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.
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.