When labor finally begins, you can truly say, “This is the day the Lord has made!” And then, work to make room for the work of labor . . . and the work of the Holy Spirit.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter nine 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.
My water broke in the middle of the night. I knew things likely wouldn’t start right away, given my experience with water breaking and birthing Ben, and it would be best to rest as long as I could before labor began. I wanted Jerry to rest as well, so I didn’t tell him, and I lay on my side as very mild contractions began to come, a few minutes apart. I was a little frustrated that my water broke, because I knew that likely meant a more difficult labor, but I was mostly happy and at peace that Julia was, ten days past the due date, finally on her way.
Once labor began, I spent a couple of hours trying to relax and ride the waves of contractions as they came, catnapping in between. The window began to lighten, the sun rose, and I smiled, thinking, “And today is the day that Julia will be born.”
This is the day the Lord has made
If the beginning of your labor is quiet and gentle, as mine was, it is wonderful to be able to take a moment and give thanks that today is the day your son or daughter will be born. Whatever the circumstances of your birthing, this moment of gratitude is necessary. There is a reason we honor birthdays; this is a big event.
Unless you and your doctor have chosen medical interventions, it is also a day whose arrival you cannot predict. You may have been given a due date or a “due zone” when the child is expected to be “at term,” around thirty-seven weeks. If you go into labor before term, your medical provider may try to halt it. But if nothing is wrong, and birth is the simple result of gestation coming to an end, you can and should say:
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
The psalmist was not talking about giving birth, but giving birth is the Lord’s doing, and indeed this is the (birth) day that the Lord has made! Medical professionals admit that we do not know what triggers labor. There are signs when a woman is ready to begin labor, but no way to predict exactly when it will start.
Indeed, we cannot even tell whether it is the baby who initiates labor or the mother, or some subtle interaction between them. The day you give birth is mysterious and the onset of contractions is the first visible move of the Holy Spirit. That is great reason to rejoice! In fact, the Bradley Method says that the first emotional sign in active labor is excitement and happiness.
What does it mean to give your body in love?
The Theology of the Body shows us how we are created for giving and receiving: the body is endowed with a spousal meaning that makes the body a sign that points to God. Active labor was given to us as a school in which we learn how to give and receive. Even through its fallenness, we can see active labor as meaningful. It is a natural consequence of the spousal meaning of the body, engaged and lived. The fruitfulness of the body is a sign that points to the Lord, the Giver of life, as well.
Remember, birth isn’t always easy or joyful. But it is always meaningful, because God is there.
One way to live according to the Law of the Gift is to consider the question, “What does it mean to give your body in love?” I’ll raise this question throughout these chapters on active labor and pushing.
In the very beginning of labor, when typically the mother senses contractions 5–10 minutes apart, 30–60 seconds in length, much of your life can go on as normal. You can read, do some light cleaning, pack for the hospital, spend time with your other children, and so forth. (One time I baked a birthday cake for the baby, which my husband thought was slightly nuts, but he knew better than to stop me. Just don’t leave the house suddenly without taking it out and turning off the oven. . . .) Reserve your energy a bit, and eat and drink lightly. If it is nighttime, try to sleep. The intensity of the contractions will wake you up when you need to get up.
It’s all about opening
But “to give your body in love” at the beginning of labor means this is where you begin to open. Think about what your body is doing: you are giving way for the child to be born.
The contractions at this point are not about pushing. The contractions are about opening. The muscles of your uterus “contract” as your child begins to bear down, opening your cervix millimeter by millimeter, like a head stretching out a turtleneck sweater. The contractions feel like waves, rising to a peak and then falling. (The word birth comes from an ancient word meaning “wave.”) A woman’s womb, or uterus, is made up entirely of muscle, and that set of muscles flexes, flexes, flexes, and then relaxes. The goal here is to get to ten centimeters cervical dilation, at which point your body will move into pushing mode.
There are two things you need to do when having a contraction. One is to not be afraid—more on that in the next chapter. The other, which you can employ immediately, is to relax.
Relaxing is important because it allows your body to use all its energy and attention on the work of opening up. The Bradley Method is especially helpful on this point, and encourages mothers to very deliberately practice relaxing before birth. For example, clench a fist. Then release it. Note the difference in how you feel. When you go into a contraction, find positions to maintain that allow you to release tension everywhere in your body so you can concentrate on that one set of muscles opening up you focus on relaxing; and let the opening happen. Have a spouse or birth partner notice when tension is creeping up in other parts of your body (if your face is getting strained, a gentle touch or cool washcloth can release tension, or if your shoulders are getting tight, a light massage). You should try to be slack, even to the point of mimicking sleep, as much as reasonably possible during a contraction. That kind of relaxation, ironically, takes practice; it is good to rehearse relaxing your body frequently before a birth. In any case, most women have many contractions, so you’ll get lots of practice!
But the spiritual element in this is key. You are relaxing your body to make room for the work of birth. You are also relaxing your body as a sign of openness to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing this child to birth. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you through the contractions, to help you open, to help the baby be born.
This makes it sound easy. For a few women, it is; but allowing the contractions to open your body to birth is an ongoing challenge for most women. If you begin to have difficulty, if the pain gets on top of you and prevents your relaxation, be calm, seek peace, and try again. We will focus more on challenges in the next two chapters. But early on, if you are lucky enough to begin labor gently, give thanks to our God, cherish these early contractions, and practice relaxing into the Spirit’s work.
And employ your spiritual key: “Holy Spirit, I give you permission to work in my life.” Then, relax.
For prayerful reflection
1. There are many relaxation exercises found in Bradley Method books as well as in meditation books. If you hope to go into labor as relaxed as you can be, you would do well to practice these. Consider how you can “give God permission” to help you relax. Here’s an adapted version of a practice relaxation exercise:
St. Catherine of Siena was a deeply religious woman who decided not to live in a convent, but “in the world.” She often spoke of communing with God not in a monastic cell, but in the “cell of her heart.” Consider this a retreat into the cell of your heart.
Lie down on your bed or get otherwise comfortable. Open your hands and the cell of your heart and say, “Here I am, Lord. I place myself in the light of Christ. I give you permission to work in my life. I ask: help me relax, help me trust in your love.”
Focus on your toes on one foot and mentally clench them. Then release. Note what release feels like. Thank God for being able to relax your toes.
Focus on your toes on the other foot and tighten them in the same way. Release. Release a little more. Note the feeling. Again, thank the Holy Spirit for helping you relax. Do the same with other muscles:
Full leg, one at a time
Face: forehead, mouth, jaw
Finally, try to relax your entire body as much as possible. End by praying these or similar words: Thank you, Spirit of God, for preparing me for birth. Thank you for helping me be more open to your work in my life. Teach me to yield to your prompting and listen to your call. I ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
2. Here is another visualization prayer to practice:
Visualize the Holy Spirit as he is symbolized in the Bible: as wind, or breath. Lie down, and deliberately place yourself in the light of Christ. Consider how Genesis 1:2, beginning an ode of creation, presents the Spirit of God: “Darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
How does the wind from God—perhaps a slight movement of the breeze—on your skin, right now, relax you?
Can you sense the Holy Spirit through the moving, wrapping element of air, supporting you, supporting your child?
Can you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in your own breathing, sustaining you and giving you life?
Lift your face to the wind, to the Spirit of God, and pray:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. Come, Creator Spirit. Help me follow your leading, and better yield to the One who is the Lord and Giver of Life. Help me relax and cooperate with your life-giving work.
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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.