To recognize what’s being born you first have to know what doesn’t exist. You think it’s simple—no baby, then voila! A pink and wrinkled human the size of a hoagie. But that newborn is only the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality, which was my father’s definition of sacrament. You’re a midwife to the insides, too.
Yield, I told myself. The one great lesson of my training, which I am still and forever learning, is that a midwife’s best asset is the capacity to let go. To serve Melinda well, the stubborn part of me had to yield.
In your other writing, you’re quite open about being a liberal Christian. Why in this book does Hannah reject Christianity?
I believe faith is a basic human characteristic. Everyone conflates faith with belief and associates both with religion. But we all exercise faith constantly—faith in other people, faith in our retirement accounts, faith in the safety of our homes, faith in our bodies. Lots of times there’s a disconnect between the faith we profess with our creeds and beliefs and the faith we live. I’ve always been more interested in the faith we live.
So many Christians that I know live on the edges of the church or outside the church. And so many people these days claim to be “spiritual, not religious.” Part of me is very traditional, very rooted in the church. But another part of me has abandoned it entirely, and I wanted to map out this spiritual terrain so I can better understand it. Natural birth is an extraordinary metaphor for coming alive, which is really what spiritual growth is about. I’m interested in natural birth, certainly, but I’m more interested in the spiritual wisdom it offers us. I wanted to tap this, to bring it to the light.
Why did you choose to write about a midwife?
My sister is a homebirth midwife in New Mexico. I admire her and her colleagues tremendously. They get to kneel at the entrance to life, which is a mysterious and wondrous place. They also have to face the possibility of death, witness tremendous pain, and open their hearts to the breadth of human relationships. Midwives tend to be earthy and wise in ways few people are anymore. They must have profound faith in women’s bodies.
It was this last fact that hooked me. I’m interested in faith in all its forms, and midwives work with an intriguing, countercultural form of faith. I wanted to explore how this faith might work and set it next to traditional, Christian faith to see what the differences are.
There’s also a part of me that wants to become a midwife. So I lived out that fantasy by writing Hannah’s story!
How are the “Nones” like Nuns?
“Faith is a human universal. It is something that all human beings do.”
Ever since I read Sharon Deloz Parks’ Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, I’ve been trying to figure out how faith functions. Everyone assumes religious traditions have a monopoly on faith. Parks insists otherwise: “Faith must be emancipated from its too-easy equation with belief and religion and reconnected with meaning, trust, and truth.”
These days, when people are asked to identify their religious affiliation, vast numbers check “none.” Even people who claim a faith tradition frequently say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” I’ve been a church-goer all my life, and yet even I sometimes flee to the margins of my tradition’s creeds. I’m more at home with the “nones” than the nuns.
If faith is a human universal, what does it look like for a “none”? How does faith function outside of religion? These are a compelling questions, and I decided to approach them as a novelist.
I imagined my way into the heart of a young woman who had rejected her parents’ Christian faith but was also powerfully moved to serve others as a midwife. Midwives get to kneel at the entrance to life, which is a mysterious and wondrous place. They also have to face the possibility of death, witness tremendous pain, and open their hearts to the breadth of human relationships. They must have profound faith in women’s bodies.
Toward the end of the book, Chuck, a pastor-friend, asks Hannah what she believes. “Me?” she responds. “I guess I’m agnostic.” But then Stuart, a fellow midwife, says, “Hannah and I have our own religion.” He gets down on his knees and raises his hands in adoration. “All praise the thinned perineum!”
Hannah later reflects, “If Chuck’s holy text was Jesus walking around Galilee, mine was the resplendent progression of pregnancy and birth.” This faith doesn’t save her from troubles—we know from the start that she gets arrested for delivering a baby at home. It doesn’t stop her from experiencing paralyzing fear. But it functions. It’s a container bigger than her that holds meaning, is worthy of trust, and invites her into a more profound truth.
Whether religious folks consider Hannah’s faith legitimate or not isn’t the point; every person orients his or her heart, and how well that orientation serves is played out in consequence and circumstance. Hannah taught me that the faith of the “nones” functions just like any other faith.
Divinity is so devious and mysterious, it’s at work whenever faith brings us closer to love and truth. Whether or not we believe in this divinity is strangely irrelevant. Faith is a given, a common human attribute. We can exercise this capacity of the human heart or we can dismiss it. Writing this novel has brought me tremendous joy because it’s helped me see within our world this exquisite generosity.