Theotokos: Helper in Childbirth
As a teenager I was introduced to the Byzantine liturgy and fell in love with the awe-inspiring nature of it all. One of the beautiful things in the Eastern rite church is their use of iconography. Icons are used to make visible the invisible nature of God in an albeit limited human way. They are not worshipped but they are venerated as a way for our limited humanity to draw closer to God in His divinity, and to honor the communion of saints. The iconographers pray through their work on every icon, often with every brushstroke, to humbly paint with the Holy Spirit guiding their paintbrush. Since icons are inspired by God, they are viewed to be sacred objects, and often used in liturgy as well as personal prayer. Most represent specific characteristics of God, or the scriptures, and have written prayers associated with them. Here we have an image of the Mother of God: Helper in Childbirth, so of course I am compelled to include this beautiful devotion in my blog of all things birth, baby & mama.
I could talk about its history, but I’m not here to bore you with those details. In fact, I think it would be kind of superfluous to do so considering who and what is represented here. I mean, of the many things that could be painted with love and prayer, an image of the blessed virgin mother of God, as helper in childbirth, seems like it should have been painted by thousands of artists all over kingdom come. Perhaps the main question is, why do we not see more of these? <– a research endeavor for another entry.
Today I just want to bring this beautiful image to your attention, to elaborate on what this beautiful image represents, and discuss how it can help us through pregnancy and childbirth. Every icon has a story to tell that is rich with symbolism. From the name to the colors, all point towards the grand nature of God, and His beloved church. So, let’s dive into this beautiful representation of the Mother of God, Helper in Childbirth, shall we?
What’s in a name?
First of all, let’s just be clear that the name “Helper in Childbirth”, sometimes called, “Maternity Assistant” or “Assistant in Childbirth”, is basically calling Mary a doula. Doula comes from a Greek term that means handmaiden or woman servant, a helper of women. Of course, a doula in today’s world means to be a servant of a woman in labor and postpartum. Mary calls herself “the handmaiden of the Lord”, when the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will give birth to the Son of God. As this icon depicts, she is an experienced doula, and as a doula, I’m constantly asking her to teach me the best way to approach every mother I serve through her intercession and inspiration.
(I’d love to give credit to whomever took this awesome photo! I haven’t been able to track them down. Let me know if it’s you!)
Mother of God: Birth Doula
Let’s talk about how Mary is a doula. Of course, through the prayers of countless women in pregnancy and childbirth, she has attended quite the sum of births. I believe that, in the moment of transition, she has met the souls of women at the very space where heaven kisses earth and shared the wisdom of a thousand mothers who have gone before, as well as the power of God through the Grace of the Holy Spirit, the Strength of her Son, and the Blessing of The Father. I believe she graciously shows up to mother the mother, watch over the babies, and send grace and wisdom to the birth workers, every time a mother prays during childbirth.
About 6 months (we guess) before Mary experienced childbirth, she took a week’s journey to be a doula for her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was in her second trimester, which is typically considered to be a joyous, and slightly more comfortable phase of pregnancy – which I see as a practical and sweet example of how God’s timing is so perfect. Elizabeth was entering her third trimester, probably feeling stretched and heavy, but joyfully expectant, looking forward to the birth of her long prayed for son, John the Baptist. Mary had about three months to be with her cousin before aiding her in childbirth, which provided an awesome time of fellowship and preparation for new baby.
(((I would say, as your doula, I’d like to be hired and begin our prenatal meetings by the time you are entering your third trimester. I’ve spoken with a lot of mamas who are looking into having a doula at the last minute, and hey! better late than never I always say, but I think about how much more help I could have been throughout the third trimester and truly want to provide as much support as I can. So, just in terms of best practice, modeled after the Mother of God, I would like to begin meetings at the start of your third trimester. I think God had his pick of women to be his Mama… and He picked her. So, for all things feminine and motherly, I look to her example for wisdom.)))
Mary comes to Elizabeth, bringing God within her womb, and from this womb He blesses Elizabeth and John the Baptist. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41) When Mary comes to our assistance in childbirth, she brings the Holy Spirit, and we are filled with the Joy of the Lord. The same God that she cradles within her womb, comes to live inside of us and gives us the grace to enjoy pregnancy and childbirth. Mary meets Eve here in a fantastic way. As Eve was made to suffer in childbirth, Mary was made to birth our Redeemer. She is able then, to bring us tremendous peace, comfort and healing by the power of the Holy Spirit, and to redeem our birth story through the power of Her Son. …“Selah”… pause and reflect on that, because if that is not a mic drop, I don’t know what is.
At this point, we have established that Mary has a unique charism for helping us through childbirth. We’ve also painted a picture here depicting the story of our redemption, as women, even amid labor pains and unexpected birth trauma. As Mary comes to our aid in haste, to bring peace. A doula comes in a hurry to support the family with a lot of practical help, but essentially, to bring peace. This peace that, no matter what happens, I am with you, God is with you, and in this very moment you have all the grace and power of redemption within you.
The image of Theotokos: Helper in Childbirth tells the story of Our Mama, Our Doula. It speaks to us of her role as the New Eve, and how she can help us attain a birth that is filled with the grace, peace, and healing power of the Holy Spirit.
I’m posting this on October 7th, the feast of the Holy Rosary. The rosary is an amazing way to welcome Mary into the birth room with us. It is repetative and rythmic, giving laboring women a beautiful ritual element to use during contractions. Penny Simpkin, an elder in birth work, speaks of the three R’s, elemental coping strategies women use during labor. These are: Relaxation, Rhythm, and Ritual. The rosary can be a sure-fire way to incorporate all three elements. The meditative factor of the rosary helps us to relax. While we ponder the life of Christ, and to see it’s reflection in our own lives, we are reminded that there’s nothing we can go through where God isn’t present, where His Providence doesn’t reign. We are reminded that Mary went through labor, just as we do, only it began on a donkey and ended on hay amongst the animals in a barn. We’re reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and by His cross, we find strength even in the suffering. You can visualize Mary’s “Yes” at the Annunciation and use her strength to say yes to each contraction that moves your baby into the light. Go with her to Elizabeth’s house, and remember she is with you in the same way as she was at The Visitation.
 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea,  where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
holy is his name.
 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”
 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.