Despite jokes about the “impossibility” of pushing a baby out, in fact a woman’s body is created to do this very thing. God calls you to this moment; how will you respond?
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter thirteen of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Trusting: The Transition from Contractions to Pushing.” 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.
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With my [sixth child], she popped out while I thought I needed to go to the bathroom before the midwife checked my dilation. . . . I truly did not even really “feel” [the baby] being born . . . she just came out and I was in a state of euphoria. I grabbed her head to cushion [it] and my midwife then ran into the bathroom and grabbed the rest of her and I shouted, “Is that it? That was awesome!’’
It took a while to learn how to push but when it hit, it hit! The bewildering combination of being compelled to push juxtaposed against the very real sense that doing so will split one in two is the hardest to overcome. Because of this I felt like I was pushing toward my own death, like I might die if I continue but I couldn’t NOT continue. Looking back on it, I suppose in a certain sense I was dying, if only in the sense where I died to that part of myself which would keep me from caring for this child.
The experience of pushing can be the most variable part of giving birth. Mothers who have not given birth often think pushing is the hardest part. In my experience, it was not. I thought it much easier than what I had just experienced, a common feeling for women going through natural childbirth.
But other women experience the pushing stage as very challenging: it is often fast, and sometimes the speed of the baby descending can be painful, hard work. Huge babies, and babies out of position, can create demanding pushing experiences. But regardless, pushing is a cause for celebration and relief. You are getting so very close!
Many women, especially those doing natural childbirth, experience a few minutes of calm in “the eye of the storm” between contracting and pushing. If you get this quiet time, relax (it will be easier to relax now) and rest a bit. This is a gift. Rest and get into the position you want to be in for pushing.
This second stage of pushing mirrors the first stage in terms of emotional signs: the birthing mother is excited, then internally focused and working hard, then finally pushing through some self-doubt. It’s just a shorter stage. Let me walk through a typical pushing stage with you.
Instead of relaxing and allowing your body to open, in the pushing stage your focus turns toward actively cooperating as the muscles of your uterus work like a piston to push the baby down and out. If you are like most women, it may take some practice to get the hang of cooperating with your body in this work. You may decide to change positions, breathe differently, and so forth.
The pushing stage, like conception, is a moment of chosenness. Despite jokes about the “impossibility” of pushing a baby out, in fact a woman’s body is created to do this very thing. We are not being asked to do the impossible; indeed, we were designed for this. Every time a nurse says, “You can do this,” it isn’t a false encouragement—it’s true! It may be hard, but it is true. God calls you to this moment and is pushing right behind that baby. You are chosen to do this.
Feeling the baby move down your birth canal is a strange sensation and definitely hard work. But other than that, the “waves” are similar to the first stage of contracting: push, more, more, MORE, less, less, now rest a minute. Wait for the signal that your body is rising to push, and do it again.
There’s no multitasking during this stage! Although some women are chatty during the short periods of rest between pushes (especially at the beginning), others are serious, quiet, and often very tired. But when you are pushing, your concentration is right there and only there. I remember during one birth I came out of a wave of pushing to realize the whole birthing team (about six people) was yelling my name at me, trying to get my attention. Despite the fact that they were only three feet away, I didn’t hear them. It’s that kind of focus.
This is cooperating with God’s work. All your attention, right here, right now. Too often we live scattered lives, unable to focus on what’s important—but not now. Go ahead and push with God. He wants this baby to be born, and this birth to be completed. He wants you to experience that baby in your arms. Put aside any other concern and yield to the Spirit’s work in this stage.
Crowning and self-doubt
The final part of the pushing stage may be marked by the sign of self-doubt (again). Maybe this pushing stage has been much more painful that you expected. Or maybe it has gone well, but the exhaustion of the work is catching up fast. Or you are experiencing “crowning”—when the baby’s head is stretching out the vaginal opening and not slipping back in the birth canal. While the pressure of the baby’s head will act as a natural anesthetic, the initial stretching presents a stinging sensation for a little bit (some call it the “ring of fire”) that is, at best, odd. Your midwife or doctor will also tell you to stop trying to push, since too much pressure at this point could cause tearing. It makes sense but is hard to do when your whole body wants to push!
The biggest antidote to self-doubt is the closeness of the baby. The medical team will often encourage the mother to feel the baby’s head or show her in a mirror what is happening. The other antidote is to remember the presence of the Holy Spirit in this place. Keep breathing through all this: breathe in the Holy Spirit, breathe out your doubts. Keep breathing.
“Let birth happen? I’m working hard here!”
One of the things that you may hear from doctors and midwives at the end of this pushing stage is to “let birth happen.” And it makes sense: the crowning and birthing of the baby happen of their own accord. You don’t say, “Okay, body, crown!” And the attendants want to help ease the child out if necessary. But it can be very hard work to let birth happen.
There is a spiritual component to this. In all of life, we need to allow God to transform us, heal us, make us saints. Our role is to be open to God, to trust, and let God work. Our role is to know that we are not in the driver’s seat here. God is. Trust that. But it will be hard. Most things worth doing are hard.
On the other hand, there are few moments in life that are more moving or exciting, not just for you, but for everyone present. You have been given a birth, and have cooperated in bringing a child to new life. You have given your body in love to this child for months, and especially now. You may not savor the birth of your child at the time. But savor it soon: savor what is being accomplished through God’s initiative.
For prayerful reflection
This will sound almost heretical, but the phrase, “This is my body, given up for you,” was very comforting during the worst of it. . . . It’s all I could think of on my last one.
— Christie Martin
That comment is not heretical at all, unless you have mistaken yourself for God. We are called to imitate Christ, and when birth is difficult, this is as close to the cross as many will approach. Perhaps you could consider praying with this Scripture beforehand. Whether the pushing stage (or the entire birth) is difficult or relatively easy is not entirely in your hands. But the truth that you are giving your body in love for another is never more concretely lived out than in giving birth. Pray with this Scripture beforehand, and consider the following statement from another Catholic mother:
I have somehow likened it [pushing the baby out] to the effort needed to spread the truth of the Gospel. Always an effort, sometimes painful, and seldom unproductive. It is the uniquely feminine way of participating in God’s creation.
 This is with the obvious exception of my first birth, where pushing never really got started. Frankly, even the birth that had a compound presentation didn’t feel too bad to me.
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 Catechism §2672 says the Holy Spirit is “the interior Master of Christian prayer,” and the instigator of prayer as the work of the Holy Spirit in a person is witnessed at Romans 8:26 above, as well as Ephesians 6:18, and Luke 11:13. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, 2011) (digital edition), #2672, reprinted at: http://www. vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c2a2.htm.
 http://catholicism.about.com/od/prayers/qt/Lorica_Patrick. htm.
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.