Childbirth has a spiritual meaning that goes beyond the existence of new life—as profound as that is. Childbirth teaches us how to make room for God, receive grace, and live in relationship with the Holy Spirit.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
“ . . . if I were to name my own most profound spiritual or theological experience, without hesitation I would cite the birth of my three children. This has nothing to do with my fondness for babies as such—like everyone else they can be charming or difficult, attractive or not—nor with my personal (and biased) relationship with my own children. Rather, each birth was a glimpse into the mystery of Creation and Incarnation.”1
“When we had our first child, admittedly a somewhat easy delivery with no medicine involved, I felt as though my husband and I were with God at the dawn of creation. Nothing . . . brought me as close to a sense of God creating and loving his creation (“And God saw that it was good”) as that morning when the air was as pure as the day after a storm and God’s power and love flooded the room. It remains, along with the delivery of my second child, the most deeply spiritual experience of my life.”2
“[W]orking with the delivery process . . . can be a growing personal, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual experience. But we have to take the chance and work through the experience. By my fourth delivery, [which occurred] on Holy Saturday, I did have a mystical experience that I wouldn’t trade for any pain-free, medically induced delivery. While I know we are all different and have different pain thresholds, I always viewed myself as weak when it came to pain, but through each childbirth God showed me how strong I can be when I unite myself to Him. With Him I can accomplish anything that is within His will.”3
How often have we heard this—a woman identifying giving birth to her child as one of her deepest spiritual experiences? Her husband, the child’s father, often responds that way as well, with a speechless awe after the baby is born.
Yet it is hard to talk about. It’s so much easier to talk about the “brass tacks” medical details: epidurals and dilation and birthing positions and the pros and cons of water birth. It’s true that women may often speak easily of the spiritual gift that is their newborn child. But what about the experience of giving birth to that child? If giving birth can be a spiritual experience, why do we never explore how that is so? Is there something designed by God in the process of giving birth that leads us to experience the presence of God in a profound way?
This article is adapted from the foreword to The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust. 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.
I am a mother to five children, four born to me and the fifth adopted into our family. After the first three births—all of which “spoke” to me in different ways—my life went down a new road. I experienced a renewal of my life in Christ that was by equal measures unexpected and soul shaking, and it led me to a deep appreciation of birth as a model of the spiritual life, and a spiritual experience in itself. Allow me to share a personal story that might shed some light on what I mean:
When my third child was one year old, I experienced a few weeks of unsettled discontent with my by-all-external-accounts flourishing life—sadness, emptiness, and scattershot anxiety about everything and nothing. One night I had a dream about going to confession. In the dream, I approached the confessional door, but didn’t step inside. This dream played on repeat all night long. I woke up rattled and wondering what the dream could mean. Amid my wondering, I decided to attend daily Mass. The homily had nothing to do with the Scripture readings for the day, focusing instead on the virtues of going to confession. Truly unnerved by this point, I walked back to my office and promptly made an appointment with my pastor to hear my confession. The next day, I was “living the dream,” standing outside the confessional and wondering what on Earth I was doing there. Suddenly, it occurred to me: I had not been praying. Granted, the anxiety I had been experiencing made it hard—but I had also given up. That is what I needed to confess. So, I did.
Later that evening, I began to pray, and was overwhelmed by an experience of the Holy Spirit. Where there was once nothing (or so it felt), suddenly there was SOMETHING, infinitely more than I could handle. It was beautiful, but also scary. I didn’t know what was going on, really, but I knew I was not in control of what was happening, and was unsure why God wanted to give me such joy (there was that) but also such pain, such literally painful homesickness. A strangely familiar and unfamiliar joy and pain and life and dying that pointed me to God, and said “Pay attention.”
The reason I share this? As I moved into the intensely God-breathed days that followed this experience, a single clarifying thought kept returning to me: This is a lot like giving birth; it feels as if something is trying to be born. And it did, in my soul and in the marrow of my bones: impossible to distract oneself away from this, a sudden clearing in the forest of life, an expectant and somewhat painful waiting, a knowing what to do and not knowing what to do all at once, the sense that my life is changing here and now. I remembered, with surprise and gratitude: I’ve been here before. Spiritually, this reminded me intensely, startlingly, of when I gave birth. And that experience of giving birth gave me a sense of how to handle the gift of prayer that God so graciously gave me.
Since human beings are a unity of body and soul, this shouldn’t be that surprising. The spirit affects the body, and the body the spirit, in mysterious ways.4 To anyone who thinks that something as earthy as childbirth cannot have a spiritual dimension, I would ask, how could it not? Especially since it is not some random bodily function, but part of the first covenant God made with Adam and Eve, to be fruitful? True, childbirth is part of the fallen world, and I will talk about that. But it doesn’t lose its design to point the mother and those helping her to the lavish love of God. Childbirth has a spiritual meaning that goes beyond the existence of new life—as profound as that is. Childbirth teaches us how to make room for God, receive grace, and live in relationship with the Holy Spirit.
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