Mothers and Children: The Kingdom of God Belongs to Such as These
The human body is wired for survival in the face of stress and trauma, and mothers who experience pre-term birth are a testament to this. We are called to care for and support mothers and their children.
I recently attended a science and religion conference sponsored by the Midwest Religion and Science Society (MRSS) where the theme for this year was about suffering and trauma, and how it impacts mothers, babies, and generations of people. Here, I reflect on what I learned at the conference.
Jesus loved babies, and I’m sure that they loved him too. I can picture Jesus being one of those random strangers you encounter at a grocery store that babies smile and wave at, for some unknown, yet endearing reason. I wonder what drew Jesus to babies and children, and perhaps even what drew them to him.
In Luke 18: 15-17 we read of people bringing their babies to Jesus and the disciples attempting to turn them away. But Jesus’ heart for children is on full display in this passage as he calls the children back to him and says that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they come as a little child and that “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” From this we can gather that there’s something special about being a child and something childlike that is worthwhile for us to retain as adults.
Children are indeed precious. Life is a miracle. I think Jesus was on to something about inviting the children to come to him, and inviting parents to let him hold their babies. As a new mom, I know that you don’t just let anyone hold your baby, even if they ask, and certainly not if they haven’t washed their hands! I also think that babies and children know instinctively who to trust. There’s something called “stranger anxiety” that babies can start to experience around 6-8 months that makes them uncomfortable around people they don’t know. Further, newborn babies recognize their mother’s scent and voice, preferring hers to that of others. This story certainly says something to us about Jesus’ character.
I can imagine that Jesus was not only filled with love for children, but also their parents. Perhaps empathy for their plight of sleepless nights and poopy diapers. But I think it was more than just that. When he was at his lowest moment, on the cross, he asked his disciples to look after his mother. The Scriptures tell of Jesus as one who wants to help and be near to those who suffer. He is well acquainted with grief. And because of this, we can find comfort that he is not far removed from our own suffering.
I recently attended a science and religion conference sponsored by the Midwest Religion and Science Society (MRSS) where the theme for this year was about suffering and trauma, and how it impacts mothers, babies, and generations of people. The speakers at this year’s conference were Dr. Ann Pederson and Dr. Jennifer Gubbels. Dr. Pederson is a Professor of Religion at Augustana University, and she shared that religion, geography and genetics can influence how generations cope with and express the effects of historical trauma, and when it comes to recovery, religion can be both a help and a hindrance in the healing process. Dr. Gubbels is an Associate Professor of Biology at Augustana University, and she talked about health disparities in prenatal care and birth that more often impact marginalized communities. We need to better understand these issues and address them as a society, especially as it pertains to prenatal care and the risk for preterm birth.
Here, I reflect on what I learned at the conference, primarily drawing on Dr. Gubbels work, because it is more closely aligned with my background as a biologist, and because the discussion I led at the conference was in response to her talk. My main takeaway from the conference was that women are strong and resilient—and are made more so by the support of other women around them. Our bodies are wired for survival in the face of stress and trauma, and we see evidence of this in Dr. Gubbels’ case study of Native American women from the Lakota tribe in South Dakota.
I can imagine that Jesus was not only filled with love for children, but also their parents. Perhaps empathy for their plight of sleepless nights and poopy diapers.
Preterm Birth & Stress
Children are considered sacred in Lakota culture, and this informs their approach to parenting. It is thought that “the infant chooses its parents during development,” so it is an inherent honor to become a parent. Pregnancy and parenting are not easy for anyone, let alone the Lakota women who experience significant stressors like unemployment, poverty, domestic abuse, substance abuse, and historical trauma related to colonization. The preterm birth rate is over 40% higher in the Lakota women in SD than in white women. Preterm birth is defined as birth before 37 weeks’ gestation. Research has shown that maternal stress has been associated with poor birth outcomes, thus it is not surprising given these considerable stressors, that the preterm birth rate is elevated in this population.
In addition to increased risk for preterm birth, other studies suggest that stress can increase the risk of miscarriage and prolong the time it takes to conceive, thereby posing a challenge to fertility. A recent study by Walsh et. al. found that highly stressed mothers were more likely to give birth to girls than boys. They also found that psychologically stressed women compared to physically stressed women had more birth complications. However, miscarriage and infertility are harder to track in populations, so we do not know if these were elevated as well in the Lakota population. We also do not know what percentage of children born to the Lakota women were males vs. female, but Dr. Gubbels did share that research has shown that there just might be something more robust about female fetuses that makes them more capable of withstanding the effects of maternal stressors. Male fetuses actually develop more slowly than female ones, making them more vulnerable.
In a pregnant woman, the fetus is protected from direct exposure to stress hormones. However, in mothers who are chronically stressed, the fetuses are exposed to stress hormones sooner than they need to be. This may explain some of the lasting impacts of maternal stress on babies far into adulthood.
The Epigenetics of Preterm Birth
During the conference, Dr. Gubbels shared that trauma and stress do not only affect the mother and her ability to carry her child full-term, but also the fetus itself in ways that can be inherited. While well cushioned and protected, a developing fetus is nonetheless vulnerable. For mothers who experience significant stress and trauma, both directly and indirectly through the traumatic history of their ancestors, heritable changes may be occurring at the epigenetic level.
Epigenetics is a fascinating area of study that has to do with how external factors in our environment, like diet, exercise can affect how our genes work. These factors do not alter the sequence of our DNA directly, but they can change how our DNA is expressed, turning segments called genes, off and on like a light switch in response to things we experience or encounter in our environment. These epigenetic changes may explain some of the health disparities and higher incidences of certain diseases we see in populations who have experienced chronic stress and a history of suffering.
In a recent interview with BioLogos, Dr. Gubbels elaborated:
Consider populations of people in our country who have experienced large amounts of stress on a population level—slavery and racism among African Americans, decolonization and forced attendance at boarding schools for Native Americans—these groups have greater incidences of preterm birth, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, just to name a few. The stress that their ancestors have undergone has been passed on from generation to generation. This ancestral stress and the stressors that they are still experiencing today all affect their health and well-being.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the role of epigenetics in this and how stress and inherited trauma play a role.
Towards Healing and Recovery from Stress and Trauma
There is good news, however. Dr. Gubbels shared that just like trauma and stress can produce heritable changes, these effects can be reversed. In her own research study on Lakota women living on a reservation in South Dakota, Dr. Gubbels saw evidence of resilience emerge. She used Lakota talking circles, an indigenous communal ritual for discussion, for her interviews and data collection. In listening to younger and older women in the tribe, she heard stories of determination and resilience, despite the stressful circumstances in which the women lived, and the burdens of ancestral trauma they carried.
Older women in the tribe recounted growing up in boarding schools and being forced to abandon their culture and assimilate. They regretted the impact this had on their children, but had a desire to heal these broken relationships and bring back the cultural practices of their ancestors, sharing this with the next generation.
The work of Dr. Gubbels and others to make sense of generational health disparities in marginalized communities can help inform a compassionate driven ethic to address them. Dr. Gubbels says that while women are resilient, they are also vulnerable, and need the support of others to have a healthy pregnancy and babies. She says, “the challenge for all of us is to provide a healthy, supportive, and loving environment for pregnant women and new mothers, especially those that are at risk for preterm birth.”
Research has shown that social support like this can be a very effective way to enhance resilience in people who have experienced trauma. When provided to pregnant women who have been in natural disasters, social support can help to prevent epigenetic changes in their children.
We can also educate ourselves, and advocate for the health of women and children. Dr. Gubbels shared the March of Dimes website as a resource, where you can look up how your state scores on a report card for things like, “infant death, social vulnerability, low-risk cesarean births, state efforts on Medicaid expansion and extension, and doula and midwives legislation/policies, among other factors.”
What impacts will other crises of our day, war, injustice, and violence have on generations to come? Only time will tell, but looking to generations of resilient women who have come before us, those who have lived through and endured so much, can give us hope. And as a Christian, looking to God gives me hope as well.
With the impacts of a global pandemic still felt on our society, I wonder what kind of imprint it will leave not only on our lives, but also on the epigenetic landscape of our DNA. What impacts will other crises of our day, war, injustice, and violence have on generations to come? Only time will tell, but looking to generations of resilient women who have come before us, those who have lived through and endured so much, can give us hope. And as a Christian, looking to God gives me hope as well. An active hope that reminds me of my responsibility to imitate Christ and love my neighbor. By helping women and children we can partner with God in his good work to bring healing and restoration to our broken world.
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