The Common Good
December 2010

Unto Us a Child is Given

by Susan Windley-Daoust | December 2010

Why is it such a fight to have a 'natural' childbirth?

Few people are going to confuse me for the stereotypical earth-mother type, weaving baby diapers out of organic cotton, sipping raspberry-leaf tea to get ready for labor, and mashing and storing my own lovingly raised carrots for a first baby food. I’ve always wanted to be that kind of mother, but I'm not.

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Still, the first time I realized I was expecting a child -- and later, when I saw the ultrasound image, that little boy kicking and having a grand time -- I knew this was a sacred moment, and a cherished life. I wanted to embrace this tiny boy in the same way I felt he was already embraced by a merciful God: through a loving, prayerful, and happy gestation, birth, and life.

My husband and I fell into a program called the Bradley method as a way of trying to give birth safely, relatively comfortably, and spiritually. Bradley practitioners hold the belief that, well over 90 percent of the time, women know how to give birth without drugs and interventions, and with knowledge and support, they will.

I must admit that when we were told by our Bradley instructor what could happen without much (if any) consent in the hospital -- routine episiotomies, being trapped on your back in a bed (easily the most painful position for a woman in labor), being placed on a stopwatch chasing the time down to a mandatory Caesarean section -- we didn’t quite believe it. When that same instructor suggested it would be worthwhile to engage a doula to give support during labor and delivery (see "Why I'm Becoming a Doula," page 19), we thought we’d be okay without one and didn’t want to spend the money.

So what happened when I went into labor? After laboring at home for 15 hours, we went to the hospital, where it was clear that the personnel did not have any significant experience with women wanting to give birth naturally and without drugs, and therefore had no idea how to assist. Even with a birth plan on file, we had to fight every single hospital protocol for a more natural approach. For new parents who were nervous and (ahem) in some serious discomfort, it was wearing and confusing.

It didn’t help to have an attending nurse who seemed extremely uncomfortable with natural childbirth -- through the worst of it, when I was gasping and trying to calmly state how much pain I was in, she threw in cheerfully passive-aggressive statements such as "Well, honey, this is what natural childbirth is like!" and "You know, we don’t want you to bleed to death." Then, when I said I taught Catholic theology at the local Catholic university, she responded that she had worked for Planned Parenthood for many years. That still counts as one of the most bizarre conversations of my life, but given I was having painful contractions every three minutes, I didn’t really have time to think about it.

Long story short, 24 hours later I gave birth to my beautiful, healthy, wailing son by C-section, like more than 30 percent of American mothers these days. When I was wheeled into the operating room, the relief and good cheer of the operating team was palpable. In part, I think they were trying to keep my spirits up. But I also think they were giddily relieved, even at 3 a.m., to finally be on their own ground -- treating this birth as an event managed rather than a gift received.

For the birth of our next child (and the next, and the next), we switched hospitals and got a doula. And I had three natural childbirths, three healthy children, and left the hospital a healthy mom.

Of course, there are times when drugs and other medical interventions are absolute life-savers, and we thank God for them. But the rest of the time, I think there are many gifts in a natural childbirth that make flouting current medical convention worth it. And one of the biggest gifts is that natural childbirth helps us realize we cannot do this alone.

We cannot do this alone. Well, isn't that why most of us go to hospitals? Although there can be exceptions, anyone going to a hospital craving companionship for this journey is very likely to be disappointed. I know some women who go to the hospital, get the routinely offered and accepted epidural, and watch TV with their husband or friend until it's time to push. After all, there’s nobody else to talk to, you can’t get out of bed, and there's nothing to do.

When I suggest that we cannot do this alone, I am suggesting that we need something more than medical interventions, as necessary as those sometimes are. When we become, in the fullest sense of the term, new mothers, we are aware as never before of all our relationships and connections -- with the baby’s father, the baby, the siblings, the grandparents, the friends. And through those relationships, we see and step into a calling that God has given us: Being a mother. This child is your son, your daughter. Love this child with Me. Let us all love this child, together. An amazing thing has happened: A child, loved by God, created in God's image and desired for God’s kingdom, has been given to us.

If we want to see this calling of motherhood and loving relationship clearly, we need the support of real people (not drugs and TVs), including, for example: A doula who is encouraging and advocating for you; the child’s father, encouraged by the doula to be a loving support rather than Mr. Fix-it; and the friends and family members who are praying for you at home or in the hospital and who come with meals and offers of help afterward. And if we want to see this calling clearly, it is ideal to be surrounded by people who recognize that giving birth is a spiritual act of cooperation with God's amazing grace. We don't need to be surrounded by theologians, but simply by people who recognize and respect the humanity of the mother, the child, and the sacredness of the event. We do not, and should not, have to realize alone what it means to be a disciple of Christ in these circumstances. Especially when we are standing at the edge of a pit named pain.

The other gift of natural childbirth is the practice in not being afraid. It's been said that the most common statement in the gospels is "Be not afraid!" Between the enormity of the impending event, the polished war stories of other women’s labors, and the medical practice that more or less tells you "you know you’ll need the drugs," "be not afraid" is a very tall order. Yet perhaps it is the way it was meant to be.

Grantly Dick-Read, a 20th century British obstetrician credited as the "father of the natural childbirth movement," held that pain was not inevitable in a normal, healthy childbirth, and that alleviating fear was the key to a healthy, positive, relatively painless experience. When we become afraid, we tense up, and tense muscles cannot expand and stretch into the shape needed to push this little person out, at least not without pain.

So we practice relaxing, we lean into whomever can support us during a contraction -- and we trust, we trust, we trust. I cannot claim my childbirths were painless, but they were, with that practice and attitude and help, entirely doable. We seem to forget that our bodies are created to accomplish this exact, amazing thing: the birth of a human person.

But oh, the temptation to fear. Fear, I am convinced, is the psychological root of all sin; we make so many decisions for ill in the name of being afraid -- of what my friends will say, of how that country will react, of the unknown future, of speaking out. While having a painful childbirth is not sinful (there is a certain amount of luck here, involving baby positions and more), any childbirth is a wonderful gift to practice letting go and trusting God.

We need all the practice we can get, for the long haul of parenting as well as discipleship. Let those muscles stretch, and push when your body says push. God is there, whispering: "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" (Isaiah 41:10).

Susan Windley-Daoust is an assistant professor of theology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and mother of four children. She is writing a book on a theology of childbirth.

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