Saturday, June 17, 2006

Eve and the Pain of Childbirth

Artemis's pain post has got me wondering. Eve's curse is famously (at least, depending on how one parses it) twofold: "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Genesis 3:16). Eve is punished both with painful parturition and with marital subordination.

Granted, we've softened the language of that second mandate somewhat. But, I wonder, by what hermeneutical criterion have we rejected the first section entirely while adopting the second, even in modified form? Why do Church leaders not issue statements reminding women that God has always intended for childbirth to be painful, and therefore to avoid epidurals (or anything else that might unnecessarily ease the process)? If, on the other hand, we contend that the first statement to Eve is nothing more than a description, on what basis can we maintain that the second is meant prescriptively?


Anonymous Proud Daughter of Eve said...

I think it definitely depends on how you choose to take that passage. Some people see it as a curse, others see it as a statement of consequences. Adam was told "cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life." Yet no one (save perhaps the Amish) objects to plows, tractors, cars, computers or any of the other myriad things that make the work of earning a living easier.

On the other hand, when anesthetics first began to be used for birth, many preachers (not the LDS churc as far as I'm aware) did raise exactly the point you're asking about. Don't you just love double-standards? Not. :)

6/17/2006 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Kiskilili said...

Proud Daughter of Eve, that's interesting; I hadn't realized there was ever contreversy over anesthetics in childbirth, though it makes sense!

I've sometimes wondered myself why, for example, men don't formally take upon themselves the obligation to work by the sweat of their brows. It looks very much to me as though we're picking and choosing our commandments when it comes to this story.

(I'm in favor of understanding all these statements as mere descriptions of consequences, though that leaves open the question why women would covenant to behave in a fallen, natural-world way. You might think that would be a) how we "naturally" behave anyway, and b) something we were meant to rise above.)

6/17/2006 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Ziff said...

Good question, Kiskilili. Certainly some Bible versions other than the KJV make it sound a lot more like husbands ruling over wives was a description and not a prescription.

For example, the second half of Genesis 3:16 in the NET Bible ( reads, "You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you."

In the English Standard Version (from "Your desire shall be for [footnote: or "against"] your husband,and he shall rule over you."

Or a slightly different reading from The Message (also available on "You'll want to please your husband, but he'll lord it over you."

I realize that there are lots of Bible translations that don't take this reading. I don't read Hebrew, so I can't judge them. But I agree with you, Kiskilili: I like the descriptive reading better. Men "ruling over" women isn't a good thing; God was just warning Eve that the fallen world was going to be like that.

Tangentially, this reminds me of Matthew 26:11, where Jesus notes that the people have the poor with them always, but that he will not always be with them. Isn't it the case that people have sometimes read this as a basis for not helping the poor? After all, Jesus said (prescribed) that they would always be with us, so it would be evil to go against him and try to reduce poverty.

6/17/2006 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

Random question for you, Kisiklili--the "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children" of the KJV sounds a bit vague to me. I looked it up in the NRSV and it says, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children," which sounds like a clearer link to the process of childbirth (as opposed to perhaps just feeling sorrow that you had children.) I'm obviously way out of my area of expertise here; is the Hebrew definitely talking about childbirth?

In any case, I do think there's a real inconsistency going on if we read the first part of the curse (bringing forth children in sorrow) as being an aspect of the fallen nature of mortality, and the second part (being subordinate to your husband as he "rules" or "presides" or whatever we call it) as a statement about eternal gender relations.

6/17/2006 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Julie M. Smith said...

(1) I like to think of the statement about pain as the divine version of What to Expect When You Are Expecting. It isn't a punishment, it isn't a natural consequence, it is "I know you are about to start having kids and I want to warn you about this because otherwise you might think you are dying." As for what that reading does to our understanding of the rest of that statement, I'll leave that to the rest of you.

(2) Ziff on the Matthew verse: It is important to realize in that passage that Jesus is actually quoting the first half of Deut 15:11. Just like someone who says, "The grass is always greener . . ." isn't talking about grass but is encouraging you to fill in the second half of the statement and think of the meaning of the whole phrase, Jesus' point is to be found in the second half of that verse. Jesus is absolutely NOT prescribing poverty OR encouraging us to ignore it.

6/17/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Proud Daughter of Eve said...

Interesting Julie. Why don't you feel it's a natural consequece? To me, it looks like "Eve couldn't have children before the Fall. She ate the apple and fell, becoming mortal and gaining the ability to bear children." Thus the pains of childbearing were indeed a natural consequence. On the other hand, I can see and agree with also your stance of a "What to Expect When You're Expecting."

(Poor Eve. Have you ever wondered how she managed with just herself and Adam? No midwives, no doctors, no detailed pregnancy books...)

Going back to the topic of anesthetics, I plan to have natural childbirth when the time comes. (Taking into account that no plan survives contact with reality.) I may well change my mind once I've done it but I feel that something special and sacred goes on when a woman is "travailing." She's working with God to bring another spirit into the world. I don't want to miss that. I know full well it will be painful. Christ knew that His task would be painful as well but knew also that it was worth it. I can't do less than He.
(Which is not to say that I look down on others who do choose epidurals or other painkillers-- everyone has their own feelings and their own choices.) I know my viewpoint is starry-eyed but that's just the way I feel about it.

6/17/2006 07:03:00 PM  
Anonymous VeritasLiberat said...

Even if the physical part of childbearing were to be rendered completely pain-free, there would still be more than enough *mental* anguish involved in the raising of children and the possibility of failure in that endeavor. (Which do you think was worse for the biblical Eve: labor pains, or having to live with the knowledge that one of her sons had slaughtered the other?)

6/17/2006 08:07:00 PM  
Anonymous VL said...

By the way, my first kid is due in October. I have mild sensory integration disorder and really do NOT do well with even ordinary levels of pain. (I whimper and moan during ordinary teeth cleanings, and you don't want to know what happened when I got my travel shots for study abroad.)
I'm definitely using whatever painkillers they will let me have during labor.

6/17/2006 08:26:00 PM  
Blogger Ziff said...


I apologize for not being clearer. I wasn't endorsing the reading of Matthew 26 that says that Jesus wanted for there always to be poor people. I was just saying it seemed similar to the reading of Genesis 3:16 that says God wanted men to rule over women. In both cases, people may have taken a description as a prescription.

6/18/2006 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Julie M. Smith said...


I think you it is useful to make a distinction between (1) having children and (2) having pain in childbirth. Clearly, (1) was a 'natural consequence' of the Fall, but i can think of no airtight reason why (2) should have been. That's why I don't think of it as a natural consequence.

"I can't do less than He."

I have several problems with this statement. First, Jesus asked that if it were at all possible, the cup would pass from Him. In other words, he suffered because it was the only way. Suffering is *not* the only way to bear a child. I recognize that there are legitimate reasons why women choose to suffer in childbirth when they don't have to, but thinking that you are someone following Christ isn't one of them. He didn't ask us to suffer in childbirth, and we aren't performing an act of atonement if we do.

I don't know if you have been following the FMH thread on this topic, but I commented there that I think choosing pain in childbirth solely to suffer as Christ did comes close to mocking the atonement and puts you into Opus Dei (a la Da Vinci Code, if not real life) land.

6/18/2006 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

I liked your comparison to the scripture in Matthew, Ziff, because although it's a misreading (thanks for mentioning that link to Deut 15:11, Julie--I never knew that!), it has unfortunately been historically read that way, as a justification for inaction in the face of poverty. Which does seem somewhat similar to citing Genesis 3:16 as a basis for subjugating women.

6/18/2006 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that any "experienced" father would tell you that the decision about epidurals or C-sections or drug-free births are a choice clearly left to the mother.

The decision to medicate during birth is one to be made between a woman and her doctor.

6/18/2006 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Ty said...

We believe that women should be punished for their own sins, and not for Eve's transgression...

6/18/2006 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Kiskilili said...

We believe that women should be punished for their own sins, and not for Eve's transgression...

I'd very much like to believe that, but certain doctrines in the Church indicate otherwise, which is what I find curious. I do feel very much that I'm held accountable for Eve's transgression.

There are several difficulties in making sense of the verse. One is that disjunction in Hebrew is frequently indicated semantically; in other words, the particle "and" can also be translated "but" if it connects contrasting elements. This might influence whether we give it a descriptive or prescriptive spin. Is it "your impulse/craving will be to your husband, AND he will rule over you" or "BUT he will rule over you"? What you take the "impulse" to be influences how you read the conjunction; this is partly where the translators are going different ways.

(This is in addition to the fact that it's not clear the second thing God greatly increases: pain and x. Pregnancy? Pleasure? The meaning of the word is disputed.)

The Hebrew is definitely talking about pain in childbirth, though--that part is clear.

VL, congratulations--I hope all goes well and the painkillers are effective! Your point about mental pain in child rearing is an interesting one. Of course, women aren't actually commanded to suffer in child rearing as their divine duty, any more than men are.

6/18/2006 06:26:00 PM  
Blogger Julie M. Smith said...

Ziff, I didn't think you were endorsing it, but in your comment you did sound like you weren't sure what to do with it. No offense intended.

6/19/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Starfoxy said...

"We believe that women should be punished for their own sins, and not for Eve's transgression..."

Aye, there's the rub. Men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression. We know that women should be punished for their own sins, but whether or not that ends up happening is another question altogether, unfortunately.

6/19/2006 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Proud Daughter of Eve said...


I thought of Christ's request for the cup to pass from Him as I wrote. Yes indeed that was the only way. And for thousands of years that the only way for women to give birth was in pain. Anesthetics have only been on the scene for a hundred years, give or take a couple decades. Does that mean that women today have some kind of duty to choose it, that otherwise they're just "pious freaks" like Dan Brown's Opus Dei? I feel the way I feel about birth. You feel the way you feel about it. Fine. -I- feel that this is a challenge for me, as Christ's challenge was for him, and I want to know that I can face my challenge as well as He did. That doesn't mean I expect everyone else to do the same! Some, like Veritasliberat, have good reasons to accept medical intervention. Others don't but that's not for me to judge and I don't. I specifically said that I don't.

6/19/2006 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Julie M. Smith said...


If you feel that you *personally* are called to do this, fine. (I do think there are some cases where mothers are either inspired to choose to suffer or end up suffering despite their own choice and it is for the needs of the baby.) Your original comment gave the impression that you thought it should apply to all women, but it sounds like we are on the same page now.

6/19/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous JKS said...

I think that the passage is just God stating what the mortal world would be like. We work for our food. Bearing children is painful. Menstration is annoying and painful. Pregnancy is painful. Childbirth is painful. Recovery is painful. Postpartum depression is literally sorrow.

I think someone should start a thread about a how a mother's body changes. If you REALLY want to experience childbirth don't lose any of the pregnancy weight. And suffer years of painful sexual intercourse from scar tissue. And get lots of varicose veins that are unsightly and painful. And make sure you show off all your stretch marks that hopefully don't fade very much. And make sure nursing is as painful as possible and you get lots of infections.
Lets celebrate each and every difference in our body after pregnancy. It is all natural and was for a purpose. It brought us that beautiful baby.
And the more you sacrificed your body to give birth, the more you love your baby.
Those women whose bodies seem to bounce back to pre-pregnancy weight are really trying to SKIP the real experience of childbirth. They just don't understand......

6/19/2006 09:55:00 PM  
Blogger Lindsey said...

While childbirth is probably the most physical pain that most women will feel, what about the spiritual pain that comes with bringing forth children? I'm going to have my first child in November, and I'm scared of the birth process, but I'm also scared of many other things: will I be a good mom, will I be able to raise these children in a good environment, with a stable household, with both healthy and productive parents, will I be able to survive the trials my child will bring into my life? I think that this spiritual pain will be far worse, yet the reward will be far more uplifting because I will be able to watch my children learn and grow and I will learn and grow as well. The kind of love between parent and child can not be described only felt, and there is devine pain in that love.

At least, that's how I interpret that passage.

6/20/2006 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger ZD said...

Please leave any further comments at the new location of this post here.

6/21/2006 02:37:00 PM  

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