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Creating Sacred Space For Birthing

By Bethany Hays, MD

We are the guardians of the most sacred moment in the lives of women and their families, with implications for the long-term health of both. It’s a moment when nine months of hopes, anxiety, planning, purchasing, celebrating, putting up with being uncomfortable, being too big, being not big enough, and being in pain becomes separation, relief, responsibility, and falling in love.

In a nation where the largest change in the religious landscape is the 6.7% increase in people who do not identify with any organized religion, it takes a bit of digging in to speak of the sacred. Leaving aside the religious connotations, the word sacred means to “set something aside” and “make it worthy of respect.” So as the guardians of this moment, how do we ensure that, no matter what occurs in the birthing room, labor room, or operating room, the moment of birth is sacred?

It starts with creating a sacred space. This can be hard in the chaos of a hospital labor room that may be preparing for emergency interventions. So start where you are in control: in your own heart and mind. In medical school they teach that if your patient is in cardiac arrest, the first step in resuscitation is to check your own pulse. Meaning stop, take a breath, slow your heart, and bring yourself into coherence by calling on a feeling of gratitude.

“Coherence” is an idea promoted by the HeartMath Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps people of all ages rebalance, rejuvenate, and reconnect with their hearts. Imagine a torus of energy around your heart. A torus is a doughnut-shaped ring with a concave hole in the center. Imagine it surrounding you, with your torso in the hole. Then reach out with the energy coming from this electromagnetic field of your heart to envelop the woman you are caring for, as well as her partner, her caregivers—everyone who will be helping her. This calm, loving energy can bring others into coherence, allowing them to think more clearly and creatively, to be calmer, to make better decisions. According to researchers at the HeartMath Institute, “In a coherent team, there is freedom for the individual members to do their part and thrive while maintaining cohesion and resonance within the larger group’s intent and goals.” Groups in heart coherence communicate better and are more efficient. The people in them thrive individually and work together better as a team.

Now set your intention. Gladys McGarey, M.D., the mother of holistic medicine, once said to me, “You can’t control death, and you can’t control birth.” So, if you think you’re at a birth to make something happen, you’re kidding yourself. You’re there to create an environment. You bring your experience of birth as a truly amazing and magical event. You bring your knowledge that birth can be easy, free of suffering, and orgasmic, even if it doesn’t happen that way every time. I bring a faith that the universe is not random, that it is evolving, that everyone in the room with me has a role in that process.

Think about what you bring. Bring your hope that the right thing will happen next. That everyone there is doing his or her best in that moment. That whatever happens, you can help to share your faith in the process. You can ease the suffering of the doctor or midwife, who are trying to make the right decisions. Of the nurse, who is trying to help keep her patient safe. Of the family members who are trying to support the birthing woman and welcome the next member of their family. Of the mother who is working to bring in new life.

I once attended a birthing woman who was being thrown out of her body by each contraction. Each time she pushed, she would just disappear for a few seconds and become unresponsive. Then she would return in a state of panic, not knowing where she was. The father was concerned, and the nurse was alarmed. I had to bring coherence to that situation. I put my hands on both of her legs and imagined that I was the trunk of a great tree, grounded deep into the soil, gently holding her with my branches, keeping her connected to the earth. “You don’t have to push that hard,” I said. “Let’s breathe together and let your uterus do some of the work.” Things calmed down, and she stayed with me—and, of course, the baby was soon in her arms. Later she described feeling disoriented and scared. “I looked at my husband, and he looked scared,” she told me. “I looked at the nurse, and she looked scared. I looked at you and you didn’t look scared. So I just kept looking at you!”

Did I know what was happening? No, not really. Was I scared? Well, yes. I hadn’t seen that particular version of birth before, although I had seen women leave their bodies in birth. Did I lie and say, “This is perfectly normal,” so that everyone would be unafraid? No, lying never works. But I knew to trust the process and to create an environment in the room so that the mother, father, and nurse could also trust. That is the respect I believe is embodied in the definition of sacred. That was what I had to offer: Knowing that I was not in charge. Not knowing the outcome.

And yes, if the baby had been in trouble I might have been called upon to do something about it. If the mother had shown signs of physical deterioration, I might have had to intervene in a different way. I was in my obstetrician brain watching all those things. But I was also in my heart, trusting the process, creating sacred space. Doing the good work of the doula and the midwife.