Pain is not the last word in giving birth. Love and fruitfulness is. But how do you focus on love and fruitfulness in the middle of labor?
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter ten of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Opening: First Contractions.” 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.
[When I moved into active labor,] I really went inward and became very quiet when I felt a contraction coming and then that quiet became a small crescendo of groans. Ha! There were a few times I had to be reminded to take a breath and keep breathing. As far as spiritually, I may or (ahem) may not have said when I finally go home to gaze upon the beauty of Jesus, I will ask to meet Eve . . . so I can punch her in the face.
I was . . . at the alternative birth center, and it was quiet and peaceful . . . but it was a very positive experience. The breathing and being at liberty to move around freely made a HUGE difference . . . and during the worst of it, my midwife climbed up on the bed beside me and held onto me and breathed with me, and promised me I could get through it all. . . .
And I did.
Actually, the only “pain” I experienced was from the interferences, like being made to move, or internal checks during contractions. The rest of the time, it was strong and intense and powerful, but it didn’t actually hurt.
I’ll tell you what, though: They don’t call it LABOR for nothin’.
As I mentioned in chapter 5, the word Genesis 3 uses to describe women’s contractions is often translated as pain, but it would be better translated toil. Pain may be a part of toil, but mostly, toil is hard, difficult work. And as women keep realizing, they don’t call it “labor” for nothing.
Unless you have a Cesarean section, you probably cannot avoid the toil (although recovery from a C-section is a lot of work; it’s major surgery). Labor, or work, is part of life. It is worth considering how to avoid undue pain, however.
Why is pain worth avoiding? Because it hurts? Yes, although we put up with other things that hurt. Because pain doesn’t honor human dignity? Yes, but if we choose to undergo pain for another’s sake, a person’s dignity is not lost, but underscored.
In giving birth, pain is worth trying to avoid with reasonable measures because it can shroud the sign of what is happening: the beauty of the woman giving of herself to give birth, with the help of others and the Holy Spirit, to new life. But if pain cannot be avoided, perhaps it can be accepted and offered for others.
In fact, look at Genesis 3 again, where God announces the consequences of Adam and Eve’s original sin. Adam will till the land with toil and sweat to survive because his original relationship with the earth and its creatures has been fractured. Eve will give birth with toil, yet her urge will be for her husband, because her original relationship with her child and her husband has been fractured. Even the serpent loses his place of honor (as the most clever) and is placed in enmity with humanity. The result of original sin is broken relationships everywhere.
In contrast, giving birth can be a real sign of a right and healthy relationship, and was designed to be so. A man and a woman give themselves to one another in trust and love, and out of that love comes fruitfulness, manifest in this new person, this tiny body and great soul, given by God and received by the couple to love.
The problem with pain is that it can keep birthing mothers from seeing that this moment is part of the design of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. Pain is remarkably attention grabbing, and is an inheritance of original sin (the worst of “toil”). And our experience of giving birth is part of the fallen world. So when we are in labor, we are participating in the Law of the Gift, the dynamic of giving and receiving, a chance to live out our openness to God’s work in our lives. But we also deal with the inheritance of toil.
The key here is to prepare for a birth that allows you to see the meaning of the moment. Take other things into consideration as well, of course, especially the health of yourself and the baby. But these two goods are not mutually incompatible.
In short, pain may happen, and learning how to alleviate it as much as possible is wise. Considering how to cope with it, medically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is also wise. But my main hope for you is this: Don’t let pain distract you from being fully present at your childbirth. Pain is not the last word of this event. Love and fruitfulness is. Focus on that.
But how do you focus on love and fruitfulness?
Countering resistance and fear
You focus on love and fruitfulness by remembering the three spiritual keys:
- Give God permission to work in your life, and relax.
- Cooperate with God’s intention to realize your motherhood through your body now.
- Practice yielding to the Holy Spirit.
Here is where the abstract becomes specific. In full-blown active labor, especially when you are contracting regularly and at six to nine centimeters dilation, the key is to relax your way through the contractions. Those contractions are going to happen whether you like it or not. Think about how to “stay out of the way” of your womb’s work and allow the opening of your cervix to happen fully and efficiently. The increasing intensity of contractions can easily lead to fear of pain. But fear of pain keeps you from being fully present. How do you counter that? Try to relax. You can’t relax and be afraid. Pray for that—but also let your relaxed body lead the way.
There are different ways to do this. Personally, I am partial to the Bradley Method of natural childbirth. Women who do Bradley, helped by their husband-coaches and perhaps a doula, spend significant time before birth learning to relax their muscles: if you can do that during contractions, it will hurt much, much less. Being in a position that allows gravity to help the child descend (upright, squatting, or sitting on a balance ball) can also help enormously, as long as you stay as relaxed as you can. You husband/coach’s role is to keep you relaxed and encourage you. That may mean back massage, or wiping your brow, or calling awareness to the tension in your body and helping you release it. A fuller explanation can be found in books on the Bradley Method, or courses offered in your area.
Many midwives and some doctors also tout the pain-relieving advantages of water labor. Everyone alive knows the relaxing properties of taking a bath or floating in the water. Although not all hospitals or birth centers offer water birth (and it usually isn’t offered to women who are high risk, simply because doctors want them closer to medical equipment), the benefits of water labor for pain reduction are huge. Submerging in the water, being able to float a bit, is key, so your home bathtub probably won’t do it. You may wish to talk to your midwife or doctor about the pros and cons of doing water labor (or water birth).
Finally, there are different types of anesthesia, the most common being epidural anesthesia. Some women who really want a natural childbirth may not even want to consider it. But it is good to be prepared for anything. For example, if your child is in a very difficult physical position, and natural labor is exhausting you or putting you in such unnatural pain that you cannot effectively contract or push, an epidural may be the best option to facilitate a vaginal birth. Epidural anesthesia works well for pain relief and relaxing the lower body, but it comes at some cost as well. Again, talk to your medical professional about this option before giving birth.
Ultimately, cooperating with God’s intention to realize your motherhood through your body involves discernment. God only wants you to do the best you can. Just remember that the Holy Spirit is fully present in that birthing spot, and turn to him for help. The best way to turn to the Holy Spirit is to practice yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, and that is the theme of the next chapter.
For prayerful reflection
- “Your weakness provides a place for God to break in, for God’s mercy and God’s power to animate your life. Can you be thankful for your weakness?” This gem came from a priest friend of mine, and seems especially relevant here. Giving and receiving birth is precisely about allowing God’s mercy and power to animate your life and push your new child to birth. At some point during labor you will likely find this difficult. How can you pray, before you give birth, to thank God for any weakness that highlights how God’s power can work in your life? List your weaknesses and ask God’s mercy and power to address them, to let those weaknesses be places where God himself is revealed.
- If you have already given birth, think about when you felt weak or overwhelmed. Where was God in that moment? If you do not know, prayerfully ask God to reveal how he was present in that moment.
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 This question is posed in Adrian Reimers’s “Human Suffering and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body,” Nova et Vetera 2(2) (Fall 2004): 445–60.
 Birth also has an etymological root in the word wave: “bara,” the root, is Old Norse for “wave, billow, or bore.” Vangie Bergum, “Birthing Pain,” Phenomenology Online, accessed October 12, 2012, http://www.phenomenologyonline.com/sources/textorium/ bergum-vangie-birthing-pain/.
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.