The Light of Motherhood: A Review of “Birthing Hope”

August 24, 2018
Title: Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light
Author: Rachel Marie Stone
Publisher: InterVarsity Press Books
Publish Date: May 1, 2018
Pages: 224 pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0830845330

Confession: there are times—when my kids are yelling at me or each other, when they are disobedient or embarrassing, when they are feeling in desperate need of some cheap, worthless things at Walmart even though I just need to get milk and get out of there—and I ask myself, “why did my husband and I decide to have kids again?” And then they play me a song or tell me a joke or do something genuinely kind and I say, “oh, yeah.”

I will never regret giving birth, creating life. Still, it is an interesting question to consider: why did we decide to have children? Why were my husband and I so sure that this was what should happen next—that we should bring life into the world? Life that we would be responsible to take care of, train up, educate, guide, protect, instill with good values, and introduce to good music. I don’t know that we thought through it all ten years ago; we may have just consented to the cultural norms and familial nudges. Thinking too much could cause us to fear the responsibilities and all that could go wrong.

For things do go wrong:
The last thing my midwife said before my first child was born was “Rebecca, if she doesn’t come out on this push, we will have to cut.” (Doesn’t sound like something a midwife would say, but it worked.) However, the next thing I knew an alarm was sounded and ten new faces from the NICU were with us and I was looking down at my daughter saying “come on baby, come on baby.” She had somersaulted her way through the umbilical cord in her haste (and mine) to be alive. And she lived. My husband and I hadn’t feared this when we decided to have children. We had consented to what seemed right and normal. And because we live where we live, when we live—because of our privilege—fear was at bay.

Things go wrong:
My mother-in-law gave birth to three sons. Her oldest, my brother-in-law, has mental and physical disabilities, her second son was killed in a car accident soon after graduating from college and getting married, and her youngest is my husband.

Things go wrong:
I met a woman last night at school registration. She is a mother of seven. “Well, really, nine,” she says. “Our oldest died but would have been a senior in high school this year. And my 6th grader had a twin who also died.”

Rachel Marie Stone, in her book Birthing Hope, says this about motherhood: “ is what it is to be a mother: to love and nurture that which is fragile, mortal, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and ultimately not even truly one’s own.” She quotes Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk: “One of the most astonishing and precious things about motherhood is the brave way in which women consent to give birth to creatures who will one day die.”

Through memoirs and metaphors, theology and etymology, Rachel Stone (an English teacher, author, and doula) tells the story of birth and life, fear, and hope.

She tells it through her own life and fears—a life of relative privilege yet a life with a genetic disorder, chronic illness, and depression.

She tells it through birthing women she journeyed with as a doula and missionary in Malawi; women with little privilege and yet little fear.

She tells it through Mary the mother of Jesus, whose consent to life brought not death but life everlasting.

She tells it through God, who like a midwife took us through the birth canal of the Red Sea (Isaiah 43:1), who cries out like a woman in labor, gasping and panting (Isaiah 42:14), who comforts and remembers us as a nursing mother comforts and remembers her child (Isaiah 66:13).

Hers is a multifaceted reflection on motherhood, each chapter veering off in its own direction. Each chapter title, most only a single word, surprise you with what unfolds. At times, I forgot that the book was ultimately about the anxieties of childbirth because her stories are beautiful and poetic and buttressed with well-placed etymology and quotes from female theologians I had not read before.

For example, in the opening of “Float,” she describes God the creator moving lightly over the water and bringing all that he made to light. Then, she explores her fear of drowning and concludes by talking about the plunge we take into unprotected waters when we dare to create or love.

In “Mother,” Stone shares her first experience of death—the loss of an adopted shelter cat. She recounts the two mothers and true mother before Solomon, and she wonders at God’s motherly love towards His world as shown in the flood. (“The waters cover the wickedness; enveloping the world back into the womb of God to be born again.”)

One of the most poignant chapters in her book is titled “The Odds.” In a story about her family’s love for LEGOs, she shares experiences from her life with the genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (also known as brittle bone disease) such as passing the disease on to her sons and experiencing her son’s first broken bone; yet through it all, she “wonders at the millions upon billions of variables that allowed their existence.” She structures her reflection in this chapter like a LEGO creation, stacking stories like bricks—each unique in shape, color, and length. Stone concludes that we, too, are like LEGO creations—infinitely variable. She writes, “So many elements intersect to bring each one of us into being. That it happens imperfectly is less remarkable than the fact that it happens at all.” Despite her fears—which are experientially warranted—she learns to be awed by the miracle of life and the “buoyancy of faith,” and she never regrets her own consent to bring it into the world. “I am conscious,” she says, “every day or nearly so, of how heavily the odds are stacked against any one person’s existence, including my own.”

Yes, sometimes I look at my children and try to remember if I had any idea that motherhood would be as challenging and frightening as it is. Yet, as Stone reminded me, I must look at my children—and at all human beings—with “something very near to reverence, if not reverence indeed.” As Marilynne Robinson says, “nothing is more unfathomable than ourselves.” It is unfathomable that one of my children looks exactly like my husband, one looks just like me, and one looks like a mixture of all of us. Unfathomable that one has learned to play violin, one has learned to craft a joke, and one has leaned toward kindness.

I consented to birth without much thought of fears. And each day I thank God that I did. To give in to fear is to give in to the darkness. But as Stone teaches in chapter one, to give birth in Spanish is dar a luz, literally “to give to the light.” Those births have brought me headaches in Walmart, to be sure. But they also continue to give to the light—light that is found in their songs and jokes and kindnesses.

About the Author
  • Rebecca De Vries works part-time as the worship coordinator at Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, IA. She and her husband have three children and one coffee shop, The Fruited Plain Café.

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