written by AMANDA GROSS
As I sit down to begin chapter three of Mistress Syndrome the Book* about the white savior complex it is Christmas morning and my body is being ravaged by category 5 menstrual cramps, an appropriate physiological state for this day of celebration of Jesus’s birth. I gave up painkillers two years before to get more in touch with my body. And lo and behold, it has been a reunion of intimate awareness, one that for 3-5 days includes intermittent mind-numbing pain with valleys of continuous ache. I wonder if the intensity even comes close to contractions in labor.
My sister-in-law recently gave birth to a baby, and this also being my brother’s child has put me genetically closer to the miracle of birth than ever before. It was awe-inspiring to be in tangential proximity to her pregnancy and birth experience as each seemingly minute physiological development grew a whole human. The baby’s uterine positioning as breech signaled a potentially dangerous labor and also a potential disappointment to the natural birth they had so carefully researched and planned for.
Mostly in the history of my conscious life, the miracle of birth has rung cliché. The overused phrase has numbed me to the Christmas story and, although I love babies and small children, the miracle of birth has largely been detached for me from their existence. My dad still talks about the story of my mother’s labor and my birth with tears in his eyes. And it is only through this recent experience of tangential proximity that I have begun to understand the power of pregnancy and birth that is at the core of the Christmas story. My tangential proximity helped me notice a combination of dependency, helplessness, distance, well-wishes, encouragement and support those around my sister-in-law were navigating, since, no matter our hopes and no matter our bedside presence, ultimately she alone would be the one to push this child outside of her body and into breathable air. In my tangential proximity, I was also powerless to do anything but wait for the news of birth.
Throughout her labor the C-section loomed as a threat of taking this powerful experience away. (This is not to say that there aren’t very appropriate life-threatening moments when a C-Section is necessary to guarantee the health of the parent and the baby, because there are. At the same time the historical development of the shift in birthing from the labor of the bedroom to the labor of the hospital along with the development of the male-dominated surgical theater, demonstrate a patriarchal shift in birthing that has served to usurp in many ways the agency and self-determination that those who have the capacity to give birth had historically held.) In the light of this possibility, she found agency in renaming the surgical procedure as belly birth, a recognition that there are multiple ways to give birth and that a C-Section doesn’t diminish the actuality that she is still giving birth.
Just as women and midwives were removed from the delivery room during the era of the witch hunts, so too has the miracle of birth been co-opted by patriarchy in the telling and retelling of the Christmas story. The main focal point of the narrative has become that of the birth of the savior, rather than that of the pregnancy and labor of the one who gave him life. While in some traditions Mary the mother of Jesus takes on a more prominent role, in the way I was raised, Mary had a supportive role, sidelined to an occasional reference during advent season, a mention in a song that was written to her but not about her (As in Mary, Did You Know…), and a significant casting appearance in nativity scenes. She started off the advent season when the angel appeared to tell her – not ask her consent – that she was getting impregnated by God. But on the day that marks her labor it is not her work that we celebrate but its severed results, as if once out of the womb, baby Jesus was independently walking around performing miracles all by himself.
I am still working through bitterness around the rape connotations of Mary’s reluctant impregnation and the way Jesus’s paternity relegates Mary to a vessel of male holiness, will, and power, but lately, I have been feeling more connected to the symbolism of birth as redemption for humanity. I am also even more keenly aware of the way the Christmas narrative has been misguided as an ideological foundation for the white savior complex so prevalent in our celebrity culture, politics, and theologies today.
Our children are our saviors. They are our chance at redemption. With each generational cycle, we get a chance at a do-over, a repeat, an opportunity to evolve in our parenting choices and child-rearing theories. Our children link us to the future, miraculously taking us beyond our lifespans. Their births signify that our DNA will live on even after we are composting in the earth (or more likely pumped with chemicals and not rotting inside of stone). Holding my nephew as a newborn was indeed a holy experience. It was a moment of perspective and prioritizing and re-centering and commitment and recommitment. The powerful labor of his mother, the commitment of his parents to bringing him into the world, and his birth story inspired in me feelings of connection to the Christmas narrative for the first time in a long while.
*I am writing a book called Mistress Syndrome. Stay tuned!