Julie Flynn, julieflynnphotography.com
Lorianne Updike Toler with her one week old son, Gideon.
I became a mother recently. The mundane sanctity of new motherhood and the preparation I underwent for natural childbirth has occasioned many meditative moments. In these, I have pondered the relationship between motherhood and the Atonement.
In the latter-day gospel, we point to Christ as an example. He was, after all, perfect.
Yet there is one human experience above any other that Christ points to illustrate his role: motherhood. This for good reason. There are strong similarities between Christ’s Atonement and the process of giving birth.
Birthing and mothering a child is an analogy Christ often uses to explain his role in bringing about our salvation. Early in his ministry, one of his first teachings on salvation relied upon the analogy. He taught the Pharisee Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
When we are “born again” spiritually, the Lord then claims us as his posterity. My favorite scripture in the “suffering servant” chapter of Isaiah describes the process poignantly: “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed” (Isaiah 53:10). After the people of Mosiah experienced a change of heart as one and entered into a covenant to do the will of the Father, they became “the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7). Christ becomes our spiritual father when we allow him to give us new hearts and new natures.
In the same chapter in Isaiah, the Lord directly compares the work of the Atonement to the “travail” of a woman in labor (Isaiah 53:11). Paul used the same language and imagery to describe assisting the Lord in the work of salvation (2 Thess. 3:8).
Not only do the Lord and his servants draw on the analogy of birth to describe spiritual re-birth, but the imagery of motherhood is used to depict the ongoing relationship between the Lord and his covenant people, even when they stray. Again in Isaiah, the Lord asks, “Can a woman forget her sucking child?” before affirming, “I will not forget thee, O house of Israel” (Isaiah 49: 15). Speaking from the darkness, Christ draws upon a motherhood analogy to tell the fear-struck survivors of the post-crucifixion destruction in the Americas of his love for them: “O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart” (3 Nephi 10:6).
Similarities between the Atonement and motherhood
The reasons for comparing motherhood to the Savior’s spiritual parenting are many. One must be born of a woman to receive mortal life. Similarly, we must be re-born of the Savior and become as little children to receive eternal life.
Both the Savior and many women ask whether there be any way around the labor they must perform. “Father,” pleaded the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:24). Although women now have many pain relief options when giving birth, the millions of women who gave birth prior to anesthetics came to know that there was no other way. Physical and spiritual birth both require a great self-sacrifice. My mother compares her labors to “passing through the valley of the shadow of death.” The Savior told Joseph Smith that the pain of his travail caused him “to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit.” (D&C 19:18)
Why is the birthing process so hard? Why must it be so? Elder Jeffrey R. Holland asked a similar question in his seminal address “Missionary Work and the Atonement.” The work of salvation, or birthing souls, is so hard, said Elder Holland, “because salvation is not a cheap experience.” Mothers and the Savior act as indispensable portals in our progression from one stage of eternity to the next. These transforming experiences are hallowed by the supernal sacrifice of the bearer. It must be so; such sacrifice gives all life its sanctity and value.
The process of giving life is ongoing. As all mothers know, motherhood merely begins at birth. The sacrifices made at birth are great, but its intensity may pale as the marathon of feeding and getting a little one to sleep begins. Likewise, the Savior provides new physical life through the Resurrection and spiritual life through exaltation, but his life-giving is not contained to a single event. As we ask, he will grant us new hearts, new perspectives and new energies — renewing our lives for righteous purposes.
I experienced the Savior’s life-giving abilities in the midst of my own labor. For unknown reasons, my labor extended over 42 hours. At hour 29, the midwife told me that it would likely be another 24 hours before I would deliver. I despaired and determined to give up my goal of a drug-free labor. I then prayed a simple prayer: that my psychology be changed. Through the Lord’s grace, I was given a whole new mindset, and the idea that I should approach the labor one contraction at a time, and pray my way through it.
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I was given heavenly help. They came in the form of angels — my mother, husband and midwife — to attend me and be inspired in encouraging me through each contraction. Thirteen hours later, I had our precious son in our arms.
Motherhood has given me fresh perspectives on the Atonement — why the Savior uses motherhood as his example and the many similarities between spiritual and physical birth.
Most poignantly, however, is my personal experience in being assisted by the ultimate life-giver who gave me renewal in giving life to our own son.
Lorianne Updike Toler is a constitutional legal historian living in London and blogs at amormonatoxford.blogspot.com