In today’s post I am interviewing Agnes Howard, who teaches humanities and history in Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University, and serves there as senior fellow for the Lilly Fellow Program. She recently published Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us About Being Human (Eerdmans).
[TK] As you note, there is no lack of books on pregnancy, especially in the What to Expect When You’re Expecting genre. What is different about your approach?
[AH] Many pregnancy books give advice about hygiene, fetal development, and getting ready for birth. This is useful as far as it goes. But by aiming at exterior, physical symptoms and at the hidden events of the uterus, and then skipping to the endpoint of the process, they almost completely miss the pregnant woman herself, who she is, and what this experience is about. The experience is not just about getting a live baby out at the end, any more than a symphony is just for arriving at the last measure, or a football game matters just for a final score.
Studying historic Christian writings, devotional and theological, and old maternity guides helped me take a different approach. Antique guides offer useful contrasts to our current birth practices. They make clear the strangeness and newness of the way we view childbearing. The contrasts point out some things to appreciate and some to regret now. The way older manuals for women and midwives explain the duties of pregnancy helped me describe it as a work of care, laudable for women who are doing it. These sources also made me wish for common language about the significance of pregnancy. The nature of childbearing demands a cultural framework, an interpretive scheme to make sense of it beyond the clinical events. That’s a chief goal of the book.
You write, “Thinking well about pregnancy necessarily is part of thinking well about being human.” How so?
We wonder where we come from. People ponder their origins—from the start of the universe to one’s personal genetic code–so it should occur to us to think about where we came from more immediately. Every single person alive on the planet owes that status to the work of some woman who carried him or her around in utero. It’s right to be curious about this. That might invite us to respect more truly a particular woman who once awaited our arrival, sure, but also to grasp that self-aware caretaking and sometimes suffering is prerequisite to having people exist.
Being “self-aware” is important. People in other times had ideas about the baby growing in secret, but here and now a big part of being pregnant is awareness of it, followed by careful action because of it. What does it mean, practically and imaginatively, that each new human being does not sprout up like a seedling or get toted in the beak of a stork? In her actions and physical changes, the pregnant woman is showing some non-negotiable facts of human life: our reliance on each other for care, for physical presence, for relationship. Pregnancy gives visible reminder that this generosity grounds human life.
In spite of the welcome medical advances associated with pregnancy, you note that our culture’s rigidly medicalized treatment of pregnancy is limited and impoverished. How do pregnancy and childbirth change when we view them through the lens of the virtues?
The lens of virtues helps us name the good things that women do on behalf of expected babies. First, it’s an advance even to say that a woman does good things for the fetus. Older ideas of reproduction assumed a mother was just kind of waiting around passively until the baby decided to exit. We know that women do lots of things to help gestation along. The challenge is knowing how to describe these actions. They are not just self-care, and they don’t just directly improve the health of the baby. Instead, taken together they show a way of being a good human, demonstrating charity, hospitality, courage, prudence, and hope. That deserves admiration and imitation.
If the only language we have to describe pregnancy is medical—weight gain, blood pressure, glucose count—we miss this. Please note, I am not condemning medicine. Medical advances may make it possible to view pregnancy through the lens of virtue. Science that explains how a fetus grows has helped us realize what astonishing work women do. Having less cause to fear death of mother or baby gives space to appreciate this beauty.
How can we take a more robust Christian view of pregnancy, without succumbing to the idealized, sentimental talk about motherhood that we hear in many churches (maybe especially in evangelical churches)?
It would be healthy if pregnancy could be mentioned in contexts other than Christmas, abortion, or Mother’s Day. We can also follow the lead of Catholic philosopher Susan Windley-Daoust, who extends the theology of the body laid out by Pope John Paul II. She argues that by God’s creation the human body is a sign. A sign of what? God made our bodies to mean something, and it’s a worthy activity for Christians to reflect on what this feature of bodily life might mean. That’s one aim of my book.
I know that what I say about it is not the only way pregnancy might be a sign. So Christians could have fruitful conversations about what else God might be saying by bringing us to life this way. Using the language of virtues with pregnancy could be another way to imagine a robust Christian view, focusing attention on whatever is lovely, true, and worthy of praise [Phil. 4:8]. An alternative to sentimentalizing motherhood is for men and women both to imagine regarding a pregnant woman as a moral exemplar.
If you could suggest one thing for churches to do to create a healthier culture of pregnancy and childbearing, what would it be?
There are others, but I’d imagine practical help for pregnant women similar to what churches do after a birth or for people who are housebound, like coordinating meals and such. Offering food is a great help. But beyond that, other services specific to pregnancy could be useful, like accompanying women to doctor’s appointments, providing transportation or childcare for women who would otherwise tote toddlers along to prenatal visits. It could be envisioned as a “ministry of the Visitation,” potentially women at later stages of motherhood coming alongside newer parents. To offer this support would not imply that the new mother is incompetent, just that there’s a lot of new and sometimes intimidating changes in this process.
Churches could make a point to pray for mothers and awaited babies and make good on promises to help when due dates draw near, perhaps arranging for a safe, familiar person to stay with other children when parents go overnight to deliver the baby. A church could do this for its own members, a way of taking seriously pledges often made at baptism or dedication of babies, that the new ones be embraced by the whole congregation. These practical helps also could be a community ministry, maybe even more valuable to women lacking such support.