“The times in my life when I have felt closest to God were immediately following childbirth, when my new child has been placed in my arms. The experience always magnifies my awe and wonder at the miracle of creation. . . .”
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter twenty-one of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Joanna’s Story: ‘God Was Present Throughout.'” 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.
JoAnna: “God Was Present Throughout”
JoAnna Wahlund lives in Arizona and is a Catholic mother of seven, including two miscarried children. This story focuses on the birth of her fourth child, Gabriel.
I had my fourth child on November 26, 2011. Two days before his birth I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for nine people, and I think that’s what sent me into labor. The next day, November 25, I was exactly full term (thirty-seven weeks). The day started with some spotting, and in the late afternoon I started having mild but regular contractions. The contractions continued throughout the evening and into the night. We went to the hospital around midnight. When we arrived, I was only 4 cm so my husband, doula, and I walked around for an hour or two. When we went back to the L & D ward, [they determined] I had made progress so they admitted me. I labored in the Jacuzzi tub for a while, and started feeling like I had to push around 5 am. I was only at 7 cm so I sat on a birth ball for a while [to help dilation progress]. Eventually I got restless and started pacing the room, stopping to lean over the bed with each contraction. At 6 am, my body started pushing involuntarily and part of the amniotic fluid sac came out while I was standing at the end of the bed. I climbed into the bed on my hands and knees while the nurses called the doctor. He came quickly, and the baby was born in two or three pushes. The amniotic sac didn’t break until his shoulders were born. Gabriel Keith weighed 7 lbs, 9 oz.
Did you use any particular childbirth method, or did you have opinions going in about how to best give birth?
Before my first child was born, my husband and I had studied the Bradley Method of natural childbirth. We never took a formal class in the Bradley Method, but we read everything we could get our hands on about natural childbirth, and we took a Lamaze class that our local hospital offered. I was determined to give birth without pain medication of any kind, and I’ve achieved that goal with every birth so far. I didn’t want the cascade of interventions that can happen in a very medically managed birth.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices prior to birth? Can you describe them?
I prayed often to St. Gerard [the patron saint of difficult childbirths], asking for a safe delivery. I had a holy card with a prayer to St. Gerard for a safe delivery and I said [the prayer] often. I also used visualization techniques—I visualized what my idea of a “perfect” birth would be, and asked God for help to make it happen. Above all, though, I was praying that both the baby and I would come through the delivery safely, even if interventions were necessary.
Did you engage in any spiritual practices during your birth?
While I was walking the halls of the hospital during labor, we stopped by the hospital chapel and prayed there. It was around 2 am, so it was very quiet and peaceful. I also said the Divine Mercy prayer while having contractions. I would inhale slowly and deeply while praying silently, “For the sake of your sorrowful passion . . .” and then exhale slowly while praying silently, “Have mercy on us and on the whole world.” I also concentrated on offering up the pain of my contractions for all infertile women who longed for a child, especially for a few personal friends of mine who were struggling with infertility. During transition it was hard to focus on longer prayers, so I was mainly praying, “O God, O God, have mercy on me,” and “Mary, help me.” And right after he was born, I said an immediate prayer of thanksgiving, just a “Thank you, God!”
In retrospect, where was God in your birthing process? Was there a place where you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or Mary?
God was present throughout. I definitely felt the Holy Spirit as I was laboring in the tub. My doula had placed gauze pads soaked in clary sage essential oil around the tub, and breathing in the scent was reminiscent of smelling incense at Mass, which aided in my prayers. And I was reminded strongly of Mary when my baby boy was placed in my arms, because I felt like my joy mirrored her joy at the birth of Jesus (albeit in a lesser way, because nothing can compare to giving birth to the Savior of the world!).
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The times in my life when I have felt closest to God were immediately following childbirth, when my new child has been placed in my arms. The experience always magnifies my awe and wonder at the miracle of creation, and I feel so humbled that God allows [us] to participate in the creation of a new soul.
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JoAnna’s story of openness, cooperation, and yielding is a good example of a woman leaning on many elements in her spirituality, including a devotion to Mary and to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. She made significant efforts to be prepared for the work of labor, as well as creating an environment that reminded her and others that God was present. Finally, her child’s birth was graced with the gift of joy, a sign of the Holy Spirit.
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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.