I will never forget my labor with Genevieve, thus far my only daughter (though that title may be ceded in mere weeks now.) Partly because it was drawn out over 3 agonizingly long days of prodromal labor – not hideously painful, but hugely exhausting – and partly because she was the only baby whose sex we found out ahead of time, so we knew “who” we were waiting on in a more personal way.
I remember feeling very connected to Our Lady being pregnant with Evie during the Advent season, and with an estimated due date of Christmas Day, I allowed my imagination to carry me along on the long journey towards Bethlehem, comforting myself with the notion that even if I were averaging 4 hours of sleep each night with contractions coming almost unrelentingly (but non-productively) around the clock for days on end, at least I wasn’t on a donkey.
The evening of December 12th, 2013, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, found me once again hunched over the bathroom counter in pain, timing contractions that both I and my iPhone app knew were not going to amount to a pattern worthy of hospital admission. Dave knocked on the bathroom door, having returned from a late night grocery run, and handed me a beautiful bouquet of roses.
They were wrapped in cellophane and still bearing the store logo, but there on the crinkly plastic was an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the very same image supernaturally imposed on St. Juan Diego’s tilma on the hill at Teypeyac more than 500 years ago.
The roses eventually found their way to water. As I was balling up the wrappings and clippings to toss out, I impulsively grabbed some kitchen scissors and cut the image of Our Lady out of the plastic, fashioning a little 8 inch high icon of crinkly plastic which I taped to the bathroom mirror.
I spent a lot of time looking to Mary over the next 72 hours, bracing my hands on either side of the sink and looking into her delicate brown face. I reminded myself in between the waves of seemingly inefficient and interminable contractions that she too was a mother, that she too had done this. I fixed my eyes on the black sash draped around her waist, whose imagery symbolizes pregnancy.
That’s right, Mary is actually pregnant in the image seared into the fibers of Juan Diego’s tilma.
It was, at turns, comforting and confounding to think of God putting His own Mother through this – though the jury is still out on what, precisely, Mary’s physical experience of childbirth entailed. Various Church Fathers have weighed in on the matter, one the Church allows to exist shrouded in no small amount of mystery. We know that Mary physically carried the Christ child in her womb and that she mysteriously and miraculously maintained even the physical aspects of her virginity upon His birth, but beyond that, God has not chosen to reveal specific details about what birth was “like” for she who was conceived without sin.
Still, as I hunched over that sink and raised my eyes to the filmy plastic icon of the Mother of God, I took comfort in the slight swelling apparent in her midsection, wondering if she had experienced round ligament pain or pubic symphysis dysfunction or sciatica – I doubted you could ride a donkey many miles at any stage of pregnancy and escape unscathed, ergonomically speaking.
I wondered over Mary’s experience of Jesus’ tiny – and then not so tiny – kicks under her ribcage. The in-utero hiccups that rattle the whole belly, the improbable acrobatics that accompany those final few weeks of stretched-outness and can’t do this another day-ness.
When it was finally – finally – time to go to the hospital and stay at the hospital, I ducked into the bathroom and grabbed the piece of plastic off the mirror. I wanted her with me still, epidural or no.
It turns out she wanted to be with me, too. The nurse who checked me upon arrival announced a triumphant “5 cm, you’re staying!” and escorted us from triage to the delivery room, where I could have and might have wept in relief. 3 days of little sleep and contractions 15 minutes apart around the clock; I sank exhausted into the hospital bed, nodding enthusiastically that yes, I did want them to call anesthesia right away.
As I settled into a blissful and exhausted sleep, I remember the nurse commenting that she thought it would be 3 hours, maybe less. She was right, because after a brief and glorious nap, I was complete and ready to push.
Our doctor arrived a little after I’d woken from augmented reality nap time and started setting up his equipment. He paused before he gowned up, reaching into his bag and sliding out a wooden icon, which he propped against the wall opposite the foot of my bed.
I gasped in delight because it was her – a beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, larger and far more saturated than my grocery store wrapper.
I laughed and told him she’d been following me throughout labor, and he cocked his head and told me “it’s strange, but I lost my usual icon of Our Lady of Lourdes somehow at my last birth, so this is her replacement. And it’s actually the first time I’ve brought this new one along.”
And so mine was to be the first birth attended by this particular image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
I’ve since delivered one more child under her watchful maternal gaze, and I look forward to her presence in my hospital room this go round, too.
It is comforting to have a God who is not unfamiliar with our human condition. And it reflects such careful attention to detail and such compassion that He would entrust us with a mother who is herself intimately acquainted with the seasons and stages of our lives as women.
There is a beautiful quote from Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego, her “smallest son,” which resonates deeply with me as being applicable to any hardship or physical suffering we might endure in this life, but perhaps most particularly, in facing birth:
“Listen, and let it penetrate your heart … do not fear any illness or vexation, any anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother?”
Because I am afraid.
I do fear the pain, and the anxiety of past memories and experiences of delivery can wash over me and overwhelm me at a moment’s notice if I allow them to take hold.
In these final few weeks as I prepare mentally, physically and spiritually to bring a tiny new life into the outside world, I find myself wanting to be folded more deeply into Her mantle, begging for the comfort that only a mother can offer to a small, anxious child.
Because it is coming, and it will hurt. And I will not be alone.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn, pray for us.