Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
Giving Birth: Women’s Voices
Lynn Clark Callister1
[p.46]In a remote mountain highland, Luz, a tiny Mayan woman, dressed in the colorful woven native dress of her Guatemalan village, speaks of giving birth in her humble home attended by a traditional midwife, shares her perspective that
I felt that God had given me a gift. It’s true that I had to suffer to obtain it, but it is something that God gives.
In a medical center in Turku, Finland, sitting in a comfortable day room filled with light, Maija shares the birth of her son after eight years of infertility:
It is an experience without words. There are no words to describe this experience. Perhaps only a mother’s heart can feel it.
Speaking from her modest student apartment in a college town in the western United States, Christine, a first-time mother, says with deep emotion,
I couldn’t believe what I felt when I saw my daughter born. I have been a Rhodes scholar, but nothing I have ever experienced in my life comes close to what I felt when I gave birth.
In a large frame house where four generations of her husband’s family live, Rebecca cradles her newborn son in her arms and says,
It’s a natural phenomenon. If God wanted women to have babies, he gave them the strength to give birth.
Sitting on the floor in her modest home in a Palestinian refugee [p.47]camp, Amal said the best part of giving birth was to
see my child. I saw the result of nine months of pregnancy. Seeing my son for the first time was an unforgettable experience.
Giving birth is both a process and an event. Because childbirth is a multi-dimensional experience, many variables contribute to the perceptions of a woman about her childbirth experience and the meaning of this event in her life. Among the most significant variables is the societal-cultural context within which the mother gives birth. Because childbirth is an emotional, physical, cognitive, cultural, and potentially spiritual experience, these dimensions cannot be adequately described by quantitative means alone.
In order to tap from the perspective of women the socio-cultural meanings of birth, over the past nine years interviews have been conducted with American Latter-day Saint women, Canadian Orthodox Jewish women, Finnish Lutheran women, Jordanian Muslim women, and Guatemalan Catholic women.2 These socio-cultural groups represent the three most prominent worldwide belief systems: Christian, Judaic, and Islamic. This essay focuses on those women: the daughters of Eve, the daughters of Sarah, and the daughters of Hagar. In such societies, to varying degrees, a woman’s social status is linked to her reproductive role, particularly for the traditional Jewish and Muslim woman.
Asking women to share their birth stories and articulate the meaning of this event engendered rich, descriptive, qualitative data. As women were given the opportunity to share their understanding of the multiple dimensions of giving birth, they constructed their own realities. This was expressed by one Muslim woman: “Each woman speaks from her own experience.” There are shared cultural meanings of childbirth as a universal experience for women, but also unique and intensely personal meanings for each woman.3 Content analysis revealed related patterns of descriptive data bits, called “thematic moments,”4 which arose from the women’s stories. Giving birth represents:
1. An incredibly significant life event. For these women birth could either represent a peak experience or simply a means to an end: a difficult passage to motherhood. The Hebrew word for sorrow is as-[p.48]tav, meaning “to labor,” “to sweat,” or “to do something very hard.” An Orthodox Jewish woman explained the essential connection for her between the bittersweet paradox of sorrow and the joy in giving birth:
Childbirth is a very painful experience, but what do you get for it? You get something you can’t get anywhere else in the world. You get a human being, you give life. It’s the most incredible experience in the world.
Some women considered giving birth as a test of personal competence, a coming of age, a sense of power and achievement. A woman experiencing an unmedicated birth shared these thoughts about her experience:
I was tired but I guess I found my forces each time a contraction came again and again … If you’re strong in your [mind] then that will give you strength to your body.
Mastery was beautifully articulated in this way:
The experience of childbirth made me grow up a lot. It really did. I’ve learned a lot about my capacity … When I thought I was just too tired to push anymore, I found another fifteen minutes worth of it. I just learned I have a lot more strength than I thought I did. Childbirth brought me more in tune with my body because I know what my capacities are: my mental capacity, my strength. I just know I could do a lot more than I thought I could.
2. A reflection of a woman’s personal values about childbearing and childrearing. The creation of a new family is the hallmark of maturity and self-fulfillment in all cultures, particularly those having codified belief systems related to childbearing. According to one Orthodox Jewish mother, “Life would be nothing without children.” A Muslim woman said it this way: “Children are the purpose of life and the happiness of the woman.” A Mormon woman described her experience, I think it’s the greatest paradox of an experience that you can have … I never experienced that kind of pain in a twenty-four hour period in my whole life, but I never experienced that kind of joy either, so it’s definitely pain and joy together in the same circle.
[p.49]This thought is scripturally expressed, “For I have heard a voice as of woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child” (Jer. 4:31). Jesus used the metaphor of the bittersweet mixture of challenge and joy that the childbirth experience reflects: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:21).
3. The expression and symbolic actualization of the union of the parents. For example, the Orthodox Jewish husband, prohibited from observing or touching his wife during labor and birth (niddah or law of family purity), if present during birth stood at the head of the birthing bed or stood behind a curtain in the room. Other more conservative husbands did not attend the births, but spoke continual prayers, read passages from the Psalms, or consulted the rabbi. This represented significant and active support for the Orthodox Jewish woman:
I give birth and my husband helps me spiritually. He can pray for me and that is my biggest support.
The sense of a transformation to a family unit was expressed by a Mormon first-time mother:
I felt a very strong closeness to my husband because I feel the baby is a part of him and a part of me. Especially that he looks so much like [his father]. I can’t even explain it. It’s like someone rook a string and tied both of us together ‘“ I felt like a unit, a little family.
4. Obedience to religious law. For Orthodox Jewish women, giving birth indicates obedience to ancient rabbinical law as recorded in the Torah. According to Jewish literature, “Nothing in life is more wondrous than the process of birth.”5 An Orthodox Jewish woman expressed her perspective that “life would be worth nothing without children.”
For Muslim women, giving birth fulfills the scriptural injunctions recorded in the Quran. One Muslim woman said, “People usually start asking you after the first month of marriage whether you ‘save anything inside your abdomen’ yet, meaning, ‘are you pregnant?’”
[p.50]For Christian women, giving birth fulfills the ancient scriptural texts found in the Old Testament and explicated further, for Mormons, in the Pearl of Great Price, to multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:28; Moses 2:28), spoken of as achieving joy and rejoicing because of the blessing of posterity (Moses 5: 11).
Perhaps the linkage with obedience to law is best expressed by this Orthodox Jewish woman:
This is our life. This is the first commandment in the Torah that we should follow, that you should have children, that you should multiply. First in my life is my family, my way of life, my fulfillment.
One Muslim woman said,
Our religion encourages us to have children, so I felt I was doing what God was asking me to do.
5. The creation of life. Giving birth focuses on the intensity of an incredible experience of co-creating life. The first woman, Eve, was endowed with the title “the mother of all living,” which designation preceded her mortal maternity (Moses 4:26). Mothers giving birth love their children as something originating from them and through them. One Finnish mother, speaking of what was the best part of being pregnant for her, said it was
To know that I was going to have a baby, to feel her kicking inside of me. I couldn’t believe that two people could come together and create something like this. It seemed impossible. It was just a miracle.
A Mormon woman expressed a feeling of reverence about participation in the creation of a new life:
[The best thing about my pregnancy was] knowing that I was going to be trusted with this little person, that Heavenly Father trusted me enough to have her. [It was a] wonderful thing feeling her grow inside of me, [feeling] those feet poke me before she was born.
A Guatemalan mother said,
[Giving birth] I felt closer to God. I thanked God for allowing me to [p.51]have a baby. Well, I don’t say she is mine but that he let me borrow her. While the baby was in my womb I realized how great God is. Only God watches over the children that are yet in the womb because only he could do that.
In the interviews, mothers were asked, “What were your feelings when you first saw your baby?” At the time of giving birth, women spoke with tearful emotion of having the sense of the reverence for life itself:
When they laid her in my arms, it was overwhelming … Suddenly this new child is yours, and you love it so much. [Being a mother means] sacrifice, dedication, and devotion … but mostly a sense of overwhelming love for your child.
A Finnish woman shared her perspectives of the birth of her first child, a son:
Once he came out, I felt exhilarated. I couldn’t believe that the baby came, that the pain would be over. I was crying and laughing at the same time from happiness. I had this flood of emotion. I didn’t believe that it was my son.
Muslim women specifically described “the motherhood feeling,” a sensation which comes when a woman gives birth. Articulating a beautiful description of her experience during pregnancy, a Muslim woman said,
I felt that the baby and I were joined together, and we were sharing the same dimensions, the same space. So as I was taking care of myself, I was caring for my baby.
Another Muslim woman said,
I marveled about how this miracle could happen. The whole process of creation: How I got pregnant, how I carried my son for nine months, how I became so tired and yet had the strength to finally give birth.
6. The spirituality of the human experience. Spirituality is a broad term associated with finding meaning and purpose in life events, which [p.52]nurtures wholeness in the individual. It has been suggested that spirituality may be experienced and expressed differently by women than by men.6 Religious faith or spiritual belief lends perspective to the meaning of life experiences, particularly pivotal events such as childbirth. The meaning of life is connected to the symbolic traditions expressed with cultural/religious heritage.
Giving birth means participation in the processes of life and human existence, knowing that the words health, wholeness, and holiness have the same linguistic roots.7 Giving birth is one way in which women seek to transcend themselves.
I finally did something worthwhile in this world. I, everyone, comes here for a purpose, especially the woman. If a woman is going to come to this world and not have children, what was she here for then? She comes here to continue the generations.
A Muslim woman eloquently expressed the spiritual quality of giving birth:
During childbirth the woman is in the hands of God. Every night during my pregnancy I read from the Holy Quran to the child. When I was in labor I was reading a special paragraph from the Holy Quran about protection. The nurses were crying when they heard what I was reading. I felt like a miracle might happen, that there was something holy around me, protecting me, something beyond the ordinary, a feeling, a spirit about being part of God’s creation of a child.
Data reflect the honesty of shared feelings as women spoke in their own voices. There was no reluctance on the part of the participants; they needed little encouragement to talk. There is a yearning in women to experience connectedness with other women through the sharing of significant life events such as giving birth as expressed by one of the women in the study: “I am feeling a real need in my life to learn about women’s experiences from other women.” As we consider women’s ways of knowing,8 listening to the inner voice and constructed knowledge characterize the articulation of the lived experience of childbirth in the words of these women themselves. One cannot separate knowledge of a life experience such as childbirth from the meaning of the experience itself.
[p.53]It has been suggested, in woman-centered research, that “women are acknowledged as active, conscious, intentional authors of their own lives.”9 Listening is an essential human skill. The Chinese ideogram for “listening” is composed of the four signs for ears, eyes, heart, and undivided attention. We are invited to listen to the voices of women, to view with respect the sociocultural/spiritual context of women’s lives, and to move beyond the superficial to the deeper meanings, sufferings, and joys of the human condition. One writer has suggested that the researcher and participant should be “partners engaged in the … act of storytelling.”10
We express our gratitude for the opportunity these women have given us to join in partnership with them in the marvelous experience of interpreting the beauty and uniqueness of their stories of birth. “The deeper personal meanings of childbirth to the woman and her family within the richly diverse framework of her sociocultural/spiritual background should be respected, appreciated and celebrated.”11
1. I appreciate the following departments at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, for helping to fund this study: the College of Nursing, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, and the Womens Research Institute; and especially the women who agreed to participate.
2. L. C. Callister, “The Meaning of Childbirth to Mormon Women,” The Journal of Perinatal Education 1 (1992), 1:50-57; L. C. Callister, “Cultural Meanings of Childbirth,” Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing 24 (1995), 4:327-31; L. C. Callister, “Giving Birth: Guatemalan Women’s Voices,” 1997, privately circulated; L. C. Callister, S. Semenic, and J. C. Foster, “Cultural/Spiritual Meanings of Childbirth: A Comparative Study of Canadian Orthodox Jewish and American Mormon Women,” 1997, privately circulated; L. C. Callister, K. Vehvilainen-Julkunen, and S. Lauri, “Cultural Perceptions of Childbirth: A Cross-cultural Comparison of Childbearing Women,” Journal of Holistic Nursing 14 (1996), 1:66-78; L. C. Callister, S. Lauri, and K. Vehvilainen-Julkunen, “Giving Birth in Finland: A Descriptive Study of Finnish Childbearing Practices and Perspectives,” 1997, privately circulated; and I. Khalaf and L. C. Callister, “Cultural Meanings of Childbirth: Jordanian Muslim Women,” 1997, privately circulated.