Birth and culture/spirituality


This is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing for Doula Canada, my wonderful, awesome, supportive, brilliant doula training organization and doula community.  

As doulas, we often say that we offer physical, mental, and emotional comfort and support. But what about the spiritual dimension of birth? Many people have a particular cultural identity, or spiritual belief and practice, but don’t bring those aspects of themselves into birth. I think a birth experience can be richer (not to mention easier) if these aspects are integrated. Penny Simpkin, the well-known childbirth educator, says that a good labour experience relies on the 3 Rs: Rhythm, relaxation, and ritual. This is my experience as well. And, it seems to me, that some of that ritual can and should reflect the culture of the person in labour.

I became a doula, and specifically a doula specializing in Jewish birth, because of my own experiences in labour and delivery. I had planned for a home birth with my first child. We had a tub in our kitchen for a month. We had practiced breathing. We had thought through lighting and music. We were pumped. And then my daughter refused to come out. We had to go to the hospital three times for the drug that induces labour. And then, when I went into labour at the hospital, I had to stay. This change in birth plan and place threw me. And the intense contractions brought on by the drugs and the back labour didn't help. I had one intervention and then another, finally ending in a caesarean.

Luckily, my daughter is healthy and wonderful and although it was a tough birth, the outcomes were good. Still, it took some healing to get over how she came into the world. With my second child, I wanted to prepare differently. I knew labour and birth can go any which way, but I also knew that I needed to prepare myself mentally differently than I had the first time. For me, that meant going to my cultural roots. I am a Humanistic Jewish rabbi, meaning I offer teaching, programming, and ritual around Jewish history and culture. Being Jewish is important to me. I wanted some Jewish connection in labour and birth. So I began researching Jewish birth rituals, blessings, practices, and stories. I got my hands on Jewish birth art and affirmations. You should have seen my bag ready to take to the birth centre or hospital -- it was loaded with stuff.

And then, of course, the birth went nothing like how I had imagined. This time, it was fast and furious. I went into labour at my daughter's second birthday party and didn't make it to the cake before I had to leave. I was concerned I'd give birth in the car on the way to the birth centre. Thankfully, all was well and I had a beautiful birth in a large, luxurious, birthing tub, and my son came into the world healthy and happy. The bag full of the Jewish birth stuff? Still in the car.

All of that preparation was not for nothing though! I was so focused and centred. I was able to move through discomfort with breath and visualization. I drew on all of my cultural and spiritual knowledge gained in my preparation. I didn’t need that bag; I had everything I needed within. That’s the power of spiritual and cultural preparation for birth. For people who are pregnant, consider how your own culture or spiritual identity might be brought into your birth prep and experience. For doulas, it opens up so many possibilities to consider how we can bring the culture/spirituality of our clients more fully into the birthing room. In my next two blog posts, I’ll give more specific examples of how that looks and why it matters.