Taking Back Rites of Passage into Motherhood

I'm not an anthropologist or historian, but I have noticed that my other research on healing has revealed a strong global theme of rites of passage that honor the main events in life. It's not difficult to discover what certain cultures had in place for rituals during life's main events- menarche, coming into manhood, birth, death, and marriage.

What we know. 

It wasn't lost upon tribal cultures that along with the physical birth of a baby, there was a spiritual passage that the mother took- a threshold of identity, of social role, and inner wisdom that the woman giving birth had to pass over. In many cultures, the physical labor and birth wasn't as highly guarded as the recovery it took for the mother unit to come safely across the weeks that followed. In some cultures, if the mother survived the battle with nature and came across the other side, she was regarded with a warrior's welcome.

The lying-in postpartum was a necessary institution not only for survival, but for the full integration of mothers into their new social roles. In much of Sioux culture, mothers were central to the development of their people. They helped make crucial decisions in the interest of vulnerable members of the tribe, and it was well understood that the health and proliferation of the tribe depended on the health of its mothers. If a mother hadn't fully healed and integrated, she would have a difficult time performing the duties of her role.

It was also well understood that this integration didn't happen in a matter of days or as a secondary priority. Recovering from birth and integrating into motherhood (which is necessary after each child and not just the first) was a commitment that took several weeks and the full attention of the family system. Much of the time, enough support was provided that the only responsibilities the new mother had was to feed the newborn and transition emotionally into motherhood.

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I'm writing in past-tense, but these ideals are upheld in modern societies that still view healing as a holistic process (think Asian and South American cultures). Many cultures still practice a period of "confinement", where the mother is pretty much held indoors until all risk of infection and bleeding has passed, and the infant is out of the neonatal phase. In several Southeast Asian countries, there are facilities that provide around-the-clock care for new mothers, and in countries where this isn't available, the women from the extended family step into the care giving role. The diet is strict, movement is limited, and great emphasis is given on "closing back up" the openness in the mother's body created by pregnancy and birth.

The death of the Mother in Western culture. 

In the U.S., things are staunchly different. The gross majority of our healthcare system is based on reactive, rather than proactive, interventions. We live in nuclear family units with little to no extended family infrastructure. Care giving and emotional labor is some of the least paid, undervalued work (and mostly women do it). And the expectations of women after they have a baby are wholly unrealistic but widely participated in by new mothers.

While things are slowly changing- paid family leave is actually part of the discussion, revealing just how behind the rest of the world the U.S. truly is- the affects of a system that is so devoid of honoring the healing of new mothers has yet to be explored. It might not be possible for us to come to a complete understanding of how the lack of integration and healing postpartum damages our society. (If we were to add the downstream costs of it up, it wouldn't be accurate anyway, since the contributions of women and children don't have equal monetary value.)

While the research may still be in the years ahead, here are my theories about the societal costs of postpartum neglect (I know some of these are well-documented, too):

  • higher rates of postpartum depression
  • higher rates of neonatal and maternal hospital re-admissions
  • higher rates of child abuse and neglect
  • higher rates of maternal and infant mortality
  • higher risks of chronic diseases and mental health issues for both the mother and her children
  • decreased mother-infant attachment
  • decreased rates of breastfeeding

When we take a holistic view of how our treatment of new mothers impacts our world, the list goes on and on. What can't be measured are the spiritual affects, or the collective wound, that women experience when denied the basic rite of passage into motherhood. Birth may serve as such a rite, but so often, birth experiences are traumatic and the emotional effects of that trauma are minimized as something we must simply endure.

I believe that the health of whole societies rests on how well its women adapt to their roles as mothers. This is the source. When this is neglected or suppressed, we as a people are at risk for something so much more subtle and powerful than can be measured.

Taking it back. 

As with so many other traditions wiped out that belong to women, it's our responsibility to take back our rite of passage into motherhood, to take back our lying in and fourth trimesters. This is highly individualized and only we know what this looks like for ourselves. However, I want to offer some ideas that can provide resources for those of you looking for a way to mark your entrance into the circle of mothers.

  1. The "confinement". This is an intentional lying in period that traditionally lasts around 6 weeks or 40 days. However, women in the U.S. have to tailor this for the length of time that's available to them and not be defeated for only having the minimum. The intention behind a babymoon is to create a sanctuary directly after the birth that can be deliberately emerged from once the time is over. This is a metaphorical "womb" that you create in your home that is birthed from by you once you've fully recovered. It mimicks many traditions of welcoming new mothers back into daily life after a ritual lying in time, and there are many ways to design this for yourself. 
  2. Design a ceremony, ritual, or gathering for this emergence. Again, many cultures have traditions of marking the end of a mother's lying in, and this can be created in many ways on an individual basis. Perhaps the women in your family organize a mother blessing for you, or perhaps you do something more private, like visit a place in nature to say some prayers or to make some kind of offering. Perhaps this is when you bury your placenta and plant a tree if you choose to do so. Whatever is significant to you that will mark the beginning of your new life as a mother.
  3. Tools to stay in the landscape of integration. This practice is all about finding what small acts keep you in the trance-like phase of your postpartum psyche in order to fully explore the ways in which you've expanded. After birth, our bodies are wide open- physically and spiritually- so we should take great care in ushering ourselves across the end of this bridge. This is a practice that is usually assisted by local healers and the elder women around us, but must be picked up on our own if that support is unavailable. This might look like journaling, meditation, visualization, yoga nidra, drawing, painting, deep therapeutic rest, bodywork and massage, flower essences, music, etc. The power of these tools is subtle and profound, and should be done with the intention of fully integrating them into the process of your own meaningful rite of passage.

These are simple practices that can be adjusted to a modern reality, yet also start shifting our mindset towards one of reverence and worthiness of sacred respect. The birth of ourselves into motherhood is our birthright, and is not something that happens merely at the moment of birth, but is the most divine unfolding over a period of tender time. There is a deep abundance in the power that lies in our integration and adaptation into these important roles- an abundance that is capable of healing the earth.

If this post woke something up in you - particularly if that something was a hunger for something better than what we get after our births right now - I want you to sign up for my **free** email course, Creating a Nourished Postpartum, to walk you down the path to postpartum bliss. If you're pregnant and in the process of getting everything ready for baby, this course is for YOU.

Resources: 

Mother Roasting in TCM

"Closing the Bones", traditions in South America

More on Mother Roasting (including diet, belly binding, and more)

"Why Are America's Postpartum Practices So Rough On New Mothers?"