More Culture:

April 23, 2015

The spiritual and religious dimensions of doula support

Lifestyle Religion
Birthing Baby File Art /for PhillyVoice

A doula need not participate in religious or spiritual practices that are inauthentic to her worldview. However, it’s essential that the doula is able to create a genuine sense of safety for a birthing woman to access her religious or spiritual strength.

As a scholar of comparative religion, a birth doula and a hospital chaplain, I am particularly interested in examining how doulas can best support a birthing woman’s spiritual or religious practice.

So much of contemporary doula training consists of mastering proven comfort measures for the body and mind. We are trained to offer our best with regard to easing the physical pain of labor. We offer loving and empathetic connection to women as they traverse labor’s emotional ups and downs.

But what about the spirit? Many women we work with have a religious or spiritual practice. How can doulas be more effective in acknowledging a woman’s unique understanding of the powerful and significant spiritual and/or religious dimensions of birth? How can doulas be more effective in supporting women when it comes to drawing upon a strength that transcends human understanding?

I came to doula work bringing a background of comparative religion and philosophy with me. Talking about questions relating to the sacred dimensions of human life was something I did every day in my work as a teacher. Also, during my years of working as a birth doula, I completed my clinical pastoral education, allowing me to work as a chaplain in a hospital setting. As a chaplain, I served people in crisis situations and held space for a wide variety of faith expressions while supporting the dying or grieving. My academic background and chaplaincy training served me well in being able to make room for, support, encourage and understand the various religious and spiritual practices of my doula clients. Asking doula clients about this vital component of human identity felt like second nature to me. I believe that the knowledge I gained allowed me to support them with a deep awareness and strength.

Yet, throughout my work as a doula, I discovered that such an approach was rare. We know that a woman transforms emotionally and physically through the crucible of motherhood. For most women, motherhood also involves spiritual or religious transformation. To support this transformation, I believe it’s important to reflect upon the religious and spiritual dimensions of our work.

In this spirit, I reflect upon the questions often posed to me in my work. I hope my responses to the questions below aid each of you in your own doula journey as you more consciously support a birthing woman’s spiritual and/or religious life.

How do we support birthing women spiritually or religiously?

In a prenatal interview, I always ask a client if she has a spiritual or religious practice. Then, I ask permission to remind her of these sacred symbols or practices during labor and delivery. I do this because many women have spent years cultivating deep connections to beloved images, prayers, stories and rituals. Knowledge of each individual woman’s spiritual or religious repertoire is akin to holding powerful keys in hand. A birthing woman, or new mother, may benefit tremendously from being reminded of the symbols and practices that she already has endowed with power in her mind and heart.

I remember working with a Catholic woman seeking a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean). In a prenatal conversation, she asked me to remind her of St. Sebastian if, at any point in her labor, she felt like giving up. During a very challenging moment, when it looked like another cesarean birth was imminent, I reminded her of this revered saint. The effect was extraordinary. She garnered the resolve needed and courageously delivered her son vaginally. Perhaps this would have occurred even if I knew nothing about her Catholic heritage or the significance of St. Sebastian in her life. I don’t know. What I do know is that having this knowledge for her birth was a wonderful way of supporting her at a critical moment in labor.

I also can speak from direct experience on this point. Yoga, meditation and prayer are centering practices in my own day-to-day life. In prenatal conversations, I told my doula and midwives about this dimension of my identity. During my labor, they held loving, non-judgmental space for me as I used various yoga poses to help me manage the waves of intensity coursing through my body. At one point, they both joined my husband, sister and me in chanting “OM.” That one moment stands out as a very holy memory, marking as sacred a profoundly transformative threshold point in my life.

Could this specific technique be adapted to support secular women?

In prenatal conversations, if a doula finds that a woman approaches life with a secular worldview, the technique I described may still apply. All of us have memories of moments in life that are more meaningful than others. While an atheist woman may not regard her own profound feelings of connection with life or love as spiritual, that doesn’t mean that these connections don’t exist. I encourage secular women to share inspiring memories with me and tell me the names of women who symbolize strength, courage and love in their lives. With their permission, I draw upon this knowledge at key points in labor and birth to offer added support.

Isn’t it too personal to inquire about a woman’s religious or spiritual identity?

I don’t think it’s too personal to inquire about this topic. For some women, it will be very important that we address this significant part of human identity in an open way. If doulas find they are working with women who have an active spiritual or religious practice, it’s important to explain how drawing upon meaningful prayers, meditations, visualizations, etc. can be a tremendous source of strength in labor, birth and the postpartum period.

I once supported a Muslim couple through the birth of their third child. Given my studies, I know a few Arabic prayers from the Quran, and I was willing to use them with permission as needed. Most importantly, however, I told the couple that such expression was welcomed by me, and I encouraged them to draw upon their active religious lives as a source of strength in labor. At one point during transition, the husband held his wife in his arms as they slow danced through each contraction, and he whispered beloved ayahs (verses) from the Quran in her ear. Tears poured down her face and strength poured into her soul. It was a holy and beautiful moment to witness.

Also, by opening up the subject, we can help some expectant couples better articulate what matters most to them.

When being interviewed by an evangelical Christian couple, the subject of religious or spiritual expression came up. They remarked how important prayer is in their daily lives, and they knew that prayer would be a central support for them in labor and delivery. They asked if I was comfortable praying with them. I told the couple that my training as a hospital chaplain involved engaging in prayer with people of many faiths. This led them to ask if I was a Christian. When I told them I wasn’t, it became clear that having a doula of the Christian faith was very important to them. I encouraged them to work with a doula who shared their religious framework. They later found the right doula for their birth, and I’m grateful this conversation helped them to do so.

So, is it necessary that a doula share a religious tradition with her clients?

While some couples want to work with doulas who share a similar worldview with regard to faith expression, what often matters most is that a doula is willing to make space for such expression and do so with a genuine sense of respect. In my experience, even though two women may both be Muslim, or Hindu, or Christian, each will have her own approach to drawing upon spiritual energy. Each woman will have her own set of prayers or symbols drawn from her own experience in her faith.

There are two central questions to explore for each client. Can a doula create a safe space for her client’s unique expression? Can a doula actively encourage or nurture this expression?

How does a doula’s own religious and spiritual identity impact her ability to offer this kind of support?

If a doula wants to incorporate religious and spiritual support, then he or she will need to be very self-aware on this point. For myself, I approach religious or spiritual truth in a pluralistic manner. In other words, I believe that the great mystery permeating and supporting life can be accessed through a variety of means. I don’t believe that a singular religious tradition or spiritual practice is inherently privileged when it comes to understanding or participating in this mystery.

However, according to Harvard professor Diana Eck, most people don’t approach religion in this way. In her book, “Encountering God: From Bozeman to Banaras,” Eck contrasts the pluralist approach to religious diversity with exclusivist and inclusivist perspectives. While some people are exclusivist in their orientation toward the truth claims of others, most people are inclusivists. According to Eck, exclusivists assert that their religion or spiritual orientation is the only correct one, period. Inclusivists also view their own tradition as the most correct, but they see value and beauty in differing traditions, even if they lack the full truth.

I imagine it is much easier to offer religious or spiritual support to birthing women and new mothers as a pluralist or inclusivist. Yet, I know doulas who have an exclusivist approach to truth, and they hold loving space for alternative expressions. This is what matters most. A doula need not participate in religious or spiritual practices that are inauthentic to her worldview. However, it’s essential that the doula is able to create a genuine sense of safety for a birthing woman to access her religious or spiritual strength.

If a doula can’t offer up a supportive space for the religious or spiritual expression of a particular birthing woman, he or she can help the woman find a doula who will.

What is the significance of this in pregnancy or in the postpartum period?

The doula-client relationship during pregnancy may be positively enriched when a doula has information about her client’s spiritual or religious life. For example, if I know that long walks in nature are an important part of my client’s spiritual practice, I can gently encourage her to make time in her schedule for such introspection. I can even offer to join her for a quiet and observant walk through a local park. Supporting a woman who has expressed this need to mindfully cultivate religious or spiritual expression helps add an important dimension of wonder to the experience of pregnancy and prepares her for transferring these skills over to the labor and birth experience.

With regard to the postpartum period, I personally never felt more spiritually alive than during the first few weeks following the birth of my son. Despite the struggles that characterized my initial experiences of breastfeeding, the power of love that moved through my being was incredibly visceral and vivid. I emerged from the cocoon of those early postpartum weeks deeply transformed. Spiritual insights gained about the significance of life continue to inspire. Doulas who work with new mothers can invite them to share their experiences in such a way that makes space for the expression of new spiritual or religious insights.

However, some mothers experience a great deal of adversity or depression during this time. Adjusting to altered sleep patterns, life with a newborn and the intensity of hormonal shifts can be overwhelming. In such situations, postpartum doulas are wise to guide their clients not only to benefit from formal therapeutic support, but also, for women who have religious or spiritual practices, to garner support from their faith community.

Finally, do doulas need to be formally trained when it comes to this subject matter?

My DONA trainer did a remarkable job of covering a wide variety of material during a brief weekend workshop. She emphasized the need for doulas to “accept a mother’s truth” — whether this related to the use of pain medication, the choice of caregiver or even religion.

To accept another’s truth was also a very important component of my hospital chaplaincy training. Learning how to hold space for spiritual or religious expression was foundational. I think it can be just as essential in the training of birth professionals. Birth is a threshold point, like death, a place where the world known to human senses meets a mystery beyond our understanding. Many birthing women and new mothers benefit greatly from the insight and skill gained when doulas explore the religious and spiritual dimensions of their work.

This piece was originally published in International Doula Magazine. Interested in Amy Wright Glenn's work? Sign up for Amy's email newsletters today.