by Rabbi/Doula Denise Handlarski
Birth workers know the power of the mind-body connection. When I was in labour, I used the skills I’ve learned in years of meditation to be able to zone in, work with my breath, and let my body do its thing. But the mind-body connection is incomplete without the spiritual dimension.
Some people use prayer in labour. Some tap into a belief in something they might call “source-energy.” Some do not pray but rather mediate, listen to music that grounds them, engage in cultural practices they learned from their own families and communities. Indigenous women may use a smudge. Some African cultures have an animal slaughtered on the day of the birth to symbolize abundance for the child and help nourish the mother. Whatever your spirituality, it’s worth considering how you might use it in labour or if you are supporting someone in labour.
There are a couple of practices that I find really beautiful that come from Judaism, but could be adapted for anyone, to help connect the mind-body-spirit. One is using the tradition of a prayer for healing. In Hebrew this is called the misheberach blessing. You name a person who is in need of healing (if they are sick or suffering) and you also name their mother. So it goes: ________ son/daughter of ____________. Traditional Jews say a special prayer for them but you could pray for them in your own way, or wish them healing and wellness, or you simply hold them in your thoughts. Some Jewish people will recite the misheberach while labouring. I love this idea because at the moment of your own struggle, the intensity of the experience of birth, rather than dwell on your own pain or pressure you focus outwards. This is a reminder that we are all part of a broader family of humanity and we all share in pain and pleasure, illness and wellness. It allows the person who is in labour to feel both connection and empathy for their broader community. This is so useful because often in labour people find it useful to remember that many others have been through this experience too. I’ve said and I know others have said to a woman in labour: “Women have done this throughout the ages. You can do this too.” I had a Jewish midwife who said she was in a birthing room with five generations of Jewish women. She said to the woman in labour: “all of these women are a reminder that your family and your Jewish community would not exist without the strength of Jewish women in childbirth.” Feeling ourselves to be part of a community is so useful because we can feel the support of that community in our time of need.
Another Jewish spiritual practice that I find immensely powerful for preparing for birth is similar to a blessingway found in other cultures. “Blessingways” is a term created by Navajo (Diné) women for their own pre-birth ritual. I use it in reference to, and incorporate some practices from, the book “Blessingways: A Guide to Mother-centered Baby Showers – Celebrating Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherood” by Shari Maser. Maser notes: “To me, Blessingway most aptly expresses the essence of these ceremonies. “Blessing” connotes spirituality and community connections and “Way” reminds us that every change is a process, an ongoing journey along the path of life…. When using the term Blessingway to describe this evolving ceremonial concept, let us remember to respectfully acknowledge and appreciate its sacred Diné heritage as our source of inspiration” (2). I find this practice of creating a ceremony for the prenatal mother to be a terrific way to incorporate spirituality in the pregnancy process, as a step towards incorporating spirituality in the labour and birth as well. Of course, my spin on it is Jewish. I respectfully and with gratitude adopt the cultural and spiritual practice of Navajo women for a Jewish context.
What is a Blessingway? Women get together and provide physical acts of care for the pregnant person, surround her with love and well wishing. Perhaps they create affirmations, or some kind of birth anchor. The women in my life each added a bead with a special intention (in Hebrew we might call it a kavanah – a powerful spiritual word). These beads were strung onto a bracelet I used as a focal point in birth.
For my clients, I have created a version of the blessingway that can happen at a mikvah, which is a ritual bath. The mikvah is to be used for cleansing, sometimes after menstruation. I find this to be a practice that has sexist origins, but powerful possibilities. After suffering a pregnancy loss, I attended a mikvah, and created a ceremony to help me release my sadness and grief and allow me to move on. The idea of the waters being cleansing, like a baptism or other religious/cultural cleansing rituals, really helped me forge the mind-body-spirit connection. I had a water birth with my second child, and the connection to the waters was made spiritual for me because of that experience. I also have a mikvah ceremony to prepare for birth and/or for after birth to mark the transition and make it spiritually significant and recognized.
These are a few examples of how I bring spirituality into pregnancy and birth. I’d love to know other examples of spiritual practices that you find useful or meaningful. Feel free to leave me a comment to share yours. Whatever your experience as a person in labour or as a birth worker, I encourage you to find ways to bring the spiritual dimension of life into this very significant journey. We are whole beings and holistic birth needs to account for the mind, the body, and the spirit.
This is what a mikvah can look like. You can also use any natural freshwater source that is running, like a stream. If you are not observant and are flexible on the rules, you can use a bathtub or swimming pool.
This article first appeared on the website of Rabbi/Doula Denise Handlarski, Jewish Doula: Labor and Birth Services.