As I reached down to feel my son crowning, the OB slapped my hand away. “Get your hand out of there,” she yelled. So I thought: If I can’t feel him with my hands, I’m going to feel him as I give birth to him.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-two of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Carla’s Story: ‘I’m Going to Feel This 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.
I was privileged to interview a number of Christian women who shared their birth stories with me for this book. I have chosen stories that span a wide range of birth experiences to demonstrate the many ways the Holy Spirit is embraced in birth.
As you read these stories, consider the three spiritual keys: give God permission to work in your life and relax into openness; cooperate with God’s intention to realize your motherhood through your body now; and yield to the work of the Holy Spirit. Consider how each woman attended to those keys during her birthing experience.
Carla: “I’m Going to Feel This Birth”
Carla and her husband, Paul, are the parents of nine children, in addition to one who passed away at age two, and three children who were miscarried. They preferred to go by their first names only. They live in Illinois, and this interview begins with talking about the birth of their second child. It ends with her reflection on a hardfought internal struggle to be open to having more children, only to miscarry twins, and how that affected her relationship with God.
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For my second birth, with my son Luke, I barely made it to the hospital. My water broke in the car. I had had an hour and a half of labor. Driving, my water broke, my husband insisted on stopping for stop lights . . . we were living in Maryland then and were going to the National Naval Medical Center. He dropped me off at the emergency room and then went to park the car (laughing) . . . so I’m carrying this big pillow with me in front of me, you know, for the long labor I was supposed to have? Avoiding those uncomfortable hospital pillows? (more laughter) I lean over the triage desk with that pillow in front of me and I think the lady couldn’t see I was nine months pregnant
. . . and she says so sweetly, “Hello, can I help you?” I said, very deliberately, “I am going to have a baby now.” And she said, “Oh, let’s get you up to the seventh floor,” and I said, “Nope, not going to happen!”
They walked me to a Cardiac Care room, with a slab and a bunch of things, and then called down a wench of an OB, who immediately said, “Oh, you couldn’t get her upstairs? This is such a pain.” She was really annoyed. Then someone starts
getting ready to put in an IV and my husband says, “Oh please, do you think she’s going to dehydrate in five minutes?” So she backed off of that. . . . So once Paul was there and I felt settled enough, I wanted to push. Then the OB shouted, “Wait, I’ve got to look at you before you can push!” And then she looked and said, “Oh yeah, you’re all dilated. Fine, push, whatever.” Literally, she was ticked off the whole time.
So I am getting ready to push and she says, “Yeah, the head’s right there.” So I half sat up to reach and feel the baby’s head—I wanted to touch his head—and she slapped my hand away.
And she’s like “Get your hand out of there! I can’t see what’s going on!” And . . . I thought, Then if I can’t feel him with my hands, I’m going to feel him as I give birth to him. And . . . Paul was there, I felt safe, I knew the baby was coming, so I closed my eyes, and as I pushed, I said, “I want to feel him.” And I literally felt every contour of his head. The rotation. The shoulders. The belly. The narrowness of the hips. His little feet coming out. I felt every bit of that. . . . That was a very powerful, even spiritual, way of knowing this child. That feeling as he came out (because it was basically one big push)—it was not specifically religious faith . . . but . . . the physical sensation of birthing his body made me feel intensely close to him spiritually and emotionally. And this was very different from my first child.
. . . Now I thought that doctor was a wench and maybe she was, but I turned that around into something that made me focus, focus beyond the difficulties of the physical sensations (“oh, this hurts, oh, this burns”) and it became “I’m going to feel this.” And that made me feel very connected to him very quickly. I never experienced that with my other births. But that made me think of that connection between the physical and spiritual.
Do you think that move to deliberately “feel his birth” was inspired? You know, that it came from beyond . . . ?
It was. It helped that I felt very protected. Even though this [OB] was being a pain, I knew she wasn’t in charge. I knew she wasn’t in charge of me, my baby, my birth. . . . So yes, it was definitely not a conscious thing on my part. . . . I was in a good place emotionally in many ways, and had a lot of support for giving birth . . . [that internal prompt to deliberately feel the birth] made something that could have been really bad into something amazing.
It sounds like you weren’t afraid during that birth. A lot of women talk about fear.
No, no, I was not. Even though there were a lot of things in the background. There was something else—I had been told that 99 percent of the women who use this hospital get epidurals. . . . I had been told if you don’t want an epidural, then come in here just before you give birth. Well, I didn’t plan it that way, but maybe subconsciously . . . boom! You’re having an hour and a half labor and delivery. Really, there was no time to do anything. Maybe I turned that situation into a plus!
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Later, after her husband fought and survived cancer, and they had settled into being a two career couple with two sons and a postchemotherapy “miracle daughter”. . . .
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You know, the world was telling me [to stop having children], you have two boys and a girl, you have good work making a crud load of money, and I had twenty months of breastfeeding amenorrhea. . . . Then we started doing NFP. . . .
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After a hard year of misunderstandings—he thought she didn’t want more children, and she thought he didn’t want more children—they decided they both really wanted another baby, if they could.
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Well, I immediately got pregnant, so everything’s okay, right? Wrong. Miscarriage, ovarian cyst, they thought they were twins . . . they prepared me for a D and C, and then, at the hospital just beforehand, they found a heartbeat. Oh dear God . . . sent home, hCGs started going up, hCGs starting going down. I was not going in for a D and C at that point, I said; this is going to happen when it is going to happen. So it was three weeks from the initial D and C hospitalization until I miscarried, in my bathroom. And I went to God: I thought you wanted us to do this! We worked to get our will in line with your will and then you did this to me?
And it was at this point I had a really, really deep reconversion experience. I had to decide whether redemptive suffering was real—or it wasn’t. That to me was the linchpin. It makes no sense to the world, what I went through those weeks. But if redemptive suffering is real, and I’m sharing in the redemptive suffering of Christ, and it helped save me or another person halfway across the world, or my family or my husband or my children—that’s real. Pain can be real and it means something and it is not to be avoided. I really deeply embraced that concept of redemptive suffering. And that helped me flow with my whole Catholic faith in a whole different way. I got pregnant with Ella right away afterward . . . all my next three births were super easy . . . not necessarily pain-free! But just with that sense of “I’m on board with God’s will for this pregnancy, with this labor, with getting pregnant again”—whatever it is.
I feel like in our last birth, everything came together. The trust in God, the being in a safe and secure place, Paul’s and my relationship—I feel those are the graces of the sacrament of matrimony, just flowing forth. [Realizing that] was a huge thing for me. Everyone thought we were crazy, having all these kids, and oh, you’re almost 42?! . . . but we were taking our faith seriously, and just kept asking, what’s the next step?
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Carla and her husband went on to adopt four more children.
Carla’s story is a great example of not being afraid, but yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in turn, inspired a way out of a very bad birth setup with her second child and provided insight into the challenges of being open to more children, and the passion that followed her complicated miscarriage. Reading through her process of being open to new life is also a good reminder that childbirth and married life help you grow in your faith and relationship to God.
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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.