By Rachel Stone
Flourish, Spring 2012
Four years ago this month, on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, my husband drove our fourth-hand Volvo through the high road winding through the farmlands of Fife, in Scotland, while I alternately let out long, low, and loud noises and talked about the animals we passed.
New lambs! I shrieked. And then I bellowed Ahhhhh-oooooooo! for a minute or two. Then: does it hurt when animals give birth?
I suppose so, Tim said.
Do they make noises, you think?
Well, probably. I don’t know.
An hour later, we were holding our new baby boy–a red-faced, shrieking bundle called Graeme Brian Stone.
(We did nae think ye’d make it, coumin’ from Sint-Andrews! exclaimed our sturdy, thoroughly cheerful midwife.)
I had birthed our first son at midday in early fall, and he was beautiful. But labor had gone all through the night–when all diurnal creatures want sleep more than anything–and in the darkest hour, which was when I was at the depth of my pain, I cried out why? Why does God want me to suffer?
Wendell Berry writes–
For parents, the only way
is hard. We who give life
give pain. There is no help.
Yet we who give pain
give love; by pain we learn
the extremity of love.
Birth is messy. It’s bloody. (The birthing tub ends up looking like an abattoir! one Scottish friend had remarked.) And it is painful.
But it is a pain unlike any other. It is not the bloody pain of surgery or injury. It is the pain of a body giving–giving way, giving space, giving shape, giving life–to another. And at the climax of that giving, when it feels like your body will be split in two, great pain gives way to great love, as everything in the mother rushes toward the being that has just separated to bring it back again in a different kind of closeness.
There is tremendous power and poetry in birth.
Even in goat births.
Ten years ago, when we were hiking through some lovely but rarely-visited mountains in Montana, Tim and I encountered a herd of mountain goats. The gentle, curious creatures gathered around us for a good look; sniffing at our packs and giving us their best goat-like welcome. As I watched them make their way up a cliff face that I couldn’t have scaled on my best day, I shivered with a feeling that was pleasant despite being surprisingly like sadness, or loneliness, pierced by a sudden, sharp sense of God’s own pleasure and delight in these wild, wild things. There were babies among their number, nimbly climbing alongside the parents who’d given them life.
When God speaks to Job from the comforting whirlwind (as Bill McKibben called it), he asks,
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?
Animals, like people, prefer to give birth in quiet, safe spaces, with few (if any) other creatures nearby. But even where no other eyes are present, God sees the pain, hears the cries, witnesses the cleaving–the grafting, separating, uniting love-pain of birth.
Not far from my home is a goat farm I love to visit with my children, owned and operated by the son and daughter-in-law of now-deceased, much-beloved members of the church family I belonged to as a child. This spring, I was determined to find out what it is like when the goats give birth. Mind you, they’re not wild. Only God has seen those Montana mountain goats give birth, I’m sure. But goats, like people, don’t give birth on schedule. I’ve visited the pregnant does and the day-old kids and the newly-weaned ones, but the only goats whose emergence I’ve witnessed have been on YouTube.
And of course it hurts them. They even cry out, some sounding piteously human in their cries. Will I ever get to hear this with my own ears? Maybe not. Nonetheless, I’m stilled and comforted knowing that the same God who hears all my cries hears the cries of the does crouching to bring forth their young; the gentle mewling of the tiny goats, stumbling blindly back to their mother’s side, seeking their milk, finally, from God.
Rachel Stone has written for Christianity Today, Books and Culture, Relevant, catapult/*cino, and Creation Care magazine. She blogs daily about food, family, faith, joyful justice (and The Bread of Life) from her home in Greenport, New York. Her book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, is forthcoming from InterVarsity Press in 2013.