“Rigid plans work best if you’re building a skyscraper; with something as mysteriously human as giving birth, it’s best, both literally and figuratively, to keep your knees bent.” –Mark Sloan, MD (Birth Day)
Today I spent a few minutes listening to a lovely webinar by Amy Glenn, the author of Birth, Breath, & Death. The topic was Supporting a Birthing Woman’s Spiritual Practice and I was immediately caught by Amy’s comparison of giving birth to kneeling in prayer. She mentioned that giving birth may drop us to our knees, just as those who pray may pray on their knees. Since I’m currently writing about birth as a spiritual experience, I connected to this implied notion: birth as embodied prayer. And, looking at the webinar photo of a woman kneeling in child’s pose, my own birth-prayers came vividly to mind. In my first labor, I spent a lot of time on my knees, later wishing that I had also given birth on hands and knees rather than being encouraged to birth in a semi-sitting position that I felt contributed to tearing. Later, when I discovered birthing room yoga, I loved realizing that these kneeling postures that I adopted spontaneously and intuitively in my first labor were yoga poses—an inherent body wisdom I carried within me, waiting to arise when called upon. This is part of my first birth story, briefly touching on my time on my knees…
Mark & Mom were wonderfully supportive of me as I labored. I tried various positions and they stacked up pillows for me on the bed so that I could be on my hands and knees on a soft surface (they put the Boppy onto some other pillows to make a “well” for my belly) and then Mom read some of my birth affirmations to me. That worked for a while. I also tried the birth ball for a while and ended up spending a lot of time on my knees on the floor with my head and arms resting on a pillow on the bed…
Kneeling to birth played a prominent role in my second birth experience as well and I have frequently described the rapid birth of my second son as an experience that literally drove me to my knees. When writing about this birth experience, I said:
I was extremely proud of my body and its super-awesomeness :) I felt that my sense of birth trust was physically manifested in my actual birth experience. My body was a powerful and unstoppable force and I had to get out of my own way and let it happen! I felt driven to my hands and knees–like a power was holding me there. After the birth my body felt weak and “run over by a truck”—I felt powerful and like a warrior during the birth…
And, in perhaps my most spiritually meaningful birth experience, the home miscarriage-birth of my third baby also brought me to my knees:
When I was still having the “HOW?” questions, other women that I knew who had experienced miscarriage started to come to mind and I knew I could do it too. I told myself that I had to do what I had to do. I said out loud, “let go, let go, let go.” I said I was okay and “my body knows what to do.” The afternoon I found out the baby died, I’d received a package that included a little lavender sachet as a free gift with my order. When my labor began, for some reason I wanted the sachet and held and smelled it throughout the experience. As I chanted to myself, “let go, let go, let go,” I smelled my sachet (later, I read in one of my miscarriage books that in aromatherapy lavender is for letting go). I also told myself, “I can do it, I can do it” and “I’m okay, I’m okay.” I felt like I should get more upright and though it was very difficult to move out of the safety of child’s pose, I got up onto my knees and felt a small pop/gush. I checked and it was my water breaking. The water was clear and a small amount. I was touched that now these gray pants were my water-breaking pants too…
Contractions continued fairly intensely and I continue to talk myself through them while Mark rubbed my back. I coached myself to rise again and after I sat back on my heels, I felt a warm blob leave my body. I put my hand down and said, “something came out. I need to look, but I’m scared.” Then, “I can do it, I can do it,” I coached myself and went into the bathroom to check (it was extremely important to me not to have the baby on the toilet). I saw that it was a very large blood clot. I was a little confused and wondered if we were going to have to “dissect” the clot looking for the baby. Then I had another contraction and, standing with my knees slightly bent, our baby slipped out…
When the time came to gave birth to my rainbow daughter, she brought me to my knees as well and she was the only baby I caught in my own hands while in a kneeling position. Here is a segment from her birth-prayer:
At some point in the bathroom, I said, “I think this is pushing.” I was feeling desperate for my water to break. It felt like it was in the way and holding things up. I reached my hand down and thought I felt squooshy sac-ish feeling, but Mom and Mark looked and could not see anything. And, it still didn’t break. Mom mentioned that I should probably go to my birth nest in order to avoid having the baby on the toilet. My birth nest was a futon stack near the bathroom door. I got down on hands and knees after feeling like I might not make it all the way to the futons. Felt like I wanted to kneel on hard floor before reaching the nest.
…I couldn’t find her heartbeat and started to feel a little panicky about that as well as really uncomfortable and then threw the Doppler to the side saying, “forget it!” because big pushing was coming. I was down on hands and knees and then moved partially up on one hand in order to put my other hand down to feel what was happening. Could feel squishiness and water finally broke (not much, just a small trickle before her head). I could feel her head with my fingers and began to feel familiar sensation of front-burning. I said, “stretchy, stretchy, stretchy, stretchy,” the phone rang, her head pushed and pushed itself down as I continued to support myself with my hand and I moved up onto my knees, with them spread apart so I was almost sitting on my heels and her whole body and a whole bunch of fluid blooshed out into my hands. She was pink and warm and slippery and crying instantly—quite a lot of crying, actually. I said, “you’re alive, you’re alive! I did it! There’s nothing wrong with me!” and I kissed her and cried and laughed and was amazed.
Motherhood, especially my postpartum experience with my first baby also dropped the legs out from under me and I used the same expression echoed above in writing about this postpartum crucible:
I had regularly attended La Leche League (LLL) meetings since halfway through my pregnancy and thought I was prepared for “nursing all the time” and having my life focus around my baby’s needs. However, the actual experience of postpartum slapped me in the face and brought me to my knees…
I’m not the only mother who finds this an apt description of the process of giving birth, today I found this touching story about memorializing the still birth of a mother’s baby girl:
This blanket isn’t much to look at. It isn’t a work of art. But it holds an entire story within its stitches. It holds the legacy of our precious baby girl who was stillborn, yes, but she was still born. Her name is etched on our hearts, and her short little life was not in vain. In those 37 weeks, she brought us joy and excitement. She brought us laughter. She brought me to my knees (to dry heave, because of being in pain, and to pray…). She brought us together, tighter, as a family. She brought us love. She brought us hope.
And, I also read this gorgeous birth story that brings the concepts of prayer and birth kneeling into direct, evocative connection:
From this point on, labor was like a long, hard prayer taking place through a dark and cold night. It literally brought me to my knees. At times I knelt, hands clasped in front of me. I had to work hard to surrender, to open myself up to the reality of labor and pain and let it be. It was a challenge. Knowing I needed to surrender to the labor, and to your advent, I made a silent decision to open my hands. I held them open and palm up in between each contraction. I tried to keep them open as long as I could once a contraction started. This was one of the most poignant parts of your birth – this surrender. I had to keep pushing my soul in the direction of you. I needed an openness of spirit as much as of body, for my spirit was caught up in a complicated grief from the months prior. At one point, when a contraction was coming, Kristen said to me, “Camille, you need to let this be big.” How did she know that I was holding back, hesitating? I needed to surrender to the hugeness of the mystery of life and birth and yes, even death. The challenge in your birth, dear Silas, was in the soul places…
…Kristen said simply, “Ok. Just listen to your body.” She trusted my body, which was so freeing. As I pushed, it felt natural. I was part of the pushing, as were you. I knew that the pushing was working, that you were coming down into the world. No one moved closer or moved away. No one tried to move me. I remained in the cleared meadow of a space with the freedom to move as my body wanted to move. There was complete freedom to do just as my midwife asked – to listen, and listen closely. To be. I was on my hands and knees, as close to earth as I could muster in the middle of Queens. And the transition to pushing felt seamless. I was permitted to remain in the deep cavities of my body, which were doing such brave work…
It isn’t only mothers who are brought to their knees by the act of birth, so are birth witnesses:
This is the story of falling in love with a baby before we even met her, the story of witnessing two friends fall deeper in love and the joy of meeting someone you just know you’ll know a lifetime in their very first second of life. This experience brought me to my knees in the end, a wreck of being awake 39.5 hours after witnessing such beauty I thought my heart would explode. I wailed in happiness, and entered a place where the only logical thing to do was roll around in the grass in the sun in full, tearful joy. I forever remain grateful to be a part of this.
It’s beautiful to document beauty, to witness beauty and just downright jump inside beauty…
In fact, we even see birth and knees referenced in the Bible as well:
Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.” Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her.
[No need to note how strongly I object to the notion of women being "given" to men. The author of the post referencing this quote then goes on to explain what 'on my knees' actually means, which is a little different than what I was thinking...]
…On my knees refers to the custom where the husband impregnated the surrogate while the surrogate reclined on the lap of the wife, and how she might even recline on the wife as she gave birth. The symbolism clearly showed the child was legally the child of the mother, not the surrogate, who was merely in the place of the wife in both conception and birth.
Other birthing women experience the energy of birth as an embodied experience of Shakti. While Shakti can be personified as a Goddess, she is also understood as the great cosmic “fuel” of the universe, the feminine force that drives creation. Women may experience the energy of birth as Shakti moving through, with, and within them. While not specifically about birth, I recently wrote about Shakti in a related sense:
Don’t let me down
I wait within
coiled at the base of your spine
draped around your hips
like a bellydancer’s sash
snaking my way up
through your belly
and your throat
until I burst forth
in radiant power
that shall not be denied.
Let me sing
let me flood through your body
in ripples of ecstasy
stretch your hands wide
wear jewels on your fingers
and your heart on your sleeve.
spin with me now
until we dance shadows into art
hope into being
and pain into power.
via Woodspriestess: Shakti Woman Speaks
After thinking about this post all day and working on it in snippets at a time, a friend shared this quote with me saying that it reminded her of me. It felt like the perfect closing: