Tuesday, April 17, 2012

pain with a purpose

There is a little angel asleep on my lap - our little girl, born exactly two weeks ago… I am totally smitten with her and can’t put her down or stop staring at her. She is the most precious gift I could ever have imagined, and I am loving every minute of this journey so far. Even the interrupted sleep and pain of breastfeeding can’t override the sheer joy of holding her, snuggled close.

She was born at our home, in a birth pool, with no medical interventions and no painkillers. Labour lasted ‘only’ seven hours, and she was a healthy 3.9kg. Everything went well, and she is healthy, breastfeeding happily, and even allowing her mom 5 hours or so of sleep each night before resuming her voracious feeding.

This is not intended to sound like I am bragging though - in fact, let me start by gratefully acknowledging that we were very blessed throughout this journey. We didn’t struggle to fall pregnant, and I had a straightforward, uncomplicated pregnancy, despite a scare near the end. I am so thankful that everything went well, and despite two weeks or so of having to face some scary decisions, we could go ahead with our planned ‘natural birth’ in the end.

I also didn’t have any last minute complications requiring a transfer to hospital for a caesarian-section or induction or any other now routine medical interventions I was so intent on avoiding (due to their risks and effects on the baby). Our midwife also commented that this was a ‘model labour’ - and I know this too, after listening to the labour stories of most of my friends and family, some of which were quite horrible.

facing fear
My wonderful husband was by my side for the whole journey - my main support and source of loving encouragement. I would not have dreamed of doing this without his full commitment and involvement. He called me courageous, and said I did amazingly well… but from my perspective, I only made it through by the grace of God - faith and trust in a loving Father-Creator carrying me through pregnancy and rapidly towards a long-feared experience (labour) which for me was about as traumatic as I imagined it might be (even in a best-case scenario).

Unlike many who embrace pregnancy and all that goes with it quite easily, I have always been reluctant, even terrified… I only took this on after much emotional and spiritual healing over the last few years, and because of my beloved husband, with whom I could at last picture making this wonderful-but-hairy journey.  In a sense, I felt I had no choice but to ‘do it afraid’ (as the wonderfully honest Joyce Meyer says) – if I wanted the gorgeous baby I am now holding in my arms.

I am not some poster mom for ‘natural/active/home birth’. I was not a ‘blissed-out earth mamma’, nor could I describe the experience as deeply spiritual, beautiful or poetic… or anything other than painful, hard work, terrifying, and something I somehow just managed to ‘survive’… In fact, despite everything going well, and having ‘faced’ my fears... I must say I find the thought of ever doing this again just as terrifying as before, and not something I can even contemplate at the moment.

overwhelming pain
In the throes of labour itself, I remember only one moment of fervent prayer – I was too overwhelmed to pray continually, or ‘properly’, or to sing or dance or any of the things I imagined doing to get me through. My labour kicked in at full intensity – contractions three minutes apart, with no relief in between, as baby’s head was pressing down on the sciatic nerve, causing unbearable pain all the way through (when baby is in this position, it’s called ‘back labour’).

All the secular and new age advice I had received for natural pan relief techniques focused on breathing, visualisation, meditation, birth positions, birth balls and such…and I was in too much pain to really do any of those either. Even massage and counter-pressure, my main pain relief tool, hurt way too much.

The pain was so intense I couldn’t speak much of the time…or move much… or think.  Every moment felt like an eternity, and I didn’t know how long this would last, or if I could do it, if I could cope with another minute. And don’t get me started on describing the visceral pain of baby’s head finally emerging, or the rest of her – when it felt like someone was ripping my insides out! I don’t think I will ever forget those feelings – those who say they quickly forgot the pain of labour must have had some pain relief…

avoiding pain
So you might ask, why did I not have some pain relief too? I mean, I was by no means na├»ve to the pain I was about to go through, and I had no desire to be a martyr or make any sort of statement... Well, again, because of the potential effects on baby, and how it messes with the natural processes of labour - often leading to the need for other interventions, and frequently an emergency caesarian (in South Africa the rate of c-sections is particularly high – 70-80%, whereas the WHO recommends 5-10% is optimal, and an average rate of above 15% does more harm than good).

The pain of labour has a purpose, and steps taken to avoid the pain directly affect the natural processes required to fulfill this purpose – by impeding the release of various hormones which drive each stage of the process of labour. It was amazing to experience this process unfolding completely on its own - in wave-like surges, ever-increasing in intensity, working towards the climactic moment when my body was compelled to release this little one into the world.

So besides the wonderful gift of our little one, and the joy of starting out on the journey into parenthood, what I have been thinking about ever since the labour itself is the phrase ‘pain with a purpose’. My natural inclination is to avoid and fear pain, not to embrace or learn from it… but in labour I was advised to do just that, as relaxing the muscles and working with the contractions, allows them to do their work and causes less pain than when you are tense and resisting them.

what I have learned (again)
Firstly, thank God (literally) that my faith is not based on works/deeds/rituals/saying the ‘right’ prayers at the ‘right’ time… If I had to be in the right state of mind to ask for help, protection and comfort, in the ‘right’ way, or if it all depended on me remembering and applying a set of principles and techniques (In the world of alternative pain relief it seems everyone has their own breathing technique that you absolutely must practice ad nauseum as it is the key to, well, just about everything. Breathe right and you will not feel pain, breathe right and you will live forever!)… I would have been completely panic-stricken when I found myself in too much pain to think straight, breathe in anything but gasps, or do anything other than hug the end of our bed.

But our loving Father knows what we need before we ask, and Holy Spirit is praying with us, for us, and through us ‘with groans too deep for words…’ (Romans 8:26). Looking at that verse in the bible now, I can’t imagine a more appropriate time for its application than childbirth! I groaned, cried, screamed, howled like a banshee – in that last pushing phase especially. I didn’t know I could make such a noise (and it was all involuntary)!

During my pregnancy, I of course tried to prepare myself as much as possible for the inevitable labour - attending antenatal classes, reading many books, visiting the maternity ward at our backup hospital, seeing doctors and midwives, and having many discussions with my patient husband about possible scenarios. But I knew that no amount of preparation could ensure the safety of our baby, or a smooth labour for me.

Some key verses that encouraged me throughout were: ‘in returning [to God] and resting [in God] you shall be saved; in quietness and in [trusting] confidence shall be your strength’ (Isaiah 30:15). And ‘not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6). So I stopped trying to memorise all the alternative pain relief and breathing techniques, and spent more time in God’s loving, soothing presence….

Of course the other side of the coin is that faith in God is not like having a fairy godmother who will wave a magic wand to give you all you want, or in this case, make the pain vanish as you say the magic words… God more often takes us through unpleasant, even traumatic experiences, than out of them. By this I do not mean to imply that God sends painful experiences our way, in order to ‘teach us a lesson’… That’s some messed up theology, that would have us believe in a ‘loving Father’ who hurts us to show how much He loves us… NO!

What I mean is simply that faith in God is not formulaic and safe, like many of the New Age techniques which claim all the power rests within us, and we can simply ‘manifest’ whatever we want and need… Knowing God doesn’t guarantee us a pain-free path through this troubled world, but rather a close companion and comforter in the painful times. True faith is a relationship with a personal, eternal being – it is more like a dance than a set of rules, instructions or superstitious rituals which can be followed to guarantee the outcome we desire.

but the ‘problem of pain’ remains…
I am still left pondering a few questions, and they are by no means new ones: In a broader sense, what is the purpose of pain – why do we ever ‘need’ pain? And then from a Christian perspective, there is of course the perennial question - why does God ‘allow’ pain? 

Of course this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for non-Christians and Christians alike. Even plunging into the endless depths of theology, cannot fully satisfy the gnawing question which requires a personal relationship with God to enable us to walk through painful times and events in our own lives without bitterness or recriminations, and without losing our faith.

From a biological perspective, pain indicates that something is wrong, and something needs to be done about it – for example, when your hand is on a hot stove plate, the pain signals tell your brain to tell your hand to ‘move!’ Pain appears to be necessary to get your attention, or your brain and body’s attention. But still, conceivably this ‘trigger’ could have been something tingly, prickly, itchy even…anything other than actual pain. Wouldn’t it have worked as well? Maybe. I don’t know.

What I do know is in a broader life sense, we appear to need painful consequences before we will change our behaviour or our attitudes – a subtle warning doesn’t usually get our attention, and sometimes even a stricken conscience can be ignored or appeased with endless justifications… Is this why God ‘allows’ pain? I don’t know. It certainly seems like part of the explanation.

This is a question without a straightforward answer, an unresolved issue that will take a lifetime to process, a discussion point which seems pointless to discuss, since we cannot know or understand fully the mind of an infinite God… Oh of course, many people have ‘answers’ – usually for every occasion. But these can feel so trite and even insulting when offered to someone in the midst of a painful or tragic experience.

All we know of God is what He reveals to us – and He has said ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8-9). Enough said.