My first few births I approached as a challenge, something to be accomplished. Now, I see the opportunity to offer up my suffering in prayer for others.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-five of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Kendra: ‘I Feel Closer to God in My Weakness’.'” 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.
Kendra: “I Feel Closer to God in My Weakness”
Kendra Tierney is a married mother of seven. She lives with her family in California. This interview focuses mostly on the first time she gave birth.
My first labor we decided we wanted to labor at home. We read all the books, the natural childbirth books, and we wanted to stay home as long as possible. Once I was on board with the concepts in those books, I wanted to follow them to the letter. For example, the book said eat throughout labor [to keep up your strength], but I was nauseated and I didn’t want to eat, but the book said eat so I ate, and then threw up. (laughs) I had to learn to listen to my body, as well.
At 12:01 am on my due date, I went into labor with a contraction. I got up and watched a movie downstairs. Then the contractions began ramping up, and by 4 am I wanted my husband to wake up—mostly because I needed him up! He got up and we began to walk around the apartment courtyard for a while. I tried to bathe; it felt terrible. I tried to lie down on the bed; it felt terrible. I clearly remember thinking, “I’m never doing this again!” (laughs) Obviously we overcame that.
The contractions were getting more and more intense, but they were farther apart than active labor is supposed to look, according to the books. The book said we were still in the early going, right? But they got so intense . . . we went in to the hospital . . . still thinking it can’t get worse than this, right? The nurses’ station looked at me, and they were clearly not interested. They finally checked, and I was fully dilated and ready to push! They moved me into a room and I gave birth twenty minutes later, around nine in the morning. So the labor didn’t look like the book version at all!
Did you use any particular childbirth method, or did you have opinions going in about how to best give birth?
Yeah—as I was expecting my first, I researched a lot, and the Bradley Method resonated with me.
I know you have to go in with an open mind—things may not turn out the way you expect—but I was able to use that method successfully. That worked well for us. We had natural childbirths, all seven.
We went to the hospital each time. I’d be happy to do home birth but I think that is something everyone needs to be on board with, and my husband is much more comfortable with a hospital birth. We labor as long as we can at home. Honestly, we’ve been doing this so long we are going to give birth the way we want to, whether at home or in a hospital. We know how to do this, and are not intimidated by hospital protocols at this point. It works out fine.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices prior to birth? Can you describe them?
That’s evolved for me. I see birth now as an opportunity for suffering that could be offered up. I viewed it as a physical challenge in the beginning—you know, something to accomplish, like a marathon. But I didn’t see it as a way to offer my physical sufferings to God for others. Around my third one, I saw it as a way to offer my sufferings. . . . And we always pray for the baby.
The suffering in childbirth is such a perfect opportunity: it’s relatively short (in duration), you know it has an end—it’s not like an illness, not a lifetime of suffering. It’s intense suffering, and for a good reason. Maybe if I have a serious illness, the birth experience will be good preparation for handling that, but I don’t know.
I’m a runner, so I’ve experienced pain to some extent. I know the reality of intensity in pursuit of a goal, a race, a time— so maybe I already had good preparation for viewing suffering in pursuit of a goal as something doable, and worth doing.
Have your births been painful?
They have been painful but manageable. I have had labors from nine hours long to one and a half hours [with the exception of one that was two days] . . . but you get breaks in labor, too. Manageable seems to be the right word.
I offered to take prayer intentions at my last birth. I took them to the hospital. And at one point, we were walking around through the contractions, and I thought, wait, this isn’t hard enough! Oh no! But things got challenging at the end. There is always some point of a birth that is very challenging.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices during your birth?
Taking the prayer intentions is the main thing; I’ve done that for my last three children. And they [the people who give her intentions to offer] pray for me. Their prayers increase my ability to focus; I am sure of it. We always have holy water with us, in case of an emergency baptism, but we have not needed it.
I definitely turn inward during childbirth. I don’t have the energy to expend on other people, to focus on external objects, like a crucifix or holy card, to listen to music. It’s very inward, my attention is there.
In retrospect, where was God in your birthing process? Was there a place where you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or Mary?
I think I feel closer to God in my weakness. Pregnancy and childbirth is the most vulnerable I’ve ever felt. I’m mostly naked, surrounded by strangers, in intense physical pain, and doing something that has at least a chance of killing me or someone I love. That’s a lot to handle by myself. Too much. In that situation, it feels easier to know I must rely on others, on my husband and my doctor, and on God.
To me, the most notable element in Kendra’s lovely story is recognizing that the weakness that one feels in childbirth can help one realize one’s absolute dependence on God in a way that doesn’t happen in everyday life. Our culture often ridicules weakness, but for Christians it can be seen as a path to God. The notable other piece is the turning inward that is so much a part of active labor. Some midwives would say you are listening to your body—and at some level, you are—but that move to inwardness can also be a sign of listening for God. Something to consider. . . .
Get The Gift of Birth in softcover, hardcover, or Kindle formats Get the Book
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.