Updated: Sep 26, 2019
"Heroism is not the absence of fear, but fear conquered, pinioned; fear still rioting, but impotent." Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P.
(Possible trigger warning? Scary, but not a birth story strictly-speaking, appropriate for mixed company, and has a happy ending.)
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One of my favorite stories is about St. Bernard’s mother (from The Family that Overtook Christ). In that story, two religious are discussing whether or not she should be buried next to her six children (all with religious vocations themselves) in a plot reserved for religious, when her own vocation was only the natural one of wife and mother. To make his case justifying her presence there, one of the monks lists all of the saintly things she did with her life. Aside from all of her six children dying with a religious vocation, the monk mainly seems to be listing the (what I always thought to be) mundane tasks of motherhood: birth, breastfeeding, teaching the catechism, etc. Now, this is beautiful and inspirational to mothers everywhere, but what always stood out to me was the way he described birth: the item I once thought least belonged on that list because, well, it’s just one day and something that happens to you. He described her birthing six children as “entering down to the gates of the grave” six times. I thought it dramatic at best. And then, I got preeclampsia.
I had a meticulously planned out-of-hospital birth, and I was crossing over the state line to make it happen. This meant hour-and-a-half-long drives each way for every appointment. So one day, at a routine 37-week prenatal check, my midwife’s assistant took my blood pressure, and she made a weird face. She left the room and came back in with my midwife, who also took it. They left again. They came back, sat down across from me, and said, “We think you have preeclampsia. You will probably have to be induced tonight. You will have to give birth in the local hospital. We have to drive their right now. Go ahead and call your husband, then we’ll go.”
For those unfamiliar, preeclampsia is a major killer of moms and babies even today that can cause a myriad of trouble. Forget my birth plan preferences. Forget having to deliver in a strange hospital in a strange town. Forget being totally unprepared to go home with a baby that early. I was afraid I or my baby would die.
I spent the next few hours (and many, many days after birth) watching my blood pressure readings anxiously. The risks of seizure, stroke, placental abruption, etc. were always at the forefront of my mind. I was worried about my baby. I was worried that her mom would not survive to take care of her. I was looking death in the face, and learning that I was a big, fat, wimp. “Thy will be done,” the prayer Pater and I had made throughout pregnancy, suddenly took on a whole new meaning. I repeated it in my head with a tremor.
That night of dozing in between contractions and nurse visits, being lulled to sleep in two-minute increments by the sound of my baby’s steady heart beat, ended up being the most peaceful, prayerful time. I prayed the prayer for a happy delivery that I had been praying throughout my pregnancy (from this prayer book). It likened labor to the finding of Jesus in the temple. As I meditated on that, I took solace in the fact that she understood my fear and would help me to endure it bravely for love.
During each contraction, I would picture Jesus, specifically Jesus on the Cross, all alone save for the Blessed Mother and St. John at the foot. I pictured Him as He appeared in the movie The Passion, when He cries out to God. I prayed with each contraction that the pain would help me to console His Sacred Heart. As the contractions got stronger, that night and throughout the next day, I would picture each contraction like a wave I was riding that was bringing me to Jesus on the Cross. The more painful it was, the closer to His Adorable Face it lifted me. Eventually, when the contractions got even more painful and harder to relax through, I felt the Blessed Mother carrying me on each wave as she stood at the foot of the Cross, propelling me to Jesus’ face. These prayer times, from the silence of my heart amidst the noises of a Labor and Delivery room, are some of my most precious memories from this labor. It was such a gift to share in the Lord’s suffering, even if in such a tiny way.
Since we are technically in mixed company, I will spare the actual birth story details, except to say everything went as well as a pre-term induced labor could go. I was able to do it quickly, naturally, and without any pain medicine. Praise God! They released us the next day, and I thought we were in the clear. Unfortunately, we were not.
The next night, around 11:00 pm, I started feeling poorly and seeing stars. This was a symptom I was told to look out for, as postpartum preeclampsia is also a very real thing, and just as deadly, except this time, only to the mother. I texted my midwife, who instructed my husband to go get an at-home blood-pressure monitor at Walmart. Bleary-eyed from a few days with little sleep, he got up and left. When he returned, I took my blood pressure. It was high again. I texted my midwife the results. She sent us to the nearest ER.
So here we are, in the middle of the night with a 48-hour-old newborn weighing just over 5 pounds. My husband is forced to drop me and the baby off while he parks—no one would escort me in a wheelchair or help me at all. I was more afraid than I had ever been. I thought I would have a stroke or a seizure right in that lobby. I thought my tiny, fragile baby would contract some terrible disease from the disgusting waiting room. So everything hit me at once, and standing in that waiting room, trying to tell the desk workers what was going on, I just started bawling.
My husband got there, explained everything, and they took me into a room for testing. Apparently though, on top of the preeclamptic symptoms, they thought I was insane. They observed my blood pressure, which thankfully went down after observation, but then separated me from my new baby and my husband to question me, asking me why I was so upset all night, as if it would be a reason other than looking death in the face. The only positive was that I felt very justified in having not chosen this hospital for birth.
Thankfully my blood pressure lowered enough to be released around 4 a.m. The coming weeks, I watched it spike up and down, constantly terrified of death. I was completely paranoid and obsessed. Eventually, I was given the grace to ask this: Why? Why are you so afraid?
Do you remember the story, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor? In the story, there is a grandmother. She ends up getting shot in the end by the Misfit (apologies for the spoiler, but this book has been out a very long time!). As she is dying, the Misfit remarks that she would have been a good woman, if she had had someone to hold a gun to her head her entire life.
Why? When the gun was to her head, when she was looking death in the face, she prayed. She was humble. She got her priorities straight. It wasn’t until after the birth of my daughter that I realized: I am very much like that grandmother.
I did some serious reflecting, and realized that the reason I was so scared of death was that I was woefully unprepared. I had unconfessed sins. I thought certain sins were no big deal. I was not living fully according to Church teaching. I was dressing immodestly. But I thought I had plenty of time. I thought it would all be fine in the end because I was a nominally good Catholic. Until I had that gun to my head.
When I was in the car on the way to the ER in the wee hours of the morning, crying to my husband that I might never be able to see my baby grow up again, I certainly thought this was the opposite of what I needed. I had a brand new baby. I birthed her 48 hours prior. I was exhausted. I was already scared. Surely, surely I did not need this. How can God be so cruel?
But, reader: I needed this more than anything. I needed the gun to my head. I found a full examination of conscience after it was all over, and I went in for a general confession. If you have never done this, I highly recommend it. It’s where you confess all of the sins you have committed. I laid my soul bare before that kind priest. Then, I sought to do prayer and penance to amend my life, make reparation, and prepare myself for eternity.
I started the habit of daily mental prayer. I committed myself to the daily rosary. I started making indulgences for the Holy Souls a habit (I need their intercession!). I resolved to go to confession often and daily mass or adoration even more often. I began to make the First Saturday and First Friday devotions. I began to read Introduction to the Devout Life, listen to sermons on Sensus Fidelium, and try to actively root out all intentional mortal sins, intentional venial sins, disordered detachments, and replace them all with virtue.
It’s a long road, and not an easy one, but here’s what I would say to you: don’t wait for a bout with death to prepare yourself for it. Don’t think that you are invincible. Live like you will die today. Get your soul right with God and don’t presume you’ll have the grace to love Him until the end. Beg for it now, while you can.
Another piece of advice: trust God. He might not have given you what you want. You might be going through something hard, or scary. Let Him turn that event into what you need by cooperating with the urges of grace He sends you. Don’t suffer in vain. Let God use it to make you holy.