Orthodox Christian Resources for Pregnancy & Birth
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Between us we have given birth eight times, in a variety of circumstances (at home, in hospital, at a birth center), and there is perhaps no more profound event in any life than becoming a parent. It is humbling, awe-inspiring, and overwhelming. Lives, and especially babies, are impossibly fragile, and it is a tremendous task to be given a life (or lives) to steward. But God is merciful and has provided us help for this journey—read on for information on saints that are known for aiding in pregnancy and birth, as well as resources on the Orthodox Christian mindset on the myriad facets of welcoming a new life into the world.
Preparing for Birth
Kh. Destinie from Ascetic Life of Motherhood has written a beautiful blog post about preparing for birth and items that she kept around her to aid in the process. She has included suggestions of books, icons, prayers, and other helps for preparing the mind, body, and soul to bring a new life into the world.
Icons always made the journey to wherever a birth was taking place (the Theotokos and St. Marina), as well as a vial of holy oil from St. John of San Francisco. Having someone on hand to pray with and for you during birth is extremely beneficial, as well as having a prayer rope handy for yourself. The Akathist to Matushka Olga Michael is a good choice, though simply saying the Jesus Prayer, Trisagion, or Psalms are plentiful support during labor. It was always profoundly supportive to know that my parish family was praying during labor—be sure you have a plan for keeping your community updated so they can light a candle for you. And if you enjoy music, the songs of Anonymous 4, particularly An English Ladymass, were soothing during labor.
As for baby showers, you'll find a lot of different traditions from different cultures. Russians tend not to do a baby shower until after the baby's birth, while Americans typically have a shower a month or so before to make sure the family has everything they need. Discuss with the parents-to-be about their preferences and figure out what sort of celebration suits the situation. We have often had baby showers during fasting periods and the community pulled together to have a mostly-fasting shower (Mama exempted, of course!) so that the community could celebrate any time of the year.
Saints for Pregnancy & Childbirth
The following is a list of saints and specific icons that can be used for intercession before, during, and after the birth of a child.
Mary, the Mother of God for everything—she is the foremost Mother!
St. Eleftherios for childbirth St. Eleftherios and his mother, St. Anthia, have been considered special intercessors on behalf of expectant mothers for centuries. St. Eleftherios was particularly faithful from a young age, being made a bishop at the tender age of twenty, and martyred with his mother not long after.
St. Olga of Alaska for pregnancy and childbirth St. Olga was a priest’s wife and midwife, caring for the spiritual and physical health of her parish and beyond throughout her life. She is newly-glorified, but stories of her powerful intercessions on behalf of pregnant and laboring mothers have been prevalent since her repose. Her earthly ministry has continued, and she has been a wonderful comforter and companion for many of the faithful throughout their childbearing years.
St. Marina of Antioch for childbirth St. Marina or Margaret is a beloved saint of the church, known for her intercessions and a popular name for girls. In the East, she is particularly known for aiding those who are ill or demon-possessed, but in the pre-schism English church she was well-known for protecting mothers during childbirth. She remained a powerful intercessor for mothers throughout the Middle Ages, and she is beloved in the East for a long tradition of healing.
Ss. Cosmas & Damian for doctors and nurses The Holy Unmercenary Physicians Cosmas & Damian were brothers as well as doctors, and were known for their spiritual as well as temporal healthcare. They are faithful intercessors when praying for the steady hands and nerves of those providing care for mother and baby.
St. Irene Chrysovalantou for conception Many miracles have been attributed to the intercession of St. Irene, and women who have been praying for a child often seek her assistance, and sometimes a piece of one of her apples (if they can get one). Traditionally, a child who is conceived through St. Irene's prayers is named Chrysovalanti or Chrysovalantou.
Ss. Joachim & Anna for conception Famously patient and faithful in their long wait for a child, Ss. Joachim and Anna were gifted with a child by the Lord—who went on to become the His Mother. They are tireless intercessors for those seeking to follow in their footsteps.
St. Elizabeth for conception St. Elizabeth was also patient in waiting for God's will regarding her own family, and was blessed to become the mother of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. She is known for her aid to those praying for a child.
St. Stylianos for infants and children St. Stylianos of Paphlagonia was known in his own lifetime for his cheerful countenance and love of children, as he believed that it was impossible to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven without the innocent joy of a child. His intercessions have, for centuries, produced miraculous cures for children, and his intercessions are often sought for childhood illness.
St. Demetrios the Wonderworker for young people St. Demetrios was a young man in his twenties when he was martyred, and among his many miraculous intercessions he is known particularly for interceding on behalf of young people.
St. John of San Francisco for children and illness The stories of St. John’s earthly work on behalf of the welfare of every child he encountered are well documented. He personally took charge of innumerable orphans during his time in Shanghai, to the point where it created grumbling among the staff at the orphanage because they did not have enough food for the children already in their care. When a woman snapped at St. John for bringing home another child, he told her patiently that God would provide. He went up to his room, where he could be heard moving about while prostrating in prayer the rest of the night. Early the next morning she was called to answer a knock on the door; there stood a man with a truckload of oats, wondering if the orphanage could use them. This is but one story of many, from before and after his repose, and St. John’s tireless intercessions on behalf of the young, forgotten, and ailing are many and extremely precious.
The prayers of friends and family are an invaluable support, both during labor and in the days and weeks following. In our church in particular, we schedule a meal train for new mothers that lasts for the first 40 days. We have both been recipients of the postpartum meal train, which is invaluable for reducing stress on everyone in the family. Including snacks that are easy for a nursing mom to keep close at hand is extremely helpful! If you do provide a meal, be sure to plan for containers—either have disposable or inexpensive reusable options that don't need to be washed and returned to you. Some people purchase inexpensive glass casserole dishes from thrift stores for this purpose; if you go that route, be sure to include a note letting the new parents know they don't need to return the dishes to you! It's also helpful to note that many new parents receive a lot of meals early on in the postpartum period and fewer later on, so planning a meal that is easily (or already) frozen or bringing a meal later can be especially helpful.
Additionally, if you and the new mom feel comfortable, it is a wonderful gift to plan to stay for a chat and to do a little light housework. Unloading the dishwasher, bringing a coloring book and keeping older children amused for a while, sweeping the floor, moving laundry to the dryer—even small, routine contributions take a lot off of the plate of a new mom (and dad). Parish family also often included chocolate, flowers, or other treats for mom, and one sweet friend went so far as to pick up some books and magazines of special interest to include in the delivery. They are small gestures, but a nursing mom who is up several times per night quickly runs out of reading material along with energy!
There are a variety of landmarks that follow a birth in the Orthodox Church—naming, your forty days, churching, baptism—and this is a valuable overview of those steps if you are new to them.
When it comes to naming a baby, there are a variety of cultural and historical traditions from across the Orthodox world. In some places, a parish priest would select the child’s name, or the child would be named after a saint of the day. Common practice in America is for parents to select the name, and many people choose the name of a saint, either one that is on or near the child’s birthdate, or a saint that has particular meaning to them (for example, it is an old Greek tradition that any child born due to the intercession of St. Irene Chrysovalantou is named after her). Both the OCA website and the GOA website allow you to search for saints by month and date (as does Holy Trinity, for those on the Old Calendar), and the Antiochian Archdiocese maintains a handy list of the female saints of the church (with dates).
Prayers & Books
- Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children PDF | printed
- Akathist to Matushka Olga Michael
- Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage Through Pregnancy
- A Sacred Beginning: Nurturing Your Body, Mind, and Soul during Baby's First Forty Days
- The Ascetic Lives of Mothers: A Prayer Book for Orthodox Moms
Grief & Loss
Sadly, in our lives as mothers we have also suffered struggles with infertility and miscarriages. This article is a wonderful help for anyone who would like to know how to comfort a grieving family, and Holy Trinity Church has made available some lovely prayers. For those coping with infertility, Under the Laurel Tree is a wonderful book on the subject.