How do you learn to see God’s gift to you during birth? Three spiritual keys to living out a contemplative attitude can help you “pay attention” in your pregnancy and beyond.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
If “paying attention” is a large part of perceiving the sign of birth, and if gestation and giving birth were designed by God to help you spiritually grow closer to him, is it really as simple as opening our eyes and looking?
This article is adapted from chapter six of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Wait—Isn’t Birth Supposed to Hurt?” 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.
In a sense, yes. But perhaps you were in elementary school, sitting in a desk doodling in your notebook, and you didn’t notice that the class had moved on to another topic. “Pay attention!” your teacher scolded. Well, your eyes were open and you were paying attention . . . to your doodle. The challenge is to what—or Whom— should we pay attention? There are three spiritual keys to living out a contemplative attitude that can help you “pay attention” in your pregnancy and beyond. Following are the three spiritual keys to giving birth:
1. Relax and give God permission to work in your life.
This little gem comes from Fr. Bob Sears, SJ, and when I first heard him say it, I thought it was simplistic. But it is actually genius. In opening the day by praying, “God, I give you permission to work in my life,” you are deliberately announcing your openness to God. You are saying you are open to God’s will. And you are saying you are ready to receive the Holy Spirit. Of course, God doesn’t need your permission to work in your life. But he wants it, because he will not force his will on you; he respects your freedom.
The second piece is to relax. Our God is a giver of good gifts. He is also providential, and the Holy Spirit is Love Itself. You may know circumstances are hard. But to relax is to make an act of trust in God. There is no better place to be than in God’s hands, no matter the challenges. You can, and should, relax.
2. Cooperate with God’s intention to realize your motherhood through your body now.
If the first key boils down to “be ready to receive,” the second key is to “be ready to give.” One of the elements of motherhood is to welcome your child and make room for him or her in your life. Indeed, this begins during pregnancy with your very body: your body was designed to carry a child, but there is no question it gets uncomfortably crowded in the last trimester. You give room. You cooperate by doing what you can to nurture this unborn child. You eat relatively well, you stop smoking or drinking, you talk to the child and pray for the child. And you prepare for birth, spiritually and physically, as you can.
As we move forward in the following chapters, I will ask you to consider: At each point of giving birth, how is your birthing body given in love? That question may help you focus on the practice of self-gift.
3. Practice yielding to the Holy Spirit.
Yielding is a wonderful word in this context. It can refer to fruitfulness (such as a field yielding a crop), but for this third key, I use the more common understanding of the word: to bend or give way. As the Lord and Giver of Life, the Holy Spirit is much of the raw power behind the act of giving birth, and we mothers yield to that power through how we handle contractions and pushing. Contractions typically begin very gently, but by the end can have the intensity of a tidal wave. It is best to learn how to yield to and cooperate with that power rather than stand against it. To brace yourself against a contraction is like bracing yourself against a tsunami: it does not work. There are concrete ways we can try to yield to the work of God in this event. Before birth, praying for an increased ability to yield to the Holy Spirit is a beautiful act of Christian discipleship which will bear fruit beyond the birthing event.
So, am I praying my way through this childbirth?
Well, you certainly could pray your way through. Many women do, including women who do not consider themselves particularly religious. Many people name giving birth as one of the most spiritual events in their lives. Prayer is a natural way to respond to a spiritual event.
Having said that, if you see prayer in terms of some formal ritual that must be observed in a particular fashion, in a particular order, with a particular reverence, you may be setting false expectations as to what birth is like. Giving birth is often unpredictable—some women give birth quickly, some slowly. The birth may be medically uncomplicated, or serious medical challenges may arise. Some women experience little pain, and others a lot. Some births are quiet, with an attendant and a spouse, others have a medical cast of thousands. Personally, I would suggest having a birth plan (a list of preferred medical practices within the birthing process, filed with your medical provider before the birth). But I would avoid making a spiritual plan other than these spiritual keys. If suggestions are made in the following chapters that you want to adopt, please do so.
But part of paying attention to the activity of the Holy Spirit in helping you give birth involves knowing what is appropriate to the time. Usually, that is cooperating with the act of giving birth, and that is both a physical and prayerful occupation, enough for any birthing mother.
For prayerful reflection
- As you may have noticed, these spiritual keys are appropriate to giving birth but may be employed at any time. Could you pray, “God, I give you permission to work in my life”? It is a short sentence, so take time to re-collect yourself, look within, and say the sentence slowly five to ten times, letting it sink in. This may help you to be more open to God’s work. Then, could you relax? How would you relax as an act of trust in God?
- It may help to add to your nightly prayer repertoire an “act of trust.” This one is offered by Bishop Michael Sis:
Lord Jesus, I trust in you.
I place my life in your hands.
I place our world in your hands. I cannot know the future.
Help me to trust that, no matter what future difficulties this world may bring, you will always be there,
to give me the graces I will need in that moment.
Help me to remember
that you are already there waiting for me, in the future that I have yet to experience.
I thank you for your protection and your love.
 “An Act of Trust,” available at http://archive.austindiocese.org/ dept/vocations/prayers.php.
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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.