Pain during childbirth has traditionally been assumed to be one of the consequences of original sin, but a better reading of the text suggests otherwise.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
At this point, you may be thinking, “She’s forgotten something. . . .”
This article is adapted from chapter five of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Wait—Isn’t Birth Supposed to Hurt?” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.
All this lovely talk of new life, mutual self-gift, the dynamic of giving and receiving as a marker of the Christian life, the help of the Holy Spirit throughout . . . it all sounds graced and blissful. But wasn’t one of the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve that she would have pain in childbirth?
This claim is rooted in the text of Genesis 3, the story of the Fall of the first man and woman, and particularly in Genesis 3:16–19. Here is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the text:
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
When the text is translated in this way, it is no wonder that readers are left with the impression that pain is a necessary consequence of the sin of the first humans. But there is good reason to believe that pain (or pangs) is not the best word to use.
Toil or pain?
The Theology of the Body says that men and women were created for mutual self-giving, a complete and total gift of self that was designed to be crowned with new life. But with the original sin, relationships became twisted, and fear, shame, and toil came into the world. We are still created to live according to the law of the gift. But the relationships designed in a perfect order prior to the Fall—God to humanity, man and woman to one another, and man to the earth—are broken as a consequence of that Fall, that concrete choice to want to be God rather than human. Now, man tills the earth with toil and struggle. Woman gives birth in eseb (commonly translated pain, but wait . . . ), and yet her desire is for her husband, who lords over her. The man and woman realize they are naked and vulnerable and clothe themselves in order to protect themselves from one another’s objectifying looks. And God recognizes they cannot be trusted, and for their own good, casts them from the garden that contains the tree of life. Eating a fruit that would immortalize grievously broken relationships would be no blessing.
But let’s look more closely at the consequence borne by Eve and all women: that she would give birth in eseb. It is a tragic consequence, because it strikes at the very heart of a primordial relationship: it leads the mother to fear the birth of her own child. But what most people remember is this: childbirth gets identified with pain.
There is no question: sometimes, childbirth is painful, even extremely painful. But childbirth is not identified with physical pain in Genesis. Let’s look at the original Hebrew:
What God says to Eve:
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs [issabon] in childbearing; in pain [be’eseb] you shall bring forth children. . . .” (Gen 3:16)
What God says to Adam:
. . . [C]ursed is the ground because of you; in toil [issabon] you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . . (Gen 3:17b)
Both Adam and Eve receive pronouncements that one result of sin is eseb (issabon comes from the Hebrew root eseb). Eseb is a word commonly used in the Hebrew Scriptures—yet every other time but one, it is translated as toil. While toil certainly refers to exertion and hard work (and pain and exhaustion can be a part of that, as well as frustration and sorrow) the first meaning of eseb is not pain; it is work.
When birthing is associated with pain in the Greek language Scriptures, there is a similar disconnect. The Greek word lupe is used there, and translated into English as pain. But lupe refers to emotional challenge, not physical pain. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, uses the Greek lupe to translate the Hebrew eseb—further evidence that eseb is not primarily about physical pain. Lupe is also used to refer to birth in the New Testament, in John 16:21–22:
When a woman is in labor, she has pain [lupe], because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish [thlipsis] because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain [lupe] now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Thlipsis is a word that means applying pressure, compressing (which is a remarkably accurate descriptor for labor contractions). Once again, pain could be a consequence of pressure. But it is not the root meaning of the word.
Toil—hard, total exertion and work—is the meaning of birth after the Fall. And while toil can and often does entail physical pain, it does not always do so.
Can the sign be seen through toil? Or pain?
In short, yes, it can. The reason for addressing these Hebrew details is to help you understand that pain is not the primary definition of pregnancy—even a pregnancy after the Fall. Openness to life and the work of the Holy Spirit is. And it is possible to have that be the visible focus of your birthing.
It is important to realize that a childbirth that involves hard work, but not necessarily soul-crushing pain, is possible. Not guaranteed, but possible. Understanding that toil and anguish may be part of our inheritance of the Fall may help us prepare for birth differently. But second, it is important to recognize that God does not give people pain. If there is pain, it exists as part of the reality of our fallen existence and broken relationships, one of the consequences of original sin. God created us for love and for that love to bring forth new life. That should be our focus. There is no biblical mandate to embrace the pain.
In most cases, we should avoid the worst pain as we can, in order to facilitate a better mother-and-child beginning. But if that is not possible, at least recognizing that pain is not part of God’s original plan, and asking for the strength to endure it—or offering it as a sharing in Christ’s passion—is a meaningful step.
Finally, as I mentioned in the introduction, this book does look at natural childbirth as the default way that women give birth worldwide. I should be clear: it is not wrong to make a decision with your doctor or midwife to take advantage of anesthetics, such as an epidural. Epidurals can help, medically and psychologically, in some cases. But there are medical disadvantages to such anesthesia as well. If you intend to try a natural childbirth, know that there are ways of reducing the pain of a typical childbirth that do not involve drugs—positioning, water immersion, back massage, relaxation techniques—and I personally would encourage mothers to take advantage of all these natural pain reduction options. Many women will vouch that they can work very well, changing birth from “extremely painful” to simply “hard work.”
The piece to remember is this: even if your birth is painful, the Holy Spirit still abides with you and your child. God is present, and we are created for the Law of the Gift. God gives himself to you in the Holy Spirit, and you give yourself to your child through giving birth—even a fallen, toil-filled birth. Especially in a toil-filled birth.
For prayerful reflection
- Make a list of all your fears about the physical and emotional aspects of childbirth. Then make a list of all you hope for in the physical and emotional aspects of your impending childbirth. Ask God to help you address the fears and not focus too much on your hopes, beyond living for God’s will while giving birth.
- The translations of eseb, lupe, and thlipsis to the single English word “pain” indicate a certain “reading into” the passages borne on the English-speaking world’s preconceptions that childbirth must be painful. Read those passages cited with the words toil, anguish, and pressure for the three words above, respectively. Does this change your reading of the passage? If so, how?
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Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.