Personally, the births of my children have been incredible spiritual experiences for me and have completely changed my outlook on life and eternity. I've gained great spiritual strength through the birth process and a closer relationships with my Heavenly Father and Mother. As I've reflected on my own experiences and as I read about the important role birth plays in the lives of the women of the scriptures I am prompted to believe the ability to give life is a central part of what it means to be an eternal woman and that the birth process is incredibly important to God.
A friend pointed out that in the Proclamation to the Family it says, "We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed." The means by which mortal life is created is through the processes of conception, pregnancy and birth. It stands to reason that if God designed the way children are conceived to be deeply and powerfully symbolic of a man and a woman becoming "one flesh" (Genesis 2 :24) then He has also designed the way children are born into this world to be deeply and powerfully symbolic.
In order to understand the symbolism and meaning behind labor and birth, and to understand why so many of the stories of women in the scriptures center around birth, we have to go back to Eve and the Garden.
When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden he planted two trees, the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. He told Adam and Eve that there would be consequences if they ate of the tree of knowledge but ".... nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee;" (Moses 3:17)
We know that Eve exercised the agency God had given her and chose to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Through modern day revelation we know that what we she did was for the benefit of mankind and that by partaking of the fruit she was fulfilling her divine mission as a woman. In his talk "What It Means to Be a Daughter of God" James E. Faust said:
We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Eve... The choice was really between a continuation of their comfortable existence in Eden, where they would never progress, or a momentous exit into mortality with its opposites: pain, trials, and physical death in contrast to joy, growth, and the potential for eternal life. In contemplating this choice, we are told, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, … and a tree to be desired to make her wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and also gave unto her husband with her, and he did eat.” And thus began their earthly probation and parenthood. . . . If it hadn’t been for Eve, none of us would be here."Eve was fulfilling her divine purpose when she partook of the tree of knowledge. From the foundations of the world she had been chosen and named as "the mother of all living" and she knew that in order to fulfill her mission she must partake of the fruit and become like God. She also knew that she wouldn't be able to fulfill her divine role without Adam's help and so she got Adam to partake of the fruit. The scriptures don't say she had to deceive or trick Adam into eating it, rather it seems that Adam "hearkened" unto his wife and agreed to the transgression so that Eve would be able to fulfill her divine calling.
Just as Eve was set apart to be the "mother of all living" from the foundations of the world, Adam was set apart to be the great High Priest of the earth with the responsibility to hold the keys and perform the saving ordinances that would bring the children of God back into His presence. Joseph Smith taught:
" The Priesthood is an everlasting principle, and existed with God from eternity… Christ is the Great High Priest; Adam next... the priesthood was first given to Adam; he obtained... it in the Creation, before the world was formed” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 157–58)Adam hearkened first to Eve's divine mission and now, as Adam and Eve progress through their probationary time (Genesis 3: 22, 24), it is Eve's turn to hearken to Adam. God has designed a beautiful partnership in which Adam helps Eve fulfill her mission to bring God's children into the world; after which it is Eve's turn to hearken and help Adam fulfill his mission to bring those children unto Christ, the tree of life, and back into God's presence.
I don't think that it is any coincidence that God placed two people, male and female, in the garden and also planted two trees in the garden... two people, two trees, two divine responsibilities.
While the trees which God planted in the Garden of Eden have multiple levels of meaning one way in which they may be interpreted is as representing the two veils that all mankind must pass through on their journey towards exaltation.
The first veil that all mankind passes through is the veil of birth in which man is born into the world by water, blood and the spirit. Women have a stewardship over this first veil. When Eve partook of the tree of knowledge she became more like God, knowing good from evil and gaining the capacity to bear children. Eve's transgression "opened the matrix", as it says in Exodus 34:19, the womb, the gateway through which the souls of all mankind would pass through into the mortal world. The only possible way to enter this mortal world is through the body of a woman and by the shedding of her blood... there is no other way.
The second veil is the veil we must pass through in order to re-enter the presence of God and continue on our eternal journey. Men have a stewardship over this second veil. Just like Adam, righteous men hold the priesthood keys and administer the ordinances which cleanse us from our sins and enable us to come back into the presence of God. Just like the first veil, the second veil requires a sacrifice of blood, water and spirit. Through His Atonement Jesus Christ performed this great and last sacrifice for all mankind. Just as women are the only gateways into the mortal world, Christ is the only gateway into the eternal world... there is no other way.
These two veils are described in Moses 6: 59 which reads:
"That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory;"It is also interesting to note, and personally I don't think it is any coincidence, that the mother's side of the placenta (the organ the mother's body creates to house the baby and sustain its life) looks like a tree (for a bloody picture click here and for a non-bloody picture click here). The "fruit" of this placental tree is a baby.
This is Eve's gift to us... the promise of birth. That through our mothers, the daughters of Eve, all of God's children will partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and literally become the fruit of that tree. Through the power of God they will be born into this world through blood, water and the spirit and will be given a probationary time. During this probationary time it is the role of mothers and fathers to help their children to become worthy to pass through the second veil, the tree of life, through the water, blood, and spirit of Jesus Christ. This is Adam's gift to us---as the High Priest of this earth acting in authority for Jesus Christ--- the promise of re-birth.
In his talk "Equality Through Diversity" Elder M. Russell Ballard explained:
Two Divine StewardshipsOur Heavenly Father assigned different responsibilities in mortality to men and women when we lived with Him as His spirit sons and daughters. To His sons He would give the priesthood and the responsibilities of fatherhood, and to His daughters He gave the responsibilities of motherhood, each with its attendant functions.
The creation of the world, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and the restoration of the gospel in the latter days through the Prophet Joseph Smith all have one unifying purpose: to allow all of the spirit children of our Eternal Father to obtain mortal bodies, and then, through the gift of moral agency, to follow the plan of redemption made possible by the Savior’s atonement. God prepared all of this for us that we might return to our heavenly home, clothed in immortality and eternal life, to live with Him as families.
I've often heard women express pain over the fact the LDS church (and most religions in general) are so male centered-- only men hold the priesthood keys, there are much fewer women in the scriptures than men, and while we know we have a Heavenly Mother we don't hear much about her. These are questions that eat away at many LDS women's (and men's) hearts and make it hard for some of them to remain true to their faith. Yet when we remember that we have already passed through the first veil, over which women preside, and are now working towards the second veil, over which men preside, it makes much more sense why our world is so male centered.
Besides, who knows, if we could only glimpse into the pre-mortal world and see the other side of the veil would we see a world which was very female centered because the focus is on preparing children to go through the first veil? Would we see women (and men) working with their Heavenly Mother to prepare souls of mankind to receive their mortal bodies, teaching them their pre-mortal lessons, and guiding them to their earthly homes? Maybe.
We really don't know much about the pre-mortal world. Yet one thing we do know is that before we were born we received instruction that would prepare us for our individual labors in the Lord's vineyard. In D&C 138: 56 we read about the "noble and great ones" and how, "Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men."
Given how incredible it is that women's bodies are able to create complete human beings, without their minds directing how it will happen, it seems possible to me that part of the "first lessons" women received in the pre-mortal world was how to create bodies. While their mortal minds don't remember how to do it, perhaps their eternal spirits do and it is a woman's eternal soul which directs and guides her body in the construction of the baby and oversees the process of labor and birth.We also know that in the pre-mortal existence that Satan and a third of the host of heaven rejected God's plan to come to earth and receive mortal bodies (D&C 29:36). Because they were not faithful in keeping their first estate Satan and his third are the only ones out of God's children that will never pass through the first veil; no woman will ever create a body for them or shed her blood by bearing them into the world, nor will they ever have wives or children. This is one of the reasons that many of Satan's tactics are directed at women and at the structure which protects and guards the first veil... the family. Satan is doing everything in his power to convince women that their bodies, which are the gateway through the first veil, are dirty, ugly, imperfect, dysfunctional and of no importance. He is doing everything he can to distract and confuse women so that they abandon their responsibility as the guardians of life into this world. If he can destroy women's faith in their bodies and help them lose sight of the importance of the first veil---and the power and sanctity of conception, pregnancy and birth--- then he is well on his way to thwarting God's plan.
Satan is also trying to convince women that men's stewardship over the second veil is more important than their stewardship over the first veil and their role as what Valerie Hudson Cassler calls "the caretakers of light", referring to the great work that women do as mothers towards pointing children towards the light and love of Christ. In her book "Women in Eternity, Women of Zion" Cassler says:
"... there is a sequence to the stewardships which leads to misperception of the absolute equality of the stewardship. The caretakers of light, in their work as mothers, must perform their work for an individual before the caretakers of the Word [referring to men's riesthoof ordinance responsibility]... Because of this fact, the full drama of the work of the caretakers of light is muted. We don't see how some accepted the offering made by the caretakers of light, and thus the sacrifice of the caretakers of light seems common. Their very sacrifice in their work as mothers is concealed because of its perceived commonness. Pregnancy, labor, delivery and breastfeeding are concealed as far as their full drama and their full glory are concerned. The sacrifice of blood and water--- sometimes even the very sacrifice of life itself by the caretaker of light-- is usually not seen by the family or the community, but rather by a birth professional- a doctor or a midwife.
... We no longer see the drama and we value less the gateway and the sacrifice that brought us here. Even the caretakers of light themselves begin to view their works as mothers as ordinary, menial and dirty instead of the glorious stewardship it really is. Only young children seem to recognize the importance of the work of the caretakers of light and reward it with complete devotion." (pg, 149)
Women's stewardship over the gateway of life and their roles as mother's is not less important in the plan of salvation than the priesthood ordinance, the re-birth, work men do. God has given both men and women great gifts and powers which must be respected and used with wisdom and righteousness. I believe that how women birth and how children come into this world matters deeply to God. I feel that He expects the processes of conception, pregnancy and birth to be treated with the same type of reverence and faith with which we approach priesthood ordinances. I also believe that He expects women to protect their wombs, honor their ability to give life, and to participate in cultural and medical practices which bear witness to the divinity and power of women's bodies and the birth process.
God has different plans for each of His children and each is a unique spirit so it makes sense that each child's birth will be different, each woman's body will be different, and every situation will be different. Yet no matter what the situation women can counsel with God and receive direct revelation concerning their bodies, their pregnancy, their labor and their birth. There are numerous examples of women in the scripture who turned to God to understand how, when and why they were going to give birth and God answered them with direct revelation. These birth stories are some of the few examples we have of women receiving personal and direct revelation from God. I believe that they teach us that God is very interested in birth and in the experiences women have while giving birth.
I also know from my own experience birthing my children that no child comes into this world unaccompanied and that God sends angels to be with them as they enter this world. I also know that God sends angels to laboring women to help them as they birth His children into the light of the world. The veil is thin for a woman in labor and if she is listening she is able to feel the power of God in an incredibly powerful way. For a few hours she becomes a wide open portal into heaven, foreordained from the foundations of the world to bring the children of heaven into this mortal world. What a great blessing it is that God has such faith in His daughters to entrust them with such a great power! It is just another testament to me that God loves His daughters just as much as He loves His sons and that they both have divine gifts which make His work possible.
It is important to note the the idea of the two trees and two veils originated with Valerie Hudson Cassler in her book "Women in Eternity, Women of Zion" . If you'd like to read more about her ideas visit this excellent post.