When I found out I was pregnant again, I cried for two days. Then one day the Christmas carol “Gabriel’s Message” popped into my head. In that moment, Mary became my lifeline, my beacon, my role model.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-seven of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust. 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.
Jennifer: “Mary Became My Lifeline”
Jennifer D. is a married mother of four children (three biological and one adopted). She and her husband are in the process of adopting two more children, blood siblings. She also had two Cesarean sections, although she was less sanguine about it than Regina (the mother in the previous story). She lives in rural Illinois.
My last birth—Daniel Anthony—was a scheduled C-section. [His older sister] Anna was born via emergency C-section (general anesthesia), and at the time she was born, my ob-gyn stood at my bedside and assured me that this in no way meant that I would never have another vaginal birth, that his VBAC [vaginal birth after Cesarean] rate was high, etc.
By the time I met him in his office [before Daniel’s birth], he was singing a different tune. Statistics and risks and blah, blah, blah—I was basically bullied into having another section, told that I would absolutely not be allowed to VBAC at any of the hospitals where he had privileges, that I would be putting myself and my baby at risk, etc. I asked a lot of questions, I did my research, and, honestly, it was the high cost of medical malpractice in Illinois that drove all of this— doctors who performed VBACs were risking losing coverage and hospitals simply weren’t allowing it.
I was horribly disappointed, but torn. We live in the boonies; to find a hospital or birthing center that would accommodate my desire to VBAC, I would have had to travel forty-plus minutes, in labor, to deliver. And with two little ones at home, that didn’t make sense.
I pushed the date of the scheduled section out as far as I could—delivering just four days before Daniel’s due date— in the hopes that I would go into labor on my own (I never have) and arrive at the hospital so far into labor that they would have no choice but to deliver me. No such luck. We arrived in the wee hours for my intake, walked to the OR carrying my catheter bag (really?), and Daniel was born—after I was given a spinal tap—at 7:56 am.
I should add that anyone doing anything to my spine freaks me out—I have had a bad back since my early twenties. I begged for Michael to be allowed to be with me for the spinal tap and was denied even that. Thank goodness I did have an amazing nurse and an amazing anesthesiologist. I begged for the sheet to be left down. My arms were strapped—I was basically crucified there on the operating table, which couldn’t have been wider than a yardstick—and it was freezing cold in that room. I wanted to watch. I assured them I was not grossed out. I wanted to see Daniel born.
Nope. They even assumed we knew the baby’s gender—we didn’t—and we had to ask them to tell us boy or girl. Lots of pulling and tugging—no pain at all—it all went pretty fast.
Back in recovery, my blood pressure would not rebound—I typically have low blood pressure—and they tilted my bed to elevate my feet, then it got stuck that way and they had to call maintenance in to work on the bed in which I was recovering.
Was it disappointing to have a scheduled C-section? Or a relief? Or in between?
I was annoyed to have to recover from what I saw as unnecessary surgery with three little ones at home. It was not the birth experience I hoped for or dreamed of, but I was not disappointed. I was healthy, Daniel was healthy—hard to argue with that outcome—but I know, in my gut, that’s not how childbirth is supposed to go. If I were to become pregnant today, I would VBAC regardless of distance . . . I’m no risk at all.
Do you have opinions going in about how to best give birth?
Yes. Michael and I took the Bradley childbirth classes prior to Rebecca’s birth. She was born twenty hours after my membranes were broken. She was a week late and we went in for an induction, but I asked to be allowed to try to labor before they gave me pitocin—the only medication I had was lidocaine for an episiotomy the doctor chose to perform because I was tearing up instead of down.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices directed toward the birth prior to this birth? Can you describe them?
When I was pregnant with Anna, our priest and deacon presented us with a blessed St. Gabriel medal which I wore until after she was born. When I learned I was pregnant with Daniel (on a Sunday afternoon), I put on my medal again. At Mass the following Sunday, I was lector. In the sacristy, I met Deacon Bob. He immediately noticed my medal, gasped, came close and asked if it meant what he thought it meant. And then he asked permission and blessed my babe. And every Sunday that I received Holy Communion from him, he blessed my babe. He was to baptize Daniel, but he died suddenly that January, before Daniel was born.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices during your birth?
No. Well, I’m sure I had people praying for me. I know I did. But not beyond that.
Where was God in your birthing process? Was there a place where you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or Mary?
When I found out I was pregnant with Daniel, I cried for two days. I have come to refer to Daniel as the “best present we never asked for.” Michael and I were not taught—not even in marriage preparation—about the Church’s stand on birth control. Not once ever—except that my mother would sometimes make disparaging remarks about it. When we were married—before and after Rebecca’s birth—we used birth control. It took us one glance to become pregnant with Rebecca. It took a year of charting and worrying and trying to become pregnant with Anna.
After Anna’s birth, I refused to take the Pill and I had a bad allergic reaction to spermicide. At one point I recall asking Deacon Bob why couples who had children couldn’t decide “they were done.” He gently (and kind of embarrassingly) guided me to an NFP couple in our parish. I became convicted long, long before Michael, and he respectfully went along with my belief that this was true Church teaching and we needed to follow it. Daniel, though the charts would suggest he shouldn’t be here, was conceived while we were using NFP. We still weren’t at the point of being open and accepting that God’s will in this matter was wiser than ours.
About a week after I learned I was pregnant with Daniel, the Christmas carol “Gabriel’s Message” (by Sting) popped into my head—in September—and I was bowled over by Mary’s acceptance of this child God asked her to carry. In that moment, Mary became my lifeline, my beacon, my role model; my favorite verse since then has been, if I’m asked to give one, Luke 1:38.
Luke 1:38 reads: ‘“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
Anything you want to add?
Want one more crazy story? When Daniel was about three years old, someone asked him if he had any brothers or sisters. He said he had two sisters. The questioner said, “No brothers?” And Daniel said, “Not yet!” Some weeks later, Daniel said he wanted a brother, “and not a baby. I want a brother who can talk to me and play with me.” After we adopted Joshua, who is five days shy of being nine months older than Daniel, we realized that Daniel was conceived about a week or two after Joshua was born. We never would have sought specifically a child of Joshua’s age—and specifically a boy—if not for Daniel being here. We meant to adopt a younger brother, but God made sure [we] found Joshua [through Daniel’s desire].
Jennifer had at least one C-section she did not want, for reasons that she felt were not valid. I would suggest that women with similar stories seek a way of healing and forgiveness (which she may well have done, since she is at peace with what happened). What this story does well is move beyond the circumstances of the birth and see the child’s conception and life as a part of God’s larger plan for their family, and even for a little boy they were destined to adopt years later.
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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.