Monday, November 14, 2011

God and Babies

After three miscarriages, my wife was diagnosed with a "uterine septum," a little malformed wall hanging down from the top of the inside of her uterus, making it look like a little heart. This septum was not allowing room for attachment to the uterine wall, and this (we're more or less certain) caused all three miscarriages. Fortunately, after my wife was diagnosed, we learned that there was treatment for the problem: a relatively un-invasive surgery where the doctor goes in, finds the septum, and -- in the doctor's words -- "trims it out." So trim it out he did, and the next pregnancy was a successful one, producing what they call, in the business, a "take home baby," a girl. So I'm a dad now.

Even though infertility wasn't our issue, we were recommended to infertility specialists (since they also handle related problems). The motto on their pamphlets and website is "For couples with infertility, miracles happen every day." They also have a place on their website for submitting "miracle memories." Now, if by miracle they simply mean "something good and unexpected," then fine, because this was both. If they are referring to the work they themselves do as miraculous (meaning wondrous, amazing), then fine, because it is. But if they mean that some sort of divine intervention or circumventing of nature was involved, then I have to take issue with whoever decided to use that word.

My baby is not a miracle. If it weren't for medical science, she almost definitely would not be here. She's my medical science baby.

If we had attempted to have a baby even a few decades ago, the procedure the doctor used to remove my wife's uterine septum would not have been available. It's possible we could have had a baby, but we most probably wouldn't have, and -- if we did -- it would have only been by "playing the odds" (which we wouldn't have done): after a dozen or so miscarriages, you might get lucky and finally have a kid.

In our case, there was a definite cause and effect. No surgery: no baby. Have surgery: have baby. God had nothing to do with it. My most immediate thanks goes to the skilled, intelligent, and super-nice doctor who worked with us through the entire process and finally removed the biological problem. I also thank the other doctors involved, the nurses, and the staff: all of them wonderful humans. "Well, don't you thank God for giving these people the wisdom, talent, and kindness?" No. Why should I go that far back, all the way to "first cause"? I don't thank the doctor's mother, so why God? I could thank her, of course, since she raised him and perhaps supported him in becoming a doctor. I could also thank his eighth grade biology teacher for possibly sparking a desire. These are assumptions and guesses, and so is God's involvement. Either way, it's indirect at best. I do, however, thank the entire history of medicine that led to the discoveries that allowed him to do his job.

More importantly, why would I assume that God even wanted us to have a baby? After three miscarriages, wouldn't all signs point to God not wanting us to have one? In going to these specialists and circumnavigating nature, changing the body that my wife was born with, aren't we just "playing God"? The argument that I am a sinner for going against God's wishes is a lot stronger than the argument that I should thank God for finally giving me a baby. What an assumption the latter would be, and how convenient to my own wishes!

At any rate, I can assure you that our baby was not a "miracle baby." Maybe no one would suggest that she is anyway, since there was a medical explanation. But what about babies that are born against all odds, without medical explanation? Are those miracle babies? It's an expression I dislike no matter what. I hate the implications. Does it imply that God allows the babies he doesn't provide miracles for to die? Are babies who are born miracle-free Godless in some way? Does he sometimes look at a woman who is infertile and finally one day say, "Okay, enough is enough: here's your baby"? For those babies born with complications, does he rescue them just enough: not so much that they're free of the complication, but enough so that God leaves his mark? My problem also applies to "miracles" in general, whether babies are involved or not. Google the phrase "The doctor's can't explain it" and you'll see that the "explanation" is usually "God," which is quite a leap, especially since things we couldn't explain in the past and answered with "God" were eventually explained without relying on the supernatural.

The usual religious answer for those who promote the idea of miracle babies are imaginative narratives. "God didn't allow those babies to be born, so I guess he needed them in heaven." "God blessed us with no complications." "I was infertile for years while God was testing me, but he chose just the right time to give me a child." "This baby almost didn't make it, but I think it was to show that God had his hand on us. If the baby had been born without problems, we wouldn't have known what God could do." Make up any narrative you like. A little earlier, I made up the negative narrative that God didn't want us to have a baby, but we defied him with surgery. (If my baby grows up badly, perhaps turning on me -- the Mordred to my King Arthur -- I can't say I didn't see it coming.) But I could have also made up positive narratives: that this was the child God wanted us to have (not the others), that he was attempting to better me and my wife by putting us through trials, or even something more far-fetched, like that if that first baby had been born, then she'd have been killed in that car wreck my wife and I were involved in around that time. God was saving us from the even-worse trauma of losing a live baby. Hey, why not?

I've always felt this way about the idea of "miracle babies," but going through these experiences myself has given me the "permission" to share my opinions. One shouldn't need this kind of permission to share opinions, but I wouldn't have shared them before, since I know people feel strongly about these issues and would have thought I just didn't understand. "How you could you, who haven't been through what I've been through, know?" But now I'm a dad and I've been through years of heartache trying to become one, and I have the right to say that miracle babies don't exist (and that mine isn't one) just as much as anyone else has the right to say they do (and that theirs is). The default doesn't belong to the believer.

I do understand the impulse for thinking this way about why things do or don't happen concerning reproduction. What my wife and I went through was lots less than many go through, especially since we ultimately had a good outcome. But what we felt most of the time during that nearly three year experience -- from miscarriage to miscarriage to miscarriage to delivery -- was helplessness and uncertainty. We didn't know anything and couldn't do anything. We talked to each other in loops, trying to solve a puzzle that was unsolvable. Maybe this, maybe that. And it often seemed that the professionals were at as much of a loss as we were, since reproduction is still pretty mysterious, in spite of our vast knowledge. In a situation like this, it is very tempting to turn to gods and superstition.

Religion has always been about attempting to sway the uncontrollable in your favor. We can't control the rain, but we can do a rain dance. We can't make someone fall in love with us, but we can make a sacrifice in the temple of Venus. If you want a baby and you're completely in the hands of nature, of course you would want to turn to a deity that either (in the olden days) is nature or who (in the west these days) controls nature.

For the record, during those helpless years, I never prayed or believed that we would be aided by the supernatural. I cherish the fact that I didn't. Emotionless nature and biology did not care about me, and neither did anything "outside" of nature. I was secure in this knowledge even if I was helpless in everything else, and it was a powerful feeling in its own way. I did not have to pray. I did not have to worry that I was displeasing God. I did not have to sit up at night, after driving hours to and from the out-of-town specialists, wondering why God was punishing me and my wife. I did not tell myself that I would understand one day, or that it would be explained to me in Heaven, in the by and by. Whatever happened happened, and there was nothing I could do beyond what I had done. There is a dignity in this, greater than any "comfort" one might find in the hope that, if I beg him long enough, maybe God will lower himself to help an unworthy sinner.

I did buy my wife a fertility idol from Africa. Huh? Yes, I did. I didn't believe it would do anything, of course, so why did I buy it? I'll try to explain. I knew, in buying it, that there was a very good chance that we would never have a baby and that the idol might one day be a reminder that we didn't. That fact was part of why I bought it, odd as that may sound. But I also bought it as a symbol of hope. Hope, but not certainty or faith. You can have hope and still fully anticipate the worst, and I did. (Even after my wife was pregnant for months, I didn't count on having a baby.) I also bought the statue as a symbol of love for my wife, for all that she went through and all that she meant to me. On the whole, and most importantly, it was a symbol of the experience, no matter what the outcome. Here was a emblem representing something we went through together. This is the difference between symbolism and idolatry.

I joked that, if we did have a baby, I would give credit to the fertility idol. I see no difference in giving credit to it than in giving credit to God. Both would be an example of the false cause fallacy. But at least the fertility idol would for sure want the baby. That's the idea behind them, after all. We're not sure if God wants anyone to have babies or not, but we do know -- if we're talking about Yahweh of the Bible -- that one of God's first actions was making it so that women suffered during labor. Once again, my wife chose to bypass this curse by having an epidural. She felt zero pain during labor once the epidural was administered. At one point during the delivery, the umbilical cord became tied around the baby, but the doctor whipped out a little vacuum and, before we knew it, the baby's head popped out and said hello. Before modern medicine, that "small" umbilical event might have killed the baby. My wife might have suffered in labor for half a day, and then the baby might not have made it, and without all the advanced treatment we'd been receiving (not only during labor, but proper prenatal care), who knows if my wife would have lived. Death for both mother and baby used to be much more common. Those who say of childbirth "we make such a big deal out of such a natural event" (I'm looking at you, Bill Cosby) seem to forget that. And those who believe in miracle babies must wonder why God wasn't working overtime before the advent of modern science to save the lives of all those dead babies and mothers.

Because nature isn't perfect. Or, if it is, it is a perfection that does not suit us. Look at what babies are like when they are born: completely helpless. Animals are not like this. Animals can walk on day one. Because humans evolved large brains, we have to be born "premature" simply in order for our huge noggins to fit through the birth canal (and we still don't do that very well, as many mothers can tell you, graphically, if you ask them nicely). The sin in the Garden of Eden was knowledge, yes indeed, and -- as a result -- our brains are enormous. (As a bonus, unlike small-brained animals, we have the knowledge that one day we'll die, which is what all that fuss was probably about in the book of Genesis.) After babies are born, they have to suck from their mothers' breasts for months (or be given some substitute) just to survive, and breastfeeding isn't exactly instinctual (as I stupidly thought it was before watching my baby struggle the first time) and some babies never quite get the hang of it (for example, once again, my own). Until their stomachs grow larger than a marble and then a walnut, babies can't sleep for more than a piddly amount of time, wailing for food and causing parents to rarely sleep at all. Parents inevitably experience something that feels like insanity (which seems to stick around even after the sleep comes). And when can these little ones finally take care of themselves? Age five? Age eighteen? Older? We're so helpless for so long that we live our entire lives overcoming the trauma, and maybe we never do. Who would come up with this on purpose? One thing my wife and I kept and keep jokingly saying through the entire baby experience is "Such poor design!"

A side-effect of being born premature, helpless, and completely dependant on our parents (with knowledge of our death) is our conception of God. The idea is that we depend on God for everything. To even understand this concept, we must "become like little children." We must also be "born again." Like children, we depend on God for taking care of us, showing us right from wrong, comforting us, feeding us, letting us know that we're not going to die, etc. Of course, eventually one is meant to "put away childish things." Except that, in this culture, we never do. We never leave the house--the temple, the church, the mosque. A spiritual adult does not need the constant comfort of God. He does not need God at all, in fact, though he may appreciate what he once did for him. The first true step in growing up spiritually is leaving the comfort of God.

And which parent, in our culture, is God? He is our father, of course. But where's our mother? Good question. The older beliefs that inspired the Abrahamic religions had both mother and father, and often the mother (rightly, it would seem) was the more important of the two. One of the reasons a Yahweh-based religion is broken is because there is no universal mother, only a father who does all the stereotypical fatherly things like punish or make rules or tell us "because I said so." During the divorce known as monotheism, the court had to decide which parent we would live with, and I'm afraid we got stuck with Dad.

When we look at the wonder of what women can do and endure (carry and deliver a child, feed it with her own body, and more), there naturally would have been two responses in the ancient days. The first possible response was reverence. Women were magic, holy. Make the goddesses in her image, accentuating bellies and breasts. Make the world in her image: Mother Earth, Gaia. When humans come from the earth, we come from her. The second response (the one we eventually got stuck with) was fear of this magic. Look at all the Biblical laws, for example, of how menstruation is unclean. Men couldn't touch women during this time, and women had to stay away from the tribe during that week. "Keep that magic at bay!" Adam and Eve had daughters, but we never learned anything about them. Humanity's first natural-born daughters: apparently not important enough to mention! And of course God himself is male. Males are dominant and women are subservient. I'm talking about the ancients, but these attitudes have been passed down thousands of years (even in the enlightened United States) in ways that I'm sure I don't have to dwell upon.

So we have a twisted view of women, one that we're still struggling to correct, and I also think we have a twisted view of life itself. For example: our obsession with "when life begins." Does it begin at "conception" (that slippery word)? Does it begin when we exit the birth canal (or otherwise--as Macduff did years before killing Macbeth)? Are we "alive" when we are partially in the sperm, partially in the egg? Are we alive when we are twinkles in the eyes of our grandparents, or when our genetic material was passed down to our grandchildren, even after we're dead? Is, as Monty Python sang, every sperm sacred? Did God really know Jeremiah before he was born? Well, yes and no and what was the question?

Let me put it this way. When my wife and I have thought back to those three miscarriages, we naturally have thought about what the children would have been like if they had been born. But then we realize this: what if, concerning our baby who was born, we had had sex on a Tuesday instead of a Thursday? What if Sperm #877 had made it to the egg instead of Sperm #3,322? What if a different follicle had matured and become the egg that dropped that month? What would those babies have been like? The idea becomes foolish or at least mind-bogglingly useless. Yes, I do see the difference in three specific pregnancies that didn't produce a baby and the kinds of questions I'm now asking, but I also don't think that those three pregnancies were "babies" yet, so thinking about them as such is just another way of driving you insane with nonsensical "what ifs." Things are as they are; hypotheticals are just that.

In my view, life doesn't begin. Life has always been and always will be (for all practical human purposes anyway). When I looked at very early sonograms (five weeks or so) and saw nothing more than a gestational sac, I did not think, "This is a baby." It wasn't. The Koran says that humans were formed from "clots of blood." That's about right. And before that, we're not even that much. Was that gestational sac "life"? Sure, but what isn't? I'm not making any sort of political statement, by the way. Everything is a mystery. Life is a mystery. To me, a life that is lived (and connected to other lives) is more valuable than the concept of life, so take that however you want if you are looking for some stance on a controversial issue, but that's about as much as I want to say about it.

So I have a baby now, a beautiful one who looks quite a bit like me. She's a life who is living, who is connected to me (her daddy-o) and her mother and her grandparents and aunts and uncles and even strangers. She's becoming more human every day. It takes a while to get there. She has only recently begun smiling. She's only recently started trying out sounds that will eventually become her language. Can we even call her human before she laughs and speaks? One day she'll just be a boring adult like me and all that special cuteness, fragility, and everything that makes us want to say "this is a miracle" in the first place will be stripped from her. (No one cares about a "miracle adult.") She'll see what it's like to be a woman in the twenty-first century, and maybe she'll help get rid of some of these ancient woman-fearing ideas. She'll have her own thoughts about God, probably much different than mine. She'll maybe have a baby herself one day. For now, I can only treasure her and ponder these things in my heart.

This post was begun one day before my daughter was born, four months ago. You can thank her and her helpless baby ways for it taking so long.


Jenna said...

Yay science! And now some thoughts on imaginative narratives…

It’s certainly easy to make up narratives: I was late to the dentist this morning because if I had been on time, I would have been in a horrible car wreck and died. Thank you God for causing me to forget to set my alarm last night! They fit in any situation. In my example, it works as an excuse for absentmindedness, but more often (and in your example) it’s used as a tool for coping with painful situations. Do you think it’s harmful to think that way? I’ve recently been listening to “The Shack” (a book about a man who talks to God after his daughter is murdered), which I had hoped would give some kind of new perspective on how an omnipotent, loving god could coincide with pain and suffering. To my disappointment, the only answer it seems to have so far is that “God knows best” and “he has a reason for everything,” or in other words, “the death of your daughter was what I had planned all along, and you don’t understand due to your feeble human mind, but it was actually for the best” (insert appropriate narrative). That answer makes me angry, but to someone who believes it, I suppose it’s comforting. Let’s say that I’m neutral and have the ability to truly believe one of two options.

A) My daughter died because some cruel man made it so, and if I hadn’t let her leave my sight she would have gone on to have a happy life.

B) My daughter died and although it was tragic, God has a plan and his plan is truly the best. Moreover, my daughter is now in heaven, and she is happier up there than she could ever be down here on earth.

Now certainly B seems ideal, and I would probably choose that way of thinking if it was that easy. Of course, which I decide to believe doesn’t change reality, only my mentality. Is truth more valuable than mental well-being? What do you think?

Rusty Spell said...

I'll start with the hardest question: "Is truth more valuable than well-being?" I guess we all live under some amount of delusion just to make it through the day, and some of us need that delusion more than others, so I see the necessity. But I do think it would be nice if we could move as close to reality as possible, especially when the delusion is completely far-fetched or causes harm or mental immaturity.

In lots of examples (including the *Shack* example), the delusion takes away responsibility. If the guy believes that God had a reason for the murder, then it takes the murderer off the hook ("'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord") and the father off the hook (especially if his negligence was to blame). "God has a plan that we can't understand" removes *all* responsibility. It more or less removes free-will, and it certainly doesn't allow someone to realize that what they do has effects on themselves, others, and the world.

This was the answer that Job finally got: "I'm God and you're not, so quit asking questions." A better answer to our miseries, of course (the ones that we don't bring on ourselves) is "Shit happens." I wish we could embrace that philosophy more.

Narratives are so, so tempting--especially the ones involving the creation of alternate realities, like the reality where you die in a car wreck because you were punctual. I suppose this is why Aslan always told the children to quit thinking about what *would* have happened. Our grasp of this reality is crappy enough.

(Thanks for all your great comments. One day you'll have to tell me who you are and why you're so cool.)

Jenna said...

"Is truth more valuable than well-being?" I have a hard time with this question. I want to believe that truth is always better and that knowledge always trumps ignorance. I typically think in a utilitarian way: whatever produces the most good is the best answer. But “good” is an ambiguous word, and it’s impossible to fully calculate all of the good and bad outcomes of a choice. Happiness is good, but knowledge is good as well. Overall, I tend to think that if believing something, a narrative or whatever, helps someone move on from a difficult situation in his or her life and isn’t harmful to others, then perhaps in this case delusion is acceptable. Based on my own easy and comfortable life, it’s easy for me to think that knowledge is the greatest good and that any deviation from the truth is harmful, but I don’t know that I could say the same for those in different situations.

I definitely agree that narratives can take away responsibility. The ‘God has a plan for everything’ narrative makes me angry because not only does it excuse humans from any wrongdoing, but it also means that God causes all suffering (What a jerk!!). I think many people believe in the ‘God narrative’ without thinking about the implications, such as the removal of free will.

It’s very easy to believe something without considering implications when you’ve never been taught or never practiced critical thinking, something I know from experience. I blame the fundamental Christian culture that I grew up in (my entire pre-college education was controlled solely by Christian fundamentalists), and myself for striving to please my superiors by being completely submissive and non-questioning. It was only in college, and through the help of some awesome friends and professors, such as you, that I began to embrace analytic thinking. Thank you!

Rusty Spell said...

Wait, are you *the* Jenna? Well, that explains it!