Pregnancy and birth are such enormous milestones in any woman’s life, but as a culture we barely acknowledge them.
Many other cultures have marked these important rites of passage with customs and rituals, finding ways of celebrating impending motherhood and birth. Our usual markers are medical: the pregnancy test, the dating scan, cutting the cord, the first injections; or commercial, in the form of the American baby shower. Even traditional religious rites such as christenings are falling by the wayside. For weddings we have engagement parties, hens and stags, wedding breakfasts and honeymoons; we have the giving and receiving of rings, and speeches. For birth, a far more lifechanging event, we have very little.
In many traditional cultures, whilst young men would receive harsh initiations into manhood, women had none as it was acknowledged what a vast initiation childbearing was, both physically and spiritually. The mother-to-be would be guided by experienced mothers through the various gateways into motherhood. The saying goes, it takes an entire village to raise a child, and this should start from the child’s conception, in honouring and supporting the mother-to-be. In many cultures expectant women would receive emotional and practical support, housekeeping, food and medicinal care for many months before and after the birth. Here we are expected to tough it out, to be independent and know what to do. Many women find themselves approaching birth feeling unprepared for what to expect, or feeling isolated from the support of mothers, sisters and other women. As a culture we allow almost no cocooning from real life before or after birth: how quickly you can get back to ‘normality’ is what is respected. Pregnant women and new mums are no longer shut away at home during an enforced ‘confinement’, as in times past. Whilst this is liberating in some ways, it also means that the pressure is on to ignore the momentous changes that are happening: a pregnant woman’s life, her identity, her feelings, her body are changing beyond recognition. She may want to share this with others, to get advice and support from those who have gone before her both before and after the birth. She can be vulnerable, a childmother, in need of nurturing and care as much as her new baby.
As a culture we have become very birth- and baby-focused: the woman in her tumultuous pregnant state and her vulnerable beauty before and after birth is almost totally ignored as long as she is healthy. The question of such a vast change in identity goes unacknowledged: a ‘good’ mother, conventional wisdom holds, is one who gives her all to her baby, and learns to ignore herself. What a terrifying prospect! The woman herself can be seen merely as a baby-receptacle, a non-entity. How can we celebrate a woman’s rite of passage, to truly honour her as a woman and ease her path into her new identity with love and joy?
It is for women ourselves to acknowledge and honour the transition to motherhood as worthy of support and celebration, and then to create a circle of women around us who will help to nurture us throughout our pregnancy and after the birth. But it is what we perhaps most struggle with, first acknowledging our needs as valid and worthy and then asking for what we need: “When we create blessingways for each other, we women reach outside of ourselves and weave a web of community: a living breathing web of women who are blessing, teaching and supporting one another – and as a result we help to give birth to each other’s children” (Mother Rising). Blessingways or mother blessings are a traditional Native American custom, centring on the pregnant woman and her upcoming rite of passage into motherhood. The idea is to surround the mum-to-be with support and encouragement from her loved ones as she counts down the days to her birth. Once this circle is formed, agreements can be made as to how best to help and care for the new mother post partum.
A mother blessing can be organised by a good friend or humanist celebrant so that the expectant mother can allow herself to be fully nurtured and receiving. Through ritual and special activities the group reflects on the power of birth:
“Blessingway ceremonies create a sacred and safe environment where a mother-to-be can explore the challenges and joys that lie before her as she approaches birthing and mothering. Surrounded by the most important women in her life she gains a sense of power, confidence and support that will help her rise to motherhood” (Mother Rising)
The ritual aspect is key to a mother blessing so that the ceremony has a clear format and participants feel comfortable to relax within a structure and know what to do and when. Some sort of clear opening, perhaps lighting a candle or smudging the room with incense, or brief introductions are all good ways to establish a safe and special space for the ritual. Then a reading, prayer, invocation or blessing to focus the energy and intentions of all involved, and to honour the journey which the new mother is on. This is often followed by a period of reflection or meditation, before beginning to honour, pamper and support the mother-to-be through ritual activities such as these:
- Creating a necklace of birth beads. Each invitee makes or brings a bead, and places on it a blessing or wish for the mother, as well as adding a bead for the story of her own birth. These stories are shared with the mother as the guest threads her bead onto a string. They may also be written in a journal, for the mother to read for inspiration, connection and emotional strength throughout her pregnancy. This necklace can then be worn as a symbol of initiation, or used by the mother during her labour in the same way that rosary beads might be, as a meditative aid, passing the beads through the fingers with each breath during contractions, focusing on their feel and different colours. After the birth she adds another bead, to represent her own birth experience, and writes about her and her baby’s story in the journal. Emma Miller, a mother involved in blessingways, suggests that “This journal and necklace with her newly added bead can then be surrendered (paralleling the surrender of the birth) to the caretaker (midwife, doula, designated person in the community) to be passed on to the next mother. As the necklace grows, the stories grow. They carry with them energy and power. This is also a way for the mother to identify and share her courage and wisdom, and teach new ways to handle fear and pain. Each baby born is symbolically linked into community; women strengthen their union with each other and the preceding generations.”
- Candle lighting. Guests can say a few words of blessing as they light a candle for the mother. Or you can give candles to each guest as they leave and ask them to light their candles whilst the mum is in labour. This is to send support, strength and positive thoughts towards her.
- Quiltmaking. Each woman makes one section of a patchwork quilt, sharing stories as they make it. This quilt can then be used to warm the mother as she labours and wrap the baby after the birth.
- A light-hearted and playful activity either for a blessingway or just for yourself and your partner is to make a plaster cast of your belly and decorate it when it has dried. It is a wonderful way of capturing and celebrating your blossoming female form. You’ll never believe how big you once were!
- Celebrate the beauty of the mother-to-be’s form in a more temporary way by painting her round belly with beautiful henna decorations and photographing it for posterity.
- A pampering session might include a massage or herbal foot-and-hand bath for the mother. Or a hair-brushing ritual where all participants brush her hair and whisper blessings in her ear.
- A feast of shared food is a lovely way to finish any celebration. Organising a post-partum meal rota where each participant commits to delivering a meal on a different day after the birth, either to be eaten fresh or put in the freezer, is a nurturing and practical way of supporting the new family.
- Gift-giving might follow the same protocol as for a wedding: something old, something new… but rather than just the inevitable baby clothes, it should also include something for the mother herself, either symbolic gifts to represent strength, surrender, opening, nurturing or other qualities she will need, or inspirational books, pampering goodies – anything to remind her of the goddess that she is.
But whatever you plan, however large or small, however spiritual or practical, do not miss the opportunity to nurture and celebrate all the new mothers in your midst, to build strong communities of women caring for each other, to honour this rite of passage and the unfolding journey which we are all on.
Lucy Pearce is a Birthing from Within mentor in Cork, Ireland, leading birth preparation classes which honour birth as a rite of passage. thehappywomb.com
Illustration by Veronica Petrie
First published in Issue 14 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.