If you have a high-risk pregnancy, with its attendant medical interventions, does this prevent you from being able to see the signs of birth? Not necessarily. Here are some ideas for what to do.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter nineteen of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “19. A High-Risk Birth: Are Medical Interventions Clouding the Sign of Birth?” 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.
In the American medical system, certain realities in the health of the mother may lead the pregnancy and birth to be categorized as high risk. The woman may be very young or old. The woman may have a preexisting condition that requires special attention throughout pregnancy, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. If this is a second pregnancy, the pregnancy may be considered high risk based on how the previous labor and delivery went. Sometimes, the condition of the baby (or the number of babies in the womb) may make the pregnancy high risk. As you can see, high-risk pregnancy may sound ominous, but it is quite common, and some of the risks are more serious than others.
The bottom line is, medical professionals classify some pregnancies as high risk because they want to ensure the health of both the mother and the baby. These mothers are often referred to perinatologists for some or all of their care. In some cases, it is determined that the baby would be safest delivered early, or by a C-section.
If you have a high-risk pregnancy, with its attendant medical interventions, does this mean you will not be able to see the signs of birth? Not necessarily, but it will be different.
Let’s look at this in two ways. First, if you are anticipating giving birth with the “high risk” reality, let’s see what you can do to preserve and honor some of the natural signs of birth. Secondly, if your birth is necessarily going to be very high-tech, let’s look at how to adjust the welcoming of your child spiritually.
Honoring the spiritual signs of birth in a high-risk pregnancy
Even if your pregnancy is categorized as high risk, it is possible you may be able to have a natural vaginal birth, perhaps with some modifications. If this is your preference, tell your doctor, and ask questions. If he or she advises certain medical interventions, ask why they are needed. Such interventions might include continuous rather than intermittent fetal monitoring, or a heparin lock (in case you need intravenous medicine quickly), or a C-section that is scheduled before even trying labor and vaginal birth. Understanding why decisions are being made goes a long way toward feeling better about the course of the birth.
Once you know what is likely to occur, you can see what can be done to honor the spiritual nature of the event within those parameters. For instance:
- Will your husband be present?
- Will religious items (like a crucifix or rosary) be allowed into the room?
- You may not need to relax through contractions if you are having a scheduled C-section, but relaxing and entrusting the event to God may be even more important in a highrisk pregnancy. Think about how you can do that, before and during the birth.
- You may want a priest, or family and friends, to bless you and the baby before a medical intervention.
- Afterward, how many of the bonding protocols between mother and child can be retained? Will your husband be with your child, or with you?
As much as you can, try to preserve the “high touch” nature of the event, and let the technology assist the birth rather than become the focus. The technology is there to keep you and your child safe, period. The “drama” is the actual birth of your child.
Honoring a high-tech birth spiritually
The problem with a medically augmented birth is not the technology, which can be a lifesaver. But problems arise when those helping deliver the baby treat the mother and the child as objects rather than human beings. Respecting their humanity, their need to connect, and the inauguration of motherhood may get lost when the focus shifts to technological interventions.
This can happen in a natural childbirth, too, but the shiny, blinking, beeping, attention-grabbing distraction that is medical technology seems to make the loss of the human touch more common in higher-tech births. Anything that the medical team can do to honor the bonding of the mother and child under the circumstances is a spiritual act of respect. For this reason, engaging a doula may make sense, as she can be an advocate for you. Your husband, too, can advocate for you.
But there is one Advocate above all others, and that is the Holy Spirit. Whatever happens, remember that the Holy Spirit is just as present at this birth as at any other birth. If you know your birth will be scheduled, perhaps you can take advantage of that by praying a novena to the Holy Spirit, ending on the day of the induction or C-section. Consider ways to remember that the Holy Spirit abides with us, even in the most unfamiliar places.
For prayerful reflection
Many religious women who are facing serious high-risk births are already praying, and praying hard. If you are having a high-risk birth, consider how to prepare yourself spiritually, and consider going to Reconciliation and Mass the day before. But the challenge will be to let go of your worst fears about the situation. Consider doing a bit of imaginative prayer with this Scripture from Isaiah 41:8–10:
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ”; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
The words here are God speaking through the prophet Isaiah to Israel, as Israel is on the cusp of possible destruction. Could you imagine God saying these words to you, substituting the word “Jacob” with your own name? Consider how God promises to be present to you in any time of trouble, including this one.
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 Dr. William and Martha Sears have a good chapter on how to “humanize” a high-tech birth in The Birth Book, chap. 13.
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.