As my husband and I sang the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together, I was reminded that labor can be about more than just the pain that I’m experiencing right now..
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-four of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Karen’s Story: ‘Praying Through the Pain in a New Way.'” 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.
Karen: “I Remember Praying Through the Pain in a New Way”
This mother wished to have her birth story interview published pseudonymously, so I am calling her Karen, and her son will be called James. Other names in the story also have been changed. She is a married mother of five children, and gave me this interview while in her third trimester with her fifth child.
Can you tell me a little bit about the actual birth experience? Where did it happen? Was it full term? How long was the labor? . . . The basic story?
This was James’s birth, which was my third, and with my first two, once I got to the hospital I was in transition and it was like that (snaps fingers). So this was the first experience that I actually got time to prepare.
I was forty-one weeks, and it was the longest overdue I had gone. We had seen our midwife in the morning, and she said everything looked fine, and the fluids were fine and everything, so she gave us the option of breaking the water to get things going.
And . . . this is kind of interesting because the spirituality came in right away, because we walked down from our clinic visit and we saw Fr. Taylor. And we were just trying to be prayerful because she was putting this in our hands by saying, “You make the decision.” And I was thinking that we’re not supposed to make this decision, these things are supposed to just happen. . . . So we walk down and we saw [Fr. Taylor], and then another priest, waiting by the lab or something, and we just chatted with each of them, and asked for prayers.
We went to [a local restaurant] to have lunch, and we decided . . . to go ahead with it, so we went back to the Cathedral. . . . We were the only ones in the [adoration] chapel, but I just remember Tim and I having this wonderful prayer time together and just feeling like we’re entering into this not knowing if it’s right to get labor going ourselves, but feeling like it’s time and everything will be okay. . . .
So we had a chance to kind of get everything laid out, I got to get my slippers on, and I had a St. Gerard holy card that someone lent me to carry during labor; I had that sitting by my bed. I was in no position to pray a rosary or anything like that. . . .
When [the midwife] broke my water she discovered that there was meconium [in the amniotic fluid]. . . . Knowing that my baby was swimming in this and I had read about the dangers of them inhaling it . . . it kind of heightened the anxiety level a little bit. . . .
I think she broke my water around 4 or 4:30 pm and then he was born at 10 pm that night. So it wasn’t too long, but it was longer than either of my previous labors had been.
Did you use any sort of drugs or any sort of techniques to deal with the pain? Or did you just decide that “I’m bracing myself for pain and I’m going to do this”?
. . . [W]hen I was pregnant the first time I took a prenatal class that wasn’t Bradley or anything specific, just talking about breathing and massage techniques, and stuff like that. But I didn’t really remember anything like that, and I didn’t prepare anything like that for that part of it.
But I remembered one of my friends had [asked her friends for their prayer requests] so she could bring [that list] with her to the hospital, so when she was in labor she could offer her pain as a prayer for whatever her friends wanted to pray for. . . .
That was a new concept for me that I had never really thought about . . . so I thought, oh, that’s a great idea! I could do that, and it made so much sense to me: this is the most pain a woman probably goes through, and why not take that and offer it? . . .
I was able to get into the whirlpool, and I had never been able to before because I had never had the time, but I really liked having that little bit of preparation time. . . . Tim loves to sing and chant, and the acoustics in the bathroom were appealing to him, so we sang the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together.
. . . It was very lovely and physically calming like prayer or like breathing can be, but it was also a reminder that this can be about more than just the pain that I’m experiencing right now.
So I came with a list . . . and I just kind of had [Tim] tell me the name of the person or give me an idea of who to pray for. And I remember one in particular was someone in my life that I don’t really get along with that well . . . and I had him on my list, so I thought, “Oh, this is going to be a bad one!” (laughs) I don’t remember if it was or not, but I just recall that was a big part, and I look forward to doing that again. . . .
I’ve found that after birth, the pains as you’re nursing and the uterus contracting are so much worse.
Yes, it gets worse as you have more children.
Yes, I wish it would’ve gotten easier! . . . But I just took that as an opportunity to say, “I know this hurts so much, but I’m offering it up for him.” And it was all kind of a prayer . . . I just remember being alone there with him in pain and praying through that in a new way that I don’t think I ever did in my first twenty-five to thirty years of life.
In the run-up to giving birth, in the days or weeks ahead of time, do you do anything to try to prepare yourself spiritually or emotionally for what’s going to happen?
You know, I haven’t really very much. And I’m just thinking, what I have done with the last two and what I’m doing right now for this one is praying a novena to St. Therese, who will be one of the patrons of this little girl. Her feast day is coming up, so I made up a little candle and picture for the baby, right in my kitchen. . . .
Could you talk about immediately after giving birth? Is that a particularly graced moment?
I have a hard time believing I’m carrying a baby until I see it. That makes faith a little hard sometimes, too, you know? It’s hard to believe in a God you can’t see, and yet I do. . . .
I just saw [my friend] Lucy in the hospital and all those little features on her newborn, and I was like, “She was in there! She was in there all along!” But it just looked like a little bump for so long. . . . That’s quite a realization that God has done this, and wow, I had nothing much to do with it.
Immediately after her son’s birth, the medical team intubated the baby to clear out any meconium he might have aspirated; alarmed, Karen called out the name of Jesus.
. . . I looked down, and I remember very clearly . . . [the baby] was just lying there on the table . . . and I was asking [the midwife], “Is he okay? Is he okay?” and apparently I called out Jesus’s name. I tend to do that [in crisis] and that’s a good reflex to have, probably, but I don’t always know what I’m doing, and I was not swearing, I was just calling for help. And so I just remember he was blue and lifeless looking. . . . [After the intubation] he cried and pinked up and everything was fine. But shortly after that [the midwife] said, “Oh, I should’ve told you that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want him to take a breath while he was still connected to the cord, I wanted him to wait until we got him cleaned out so he didn’t suck it in.” And then I said, “No, it’s okay, I forgive you. You did what you had to do, you don’t have to make me understand everything in detail.”
Right, especially when things were really time sensitive.
Right, exactly. I remember that one more clearly than the others, just being kind of prayerful in kind of a shouting way. One of my friends had a baby six weeks early, her first, and the baby was not breathing for a little while, and it was really traumatic. And she . . . was telling me, “I was shouting the Hail Mary across the room.” You don’t even care what people think of you, and I can just kind of picture her so consumed with concern for the child that she doesn’t even care who hears. And your innermost thoughts are shouting, because we think, what else do I do? What else do I do but pray?
Well, you know, I kind of rely on the Scripture where Jesus says, “And the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say at the time of trial.”
And James . . . I remember my alone time with him in the room, just feeling so grateful. . . . We wanted God to be part of our decision, feeling like those [decisions to start labor] were all good decisions. We could’ve just gone home and said, “Oh, we’ll just wait until this happens naturally,” but considering that there was meconium . . . we felt like the timing [of the birth] was really divinely appointed. Or at least that we were able to discern that it would be a good time to induce labor.
Karen’s story may have been affected by the reality that as she shared it with me, she was due to give birth soon, and her nervousness about the impending labor shows in her answers to these questions. What I find notable about her recounting is that she and her husband worked together, with God, to address a situation (whether to induce or not) that had no clear “right” answer. Their discernment came through prayer, asking others for prayers, and being attentive to signs. She is also very honest about her fear of pain, and the move to offer her labors to God for others is not only spiritually meaningful but also a way to “get on top” of a situation, to “give God permission” to act. She is also open to the reality that prayer isn’t always “pretty”—sometimes it is shouted across the room, but that makes it no less of a prayer.
 Paraphrase of Luke 12:12.
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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.