“Nora” had three very difficult births that ended in C-sections and babies in the NICU. How did she find God in all that? Here’s her story.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-eight of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Nora: I Kept Thinking, This is My Body, Given Up for You”. This chapter, taken from Part 4 of the book, is an interview conducted in a question-and-answer format, with reflection at the end. 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.
Nora (another requested pseudonym) is a married mother of three children and lives in Texas. All three of her children were born by Cesarean section.
My first Cesarean section came at the end of a failed induction, after I’d been laboring for close to twenty-four hours. I was fifteen days past my due date and finally agreed to let my doctor perform an induction, still hopeful that this could result in a low-intervention birth. We hired our Bradley Method instructor as our doula and she was with us for most of the induction.
When, after hours of active labor, I was still barely dilated, we agreed that a C-section was the only option. Our doula said that we were her first C-section in over two hundred births, but she also agreed that this was definitely the way to go.
I remember being very overwrought and thanking the entire medical team, giving thanks that I lived somewhere with modern medical care, saying something like, “I could just be dying somewhere in a field. . . .”
I also was very conscious of feeling “crucified” for the surgery itself because it required strapping my arms down to the table. I am terrified of needles. I kept thinking, “This is my body, given up for you.” It was definitely an abandonment of all of the hopes I had brought to the birth, and a surrender.
I had a difficult recovery and my son was in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], just for a few days, to get his breathing straightened out. My father was in the end stages of cancer at the time and my mom was not able to come out to assist us right away. I felt very doubtful about my own abilities as a mother and kept second-guessing the decisions we had made along the way: resisting my doctor’s suggestion that we induce a few weeks earlier, asserting our preferences for an unmedicated birth and ending up with the opposite. We did have tremendously supportive friends and family.
My second time around, I hoped for a VBAC [vaginal birth after Cesarean] because we knew we wanted a large family and I didn’t want to keep having C-sections. My daughter was breech at the final ultrasound they performed a few days before the surgery, and neither my doctor nor I wished to attempt a VBAC in those circumstances. She flipped her little self right back around by the day of the surgery, but we didn’t want to fight with my doctor. I also knew that a scheduled C-section would be much less physically draining than having the surgery at the end of a long, painful labor.
The surgery went well, but my daughter was gravely ill at birth with a lung defect. She was baptized the day after she was born, and had to be flown via helicopter to a different hospital a couple of hours away soon afterward. I was very, very aware of all of the prayers of my family and friends. I associate the mystery of the Visitation with this birth experience, because Elizabeth was Mary’s family as well as her friend, and she provided her with such encouragement. I said the rosary at my daughter’s bedside. My father had died a couple of years beforehand and I had reached the point in life where you stop thinking God is going to protect you from anything really bad happening, so it was in some ways a crisis of faith; but, at the same time, I felt tremendous peace and that I was not alone.
My third C-section was also scheduled, and my younger son was also in the NICU, but with a less serious issue than with my daughter. We had some of the same staff at the NICU for his birth as for my daughter’s, and for the most part they were absolutely wonderful. I did have one nurse comment along the lines of, “I’m amazed you had another one after what you went through last time,” and it made me feel really ashamed to think that other people might be judging us to be foolhardy about the risks of having another child.
Was it disappointing to have scheduled C-sections? Or a relief? Or in between?
Disappointing but also something I felt was the best possible option given the circumstances. I still have a lot of fear and guilt attached to my original C-section and have to remind myself that it’s not my fault that each child ended up in the NICU. (They all are very healthy today, with active, some might say overused—ha-ha!—lungs.) It’s hard not to retrace my steps and wonder if I might have more children today if I had followed more of my doctor’s advice the first time and could have avoided a C-section and the attendant “drama.”
Did you have opinions going in about how to best give birth?
Yes, but I also based many of those opinions on fear of needles. I was hopeful that I could have an unmedicated birth but didn’t really like being “anti–medical establishment.”
Did you engage in any spiritual practices during your birth?
Asking people to pray for me, yes, and doing a lot of deep breaths and repetitive prayer because I find the process of being prepped for surgery to be, frankly, terrifying.
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 kind of answered that above. . . . I don’t really like to point to specific things and say, “God was definitely doing this particular thing in my life.” I would say I definitely associate these experiences with surrender and with knowing I am not alone, and that my baby is loved even more deeply than I myself am capable of. I also grew in devotion to Mary specifically with the birth of my daughter.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I don’t remember who it was I talked to at the time, but I remember this friend specifically saying that it was okay to grieve over aspects of my first birth experience, and that it didn’t mean I was just being selfish and not appreciating the gift of my newborn son.
This whole area of family size, birthing, risky birthing, etc., is a very painful one for me. I kind of hate the whole “being Catholic means you need to be ready to discuss fertility with strangers at any time” thing.
(Thus we ask—why did I answer the questions? Heh.)
Susan Windley-Daoust: I am not sure why Nora answered these questions, but I am glad she overcame her ambivalence and did so. One of the pieces that struck me most in this account of her three C-section births is that she said that the prominent spiritual sense was that she was not alone. These were certainly high-risk births and the way the children were born may have been of much less concern than their health; she was certainly grateful that she and her children could take advantage of the Cesarean. But importantly, she felt she was not alone, that God was present to her in the operating room (fear and terror not withstanding) and in the NICU, praying the rosary with and for her child. If this is not openness to God and yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is.
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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.