The births of my four children have all been quite different. I’ve birthed in the hospital with an obstetrician attending. I’ve had a homebirth. I’ve birthed at the hospital with a midwife; and now my fourth child would be born in a birth center. Internally, I’ve been in different places too when it came time to give birth. My first was born after I had lost my job when I was eight months pregnant and I had no idea how we would provide for her. My second daughter started out in the wrong position, and so the labor was long and difficult. Not having the level of communication I needed from my care provider, I was fearful and tense. The feelings of fear and the level of pain I experienced made for a traumatic birth experience. With my third, almost four years later, I knew the importance of feeling safe and secure in order to help labor progress quickly. This time, I was also supremely confident in my body’s ability to birth my third daughter without intervention. Although my 40 week due date came and went, I knew she would come at the day and time planned by God and I was at peace. Finally, at 41 weeks, I was in labor. Before her birth and during the labor, I felt like I was in “the zone.” My meditation was, “Let it be done to me according to your word”. In labor, as each contraction came, I allowed it. I would completely relax my whole body, and, though painful, at no point did the contractions become more than I could handle. The labor progressed quickly, and before I knew it, she was born.
This time, however, things were different. Mentally, I just didn’t know how to get into that calm confidence that I had experienced with Nadia’s birth. Frankly, I was scared of the pain and I didn’t know how to psychologically be okay with it. Part of me wonders if perhaps my feelings were a lack of trust, a sort of pessimistic thinking that two perfect births would be too good to be true. But part of me thinks, maybe I just knew. Maybe I knew that this birth would be more challenging and that was God’s grace preparing me. As it turned out, this child would be in the wrong position — face up rather than face down, which made for a longer and more painful experience. Funny thing is that now, if I were going to do it all over again tonight, that is, go into labor at midnight and give birth about 2:40 tomorrow afternoon, I would have no fear about it. I would simply take each contraction as it came and be at peace. Even knowing that it would be difficult and painful, it would be fine because now I know what to expect and I know beforehand when would be the end. I guess it’s the unknown that causes me so much vexation. But why? Knowing that it will be quite difficult is fine. Not knowing what to expect, however, but fearing it might be very difficult, is not fine. So why can’t we just be at peace, and know that whether particular moments of our lives will be easy or difficult God will give us the grace we need when the time comes?
Went I went into labor on the date my child was born, despite my mental hangups, I was still able to fully relax my body during the contractions. I noticed that fully relaxing into the contractions increased the intensity of the pain a bit. In labor there is a choice. The woman can remain tense and disallow the fullness of the contractions, though doing so will prolong labor. But if she can “let it be done” labor will progress more quickly. Bearing life is not passive. We don’t exactly have to “do,” but we have to allow it. Women are the bearers of life, and if it is to be fully realized, it requires our yes.
Perhaps this is the gift of Femininity, our huge contribution to the world. We teach others to say yes to life. We teach others to let life unfold. My own American culture likes to have everything planned, like a very neatly arranged museum, beautiful but essentially cold and lifeless. Life, however, is not that way. It rarely goes according to plan, literally and figuratively. Pregnancies happen when they weren’t planned. Or maybe we planned for a pregnancy but it doesn’t come. Or maybe it comes but then ends too soon, and loss becomes part of our lives, and somehow in the struggle we have to learn to give our assent to that kind of pain instead.
As I labored, sometime in the middle of the night my in-laws arrived at my house to stay with our sleeping children and my husband and I went to the Birth Center. Shortly after that, my spiritual mother and Elizabeth Ministry founder, Jeannie Hannemann, arrived to help me usher this child into the world as she had done with the last. Jeannie is a trained doula and along with some of her doula tools, she arrived with her spiritual “tools”–her Bible; seven first class relics of the Martyrs of Thailand; Oil of St. Joseph; holy water with Essence of St. Nicholas; gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and most importantly, the Eucharist.
When she arrived, Jeannie placed the pix holding the Eucharist on the nightstand next to the bed along with a candle. The relics she placed in my hand while praying and rubbing the oils on my forehead and hands. Although I didn’t have the assurance that labor would be swift, I knew that however it went, Jesus would be with me, not just in His omnipresence, but in the physicality of the Eucharist as well. I knew that when I chose to receive Him, I could. It’s likely that the first birth blessed with the Presence of Jesus was John the Baptist’s. Perhaps Mary, with Jesus in her womb, assisted her cousin in birth before she returned home again. I feel it would be a good thing that, following the example of Mary and Elizabeth, Elizabeth Ministers could receive doula training and bring the Eucharist to Catholic laboring women.
Toward morning, after I had been laboring all night, Jeannie prayed aloud the Litany for Laboring Women, which contains the names of every Saint I could find who had given birth. Once again, as at my last birth, I felt surrounded with the presence of the many women who have gone before me, praying for me in that moment before the face of God, women who also had the vocation of motherhood, who experienced childbirth, and who achieved great holiness. This time, I also added a petition to my four miscarried babies. It read, “Isabela, Solanus, Angel, and Rosario, please pray for your sibling who is now being born.”
The last time I had been in labor, I had decided that I wanted to receive the Eucharist moments before I entered transition, that is, the most difficult part of labor when contractions are their strongest — experienced just before the woman can begin pushing. This time I decided I needed the Eucharist even though I wasn’t so close to the end yet. Sitting in a chair, with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, Jeannie prayed and I prayed with her when I could. After a few minutes, she placed the Eucharist in front of my eyes and said, “The body of Christ.” A contraction was beginning and I could not even get “Amen” out, but I opened my mouth and Jeannie placed the Eucharist on my tongue. The contraction mounted. As the Eucharist sat on my tongue it felt like my hips were going to break apart. This is my body broken for you.
I bowed my head in my hands and cried. During my pregnancy I had felt so distant from God. I couldn’t pray when I tried to and some days I hadn’t even tried. But now, during this moment when I needed Him the most, He came to me. He was here, being broken for me whether I felt warm and fuzzy or whether I felt distant. Because God is God and He does not change who He is based upon our whims, our successes, or even our failures.
The thing about back labor with a posterior baby is that it’s too painful, more painful than we can handle. Although people say that God will never give us more than we can handle, I don’t think I believe that. Sometimes things in life happen that ARE more than we can handle. People bear the pain of their spouse’s infidelity. Parents have children who die. Couples bear the unbearable pain of infertility. There are millions of children who are abused and trafficked. We can’t handle it, and we break. Maybe that’s the point though. Maybe it’s in that moment, in the breaking, that we come to understand the profundity of Christ’s love for us. “This is my body broken for you.” Broken. For YOU. Jesus, too, was given more than he could bear. That’s why He fell three times. He was broken. In fact, His breaking literally killed him. But even though He could have stopped it, He allowed His own breaking. For you.
Finally, toward mid-afternoon, my body began to shiver. I wasn’t cold but my body shook just the same. Almost as soon as one double-peaking contraction ended another one began again. I knew I was in transition. I could no longer complete the breathing exercises designed to help me cope. Although the pain was unbearable, there was exactly twice that I was able to give a small yes. I couldn’t completely and thoroughly relax my whole body through the contractions as I had before. Two times, however, I decided that I could relax my body just a little bit. I couldn’t give my full yes, but maybe I could give just a little more than I was. I didn’t know it then, but it would be enough.
Although I had been on my side, I sat up. I wanted to bury my face in my husband’s chest and I wanted his arms surrounding me. He’s always been my safe place and I was done. I couldn’t handle anymore. I whispered to my husband that I couldn’t do this anymore. There was just no end in sight and I didn’t care if I got a C-Section or an epidural, just as long as the pain stopped. He looked at me. Even I, ever the optimist, had given up.
As I looked at him waiting for his reaction, it happened. My body began to bear down–involuntarily and forcefully bear down. It’s called the fetal ejection reflex and I yelled through a half grunt, “Baby’s coming!!!” I tried to scramble to the edge of the bed and the others helped me. When that contraction ended, I moved to a kneeling position on the floor. When another contraction came I pushed with all my strength. I decided I didn’t like that position, however, and after that contraction ended, I moved to the birthing tub.
In the tub I tried to refocus. I had just given up and had fully embraced the thought of a C-Section even though I knew the recovery would be its own kind of challenge, but as long as it meant being pain-free in the present, I was okay with that. Now, suddenly baby was coming and I needed to do a mental shift. I took a deep breath. “I can do this,” I said aloud. It was nearly over for me. All I had to do was push my baby out. So I pushed, and my husband pushed with all his strength on my back. As I felt the baby getting lower, I knew his head was low in my pelvis. My water broke. I could feel that my baby was in the birth canal, then crowning. I pushed again and his head was out. One more push and I knew I’d be done.
From the moment on the bed when I yelled that the baby was coming, to the moment he was born, was about 15 minutes. At the moment I had given up I didn’t know that I had already had my last unbearable contraction. I didn’t know that I wasn’t hours from the end. I was just mere minutes.
My son was born very healthy and strong. And oh, is there any relief greater than when your baby is out of your body? Once the umbilical cord was cut, Jeannie held the baby while I got out of the tub and walked to the bed. I was ready to lie down, get skin-to-skin, and nurse my little one. When everything was over, my husband and I took a nap together with our son. When we woke up at 5:30 that evening, we got our things together and went home to join the rest of our family and to introduce our newest addition to his three older sisters. Being born on the feast of Saint Benedict, we named him Mateo Benedicto.
Before I formed you in the womb I Knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5