When I was pregnant with my first child, I looked for books to tell me what it all meant. I wanted to know how I should understand the strange situation of having a whole other mysterious person folded up inside my middle. Surely I had entered into a special spiritual category. When I made choices about what to do, I was taking another person’s safety into account. And when I prayed, two of us were already gathered, so Jesus must have been present with us.
In addition to asking big questions, I was also following guidelines, as American women have grown accustomed to doing in pregnancy. I was watching my diet, avoiding medicines and household chemicals, walking carefully, taking vitamins, and drinking tankards of water. The implication of prenatal instructions was that following them to the letter would ensure a healthy baby.
Of course, prenatal good behavior doesn’t guarantee a healthy baby. But if not, what is the point of doing all this stuff? Pregnant mom rules are focused almost entirely on vice and the avoidance of it. Women who are “with child” are warned away from drugs and strong drink, deli meats and soft cheese, acne lotions and champagne toasts. Even resting has rules. We’re told which side of the body is best to sleep on.
These prohibitions matter, of course, but they also blind us to the bigger picture. We call out the vices of childbearing without having any notion of what the virtues might be. Applying the framework of virtue to pregnancy isn’t necessary for persuading a woman to do good on behalf of a child—she’s already doing that—but rather for naming this good.
To be sure, talking about virtues alongside pregnancy requires caution. Pregnancy itself is most certainly not a virtue; it only gives opportunity for the practice of it. Nor should we equate female flourishing and female virtue with motherhood. At its best, the concept of prenatal virtue defeats some assumptions that are left over from antique ways of thinking about pregnancy. By focusing on actions, we affirm childbearing as more than passive waiting. And by noting how these positive choices (not just negative ones) shape character, we recognize that pregnancy is a sphere of astonishing moral action.
When we fail to think about prenatal nurture in terms of what is true, noble, and lovely (Phil. 4:8), we leave unsung a glorious aspect of our embodied creation. Those who believe that God knits together babies in secret (Ps. 139:13) but have nothing to say about women’s prenatal acts miss a chance to proclaim this splendor.
What, exactly, do virtues look like in the context of pregnancy? By traditional count, the virtues include four “classical” or “cardinal” ones—prudence, temperance, courage, and justice—plus three “theological” ones: faith, hope, and charity. To varying degrees, these seven and more are called into service during childbearing. Hope anchors a woman when her conditions are discouraging. Temperance might well describe the many abstentions of pregnancy. Justice—giving each person what is due—is rendered in providing the dependent fetus what is needed to survive and thrive.
Nonetheless, four virtues in particular stand out.
Prudence is practical wisdom, the first of the virtues and an enabler of all the others. It applies principles to contingencies. For the pregnant woman, prudence builds a bridge between fetal-development facts and the daily experience of carrying a baby to term. Mothers-to-be are given warnings that they might harm the fetus by standing too close to a microwave, listening to loud music, bathing in water that’s too warm, or eating canned tuna or brie or pineapple. In this context, prudence cuts a path between extremes of overreaction and paralysis. It also requires a great deal of discernment.
Prudence is essential for onlookers, too, as it obligates us to see things as they actually are. For millennia, men were credited with the agency of reproduction, women were seen as passive vessels, and the entire process of gestation was viewed as spiritually unremarkable. But we can apply practical wisdom to correct that appraisal. For millennia, pregnancy was cast as “waiting while doing nothing of significance.” But we can use a century’s understanding of maternal-fetal physiology to laud women’s collaboration with the creative work of God.
Charity—love!—may be the virtue most obviously engaged in pregnancy. Arguably, charity starts with affirming the goodness of another person’s existence. In the words of the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world!” By offering nurture to a child in the months before birth, a woman expresses charity and says in so many words: It is good that you are, and I will help you be in this world.
Of course, this expression comes at a great cost. For a human to exist, someone else has to give, and give in ways that sometimes wound. Bringing a new person into the world can cause hemorrhoids and heartburn, tears and scars. We need a virtue framework to help make sense of this fact. In other words, the habits taken up by the pregnant woman are significant not only in making her a mom. They’re also essential to shaping the sort of person she is: a woman of great charity who follows in the footsteps of Christ, both in terms of her love and sacrifice.
Next, hospitality (a subsidiary virtue).
The parallels between pregnancy and hosting a houseguest are irresistible. When a guest comes to stay in our home, we might move furniture, prepare a room or couch, change linens, adjust our plans around guests’ needs, offer special meals, and give other forms of welcome. A pregnant woman does all of those things inside the space of her own body. For some children, the room in the womb might be the best place they ever live. Even women who barely have shelter themselves—transient, homeless, or refugee women—provide comfortable housing for the babies they carry.
Scripture and Christian tradition enjoin hospitality as an important duty of the faithful. When we offer kindness to strangers, we might be entertaining angels unaware (Heb. 13:2) or even welcoming the Lord (Matt. 25:35). A childbearing woman, then, displays in her belly not only the telltale signs of a small, new person but also a sign of receptivity to relationship with others and even relationship with God.
According to some scholars, Plutarch reported that Spartan women who died in childbirth had their graves marked with a special inscription, honoring them in the same way as men who died in battle. But the courage of childbearing emerges long before the first contraction and comes in the most normal and healthy of pregnancies, not only high-risk ones. Courage entails doing what is right even at a cost to oneself. Pregnant women confront mortality—their own and their child’s—and go to great lengths to shield their baby from harm.
For women who carry an unplanned pregnancy or an unwell child, pregnancy might require an additional act of courage. And for many mothers, being pregnant includes the possibility of bearing a child who dies either through miscarriage or stillbirth. “There is no other experience, in the mix of our many human griefs, that comes close to mirroring this,” writes Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones. “She carries death within her body ... but she does not die.”
Not every woman who gets pregnant meets this kind of grief. But openness to these griefs is built into childbearing, and that openness requires the virtue of courage.
Margaret Hammer, a Lutheran pastor and the author of Giving Birth: Reclaiming Biblical Metaphor for Pastoral Practice, wonders whether the church will “gain anything important by focusing more attention on the experience of giving birth.” Our answer must be an emphatic yes. Prenatal motherhood offers us a powerful model of virtue in action. It teaches us to care closely for each other, weigh the impact of our deeds on others, take seriously our created condition, and face our dependence on one another and on the Lord.
When we recognize the theological significance of this work, we remember that we are co-creators with God. Nowhere is that truth more manifest than in pregnancy.
Agnes R. Howard teaches humanities at Christ College, the honors college at Valparaiso University. She is the author of Showing: What Pregnancy Tells Us about Being Human.