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Birth is humanity’s greatest under-explored subject. I had that thought over thirteen years ago, when I first gave birth and realized how very little in my upbringing and education had prepared me for the experience. I believe it still, although I have come to see how birth has been explored more extensively than I first imagined. Humans have thought about and written about birth from the beginning of recorded history, from ancient creation stories to medieval theological tracts, from philosophic manuals to obstetrics textbooks, and from nineteenth-century novels to twenty-first-century memoirs.
Look back at the earliest written sources and there birth is. In creation myths from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece, and from ancient India, Africa, and the Arctic to Indigenous communities in the Americas, the mystery of human birth was probed as a sub-narrative in the creation of the cosmos. Where did humans come from? How and why were they born? What is this creation they are a part of? The range and creativity of the answers people have come up with are astounding. The first humans are born from dismembered gods (Greek) or from the earth (Israelite). They emerged out of an ear of corn (Maya) or they were vomited out of a lonely god’s mouth (Congolese). They are born by sex or without sex, with mothers or, more often, without any women at all.
But despite birth’s recurring presence in the written record, and despite rumors of some long-lost matriarchal age and society that privileged a feminine divine and saw birth as the primary axis of imaginative, political, and social power, there is little evidence that birth was ever the foundational experience that any culture organized itself around. Just as women have been seen, in Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing, as “the second sex,” birth has a sense of secondariness about it; it has long hovered in death’s shadow, quietly performing its under-recognized labor. Death has been humanity’s central defining experience, its deepest existential theme, more authoritative somehow than birth, and certainly more final. It is a given that humans are mortal creatures who must wrestle with their mortality, that death is the horizon no one can avoid, despite constant attempts at evasion and postponement and despite the recurring fantasy of immortality. Birth, meanwhile, is what recedes into a hazy background, slipping back past the limits of memory, existing in that forgotten realm where uteruses, blood, sex, pain, pleasure, and infancy constellate.
Perhaps it’s a survival instinct: from the time one is born, death becomes the most pressing concern. How to avoid death, how to deal with it as an inevitability—these are urgent questions. Different traditions have defined a range of ways of confronting death and integrating that encounter into one’s daily life. Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca spoke of death’s omnipresence in our lives: “From the time you are born, you are being led to death.” Our deaths are a point fixed by Fate; we cannot predict that point and we cannot control it. Accepting death and learning how to die were hailed by Seneca as paths to ultimate freedom. It is our love of life, he believed, our attachment to living, that holds us in bondage. “Study death always,” he instructed. “It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die.”
Those who philosophize properly, Plato asserted centuries before Seneca, are those who practice death and dying. In the Christianity that matured alongside such Greek and Roman influences, the crucifix would overshadow the manger as the central symbol of liturgical worship, with Christ’s death and resurrection accruing more theological significance in most communities than Mary’s miraculous birthing. Celibacy and an otherworldly asceticism would be recommended for those on the fast track to salvation; the end was imminent, many early Christians believed, and true seekers should seek not to perpetuate the human race, but to be reborn into God’s kingdom. “Remember to keep death daily before your eyes,” St. Benedict advised a faithful flock of celibate monastics in the medieval period.