During a recent virtual consult with a young mother, she and I briefly discussed the idea of birth as "empowering" and what that means. It's a commonly used word when talking about birth and it's one I've used myself, especially in describing my first birth. It was the only word I could grasp that conveyed just a tiny fraction of what the experience was like and how it had changed me so deeply.
But the connotation of that word can vary greatly. The word "empowering" can feel to some people as loaded, even inappropriate or off-putting, giving off a bit too much of a false feminist "girl power" vibe. Is a woman's experience of birth supposed to be "empowering"? Is this about priding ourselves in our own strength, showing the world just what we're made of? When birth doulas or advocates are encouraging a mother in her labor and birth and letting her know that she is made for this and has what it takes to birth her baby, is it about an ego trip or proving our own strength or greatness?
Perhaps some mean it that way. But I'd propose something entirely different. Let's consider for a moment how the idea of power is used within Scripture in a Christian context. Christ Himself speaks of the power which He will bestow upon us through the Holy Spirit. St. Paul speaks of divine power working in us.* The generosity and love of God is so great that He wills to share His power - in fact, Himself - with us, in us, and through us. By Baptism we become partakers in the divine nature, we become imbued with that power of the Holy Spirit and it is strengthened in us through Confirmation. Scripture and the history of Christendom is filled with testimony of God's power working through mere human beings, men and women empowered by God to do His work. Empowerment - to be given power or authority - is certainly not presented as a bad thing.
Consider then the reality that in conception, pregnancy, and the intense and powerful act of birth, a new image of God is coming into the world. The Catechism itself speaks of conception as husband and wife sharing in the creative power of God (2367). How then could it not be that women are also given a profound empowerment through the culmination of that conception, the immense physical act of birth? It is not a power that originates in our own strength, indeed nothing we do is! All our power or strength to do anything comes from God. He wills to give us natural abilities, powers, and free will and through our Baptism, He wills to give us supernatural gifts and powers as well.
As Christian women invited by God into the mystery of pregnancy and birth, we are offered a share of His life-giving power. We participate in an unbelievably profound and mystical way in the power of God living and moving through our very bodies. If anything, when we consider what is actually happening, shouldn't we be dismayed when birth is not treated as an "empowering" and profoundly significant event? Should we not be troubled when women are discouraged from or laughed at for wanting to experience that power? Can we imagine a scenario where after Jesus tells the disciples that they would be empowered from on high others scoffing and reminding them they wouldn't get a medal for it so why bother?
We have our own personal apostolate as mothers. Those of us called to biological motherhood have our work to do, and as mothers we are called to allow God's power to work in and through us, body and soul. This includes that profound act of bringing new life into the world. Our bodies are given power - empowered - to conceive, grow, and birth that new life. Even more, our bodies are called to bear witness of this life to others. Even more, in birth our bodies have the power to speak the language of the Paschal Mystery. Like Christ we offer our own bodies in love, spilling blood and water, offering suffering, pain, and sacrifice, that new life may enter the world. What a powerful act that is, one God Himself designed as uniquely feminine. What power we are given to accept the invitation to participate in such a work.
I imagine what Mary's experience at the Annunciation must have been like. The Holy Spirit, the literal Power of God, conceives the Word made Flesh inside of her. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God," says Gabriel. For the salvation of the world, God empowered, - allowed His power into, over, and through - a woman. The Magnificat itself is a song of rejoicing in that empowerment! In her receptivity to the will of the Father, she humbles herself enough to recognize that He has done great things in her. It is certainly not boastful or prideful for her to acknowledge the reality of what has happened. She exalts in it!
What it must have been like to literally feel the power of God as He flipped and rolled, kicked and hiccuped inside of her. I am astounded by the thought of what His birth must have felt like to her. The power of God worked in her, moved through her very body as the Incarnate Word was made visible to human eyes for the first time in eternity. We don't know the details but imagining those things as being pretty powerful for her, allowing her an incredible realization of God's love, His mercy, His power, His condescension, and an awe that she was not only invited into, but necessary and essential to, this great work. How often she must have felt "empowered". We aren't privilege to all the ponderings of her heart but it certainly would make sense that the birth itself, the culmination of that power overshadowing her, was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of her entire life.
We can as Christian women follow her example and recognize when God has done something great in us, when we have felt that power in our own bodies as well. We can be receptive to the will of the Father for us in conceiving these babies and in giving birth to them. We can submit ourselves to the reality that He wants to use us, even in our weakness and lowliness, and give us power to bring these new images of Him into the world. It isn't anything to run from or hide from. Proper acknowledgement of a gift respects the generosity and intention of the one who gives. The awe and empowerment we feel at birth respects the One who has designed it to be awesome and powerful. It should, as it did her, move us to a greater awareness of His love for us that He would allow us to participate in something so profound.
And I think this is behind what many women mean when they say their birth was empowering. I know it was for me. I had never before experienced that power in my body, understood just how strong it could be, done anything so physically difficult. I also felt, in a way that fails words, the bestowal of that authority of motherhood over me and in me through that experience. He empowered us as women in a unique way, with unique abilities. A woman's ability to birth a baby into the world, the authority of motherhood, the recognition of God's design for our bodies is God giving us power. To deny that is to deny natural law. It is not because we've earned it and it certainly isn't something that originates within us. It is only ever because He has permitted it. And the power given to any human person for anything is only meant ultimately, to glorify Him.
Paul reminds us that our bodies are meant to glorify God and how remarkably and visibly true that is - or can be - during conception, pregnancy, and birth. For many women, these times may be the first time they have been able to view their body as something profoundly good, a powerful gift rather than a liability. The fallen world has convinced many women from the earliest ages that our natural bodies are liabilities, inherently broken, worth only the pleasure they can give to a man or please the world. As Christians we must be abundantly convicted that our bodies are good in themselves and in their natural design of bearing life. The powers they have are given by God and meant to glorify God. What a JOY it is for a woman to have an experience that gives her an intimate insight into that, to know deeply that God moved and worked in her so much so that her entire body was taken into the intensity, the power, the pain, and the magnitude of His work. Recognizing and rejoicing in that power is a tribute to God. It takes nothing away from what He is owed. What an honor it is to be given the privilege of participating in His power in such an intimate and total way.
There's also a more natural and simple way to look at it as well. When we consider how anyone can have a normal and non-sinful pride in a work well done, when we think that certain accomplishments can feel rewarding, why should we ever balk at the idea of a mother feeling that way about the tremendous work she has just done? No one slights the Olympic athlete who trains and disciplines themselves and works hard for the medal and has a natural sense of "empowerment" as they complete their event well. Not many would criticize the artist who spends months creating and laboring over their masterpiece and who gets or feels rewarded when it is presented to the world. When our own children accomplish something difficult our hearts swell with joy when they recognize and revel in that! The entirety of pregnancy and the laborious task of birth is certainly worth that type of perspective as well!
It was St. Irenaeus who said, "Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God." (Of course, he is referring to all humanity, including women.) A woman giving birth is perhaps at the penultimate of her feminine body's design and physical power, not only in her own body but in the work of bringing another new "life of man" into the world. How much she can glorify God through that power, His power, working in her and through her. It is GOD who has willed her body to have this power, God who deigns to allow this undeserved participation in His work. THIS is what many women are reveling in when they reflect upon their births as empowering. And I believe God delights in that. They may not be able to put it into words such as these, the mystery so deep and so unique to each one, but this is what I believe the perception of empowerment is rooted in, a soul-depth realization of the participation in the life-giving power of God.
Perhaps if women walk away from birth NOT feeling that power? Perhaps that is where we should be placing our concern.
*A few mentions of empowerment from the New Testament:
"And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49
"But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8
"And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." Acts 4:33
"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." 2 Cor. 4:7
"But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." 2 Cor. 12:9
"I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe, according to the working of His great might." Eph. 1:16-19
"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen." Eph. 3:15-21
"May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy." Col. 1:11
"I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me." Phil. 4:13 (NAB)
"Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control." 2 Tim. 1:6-7
"By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered Him faithful who had promised." Heb. 11:11
"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature." 2 Peter 1:3-4
From the Catechism:
"The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit." CCC, 1704
"God has not willed to reserve to Himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature." CCC, 1884