As I lay on the table, tears rolling down my face, I remember telling God I felt so defeated, but feeling a deep assurance that I wasn’t, that he wasn’t.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-three of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Leah’s Story: ‘God Is All Over Body and Birth for Me.'” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.
Read a review of The Gift of Birth in Church Life magazine.
I was privileged to interview a number of Christian women who shared their birth stories with me for this book. I have chosen stories that span a wide range of birth experiences to demonstrate the many ways the Holy Spirit is embraced in birth.
As you read these stories, consider the three spiritual keys: give God permission to work in your life and relax into openness; cooperate with God’s intention to realize your motherhood through your body now; and yield to the work of the Holy Spirit. Consider how each woman attended to those keys during her birthing experience.
Leah: “God Is All Over Body and Birth for Me”
Leah Perrault is a Catholic pastoral minister and writer in Western Canada. She is married and has three children, and this story is about the recent birth of her third child, Charlize.
My water broke with my third baby on a Friday night. Labor started and stopped all weekend, with my older two kids away with Grandma and Grandpa. We had a midwife, who encouraged us to try to get labor going on its own rather than being induced if possible. The risk of infection goes up considerably after the third day (past water breaking). So by the time Monday morning came, I was feeling totally defeated, having walked and tried castor oil and homeopathics. . . . As a last-ditch effort to avoid medical induction and a hospital birth, we called an acupuncturist. As I lay on the table, still, letting the little needles do their work, I remember telling God I felt so defeated, but feeling a deep assurance that I wasn’t, that he wasn’t. Tears were rolling down my face as I made peace with my inability to make labor go, and then the contractions started, about 9:30, and didn’t stop until Charlize was born at 4:04 that Monday afternoon, at home in our living room. It was my hardest labor, with the contractions coming every two minutes for most of the day, and by 11:30 convincing the midwives that birth was imminent . . . though more than four hours followed. I turn inward during labor, focused on the moment, trying to receive rather than resist the pain, relying on my husband to use his hands to relieve pressure on my hips and low back. This time, laughing gas was a total gift, and I used it for most of the contractions from 1:30 to 4:00. It made the contractions blend together in my mind and took my focus off the time.
I love the end . . . the incredible pressure, the sure conviction that I can’t do it, that I will fail, out of which comes the strength to push through the last millimeters of stretching that gives way to head and then shoulders, and then a cry. And the immediate relief of all the pain, baby passed into my arms, wet, and slippery and beautiful, comforted by being held.
Did you use any particular childbirth method, or did you have opinions going in about how to best give birth?
No methods, per se. I took prenatal classes with my first, which was a medically augmented labor lasting forty hours and including an epidural. It was a first try, a fumbling-in-the-dark labor and delivery that strengthened my desire for a midwife with the second. I think any birth that results in a live baby and mom is natural . . . but I wanted a birth that left me more connected with my body and its capacity, which is what I sought with babies two and three.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices prior to birth? Can you describe them?
I live a spiritual life, so it is hard to separate out the ones that are specific to birth. I pray for my kids, including in the womb, and before birth, ask God to help me to receive the labor and delivery as it goes, rather than trying to orchestrate it, which is futile anyway.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices during your birth?
Lots of people were praying for us through the pregnancy and I asked a handful of people to pray over the delivery weekend as it got more stressful. My spirituality is deeply embodied . . . I find it hard to give words to the ways that ordinary life is spiritually rich, especially in the midst of the experience.
A priest friend came and said Mass at the house on Sunday as labor was coming and going and getting to church was too much. It was a strange Mass, a ritual celebrating incarnation while incarnation was working itself in my body, richer in retrospect than in the moment, but a gift for sure.
In retrospect, where was God in your birthing process? Was there a place where you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or Mary?
God is all over body and birth for me, in the immediacy of the experience, in the intense focus that lets me do nothing other than the duty of the moment. God is in the pain and the relief, the presence of my husband and the midwives, in their encouragement and in the miracle of the baby.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
There is a pain for me in the theological reflection, too, in that the images of birth and birthing are so rich and so excluded from our teaching and preaching. . . . I’m looking forward to a time in our Church when these experiences are more freely shared and included in our reflection!
Leah’s story is lovely for its emphasis on the presence of God in the entire process, which seems to help her express the intensity and beauty of the pushing process and the baby’s emergence—not a process that everyone would describe as “beautiful to feel,” but even in a challenging birth, she found it remarkable. Despite the difficulty of a near-stalled labor and sudden turnaround, she displays a significant openness to what God is doing in the moment.
 Leah lives in Canada, and using laughing gas as an aid to birth is not uncommon there. This is not typical in the United States.
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Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.