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The Memento Mori of Pregnancy and Birth

Can we apply the Christian concept of memento mori to pregnancy and birth?

As Christians we are made for and called to live for eternity, to remember that our ultimate end and purpose is not in this world but the next. In Catholic tradition this means that there is an emphasis on remembering our own mortality and this is especially a devotion called to mind in the month of November. In a culture that seemingly seeks to do everything it can to distract us from the reality that every single human being will someday die, the Church stands yet again as a sign of contradiction, reminding us soberly yet hopefully that earthly death is not to be feared but rather respected and prepared for well. St. Ambrose even went so far as to say, "We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death."

The Latin phrase "memento mori", or "remember your death", is one used in Catholic spheres to call that to mind. We should live remembering that we will one day die, not in a spirit of terror or disordered morbidity but in a spirit of prudent preparation and even, we dare to proclaim, a hopeful joy that this world is not all there is.

In short, no one gets out of here alive. The current mortality rate for the human race is still 100%. It's not cruel to remind people of this fact; it's real love. It is not only rational but wise to remember this and make choices in this life that acknowledge that reality - and that includes when it comes to pregnancy and birth.

Pregnancy and birth are often a woman's first extremely personal opportunity to grapple with this truth. She now must come face to face with the fact that in life there are no guarantees of health for us or our children. She becomes more vulnerable than ever as her heart expands to love her child and she naturally recognizes the fragility of this life as this tiniest and most fragile of beings now commands her attention and devotion and is impacted by her decisions. She feels the weight of that new life in heart, mind, body, and soul.

Venerable Fulton Sheen made note of this reality when he stated:

"Not only a woman’s days, but her nights - not only her mind, but her body must share in the Calvary of motherhood. That is why women have a surer understanding of the doctrine of redemption than men have: they have come to associate the risk of death with life in childbirth, and to understand the sacrifice of self to another through the many months preceding it." (Way to Happiness)

Christ Himself associated the coming of the Kingdom - one which He ushered in through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection - with a woman going through childbirth. That "risk of death", Sheen mentions, can sometimes be an emotional or spiritual one. In every pregnancy and birth we are invited to a sort of "death" to ourselves, be it our preferences, our morning sickness, our sleep, the death of the maiden as she becomes a mother, the laying down of our bodies in birth. But there is no getting around that opening ourselves to life requires an opening of ourselves also to loss and even to physical death. Anyone who has gone through miscarriage, stillbirth, or the loss of a child at any age knows this keenly. The maternal mortality rate, one that is rising within the American medical system, is an uncomfortable reminder, too.

This difficult reality can lead the pregnant mother to become far more susceptible to fears of this world thrust upon her by relatives, media, the medical system, and the evil one himself. Her love for her child becomes easy target for anxiety, scare stories, trauma projection, profit, and control. It so often means that instead of reveling in awe at the fragility and miracle of so many billions of lives conceived, gestated, and birthed without complication for thousands of years, she instead feels like, or is treated as, an accident waiting to happen. Instead of bowing in reverence to God's intricate and intelligent design that works beautifully well and which we will never fully comprehend, she lives in fear of the effects of the Fall. She (understandably!) will do anything to protect the life and health of her child or herself. This ardent love can make her easy prey for those who intentionally or passively, want to influence her decisions or attitude. It becomes so easy, and can even falsely appear virtuous, to allow those fears and the sobering reality of being responsible for this new human to persuade us to hand over the authority of our motherhood and our decisions to the "professional", the one we perceive as the expert, often with little to no consultation with THE genuine Expert, the One with infinitely more knowledge and skill than any specialist.

The reality is that no doctor, midwife, nurse, family member, or friend has to live with the consequences of our decisions as we and our babies do. And none of them love our babies as we do. The reality is also that there are no guarantees in pregnancy and birth and any professional or relative telling you otherwise is manipulative or delusional. Their standard or liability-based recommendation or intervention may have lifelong implications for the mother and child, though mother and child are both usually long forgotten by the professional in just a few years', months', or days' time.

Life by its very nature involves risk. No matter what we are doing, we are constantly making risk assessments, often subconsciously. When we drive a car, when we take a medication, when we step on an airplane, when we decide to walk down a flight of stairs, when we send a child to school...we either decide that the benefit of that decision is worth the risk or we determine that it isn't. We won't get every decision "right", and we may sometimes even regret them, but we don't have the choice to just live a life with zero risk or we would cease to live at all. We can not and should not live paralyzed by fear. How important it is to remember this in pregnancy and birth as well.

It's critical to also note that when talking about risk, the only person who can decide what risk is "too" high is the person most affected. To one mother a 99.5% success rate is wonderful and the choice is obvious so she accepts it. To another, that 0.5% chance is too high to accept so she instead chooses a new set of risks.

The honest memento mori of pregnancy and birth is that it is impossible to mitigate every risk or to eliminate every death. Though very rare, babies and mothers can die at the hospital, at the birth center, or at home (and most studies suggest that the mortality percentages don't vary all that much, though morbidity rates are significantly better out of hospital).

As mothers we can allow this reality to terrify us.

Or we can allow it to free us.

The modern mother must grapple with the hard truth that while we can control for some of the risk, we will never be able to control for all, and more often than not, the interventions seeking to reduce one rare risk by a fraction of a percent, raise the risk of other complications by an exponentially larger one.

So what do we do? We can fix our hearts and futures as best we can in the will of God, and remember that this world truly is passing. From that place we can better make decisions about our pregnancy and birth with wisdom and in truth. When we ground our minds and hearts in knowledge of His design and an active faith and trust in Him and His goodness, then the ultimate outcome is up to Him. While we are required to use ordinary means to serve the life and health of us and our children, we are not required to use extraordinary means to prolong life or in an attempt to eliminate any chance at death, an impossible feat. We can make decisions that honor the sacredness of life, of birth, and our bodies from a place of surrender, reverence, and freedom, in union with the Holy Spirit.

This doesn't, of course, mean that we approach our pregnancies and births flippantly or with a pietistic providentialism. God wants us to use our reason, education, wisdom, and discernment as we go forward and make decisions about our pregnancies and births. We are called to be proper stewards of our bodies and babies, nourishing them as best we can, moving as He designed, taking notice and possibly intervening when there are indications that it does seem like something is wrong. We would be at fault if we intentionally ignored common sense, clear indications of a problem, or neglected to use ordinary means to care for ourselves and our babies. But we must be careful not to confuse anxious intervention with a necessarily greater degree of safety, love, or respect for life. Sometimes that intervention might be all those things. Oftentimes, it may not. A false security, the pursuit of perceived safety or control at any cost, or the fear of death can all become idols, and they can all also backfire. A true respect for life does not avoid the possibility of death at all costs. It recognizes that life is a gift to be accepted with gratitude, revered, used well, and ultimately in God's hands.

Perhaps we can and should look to Mary, the exemplar of motherhood, to see this reality best lived out. Repeatedly during her pregnancy and after the birth of Jesus, she is confronted with the opportunity to fear, to desire to control, and with very direct threats made upon her Child's life. She didn't know what would happen when Joseph found out about her pregnancy. She didn't know how or where she would birth. She didn't have the ability to fight Herod's soldiers. Yet through all these things she finds her peace and freedom in surrendering to and cooperating not with worldly wisdom or powers, but with the will of God, who entrusted her with the authority of being mother to God. She accepted a life of memento mori with her fiat at the Annunciation. It was proclaimed upon her by Simeon at the Presentation. That memento mori must have remained in her mind and heart daily until the day it was ultimately lived before her eyes on Calvary.

Our pregnancies and births will play out differently than hers, of course. But she models for us an opening to the Spirit in humility, trust, and surrender to bring forth Life. She reminds us to live not grasping at control or in a fear of death but offering our fiat to the Lord's will every day. There are no easy answers here, nor is there a one-size-fits-all approach to navigating the decisions that we encounter in pregnancy. But there is certainly hope because we have a God who has promised to send that same Spirit she had to be with us, too, and He is a Spirit of love, freedom, joy, peace, and wisdom.

"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor. 3:17). We can ask the Holy Spirit to live more fully in us and guide us as we make decisions. We can ask Him to remove from us an unholy anxiety or fear and help us to make decisions and go forward to birth our babies as He intended in freedom and peace. We can ask for a greater reverence for and trust in His design of our bodies and for birth. We can let go of false guilt and make the best decisions we are able from a place that remembers the passing reality of this world and that both we and our babies are indeed made for a greater one.


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