Understanding spirituality in midwifery and birth is something that can illuminate our experiences as women and birth professionals. Spiritual birth is not just about candle-lit homebirths with chanting; it is recognising the spiritual in each and every individual. Seeing the meaning in the transformative experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood. In this acknowledgement we cannot help but be compassionate and respectful, recognising the impact in universal proportions, the birth experience for both mother and baby.
“Spirituality is about seeking a meaningful connection with something bigger than yourself, which can result in positive emotions, such as peace, awe, contentment, gratitude, and acceptance.”
This explains perfectly how I see the essence of spirituality reflected in the women’s’ stories I have encountered, walking alongside them as their midwife or doula. Spirituality is not the same as religion, it can mean something different to each person but includes a sense of being connected to something bigger. It can be difficult to define, but amongst the vast expanse of possibility it can include connection to the self, to others, to the divine, intuition, transformation, a sense of purpose and faith (Crowther & Hall, 2017).
For me personally and many I meet it feels like a journey that we choose to take, or sometimes takes us, from where we start to discover meaning in our lives and experiences.
“The knowledge that each and every childbirth is a spiritual experience has been forgotten by too many people in the world today..”
Ina May Gaskin, Spiritual Midwifery
Rather than being a medical process to measure and chart, it is an opportunity enabling us to connect with ourselves on a deeper level and potentially experience something transcendent.
- beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience
- surpassing the ordinary; exceptional
- existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe
It is a place where we honour and recognise birth as a transformative experience that will not only impact on our inner self as a woman and mother, but one that ripples out to our partners, children and community.
Peace and acceptance
One of my clients, a rural home educating farming family, booked me as an independent midwife for the homebirth of their seventh baby, having had five pregnancies, which included two sets of twins. From first meeting her I knew she had a deeply held faith in Christianity and she then told me her birth stories, including the story of free birthing her second set of twins.Her previous births had all been in hospital, medicalised, being told to birth her twins, following two normal vaginal births, in lithotomy position. After the first baby was born she felt intense pressure to get the next baby birthed with the use of syntocinon to increase contractions. She felt in her heart this was not what she wanted for her next babies.
She had no concept of free birthing as we know it on social media, she wasn’t part of a community who chose this way, she just felt called to birth her babies, at home, with complete trust in the process. She birthed her babies one night in the downstairs bathroom and then took them to bed, calling the midwives the next morning. She told me how the midwives were quite cross with her the next day when they arrived at the house, telling her ‘You could’ve died’. You could see how saddended she was to be judged in this way, with no respect for her decision.
For me, having my own beliefs around birth and spirituality, I understood her choice, and felt in awe of her making this decision. From the courage and faith that guided her in her decision making, to the safe outcome she experienced, she had taught me to expand my own awareness and trust in the process.
A sense of knowing and the feeling of being connected to something more than our human experience can foster an acceptance of outcomes, both positive and negative. When a woman has a deep sense of spiritual beliefs, she will often walk a path that others would fear to tread. Not because of an unrealistic belief in perfect outcomes, but because alongside an often unshakeable faith in her own body, she has an acceptance of the spectrum of possibility.
Making Birth Spiritual
“spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”
Christina Puchalski, MD, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health
By recognising the ‘significance’ and the ‘sacred’, we can acknowledge the individual way each woman and family approaches birth. Seeing birth as a rite of passage has always been a central tenet of my midwifery philosophy and is key to the spiritual birth. A rite of passage, in the case of birth, is an important life event that marks the transition from one phase of our life to another. When we honour this transition through ceremony, through our language and behaviour we are recognising the spiritual aspect of birth and the profound impact it has on our sense of self, connection with others and with something greater.
Ways we bring the spiritual in to birth can include:
- mother blessing ceremony
- creating birth art
- creating a cord tie
- lotus birth and placental rituals
- finding community with others
- connecting with the self through journaling
- connecting with the baby through meditation
- asking the baby what they need when making choices
- clearing previous trauma
- connecting with our intuition
- honouring our own needs and making choices
- privacy, darkness
- silence in theatre as a baby is born via caesarean
- respect for the uniqueness of birth – declining vaginal examinations, listening in to the heartbeat during labour
For many midwives and doctors, and the lay community, making choices such as the twin story would be labelled as irrational/dangerous/selfish, yet those of us who hold our own spirituality within us, are often able to step outside the limitations of right and wrong, judging behaviour, able to see that bigger picture. This experience is not ours to own, and recognising the spiritual dimension to an individual experience of birth is paramount to truly holistic respectful care. This can be challenging for some, but ultimately can be a rewarding place to be.
Spirituality and Childbearing-Meaning and Care at the start of life. Crowther and Hall, 2017.
A spiritual exploration of the stages of labour, beautifully written.
Exploring the formative nature of birth incorporating pre and perinatal psychology. Birth is NOT just a physical experience.
Marianne Littlejohn has worked independently in South Africa for many years, incorporating spirituality into her practice and writing.
Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson on Unsplash.