In February 1869, a young woman left England on a sailing ship bound for a remote mission station in East Africa. She knew she might never come home again. The long sea voyage itself was perilous; at the other end, a life of sacrifice and struggle awaited her. Where she was going, there would be no doctors. She was already pregnant with her first child.
A hundred and forty years later, I picked my way up a potholed track under a wide blue sky to the field where the woman is buried. I was back in my childhood home, in Kenya. A small headstone marked the grave. “Rebecca Wakefield, died July 16 1873, aged 28. Also Bertie, her infant son, died July 12, 1873. She held not her life dear unto herself.” My heart was full, the pity and the injustice of it fuelling an old anger. Why not? I wanted to shout. Why was her own life not dear to her? Why insist that she welcomed this senseless sacrifice, in exchange for – what? A mere handful of souls converted to Christianity?
Five years after that, I lay entangled in tubes and wires, bloodless and rattling with antibiotics, my infant son mewing in a plastic tank next to my hospital bed. I listened as a nurse gently explained how close I had come to dying. I couldn’t stop thinking about Rebecca and Bertie. About how tightly the concept of sacrifice is still interwoven with the state of motherhood. About how we avert our eyes from the deepest terrors and the bloody beauty of the birthing process, stepping aside apologetically like pedestrians reluctant to walk under a ladder. About how we minimise the mother’s agency, taking her total self-sacrifice for granted. “Still, at least the baby’s ok – that’s what matters!” said my hospital visitors, brightly. Hold not your life dear unto yourself.
The majority of women have always lived unregarded lives, full of massive but hidden drama. We bear the future in our bloody wombs, whether we are able and willing to take on this heavy responsibility, or thwarted by circumstance, or reluctant to do so. All of our bodies hold this weight. And if we do bear children, our bodies come routinely close to death – so routinely that we are encouraged to disregard it, to endure it silently.
But there is value in holding up such everyday dramas to be witnessed. This is the only life I have, and it is dear to me. Perhaps Rebecca’s life was too.