It was the same despondency I felt after going through the temple for the first time. What was promised to be the most uplifting and spiritual experience of my life became one of fear, disappointment and a deep-seated discomfort that made me question if the problem was me or God or some combination of the two of us.
This time, it was childbirth.
As a Mormon woman, I had been raised my entire life to believe that pregnancy, birth and motherhood were God’s highest callings for me. I took that directive very, very seriously. But shortly after having my first child and completing my graduate work, the big questions about my place in the Church and feminist concerns appeared in the periphery. Despite my best attempts to push them out of my line of sight, they sat there, creeping ever more into my direct view.
I searched out anything that would help me synthesize the beliefs I was raised in with the ever blossoming realization that women’s power and authority were severely lacking in my faith tradition. In my quest, I came across the writings of a few women who had attempted to theologize birth and lactation as ordinances–a way to prescribe uniquely feminine power that simultaneously offered explanations to uphold the current structure of the Church.
I ate it up.
I told myself that the reason I had not experienced this feminine power was because I had never truly tapped into my femininity. Since I was currently pregnant with another baby, I vowed that I would do everything in my power to access the divine through birth.
Since my first baby had been born by cesarean, I told myself that as much as I hadn’t planned or intended for that to be the story of his entrance to the world, it was obviously my fault for not doing x, y and z properly. But this time would be different. This time I would have the perfect, natural, godly, womanly birth upheld by these same women who offered answers for my questions of faith and feminism. My questioning heart would be quelled and the feelings of powerlessness I currently felt in my faith would be replaced with empowerment.
As the day of my baby’s birth drew near, events and complications arose that threatened to thwart my efforts. In a moment of absolute surrender, I called out to God, begging and pleading to please let me have this birth I wanted so I could feel at peace with my role in the Church–so I could know the godliness and peace I had come to accept as promised.
But that wasn’t my story. That complication lead to birth trauma and yet another cesarean. Birth-as-an-ordinance theology with all of its suggestions that if I simply seized the power that was waiting for me, I would feel the promised empowerment of birth and motherhood, stood as a testament to me that either a) God despised me and didn’t want me to feel peace or b) perhaps that God wasn’t actually there at all.
The questions that had once been pushed aside roared onto the main stage, but this time they were accompanied by the belief that not only had I failed myself and my baby, I had also failed God. Or perhaps, God had failed me.
As I celebrated the birth of that baby these three years later, I want to say that peace arrived, that everything fell into place, that the questions were answered and suddenly everything was made clear. But the truth is that the questions of power, authority, godliness and faith–my own and women’s generally–have moved in forever. The difference between now and then is that I’ve mostly made peace with their presence. No longer do look for or put trust in the answers that prescribe “as soon as you _____________ (insert: go to the temple, serve a mission, get married, have children…), you’ll understand.” Instead, I have come to accept that we all come to experience God differently, that just as we are unique human beings, we have a unique relationship with spirituality and the Divine.
In fact, if there is anything that birth taught me, it is a surrender to the unknown and the Unknowable.