, hands-free self. Philip simply makes me more bulky, psychically speaking.
Maneuvering around the corners of life – changes, decisions, growth – is much more complicated when it’s not just me: it’s all of us now. Parents can never use the little carry-baskets in the great, crowded grocery store of life. Instead, they have to push a big cart up and down the aisles, skidding along with all the kids clinging and clamoring. And sometimes behaving like goats.
Perspective is what I need most right now. The days have been going by so fast. Events come zinging at me and then they’re past, wave after wave. My feet pound the asphalt, my arms swing, and I think how strong I feel again, how streamlined and agile. Then I wonder if this new strength isn’t quite as rich as the weaknesses of the past two years. Can I feel as deeply now? Am I still cracked open enough for life-water to seep in?
When I was a teenager and a younger woman, I used to walk several miles a day and spend the time in fairly concentrated meditation. These days, a walk is a rare treat and sustained prayer beyond my capability. Well, I have learned that a robust prayer life may be a fine and desirable thing, but a lousy prayer life works for a while, too, in a pinch. Making sense of things in snatches while waiting for the tea water to boil or driving to the office or helping Philip down the slide for the fortieth time – it’s all right. God can build things with pitiful dribbles of thought, too. Anyway, I think experience might have advantages over prayer. Chattering away at God we can block out what we need to hear. But when we’re busy in the middle of things and our guard is down, sometimes whatever astonishing truth God needs us to recognize can take us by surprise.
Maybe I’m not as cracked open as I have been. But whatever slipped into me these last few years still burns there. Everything burns more now, more painfully and more energetically. I’m angrier, more passionate, tougher and softer, too. Maybe becoming a mother has invested me deeper in the world and in the eternal, for good. It’s put me in view of the horizon and set me walking with the fiercer winds.
The questions here aim at those underlying spiritual issues that so fascinated me during this passage of life, and I hope they will spark discussion both for mothers and women who are not mothers. They correspond roughly to the chapters.
2. How might we find power and wisdom in our monthly cycles?
3. What things have you desired but had to learn to live without? How does God fit into this sense of loss for you?
4. When has God said yes to you? How might we hold to those times during passages of life when God seems to say no?
5. How have you experienced the cost of pregnancy, motherhood, or serving others?
6. How might women convey the wisdom of attentive waiting to the rest of humanity?
7. Motherly fears are legendary in their power. How can we cope with them in faith?
8. Do we hate our bodies? How can we love them, and teach our daughters to love their bodies?
9. Do you tend to regard God’s will for you and those you love as “destiny” or “ordination”? What difference does it make?
10. Does the myth of Psyche offer any insight on your own life, work, and struggles?
11. Why is pregnancy often a difficult time in a marriage?
12. How can we celebrate the pregnant woman and her body without patronizing her?
13. In contemporary American culture, have we lost the spiritual dimension of the birth process? How could we claim it back?
14. How can we make a place to listen to one another’s birth stories?
15. How can we be more truthful and accepting both of the difficulties and euphoria of the first few weeks after birth and of breastfeeding?
16. Feeling fragmented and foggy is a common state for mothers. Is there any way to make friends with this condition? Can anything good come of it? What ways can we care for ourselves and others during these foggy times?
17. When have you felt rescued or healed? What contributed to that rescue or healing?
18. Do you experience a “dynamic tension between guarding our individuality and surrendering to this blissful merger” (p. 272)? How can we help our daughters and sons live that tension better than our generations have?
19. If you are a mother, what has motherhood taught you about the nature of God?