First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"Wonder and Awe of the Womb"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore May 12, 2002
Advent by Kathleen Norris
Magnificat by Chana Bloch
Birth by George Ella Lyon
(copyrighted material from Claiming the Spirit Within: A Sourcebook of Women's Poetry by Marilyn Sewell ,1996)
Through these poems, I vicariously taste a little of the experience of motherhood. Even though I'm a man, these poems speak to me, too. I feel a sense of wonder and awe stirring in me as I read these women's words. I'm curious, wondering what the feeling of carrying a growing fetus in one's belly might be like. I wonder if perhaps, in my genes or in a past life, what excites me is a distant memory of being pregnant.
Or it could be a childhood memory of a game I played with some of the girls in my neighborhood. We'd stuff towels under our t-shirts and pretend we were pregnant. I'll confess today, I enjoyed that game. There was something very attractive to me about imagining a baby growing inside me. Okay, I'm going to come right out and admit it. I have womb envy.
Philomena's pregnancy with Andy sobered up these juvenile romantic fantasies. Watching her body being taken over by the fetus was a little intimidating. I remember the first picture of it on the ultrasound. "It" wasn't easy for us to see on the screen, so the technician had to point it out, saying, "Here it is, its this little splotch here." The name stuck. We started referring to this unnamed creature growing inside Philomena as "splotch."
For her first three months of pregnancy, Philomena was nauseous with morning sickness. Right away she had to give up drinking coffee or be violently ill. Philomena complained constantly about the ways the fetus was taking over and controlling her body. The fetus liked to move around in the middle of the night and wake her up. The first few times, she would wake me up too so I could feel her belly. That got old pretty quickly. As her due date approached, her belly took up a good portion of our bed. It was as if the fetus was letting me know it would soon be displacing me.
The Lamaze classes at our HMO helped us feel a little less anxious about childbirth, but I know Philomena was not looking forward to that day of agony. Unfortunately, in the last month, there is no turning back! She couldn't have second thoughts and tell mother nature, "never mind."
While I can't say I've met many, there are women who revel in the experience of pregnancy for all its discomforts and inconveniences. The flood of hormones brings a healthy glow to their skin. The enchanting feeling of those first unmistakable flutters of movement bring excitement and joy - even if later her bladder gets a kick or two at the most inconvenient moments. And then there is the profound feeling of participating bodily in the creation of a new human being. No matter what I, as a man, accomplish in life, there will be nothing I do with my body that can match the creative power growing in the womb. Necessary as my contribution to the process is, pregnancy is first and foremost a woman's mystery.
Sadly, women's mysteries are insufficiently honored in our Western, patriarchal religious traditions drawn from Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources. Modern women ache with the absence of sacramental appreciation for the womb in the Bible. They reject the Biblical language that labels menstruating women unclean. This alienation from Western religion can lead to a feeling of disconnection with the wondrous processes they embody. Having fought for the power to control of their own bodies, women are now seeking ways to celebrate them.
One way to reclaim a valuing of women's bodies is to reach back and try to reconstruct ancient matriarchal religious traditions from around the world. Many Unitarian Universalist women have done this by turning toward historic earth centered spiritualities. But this religious approach isn't satisfying for others who aren't moved by goddess worship, or traditional indigenous spiritual practices.
Another approach I'd like to share with you this morning is a scientific exploration of women's biology. There is wonder, mystery and awe in the amazing processes and systems in a woman's body. And the most amazing processes happen in the womb. While we can observe and describe fetal development, we have little understanding of the processes and systems that support that development. Exploration of the ways of the womb can be a path to value, wonder and awe.
The first intriguing mystery I'll share with you this morning is how a pregnancy gets started. After conception, the zygote somehow must announce its presence. If it doesn't it will be washed away in a flood of menstrual blood. Since ovulation typically happens about half way through a woman's monthly cycle, that leaves just two weeks for the zygote to alert its host to engage pregnancy mode. The race is on.
The zygote does this by aggressively attacking and eroding the lining of the uterus. It stops only when its practically in contact with the mother's blood stream. Once the zygote makes contact with the wall of the uterus, it begins dumping huge quantities of human chorionic gonadotropin (or hCG) into her system. When the mother-to-be detects a little of this hormone, she responds by cranking up her estrogen production and decreasing her prostaglandin production. When her system gets too much hCG (as its called) she gets morning sickness. The excess hCG also spills over into the woman's urine. It is hCG that is recognized by those home pregnancy test kits.
Why zygotes evolved this way is curious mystery. What evolutionary advantage might there be to making one's host violently ill every morning? Perhaps it is a not so subtle signal to the mother that she isn't in charge anymore. For the rest of her life she will have an invisible umbilical cord to that child, intensely feeling whatever that child feels. Her emotions will never be her own again.
Morning sickness is dangerous gambit as our bodies don't like being hosts to other life forms that threaten us. Day after day, around the clock, our bodies battle invaders who would colonize and kill us given half the chance. No anti-bacterial soaps or disinfectant sprays can hope to keep them at bay.
Because there is such a thin barrier between the placenta and the mother's blood stream, the growing fetus is in danger of being detected as an intruder that must be eliminated. Metabolic wastes, fetal blood cells and bits of placenta that cross the boundary between them could arouse the mother's immune system's suspicion. It's almost as if the fetus must camouflage itself, as if it must chemically hide in the womb.
Understanding how the body responds to foreign tissue is crucial in the transplantation of organs. Much research has been done to discover why the body so aggressively rejects donated tissue. What scientists have discovered is our cells excrete signature proteins that are recognized by the host's immune system and trigger an attack. There are a number of factors that can improve the match and minimize the rejection response. Unfortunately, a perfect match of these signature proteins is rare. The host's immune system must be suppressed to allow the donated tissue to be accepted.
The place where the mother's and the fetus' signature proteins come in contact with each other is at the interface between placenta and uterus. If these proteins were absent or suppressed, an infection might go undetected and put both the mother and the fetus at risk. The clever solution for the problem that has evolved over eons is specially modified signature proteins tolerated by both mother and fetus that are only present at the edge of the placenta. It is almost as if there is a universal translator built into the placenta that can speak mother protein and fetus protein.
If only that placenta could accompany us into life. Both mother and infant would greatly benefit from a universal translator to help them understand each other's needs. It would be particularly useful in the teenage years when that communication becomes particularly problematic. Perhaps, if we could really understand the placenta's principles, they might be used in relations between communities of people to help them build a more pluralistic society, one that more readily accepts non-threatening differences.
One thing that is certain in the relation between fetus and mother, there is a time limit. Nine months and out you go! But when will that moment be? Once again, the mother is at the mercy of its controlling guest. Mothers anxiously await the hour of doom when the contractions start and the childbirth ordeal begins.
What a trial childbirth is! This is where my womb envy comes to an abrupt halt. The major problem of course is our large heads and the small canal through which they must pass. Before the advent of modern medicine and surgical techniques for delivery, this began a life or death ordeal for the expectant mother. Historically 5 to 8% of women have died while giving birth. Even today a woman in Nigeria has a 1 in 6 chance of dying in child-birth. On average in the developing world, the risk of death is 1 in 16 verses 1 in 4000 in the developed world (WHO study).
Since ancient times mid-wives have experimented with methods to initiate and regulate the delivery of a baby. We learn from Pliny some of the techniques used in Greco-Roman times. Evidently fumigations with the fat from hyaena loins produce immediate delivery for women in difficult labor. Placing the right foot of a hyaena on the woman results in an easy delivery, but the left foot causes death. A drink sprinkled with powdered sow's dung will relieve the pains of labor, as will sow's milk mixed with honey wine. Delivery can also be eased by drinking goose semen mixed with water or "the liquids that flow from a weasel's uterus through its genitals.(source: Valerie French) Thankfully we aren't using these methods anymore.
Only recently have we begun to understand the biochemical signaling process that begins labor. It was originally thought that perhaps the baby's brain somehow signaled its readiness to leave, or the mother somehow subconsciously decided when to begin the process. Research has shown that it is the placenta that controls the process. Just as the signaling chemical came from the growing placenta to hold off menstruation, so the signal comes from the placenta alone to end the pregnancy. There is a biological clock ticking in the placenta that gradually builds in a slow steady fashion, the excretion of the pregnancy ending hormone. The rate of increase of this hormone is so regular that it can accurately predict the due date.
This is one biological process we can intercept and control. When Philomena went into labor after her water broke, it suddenly stopped after we were checked in at the hospital. We waited and waited and finally the doctors persuaded us that it was important to stimulate her contractions. Once the amniotic sac is ruptured, there is a greater danger of infection the longer the labor lasts. The special hormone they used, called Pitosin, allowed her midwife to have control over the contractions, speeding them up or slowing them down to match the speed of the dilation of her cervix in preparation for Andy's birth. This synthetic hormone made the process a whole lot easier and more tolerable. Chalk one up for medical science in unraveling the mystery of the womb.
The more scientists study the intricate complexity of the womb, the more amazing pregnancy becomes. Why are sperms so small and eggs so large? Why must cells die for baby's fingers to form? How do the sounds entering the womb and affect the development of the fetus? How does the fetal heart and circulatory system develop and pump at the same time? The more we know, the more the mystery expands.
Whether by accident or design this scientific study of the womb stimulates in me a sense of wonder and awe. The wondrous systems in us of which we haven't a clue, help me see how much of what I am is not of my own making. Pregnant women do not make the babies they deliver into this world. Those babies make themselves reading their own genetic instructions. They manipulate their maternal host to suit themselves often at her peril and expense.
The more I learn about life, the more I realize I'm in the firm grip of forces far greater than all of us. From the crafty drive to procreate, to the fetal takeover of the womb, the great lesson to be learned is how the processes and systems of life take hold of us and drive us. In the end, life doesn't seem to be ultimately concerned with our personal preferences. Life wants to move through us, survive and thrive.
I find that a little humbling. Ultimately it isn't about me. Whether I have children or not, whether my children have children or not, the rhythm of life follows its own powerful and mysterious beat. The meaning I seek will be found through my creative engagement and participation in life in all its delicate and bloody splendor. I'm left with this value: it is good to bring more life into the world.
So I'm four-square on the side of motherhood and apple pie. And I soberly acknowledge the cynics. Yes, I know there are too many people in the world. Yes, I know that we might be wiped out by nuclear annihilation. And I still want there to be more children. I want to see their sparkling eyes and greet their smiling faces on Sunday morning. I want to be part of shaping their lives toward the good.
They don't have to be my children either. I'm not loyal to my genes alone. I revel in participating in bringing all kinds of life, human and non-human, into the world. Sometimes that new life comes into the world through the womb. Other times it comes through opening locked doors in the heart. Other times it comes through my fingertips on a keyboard. The urge to be is strong in us. And it arises from that which is far greater than us.
us be grateful we have the honor of allowing life to gestate within us.
Let us be honored when we give it birth.
Participation in creation is one of the most holy and meaningful privileges of existence.
Copyright © 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.