Many first-time birth mothers wonder about the hard realities of giving birth: “Will I be able to handle it?” Perhaps we should turn those questions upside down and think about birth as a spiritual opportunity to yield to the work of the Holy Spirit, the Lord of Life.
The following is the first part of a two-part excerpt from The Gift of Birth: Spiritual Direction for Expecting Mothers, to be published in February 2016. Sign up to be notified when it’s out using the form at the bottom of this article.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
What does it mean to ‘yield’ when giving birth?
Yield is more than a triangular sign on a freeway entrance ramp. It is actually a very rich word, especially when we are speaking about giving birth. To yield means to produce. For example, the land yields a crop. The tree yields good fruit. The earth yields abundance. The first meaning of the word is actually to bear fruit…just as pregnant women do when they give birth.
The other meaning of the word is to give place to another. Interesting that giving place to another is joined with fruitfulness, isn’t it? But that is at the heart of what happens in active labor. Your body is opening, opening, opening: but you are not directly opening yourself. You are allowing the Holy Spirit and the baby, working together (!), to open your body in preparation for pushing the baby out and into the waiting world, into your arms. You are very much giving place to the baby and to the Lord of Life. Participating in the ongoing work of creation requires yielding to the Holy Spirit.
Yielding requires flexibility, a willingness to move, to adjust paths. Pregnancy, birth, and motherhood itself is like that: so this is a spiritual practice for the long haul. Let’s consider what it means to practice yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit in active labor.
To yield is to adjust
There are certain principles that must be ethically observed in a birth: respecting the dignity of the child and the mother, taking due care to preserve the child and mother’s health, remembering in some way that God is present. But beyond that, births look different, and you cannot completely predict how it will go. Be flexible. You had your heart set on water labor, and the tub is already being used by someone else. Or an epidural, but it turns out you are too far into the labor to take advantage of it. Labor is a lot about living in the now and letting go of preferences and expectations. Your attention needs to be on God working through these contractions, riding those waves of power bringing you to birth. That’s it.Yield to the will of God in the moment.
To yield is to trust in God
To say we trust in God is important. But how do we actively do that? In the midst of timing contractions?
First, we can trust that God is present. Anything (and it doesn’t need to be big) can remind you that God is right here: a picture, a candle, a prayer book, a rosary or crucifix. Music with a religious theme may be helpful.
Second, we can go into birth affirming that opening line of the Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” Our God is the Lord of birth. That is a remarkable statement! It’s not us; it’s not the doctors or nurses. The Holy Spirit is the Paraclete, or “he who is called to one’s side.” What a wonderful title to remember when in active labor: the Holy Spirit is at your side, consoling you, helping you to give birth.
But sometimes the help of the Holy Spirit is supplemented by the help of others, and trust is also a willingness to accept that help.
For prayerful reflection:
Yielding is often understood as a kind of surrender. One helpful description comes from the seventeenth century priest and spiritual master, Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade:
In this state of joyful self-surrender the only rule is the present moment. In this our soul is as light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, as easily moved as a ball in following these nudges of grace. Such souls have no more consistence and rigidity than molten metal…so these souls are pliant and easily shaped to any form that God chooses to give them.
Can you imagine yourself like a feather or a liquid—adjusting, moving, yielding to the nudges of the Holy Spirit? This can be a very useful way to imagine oneself while in labor. Let go and let God do the moving of the baby in you. Be as relaxed as you can be: you are in God’s hands and the hands of others who care for you. Offer this labor, indeed all your labors, to the Holy Spirit. Letting God lead means being willing to live in the moment and practice yielding.
Susan Windley-Daoust teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University. She is the author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying (Lectio Publishing), which was awarded first place in the small press category at the 2015 Catholic Press Association awards.
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