Agnes R. Howard
Eerdmans, 216 pages
Reviewed by Nicole Childress Ball
A few months ago, I was waddling after my toddler in the summer heat, my belly ripe with full-term twin boys. I felt exhausted and excited. I was depleted yet brimming with life (times two). I lived in my body as if nothing was different and yet, top twin kept me breathless while bottom twin kept me close to a bathroom. Before becoming a mother, I had questions about bearing children physically, but also about the implications of childbirth on my significant relationships, work and wider community. I had yet to encounter a frame upon which to hang my questions and ruminations until now.
Agnes Howard’s beautifully articulated invitation to honor the act of “radical hospitality” by the expectant woman raises the bar for those of us watching this divine process to observe more than just a blooming belly. She invites us to consider how we all might do better to honor, respect and gather around the expectant mother as she performs, participates and makes room for the new-one-to-come.
The book is laid out in a helpful manner, beginning with a robust journey of “how we used to make babies.” This chapter covers Western reproductive history, embryology and birth history from Europe to the present. Next, she details what a pregnant woman might give: her “most basic goods” in the gift of “protection and provision” of her growing child. Finally, the author invites us to define components of pregnancy with a philosophical vocabulary through “how fetal presence alters the woman” and to consider “pregnancy in identity and relationship.” Concluding the book, she commends new ways to come alongside and support the woman-with-child in a tangible manner that speaks to this elevated lens through which one might view the work of pregnancy.
As a lifelong learner, pastor and mother, I found this book to be incredibly insightful and refreshingly dense. It can be worrisome to carry a baby with Google at one’s fingertips and every how-to manual under the sun. Howard’s writing is honest, challenging and pragmatic. The margins of my proof were littered with exclamations of “Wow!” at information that was completely new to me and “Yes!” to affirm many of her claims about the utter importance of seeing pregnancy as more than simply a physical process. Perhaps because I am so newly postpartum, I found a real connection to this material on a deep, emotional level.
As Howard smartly articulates, our American view of childbearing spends significant time and energy on conception. We then fast-forward to delivery without thinking much about the journey there — apart from checking boxes for routine, prenatal medical care. This has been fresh on my mind since finding out about our pregnancy with twins. On our initial 11-week visit to confirm the pregnancy, we also discussed delivery measures, epidurals and emergency C-sections. What about the next 29 weeks? This book encourages a deeply powerful shift of perspective for any observer of the righteous and difficult work of the childbearer.
Nicole Childress Ball is a teaching elder in the PC (USA) and has worked in congregations, as a healthcare chaplain and at Union Presbyterian Seminary. She has three children under 4, runs on espresso and dry shampoo, and cherishes her current call as a work-at-home mother in Richmond, Virginia.