Ripe Pumpkins, Green Heart

By Melinda Morley

I CLUTCHED THE METAL sidebar of the hospital bed and dug my nails into the cold steel. My body posed rigidly as each contraction swelled and crashed over me like the surf at high tide. Sweat poured down my back. It left a salty pool above my lip, which I bit to stifle a groan. Bile rose in the back of my throat. The nurse offered me a little bean-shaped container. Are you kidding me? I thought. Not after the chicken dinner I just ate. I asked for a garbage can. It smelled of old Band-Aids. I swallowed deep and politely declined.

My vision tunneled. I saw only a Dixie cup with ice. Noise grated around me. The senseless bantering between my husband and the nurse, the relentless beeping and buzzing of monitors, even the hee-hee-hooing of my own breath was amplified by the pain. I closed my eyes, seeking darkness, sinking deeper.

Why can’t I stay on top of these contractions? I thought. I should be a pro. Before this, I had survived four natural childbirths by gritting my teeth. Not this time. Now my spirit trembled along with my knees. I felt hollow, like the sound of laughter coming from the nurses’ station. A weakness crept inward from my clenched fingers. As the contractions began to overwhelm me, I remembered the hope the promptings had given me about this baby. Instead of floundering on my own, I reached for that hope like an anchor.

The anchor hadn’t always been there. Ten months earlier, I sat in the temple and felt the subtle nudging of the Spirit, perhaps what a seed feels when the sun warms the earth: It is time.

What? Again? So soon? I had given birth to four children in five years. My youngest was barely one. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. I yearned for a break, just a chance to catch my breath. Now the Spirit was prompting me to have another child. I knew I lacked the strength. My favorite scripture said that with God nothing is impossible. So I took a leap of faith in a size that I could manage, only one small step at a time, and tried to believe that somehow it would be possible.

Within the month I was pregnant. But instead of the usual joy, I felt gloominess. I delayed announcing my pregnancy until a bulging middle made it obvious. Any form of congratulations was brushed aside. I took up camp on the couch, staring nauseously through smudged windowpanes. It reminded me of an earlier pregnancy that had ended in miscarriage, an experience which taught me that following the promptings of the Spirit does not guarantee an outcome in harmony with my will, and I couldn’t foresee God’s will. Doubt became my constant companion. I had chosen to follow the promptings of the Spirit, but still my heart felt dormant like a seed in winter.

What if my feelings of apprehension were really a premonition? My mind replayed the story of my neighbor whose first child was stillborn. And similar stories sprung up everywhere. But, if the Spirit was trying to tell me something, I was too numb to listen, too overwhelmed to understand. My emotions swirled in turmoil. There was no peace in the darkness.

In the back of my mind I began to recognize the reason for the darkness. It was not a premonition of death, but a fear of pain. Labor pain. I knew that each passing day brought me closer to the inevitable: eventually this tiny person growing inside me would have to come out, and that meant pain. Daily the baby grew and so did the dread. I didn’t know if I had the strength to endure childbirth one more time. I knew that natural labor was not the only way to bring a child into the world. Although I considered other ideas, I did not find peace in them.

During my first pregnancy I devoured every childbirth book I could find. A natural delivery sounded difficult, but I decided I was up to the challenge. I felt good about my decision, but kept an open mind, and I made it through, barely. But, instead of getting easier with time, each labor grew more challenging. Although I continued to feel natural childbirth was the right choice for me, I was terrified by it.

Distractions became a tool for coping with the fear. The endless nausea provided diversion, at least at the beginning. Ordering the Mucho Macho platter from Dos Serranos that I boxed and ate carefully for the next seven meals, trying to avoid odd smells that would send me running to the nearest receptacle (which was pretty much impossible), counting the additional stretch marks that were overtaking every square inch of my belly, and taking care of four small children brought ample distraction: someone was always hungry, fighting, tattling, hiding, spilling, hugging, whining, or wetting.

I tried to keep up my spiritual spirits, so to speak. During scripture study, I came across the verse, “Perfect love casteth out all fear.” This troubled me. How imperfect was my love. How deep was my fear.

Not knowing what else to do, I tried to ignore my fear and continue on with life. I became accustomed to the idea of five children and turned my cares outward to focus on my family and yard. All summer long I compared the growth of my abdomen to the expanding pumpkins in the corner of our garden. In early spring, I had pressed white seeds into mounded bellies of fertile soil. I tenderly watered and waited for the little plants to breach the crust and unsteadily greet the world. As they grew, I weeded around their prickly, tangled vines and wondered if hearts could be weeded, too. With the sun on our faces and mud between our toes, the pumpkins and I grew in size and shape together.

Summer passed and then fall. Soon the pumpkins sat, their grinning jack-o-lantern faces mocking me from the kitchen table. They had happily fulfilled the measure of their creation, but I had only gone overdue.

Contractions had started two months earlier over Labor Day weekend. We had been visiting Yellowstone Park. Squeezing myself in and out of the van with four kids, and trekking the miles of boardwalks, had been too taxing. That afternoon contractions started, but labor didn’t. I just contracted every day for two long months. Most days I would lie down, drink a quart of water, and wait for them to stop. Some days they would become painfully uncomfortable, but always subsided just as I started looking for my midwife’s phone number. “At least you won’t go overdue,” she assured me.

The quiet time spent on the couch, waiting for the contractions to stop, allowed me to be still. Often, I reached for a copy of the Ensign. Little by little the darkness began to lift, and the Spirit began to penetrate my hard green shell of a heart. One day I read an article by President James E. Faust[1] on pain and fear. He related the story of a leg wound he received as a child and how the Lord helped him bear the pain. A quote he included from The Secret Garden impressed me: “Where you tend a rose, my lad, / A thistle cannot grow.” [2]

I recognized that the “thistle” of fear was choking out the seed of faith in my heart. I recognized the need to embrace the idea of pain accompanying childbirth. I started by telling myself over and over that labor pain is a good sign.

I accept it. I welcome it. Labor pain means that my baby will come. It is a perfectly natural part of childbearing. Labor pain is good. Labor pain is good. Labor pain is good . . .

“Labor pain is good” became my mantra. I took to repeating it in my mind throughout the day: at the stoplight when the baby kicked impatiently, sitting on the hard benches while waiting at ballet lessons, when brushing my teeth and gagging.

On Sunday, day four of over-ripeness, I felt my heart begin to soften. The lesson was on faith in Christ. The instructor asked us to close our eyes and picture ourselves yoked with Christ. The imaginary wood felt hard and awkward across my shoulders, but strangely light when I believed Christ was beside me. Could I learn to let go of my fear, accept my limitations and rely on Christ?

On my baby’s seventh belated “birth” day, I attended the annual Relief Society Dinner and Date Night. My enormous size did not deter me. Smiling wryly, I put on my orange sweater and went to the church. I met every, “Wow, you haven’t had your baby yet?” with my own jack-o-lantern smile. In truth, I had resigned myself to a lifelong pregnancy, complete with eternal heartburn, endless stretch marks, and chronic back pain. However, that night brought more rewards than the leftover chicken cordon bleu the Relief Society left afterward at my doorstep. I was fed in a less tangible way: by the speaker. Brother Berthhold is a professional family counselor. When his topic turned from relationships to pain, he had my full attention.

He told of a woman in a nursing home who suffered from chronic stomach pain. He had been asked to teach her some coping methods to help her deal with her pain without medication. First, he asked her if she believed in Christ. She said yes. He asked her to close her eyes and visualize Christ standing beside her, and then Christ placing his hand on her stomach. Her eyes flew open and she glared at him.

“What did you do to me?” she demanded.

“Nothing,” was the reply.

“Where did my pain go? Wait it’s coming back. Oh,” she sighed, “there it is.”

If it was possible for her chronic pain to be eased through her faith in Christ, I wondered if the same would hold true for labor pain.

That night I fell asleep with mild contractions and awoke hours later to a thrilling rush of water and an instant relief of the tightness in my belly. Finally, my son would be born.

Through each contraction, I tried to apply my newfound knowledge. As I walked the halls, I imagined a yoke around my neck and Christ as my partner. I felt peace through the increasing pain. Quickly the contractions intensified and I retreated to my hospital bed.

My husband held my hand. As each contraction rose until I could endure no more, I closed my eyes and imagined Christ placing his hand on my belly. The pain immediately decreased to a tolerable level. My partnership with God became real. He did for me what I could not do for myself. He succored me. He lifted my burden. He was the anchor that I reached for; in a sea of turmoil, He brought relief.

I became serene and calm, closing my eyes through each contraction, imagining Christ beside me and praying silently in my heart. My midwife watched from the foot of the bed. She spoke in soft, awed tones to my husband, “She’s a real pro.”

I took a deep cleansing breath, smiled, and shook my head. How could I even begin to explain? It wasn’t me. I didn’t have what it took to make it through the birthing of this baby. But God did, and He gave it to me.

I wept as a fussing little parcel was placed in my arms and his squinting blue eyes looked up at me, for I had received such a gift, such a wonderful gift.

[1] James E. Faust, “Be Not Afraid,” Ensign, October 2002, 2-6.

[2] Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1987), 338-39.

About Melinda Morley

Melinda Morley is the mother of five beautiful, talented, and too-smart-for-their-own-good children. She has tried to trick them into believing that her laptop is a permanent attachment, as she is an avid writer, blogger, student, and reader, and really can’t help it if dinner is late. Melinda is pursuing her BGS degree through BYU and has finally reached senior status. On snowy days she is walked by her dog, a large Samoyed, through the icy streets of Kaysville, Utah.

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