During active labor, 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.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter eleven 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.
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. One meaning of the word is actually “to bear fruit” . . . just as pregnant women do when they give birth.
Another 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 into the waiting world, and 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 ethical principles that must be observed in a birth: respecting the dignity of the child and the mother, taking due care to preserve the child’s and the mother’s health, remembering in some way that God is present. But beyond that, births look different, and you cannot completely predict how each one 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. Jean Pierre de Caussade’s thoughts may help (see “For prayerful reflection,” below).
To yield is to sound contractions
If you haven’t given birth before, let me be candid: While it may or may not be painful, there is no escaping that it will be intense, especially later in the labor. Women who choose to do a natural childbirth without drugs may “make room” for the baby in part through groaning (or “sounding”) through the most intense labor contractions. The Bradley Method suggests that releasing some of the intensity of labor through sound may be helpful to maintaining a relaxed state. Screaming, on the other hand, indicates you have lost that relaxed state. When the contraction is done, take a breath, try to relax again, and think low tones.
How is this yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit? If sounding helps you stay relaxed and allows the Giver of Life to work with you to open more so that the baby can descend closer to birth, then you are giving place. You are yielding to the work of God.
Not everyone is comfortable with sounding. That’s okay. It isn’t a necessity to giving birth. But it is so common that even St. Paul refers to the phenomenon: “. . . the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now . . .” (Romans 8:22). In fact, the way Paul cites the phenomenon, it is a kind of prayer. Could you think of that low intonation during challenging contractions as a kind of prayer—a participation in God’s work and part of making room for God’s power and love?
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. It might help to keep something with you to remind you of God’s presence: a picture, a candle, a prayer book, a rosary, a crucifix, or religious music are all possibilities.
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. Trust is a willingness to accept that help.
To yield is to accept help
Many women find doulas a great help in giving birth: indeed, many studies find that women who give birth with a doula alongside a medical professional have shorter and less medically augmented births. It may be good to accept the reality that childbirth is challenging—and accept knowledgeable help in the form of a person advocating for you, making you comfortable, speaking for you to medical professionals. Human beings are the only mammals who do not as a matter of course give birth alone. We birth with others, for support and help. Employing a prayerful doula who can encourage your religious beliefs is even better.
The father of your child should also be there helping you give birth, if at all possible. While there is no question the woman does the lion’s share of the work, women benefit from the support of their husbands. Do not take this time to blame your husband for your labor (“This is all your fault!” isn’t very funny even on sitcoms). You two took vows, for better or for worse. Giving birth can be a mixture of both. This is something you do together. Allow him to help. If your baby’s father cannot be there (if he is ill, or deployed, or you are a single parent) I strongly encourage you to invite a doula or a trusted friend or family member to be present at the birth. It is crucial to take seriously your need for support.
And yielding may also mean accepting the help of medical staff. You may not want to hear what the doctors or midwives have to say, especially if their suggestions go against your birth plan, but I would encourage you to give them a fair hearing.
Almost always they simply want a healthy mom and a healthy baby. The other advantage of an experienced doula, however, is to double-check the medical advice you are getting. Medical staff are required to ask permission before a procedure, unless someone’s life is in immediate danger. If medical staff recommend a procedure that you are uncertain about, remember that you can ask for a few minutes to consult with your husband, doula, and God.
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.
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 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, 2011) (digital edition), #692, reprinted at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/ catechism/p1s2c3a8.htm.
 Ellen D. Hodnett, Simon Gates, G. Justus Hofmeyr, and Carol Sakala, “Continuous support for women during childbirth,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 10 (2012): Art. No.: CD003766, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub4, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub4/abstract.
 De Caussade, The Joy of Full Surrender, trans. Hal M. Helm (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 1986), 125–26.
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.