The Relationship of Mary and Elizabeth
As many women begin to prepare for the birth of their child, they quickly get overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. How do you know what is right, or important? They may also wonder, "So how do I do this and remain a Christian?"
As we turn to the Bible, we find that Titus 2 gives us the principle that women should teach women. As the older women continue to learn and grow in their faith, "they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God."
Often, a relationship in which an older or more experienced person trains and prepares a younger or less experienced person is called a mentoring relationship. A mentor is a great resource in any area of life, including pregnancy, labor and birth. She is a woman who has been where you are. She's gone through similar trials and she knows what it feels like to be in need, or frightened, or angry, or hurt. A mentor allows you to learn from her mistakes as well as her successes. She is open and honest about her life, and willing to share with you what she has found to be the most helpful.
A mentor has more knowledge about the situation that faces you. Not only does she have first hand accounts of her life, she also has stored in her memory everything she read and learned while she was going through it. Her advice can be anecdotal (she can tell you stories of what she felt), based on research, or based on advice she received. By opening yourself to a mentor, your base of knowledge will more than double.
This may sound great, but I know your next thought is probably, "where do I find a mentor for having a baby?"
Think of all the women in your church, neighborhood, family and work. Has any woman you know had difficulty conceiving? If so, she may have some valuable insights for you on how to remain patient while waiting for God to bless you with a child. Has any woman you know been pregnant? If so, she can share great secrets of health and comfort as your body grows. Do you know any woman who has given birth? You have probably already begun to ask her if it hurt, what caregiver she used and if she used pain medication.
These are great ways to begin to build a mentoring relationship with another woman. But what would happen if you could take it a step further. What if you had an experienced mother train you for your pregnancy, labor and to give birth?
This may sound foreign to you, but the concept is centuries old. In years past women were attended during their labor by other women. There would be a midwife (a woman who had trained to help make the labor and birth safe), perhaps her sisters and mother. Maybe a grandmother or a cousin or two would be present. Perhaps it would be her neighbors who came to help her.
Many of the women with her would have given birth themselves. They could offer great support and advice for the laboring mother, especially if this were her first baby. Some of the women with her would still be childless. This would be their introduction to labor, and as they tried to keep the mother comfortable, they would be learning everything about what a labor was like.
There are cultures that still treat birth in this manner. Each labor builds the bonds between the women in the community, as they support the laboring mother and train the women who will be laboring themselves soon. We are not a culture that treats labor this way.
In the United States, most women will never have seen a birth until their own child is born. Some may have seen actors pretending to give birth on television or in the movies, but these generally give very false impressions of what labor is really like. Some may have seen videos of labors in childbirth classes, but most of these have been edited down to just a few minutes to fit into a class. As important as these videos of real labors are, they still may leave the new mother with false expectations about what labor is.
The best way to prepare for your upcoming labor and learning how to give birth is to find a mentor to train you! Ideally, this will be a woman who is with child, who will walk you through the process and allow you to attend her during her labor.
There is a beautiful picture of this in the Bible. In Luke 1 we are told the story of Mary and Elizabeth. Upon learning that she was with child, and that Elizabeth was already in her sixth month, Mary went to stay with her cousin. Knowing that she stayed there for three months lets us know that Mary stayed long enough to support Elizabeth during her labor, and help her as she gave birth.
We are not given any details about the time they spent together beyond their greetings. But, based on our knowledge of human nature and the processes of pregnancy, labor and birth we can draw some conclusions that will be helpful.
Elizabeth was almost in her third trimester, and may have been by the time Mary arrived. Mary was in her first trimester. We can be pretty sure Mary asked Elizabeth a lot of questions about comfort during pregnancy. She may have asked her about the increased fatigue, or the increased need to urinate. Elizabeth could have given her advice about foods that cause indigestion, or ways to avoid morning sickness.
Elizabeth would have been an example to Mary, educating her about what would come during the later part of her pregnancy. She may have explained how to find a comfortable sleeping position, or shared techniques to prevent a backache. Mary would have learned by watching everything that Elizabeth did, from the way she picked things up to the way she sat down.
But the education was probably deeper than then just how to stay comfortable. Elizabeth, in her preparations for her upcoming labor, was teaching Mary how to prepare for her own labor. Since Mary stayed three months, we can guess that she was probably there to attend Elizabeth during her labor and John's birth. By attending Elizabeth, Mary was learning what to expect, and what to do to help relieve some of the discomfort that would be a part of the labor process. She may have learned comfortable positions for the labor, or the importance of drinking lots of water.
The information she learned was helpful to Mary, who went through her labor and the process of giving birth while riding on a donkey to Bethlehem, and then potentially alone with only her husband Joseph, in a place that was not her home. Mary knew what to expect, and was not afraid of what would be happening. She simply performed the tasks that she had learned from Elizabeth.
In modern times, very few women labor on a donkey or expect to give birth alone. However, the ability to learn what to expect is still valuable in preparing a woman for her labor. Nothing will prepare you better than to "study" under the tutelage of an experienced natural birth mother who will go through birth before you.
Please understand, that the education I am suggesting is far from sitting in the corner and watching her give birth. I am suggesting that you meet with her regularly before her labor begins to learn about what you need to do to prepare for your labor.
During these visits, you will also learn what you will need to do to be an active support person for her labor. If this is her first natural birth, she may request that you attend childbirth classes with her so you can both learn as much as possible. She will teach you ways to help her relax and get comfortable. She will show you where she keeps the supplies she will need during her labor.
Your Elizabeth will make suggestions about what to read, and what are the important topics to cover. You will discuss with her issues that can be controversial, sharing information you have learned and trying to understand why she had made certain decisions. You must also learn how to help her defend her decisions should it become necessary.
She will also go through her birth plan with you. This is important so that you understand what she expects of you during this labor. She may want you to take pictures, or she may ask you to be in charge of an older child. She may decide you are the best at back-rubs and ask you to help keep her relaxed, or she may decide you are the best cook and ask you to ensure everyone is well feed while she is busy.
Your role is not to be taken lightly. You are not only there to observe, but also to serve. You are to put the needs of the laboring woman above your own, which means you may not see everything you want to see. You may be in a bad position to actually see the baby come out. That is ok. You can see what it looks like for a baby to come out on a movie. You are interested in what it takes for the mother to give birth. Study the look of work on her face, the positions she finds most comfortable, the way she makes noise, and the emotional process she goes through.
You are there to make the mother more comfortable. You should be encouraging and edifying. You should help her to keep her focus on God above and the safety of her baby. You should remind her that this is temporary, and that she is not alone. And you should observe what words you use that work, and which ones do not seem to be very effective.
After your Elizabeth has had time to recover from the exhausting work of having a baby, spend some time with her to learn what she found the most helpful. Find out what part she found to be the most trying, and what got her through it. Ask her what could have made you more effective as a servant. Ask her questions, and listen to her answers. They will have an effect on your own labor.
After attending that birth, and hopefully having actively participated in it, you will be ready to begin training your own "Mary." You see, the cycle should be continued so that each woman is able to learn about labor through hands-on work. Have your Mary take classes with you, loan her some of your books to read, and make suggestions for books that you do not own. Visit with your Mary often, encouraging her to keep up the healthy habits she should have started, and helping her remain patient until it is her day. Teach her how to remain comfortable during pregnancy, and help her learn some tricks you have picked up along the way.
Don't forget to train her to support you during your labor. Teach her the skills she will need to keep you relaxed and comfortable. Go over your birth plan with her, explaining why you made certain choices, and what is the most important to you. And most importantly, don't forget to call her when your labor starts!
The idea is to share what you have learned with someone who will be there soon. Your Mary will learn from you just like you learned from your Elizabeth. That kind of experiential information cannot be adequately taught in books or childbirth preparation classes. You will be giving your Mary a valuable gift, just as your Elizabeth gave you a valuable gift.
Your Mary will also give you a valuable gift. Just as you helped to ensure the comfort of your Elizabeth, your Mary will help you to stay comfortable. She will encourage you when labor gets tough, and make suggestions for different positions if progress seems to slow down. She will remind you to drink water and go to the bathroom when your mind is stuck on contractions. You may wonder how this sort of relationship will effect the role of the husband at the birth. It doesn't need to change it, the husband can take as large or small of a role as he likes. Try to encourage both your husband and your Mary to work together, making the husband the head coach and your Mary the assistant. When a decision needs to be made, and you won't answer, they can quickly go over the options and make a selection.
Many women use doulas to help them labor. A doula is a professional labor assistant. This would be like having your Elizabeth at your birth. Having a doula should not cause you to skip having a Mary. Remember, this is not done just for your comfort, but also to train and prepare a woman to do something she has never done before.
By continuing the cycle of training women about pregnancy, labor, and how to give birth, we participate in a fellowship of Christian women that should have been continued through the ages, and can be continued in the years to come.