If giving birth can be a spiritual experience, why do we never explore how that is so?
Is there something designed by God in the process of giving birth that leads us to experience the presence of God in a profound way?
If we say every Sunday morning that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the Giver of Life,” why do we not more deliberately invite the Holy Spirit into the primal experience that is childbirth?
These are some of the questions explored in The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust, a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and mother of five children. The Gift of Birth (Gracewatch Media, 171 pages) is a book of spiritual reflections on the process of giving birth, from gestation to post-partum, and is influenced by John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (reading the signs of the body) and Ignatius of Loyola’s spirituality of seeing God in all things. The Gift of Birth describes how to incorporate these spiritualities into the process of giving birth.
The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 12, “Trusting: The Transition from Contractions to Pushing.”
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You have worked with active labor for a while now, trying to relax, trust, and ride the contractions like waves. You’re far along at this point, and the contractions are at their most intense.
Suddenly, you’re confused, unsure, staring blankly at people. You are expressing the expected “sign of self-doubt.”
The sign of self-doubt may be the first thing you have read so far that gives you pause. People who give birth according to the Bradley Method actually learn to recognize this sign and turn it into a positive: the coach, doula, or savvy medical professional will often counter, “You are doing so well, and you are getting really close to holding your baby. This is nearly the end, you’re handling this wonderfully! You can do this!”
But the mother’s statement that elicits such an affirmative reaction is a tough one: “I don’t think I can do this.”
Why the self-doubt, suddenly? Even the woman who is a rock star at handling labor is prone to make such a statement, or at least think it, in this phase of transition. Thank goodness it is a very short phase (perhaps thirty minutes at most). But still.
There is no question this phase is intense. The contractions are hard, it is increasingly hard to relax, and the probability of painful work is high. The “rest time” between contractions is briefer. All the relaxation techniques and posture cues still help, but it may feel less like it. Basically, your uterus is now working at full capacity and speed to get the cervix dilated and the baby ready for birth. It is good, and not a sign of something wrong, but it is hard. One way to think of it: literally, there is no way out but through. You need to commit to it. And that means trying to relax every muscle, letting the uterus do its work, and in that relaxation, opening yourself to the help of God.
If you have an epidural, most of the physical challenge of this stage may be missed. But you can still give yourself in love in a deliberate way by relaxing, praying, and visualizing your cervix opening and the Holy Spirit working to bring forth new life.
What does it mean to give oneself in love?
That signal of “self-doubt,” I would argue, is a spiritual observation. It is a recognition of what St. Francis de Sales calls “self-abjection.”
Self-abjection? That is a loaded word. But it is basic to the Christian life. To consider oneself abject is to recognize oneself as poor, without the resources to save one’s own life. And at this point in labor, it fits: the mother is usually very tired and without reserves, and recognizes that what is asked of her—to work through the most difficult part of the labor—feels, and may well be, completely beyond her. It is a recognition of her poverty, that she needs help. It is a loaded word, but it is an accurate assessment of her spiritual reality. In fact, it is a window into every human being’s spiritual reality: we need God.
If you have a coach or doula, you could ask them to affirm you in this manner, if you express self-doubt rooted in that poverty: “You can do this with the help of God. God is going to see you through this. You are safe, and the medical team is making sure you and the baby are safe. You can do this with God’s help.” Coaches or doulas could pray with you. I strongly recommend keeping it simple and short, because as soon as a contraction begins again, you are going to need to focus on relaxing and sounding the contraction.
Another prayerful way to handle transition, whether you are birthing naturally or with the help of an epidural: give your birthing work, everything in the moment, to God. Your husband or doula could remind you: “The Holy Spirit is helping you and is right here. Give it to God. You are opening up, your body is doing hard work. You are almost there. Put any self-doubt in a box and give it to God.” If you typically pray to Jesus Christ, or God the Father, or a saint, it may be appropriate to address your prayer during transition in the same way. But to pray to the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of Life” may be especially meaningful here.
If you have been working with water imagery, “riding the waves” of contractions—or if you are doing a water birth— remembering that the Spirit surrounds you like water, and that you yield to the Spirit of God surrounding you and your child in this birth, may also be powerful.
Does the Holy Spirit pray through you?
The previous chapter mentioned that “sounding” (or groaning) may be helpful in yielding to the contractions, especially if the mother is able to vocalize the contractions with a low moan— the open mouth and low tone helps the mother stay relaxed and release stress. But could it also be a prayer of poverty? We don’t need to pray through words; in fact, St. Paul said himself that the Spirit intercedes for us when we do not know how to pray:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. . . . Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:22–23, 26–28)
If you have given birth previously: Could you prayerfully imagine the Holy Spirit, the One who initiates all prayer, as the One helping bring you to birth—in part, through your sounding? If you anticipate giving birth, are you willing to stand with St. Paul and recognize these “groanings” or “sighs” as your prayer? It may be a lament, it may be yearning, it may be self-abjection vocalized. But it is the Holy Spirit’s gift and his work through you to pray in this way.
It may be a radical change to not just pray to God, but to open yourself to allow the Holy Spirit to pray through you. Self-abjection calls us to lean on God, to relax into God. Your body has been fearfully and wonderfully made, but He alone is trustworthy.
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The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth is available in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle editions from Gracewatch Media (www.gracewatch.media) and wherever books are sold.
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Copyright 2016 Susan Windley-Daoust