I had read books about childbirth, books that described contractions as “waves”—manageable ones, if you had the right attitude—and birth as a warm, glowy experience best concluded with champagne.
But when I went into labor with my first daughter, I felt no glow of incoming life, just the repeated beating of city-high waves that, from the beginning, thundered over me without a break between them. My tiny boat of coping techniques promptly capsized; I couldn’t think or breathe. After ten hours of pummeling, the doctor handed me some papers, said something to my husband who tried to translate it for me (but I was underwater and couldn’t hear him) and then: the OR. An unexpected c-section. Lots of light, but not the kind mentioned in the books. Our baby’s face as a nurse on her way to the NICU held her up for me to see.
Birth stopped being something I did, and became a thing that happened to me. It required, in the end, not strength but surrender.
And so, I would learn every day afterward, does motherhood.
Before having our daughter, I had never been a “baby person.” I had never changed a diaper and had only held a newborn once, when my mom passed her to me at a baby shower before I could protest. But then the nurses brought me this baby—our baby—with her fists curled tightly as seashells, her mouth thoughtfully pursed as she slept. She was wonderful, both foreign and familiar. She still is.
I am now a baby person.
But in the months after her birth, everything was new, everything daunting. I didn’t know which side was the front of a diaper or how to leave the house without a pack mule. Nursing was an inelegant endeavor, one that seemed to require an extra set of hands and local anesthesia. In desperation, I cast aside the books that promised an empowered birth and turned instead to books that promised us a baby who slept like an adult, nursed artfully, and was in fact a tiny genius.
What I learned from those books became a sort of lumber that I tried to fashion into a ship—one that would, with a favorable wind, carry me over the possibility of failure, of loss, of uncertainty. I thought that if I controlled this variable and monitored that one, our daughter would grow up smart and safe, loving both us and Jesus. In that ship, I would cross the waters, plant my flag on the far shore, and throw my arms up in an exultant V. I would succeed.
If I teach her these things.
If I establish this routine.
If I feed her those foods.
I did not know that I thought this, but I did.
Until: one day when our baby was almost a year old, I brought dinner to a woman from our church who had just had her third child, a boy. We stood in her kitchen, chatting and watching her older kids dig in the backyard, their heads haloed by a forsythia bush in bloom. Chickens scratched in the grass; the air outside was gentling into spring. And then she asked me, “When do you start putting babies down to nap on their own? I can’t remember.”
I heard a crashing roar as of water, an ominous sound. The hand holding my mug trembled. She couldn’t remember? She’d had two babies already. How could she not remember?
I did not understand at first what I was seeing, but I know now that I had caught sight of one the edges of my humanity: my knowledge was not a ship at all but a shore that could reach only so far, and beyond it spread the wild, open sea of God’s mercy. What is to me now a tremendous comfort felt terrible then, because I had not yet reached the edge and seen for myself what happens when I wade into the water.
Our God does not lead his people along an easy path. His way is through the waters, through the desert, through city walls, through flames. His path is through exile, famine, shipwreck, and death, but it always ends in glory. It always ends in him.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; . . .
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:1–3)
I have forgotten a shocking amount of things about raising children in the nine years since our first daughter’s birth, but what I have learned since leaving those parenting books at the water’s edge is this: motherhood takes us straight through the sea of failure, of loss, of uncertainty. I know, too, that I am still in the shallows. In another nine years, in thirty-nine years, I wonder if I will live entirely below sea level, where the Lord’s path dips between the sea’s thundering walls. I wonder if I will even remember what the shore looked like.
“Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters,
yet your footprints were unseen.” (Psalm 77:19)
I drew that verse onto a notecard last spring and took it with me to our fourth daughter’s birth. There, when I reached the end of my strength, I did not cling to the rocks of the shore as I had the first time, nor did I try to find a path around the sea. And I did not try to sail over the waves to safety. Instead, I took a breath and plunged into the waters, knowing that the hand that shaped my daughter and made me a mother would make a path through the waves for me. And he did: the pain broke over me like waves, but he drew me on into the deeps, where the waves lost none of their power but seemed somehow blunted, remote.
Birth was not a thing I did, but something he led me through.
Motherhood requires not strength, but surrender.
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