At an ancient and primal level, birth is a rite of passage for women, in the same way that tribal communities orchestrate journeys and feats of great courage for young men. Young women are not exempt from such initiation. Women must show courage and strength in birthing new life, as men must show courage and strength in killing the beast, enduring the torture, or surviving great risks.
This past weekend I read Robbie Davis-Floyd’s Birth As an American Rite of Passage. In it, I expected to find lots of evidence to support my ideas about birth as a rite of passage. Birth as an initiation into womanhood, motherhood. Birth as a transformation of self. I was surprised that this was not at all the theme of his work.
Although I very much enjoyed immersing myself in birth theory, his “rite of passage” entails indoctrinating women into society’s idea of motherhood within the technocratic model. Today, I would like to challenge that. I believe that birth does not have to be a rite of passage into or through the technocracy.
Birth in and of itself, by its own right, has the power to dramatically transform us physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and indelibly. This is in part thanks to the birth hormones and chemicals that our bodies release during labor and birth. If it is a good birth in a safe private space, it will be without fear-based catecholamines like adrenaline. If it is a natural birth, drugs like demerol and pitocin, analgesias and anesthetics, will be completely unnecessary. Physicians lie to us, either out of ignorance or denial, telling us that these birth drugs are completely safe and do not affect the baby. They do affect the baby. Just to give one tiny example, the birth-induction and augmentation drug of choice pitocin, given to 55% of already laboring mothers in our country, has even been known to cause mental retardation (Unassisted Childbirth, p. 21).
Oxytocin, beta-endorphin, prolactin, and DMT are the true birth drugs.
In Hormones in Labour & Birth – How Your Body Helps You, Dr. Sarah Buckley writes:
Giving birth in ecstasy: This is our birthright and our body’s intent. Mother Nature, in her wisdom, prescribes birthing hormones that take us outside our usual state, so that we can be transformed on every level as we enter motherhood.
Birthing is an Initiation
Birth may not be as extreme, or as extremely stupid, as circumcision or some of the hazing that goes on in tribal communities, but as rites of passage made a boy feel that he was, quite assuredly, fully-fledged man, so too birth births a woman into womanhood.
“The invisible, inner battle is as much labor as the physical work of birth, and from this you’ll emerge as much a woman – strong, responsible, and wise – as you will from the birth itself.” – Julie B., Orgasmic Birth, p. 129
It is sad that in our society, with the loss of these ancient rites of passage, the true bane of modern man is that he has no idea when he is a man. In the same way that men have lost their opportunity to “become man,” modern women are strapped to tables, hooked to machines, and pumped full of drugs. And so we have no conscious awakening to becoming women.
We are making some progress as my grandmother’s days of twilight sleep are fading into history behind us, but millennial mamas forget that this was the norm but two generations ago. We still have one foot in the dark ages of birth. These are scary times.
“These days women are sold the notion that we have bodily autonomy in birth and beyond, and yet in practice, women are still being routinely tortured, and denied our right to informed consent, our right to be the deciders when it comes to our birth choices.” – Bauhauswife podcast Episode #9 My Upcoming Freebirth
Yolanda’s observations and analysis of hospital birth describe the system in which Davis-Floyd believes we are socializing women into motherhood. It is a hegemonic system of violence, and it does a good job of teaching women that we don’t have power, we can’t take care of ourselves, and we can’t become mothers on our own. To be part of the system means to become a pawn of it.
“The birthing of a child constitutes one of the most profoundly transformative and uniquely individual experiences a woman will go through in her life. Across cultures, people seek ways to generalize such experiences – that is, to turn them into cultural rites of passage in order to make it appear that the transformation is effected, not by nature, but by the culture itself, and to utilize the transformative period to inculcate the individual with basic cultural beliefs and values through ritual.” Birth as an American Rite of Passage, p. 60
In the vulnerable state of labor, when a woman is most physically open (dilated) to birth her baby, she is also most mentally open, and therefore most susceptible to the brainwashing that is part and parcel of all traditional cultural rites of passage:
“The natural rhythmicity, intensification, and emotionality of the labor process is enough all by itself to put the laboring woman in a far more intensely affective state than all but the most grueling male initiation rites can produce. As those critical hours of transition and transformation open both her cervix and her category system, they render the becoming mother far more receptive to new messages than she will be before or after the birth. As is characteristic of liminal experiences, after the birth is over, the peculiar intensity of its feel and flavor will remain indelibly imprinted on the mother’s mind and body.” p. 39
This is our norm. But imagine if we were “allowed” to birth outside of the system. Freely, according to our intuition. What would that look like? Sans drugs and interventions and even distractions from unnecessary birth attendants, birth looks very different.
Birthing Alone is Birthing Naturally
Birthing alone is the most normal, natural way for our species to birth. In Unassisted Childbirth, Laura Kaplan Shanley points out that alone is indeed the natural way for all species on Earth to birth. It is only our cultural impositions that have shattered this instinct.
I found it quite amusing that after discussing cats’ natural solitary childbirth process on page 4, she later references it on page 14’s exploration of why laying on one’s back is the worst possible position for giving birth, as it literally forces the body to work not only without gravity, but against it. And yet in hospitals we are often given no choice but to birth on our backs.
“Perhaps it would do physicians well to read Purina’s Handbook of Cat Care (1981), which states, ‘Let her walk around [while in labor] and do not insist that she stay in her box.’ (58)” p. 14
That medical interventions inhibit childbirth is, one may assume, the primary reason to birth alone. However, that still leaves open the avenue of less-invasive yet still attended home birth as an alternative. In my humble opinion, this is still not a natural way to give birth.
In three of the books I’ve read so far, !Kung San women have been mentioned. !Kung San women are basically challenged by their society to give birth completely alone. When birth is imminent, they go quietly into a secluded place in nature, make a bed of soft leaves, squat or side-lie, and birth their babies.
“Unusual even for other hunters and gatherers, solo birth for !Kung San women is nevertheless an ideal. Showing no fear and not screaming out, they believe enhances the ease and safety of delivery. (Eaton, Shostak, and. Konner, 1988, 240).” Unassisted Childbirth, p. 5
In The Unassisted Baby, Anita Evensen also mentions the !Kung San and adds that they are expected to bury their placenta before they return to their village (p. 19). The way I see this is as homologous to a tribal boy’s initiation ritual into manhood as a girl into womanhood could possibly get. The birthing !Kung San woman must show strength, courage, and fortitude. She must show these to show that she is woman. Because !Kung San women are strong.
In sharp contrast, the drugged Western woman birthing on a table in a sterile room surrounded by anxious helpers and monitoring machines does not portray a picture of a strong, capable, courageous woman. In fact it implies and initiates the opposite. In this scenario, the woman is weak, fearful, and disempowered. She is initiated into a cultural ideal of womanhood as fragile and dependent.
But is the Western woman laboring in an inflatable, rented birth pool in her home, with her midwife and her doula and her hypnobirthing coach leaning over the sides, and her husband taking video from the sidelines, so much stronger or braver than the woman on the table with an epidural in her spine?
In his forward to Unassisted Childbirth, Dr. Odent brought up something that blew my mind. He pointed out that in our modern culture it is easy to find home birth videos like this one all over the internet that show beautiful images of “natural birth.” And even since the publication of the second edition of the book in 2012, the Empowered Birth Project and other birth photographers and advocates have petitioned Instagram and Facebook to allow images of birth to be posted without being censored as pornography. Beginning only this year- in January 2018 – we can now simply search #freebirth on Instagram to be inundated with these “natural” birth videos.
“Our conditioning has been recently reinforced by the power of visual messages that characterize our time, particularly by the effects of a real epidemic of videos of so-called ‘natural childbirth.’ It is always the same kind of story: a laboring woman is surrounded by two or three people looking at her (including a man, plus a camera since there is a video). These births are deemed ‘natural’ because they occur at home, or because the mother is on hands and knees, or because she is in a birthing pool. But the environment is as unnatural as possible. This is how, in terms of cultural conditioning, an extreme degree has been reached. Young generations are more than ever deeply convinced that to give birth a woman must rely on people who can bring their expertise (a ‘coach’) or their energy (‘support’). One can wonder if, in spite of the power of modern physiology, the current deep-rooted lack of understanding of the basic needs of laboring women is reversible.” p. x
I sincerely hope it is. But we have a great deal of cultural conditioning to muck through before we can ever get there. Unfortunately, as Odent states, millennials believe that labor is painful, that labor is hard work, and that we must be attended. This could not be further from the truth.
“The concept that labor is ‘hard work! The hardest work I’ve ever done in my life’ (as said one woman) is simply a fallacy.” Unassisted Childbirth p. 20-21
I could write a book about this topic as there is much to say, but what it all boils down to is mind over matter. We believe that labor and birth are painful, and so it is so. We believe we need support from others, and so it is so. The only way I believe we can get out of this collective lie that we are so mired in, is to listen to birth stories of women who believe something different.
Birthing Alone is Spiritual, Psychedelic, and Transformative
I have listened to and read probably over a hundred birth stories over the past few months, and one common thread amongst them resonates with me.
In the births where the woman was alone, for all or part of her birthing, she tripped the fuck out. She went on vision quests, with her baby or with spirit guides. She journeyed through other realms and dimensions. She had a psychedelic experience unlike anything we humans can ever experience with either Earth-grown plants or man-made drugs. Birth hormones are intense, and when free from distractions, they will take us places far from this world.
For a great example, this particular Free Birth podcast episode, “Finding Yourself Through Birthing Alone,” is my favorite so far. Here’s a quick excerpt from around minute 15:
“I closed my eyes and dove into the craziest shit of my life… It was cooler than mushrooms. It was cooler than anything. Of course I was uncomfortable and in pain but the ability to 100% focus myself. Like nobody is talking to me. All I could hear is like the water in my pool… I don’t really know I think it was maybe like 2 and a half hours. I mainly just you know squatted over the toilet and rode with the waves. When I closed my eyes tight, there was the visuals there and just rainbows and it was just so amazing and so not scary and just you can’t even put into words how empowering. Like I am so incredible. That’s what I just kept thinking. This is amazing… Once I got his head out I was like Oh I should turn my phone on, so I got the rest of the body me pushing him out on camera, on video. And that was a nice little thing to have.” – Morgan, from Florida
This passage from Orgasmic Birth further explains how birth can take us into altered states of consciousness:
“When not altered by Pitocin or other interventions, the brain waves of laboring women are in theta frequency. This is the deepest level we can experience in a waking state. Theta is associated with extrasensory perception, creative inspiration, and spontaneous problem-solving.” p. 8
When I read this, I couldn’t help but remember reading about ancient rituals that took place in the sacred caves at Lascaux, France. Where Shaman apprentices would cloister themselves in complete darkness for weeks at a time with no food and water, until they began to hallucinate from insanity. The men would emerge feeling as though they had made contact with the divine. (I want to cite this but I can’t remember the name of the book where I heard it a long time ago. All I remember is that the audiobook was about Ayahuasca. I cannot find a source online.)
The point is, in situations where our bodies are pushed to their bodily limits, it is quite possible for humans to “trip” without drugs. In essence, we trip over the limit.
In her fascinating blog post Birth, DMT, and the Pineal Gland, Samantha Klim writes:
“Delta brainwaves are seen in enlightened Tibetan monks deep in mediation when they have profound actualizations, and theta is even deeper. So it is no wonder why labor and birth is so potently transformational for women.”
I got goosebumps as I read her post, well worth a read as I cannot legitimately quote the entire thing here! She points out that DMT, “the God particle,” “the spirit molecule,” is endogenously present in copious amounts at birth, in both mother and baby. DMT is produced by the pineal gland, which incidentally develops in fetuses at 42 days gestation, the same exact day that many ancient traditions believe that a soul enters the baby’s body.
Psycho-nauts the world over have been taking exogenous DMT to hallucinate; to “induce a profound and deep state of consciousness that many people describe involves the feeling of oneness, of ultimate unity, great understanding, a dissolution of boundaries to see from all perspectives.” However DMT is a naturally-occurring tryptamine that we all produce at birth, death, and while birthing. This is a sacred time, indeed.
In her podcast episode #9 My Upcoming Freebirth, Yolanda Clark further supports the notion that birth undisturbed takes us far beyond the boundaries of normal existence:
“Birth is not just a physical experience, but its an emotional one, a psychological one. It’s a spiritual one… It’s just a fact that childbirth is one of the most vulnerable, intimate acts that anyone will ever undertake and key to that experience is the ability to surrender to the intensity and to the extremity of it.“
When allowed to go to the precipice of that extreme, what secrets of humanity could we unlock? What super-human powers would we discover that we have? What magic? To birth our babies into the world in this magic is the best gift we can ever give to them, and to ourselves.
Birthing Alone is Powerful
It is my belief that millennial mamas who are birthing babies now, have the power to change the cultural status quo. The world won’t change unless we do, and tomorrow will always be tomorrow. So I’m starting today. I’m starting today to believe in the power of birth as a rite of initiation for the New Woman, the New Mother.
In order to do this we must first relinquish all fear, intellectually understanding that it is a social construct, and unequivocally understanding that it simply has no place in birth.
Secondly, we must surrender. Surrendering when we are most physically and mentally open, most vulnerable, is the ultimate surrender. We become more emotionally and spiritually open than we can become at any other juncture of our lives, save birth and death themselves.
In a safe, private space, preferably alone, a woman is open to receiving whatever the universe/God/Mother Earth has ready for her.
In this way, birth is a rite of passage into becoming not only a woman, not only a mother, but a veritable goddess of creation. After birthing in her power, a woman may become more beautiful, more confident, more enlightened, more sexy, and more alive than she could have ever become before.
Men may have their tribal rites of passage, but nothing on Earth quite compares to the all-encompassing rite of passage that is an undisturbed birth.
Have you experienced a powerful birth experience? I am collecting positive, transformative birth stories on our Pinterest board, Baby Business, which is also a repository of evidence-based information about birth. Please link any stories or articles below which I can include in this resource. It is my hope that together, we can deconstruct our culture’s birth myths, and educate the world.