Studies of spirituality in health care typically focus on the end of life, rather than its beginning. But if you’ve delivered a baby, you probably recognize that childbirth can be a life-altering spiritual experience.
Canadian researchers recognized that spirituality is more than a coping mechanism in life-threatening situations, so they decided to study its role in childbirth and how mothers’ and fathers’ experiences might differ.
Of course, “spiritual” means different things to different people, but it generally has to do with the meaning of life, what people think about faith and their relationship with the “Ultimate Source,” the researchers, who included a religious studies doctoral candidate, a theologian and an obstetrician, write in a report about their study.
Previously, the researchers had come up with 10 spiritual themes related to birth: respect and trust in the parents’ relationship, gratitude and hope, control/letting go, death/resolution, belonging/greater than self, capacity to appreciate beauty, transcendence, moral and ethical aspects, self-awareness and self-accomplishment, and meaningfulness.
For their most recent study, they surveyed parents at least 12 hours after a vaginal delivery and at least 24 hours after a C-section. They asked 197 pairs of parents—mothers were the women who gave birth and fathers were considered to be the mother’s life partner, male or female, who was present at the birth—to rank each of the 10 spiritual themes on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest. The researchers reworded some of the themes to make them more relevant to the parents. For example, “responsibility for the child” stood in for moral and ethical aspects. All of the mothers delivered their babies at a single public university hospital in Quebec.
The average overall score was 38.6 for mothers and 37.2 for fathers (if they’d given each of the 10 spirituality themes the top score of 5, their overall score would have been 50).
In each mother-father pair, there was some agreement and some differences in how they ranked the spiritual themes. Both mothers and fathers ranked relational aspects, moral and ethical aspects, capacity to appreciate beauty and gratitude and hope highest, while they ranked belonging/greater than self and transcendence lowest, two themes more strongly associated with religion.
The biggest differences between mothers and fathers came in the middle-ranked spiritual themes. Not surprisingly, the mothers ranked self-awareness and self-accomplishment higher than the fathers did, with some mothers commenting that childbirth was “one of life’s great moments.” Also, more mothers than fathers said they were able to “let go in the delivery room” and make sense of what happened there (meaningfulness). Fathers, on the other hand, ranked “fragility of life” (death/resolution) higher than the mothers did, especially when problems arose for the mother or the baby during delivery.
So what does this information mean for prospective parents? The differences in the level of importance mothers and fathers placed on some of the spiritual themes indicates that health professionals who provide prenatal care need to consider the spirituality of both parents. Maternity staff could come straight out and ask them, “Do you have any spiritual beliefs that will help us better care for you?” the researchers wrote, concluding that, “spirituality does not only emerge from unordinary situations but also from any childbirth as an ‘intensification of the human’ experience.”