Conception, Pregnancy & Childbirth... A living Ritual
In this world there are different types of ritual; religious rituals, the daily ritual that organizes our lives... rituals of nature... like the unending procession of the seasons which guide the ritual of agriculture… Sowing to harvesting... feasting and waiting again for spring...
So too is the process of parenthood... an ancient ritual... it is the most ancient perhaps because it is the source of us all, not one of us could be born without parents... nor could our ancestors, and theirs. Being a woman, naturally my process of becoming a parent was though experiencing pregnancy and delivery.
So I want to reflect on my two pregnancies... the first was the most defining and changing experience of my life up until then, yet the second was surprisingly as much a time of growth as the first. But the real idea of my writing is to examine this idea, probably not unique to me... that pregnancy, labor and childbirth are not only a physical and natural process, but a spiritual ritual through which a person can find growth in many ways.
Let us start with conception, usually the most enjoyable part of the process… at least in the physical sense. Assuming that the act which created this new life was consensual, and created through an act of love, Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente’s (according to Ceisiwr Serith)(1) “Charge of the Goddess” states the act exactly as it is:
“Let Her worship be within the heart that rejoiceth; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals”
And at the close:
“For behold, She has been with thee from the beginning; and She is that which is attained at the end of desire.” (2)
In this case, if the timing, conditions, and all else is right and with a bit of luck… the result at the end of desire, is indeed the most magical and precious of creations… the bud of new life. Indeed the whole act itself is probably one of the few universal “mysteries” that people worldwide experience similarly. It is like a ‘spell’ that guides itself… with all the typical components in place… Ideally beginning in a sacred place of trust and love between two people, with the procession of ‘revealing’ themselves to one another… combining, building and raising energy, and then releasing it. To the person concerned with using that energy towards a goal, it is even sometimes directed towards it, although that is not really the “concern” of this examination.
But in my analogy, the act of conception is just the beginning of a 9-10 month “ritual” during which the mother BECOMES the sacred space… building and storing energy to create a truly miraculous thing, a child. A pregnancy is no small task, but one which, incredibly… most women are able and willing to endure, because in the end the reward for all of that work is immeasurably great… in a very small package.
The First “Trimester”
Today we are lucky that MOST of us can determine we are pregnant relatively soon with unprecedented accuracy. As soon as 2 weeks after conception we can often determine if the act was “successful”. I can honestly say that in both of my pregnancies I was further along than this before I discovered that I was ‘with child’.
But we have always wanted to know sooner rather than later, according to the National Institute of Health the first pregnancy tests known of were cited in ancient Egypt:
One of the earliest written records of a urine-based pregnancy test can be found in an ancient Egyptian document. A papyrus described a test in which a woman who might be pregnant could urinate on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days: “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all.” Testing of this theory in 1963 found that 70 percent of the time, the urine of pregnant women did promote growth, while the urine of non-pregnant women and men did not. Scholars have identified this as perhaps the first test to detect a unique substance in the urine of pregnant women, and have speculated that elevated levels of estrogens in pregnant women’s urine may have been the key to its success.”(3)
My first trimester in both flew by, and not until I was 8 weeks along did I experience the ‘symptoms’ that are tell-tale of a new pregnancy; nausea, exhaustion, weight gain. I think that early pregnancy is an exciting time, especially if the mother is in a good position to have a child, but is equally frightening and miserable. Yes I said it, if this is a natural ‘ritual’, unfortunately an element of both terror and discomfort is present. I think many useful spiritual rituals involve these elements… for true growth usually requires sacrifices to be made, they require those who practice to go outside of their “comfort zone” and to receive maximum benefits they must experience some discomfort.
The terror of pregnancy is usually the understanding of the reality of it. For a first timer it is a fear of not just carrying a baby within, but the act of delivering that baby, and then- perhaps the scariest part… caring for it after birth and having the responsibility for it thereafter. This fear is not confined to the first trimester… and not even necessarily to the mother… but can be shared with the father, or other partners. If the excitement, nurturing, building of love, energy and general preparation for a child is the “positive energy” built through the process of pregnancy… then the stress, discomfort, worry and fear are the shadow of it. Just as in our regular spiritual life, the less lovely aspects of us cannot be ignored and must be addressed… so must these “negative” aspects of the creation of life. For that reason, mothers worldwide and since the dawn of time go through a great deal of care to *hopefully* have a relatively uneventful pregnancy.
To the person who has just found out they are pregnant, this time is a crucial time for decisions, resolutions, and contemplation. We resolve to amend any “bad behaviors” and work towards self-betterment… whether it is merely physical (eating right, perhaps exercise and hopefully abstaining from addictions to unhealthy substances) or if it also includes mental and spiritual preparation for motherhood.
The Second “Trimester”
The Second Trimester for me was the easiest, and I think that is the case for most women, provided that they have no complications. Most of it is spent waiting… incubating. During that time within you the infant grows and develops. The second trimester usually comes with a burst of new energy, like the “second wind” that a runner experiences during a race… It is the best time, I believe, for collecting and making arrangements for the new arrival. For me it was a time when I could easily focus my energies and it was the MOST optimistic time of the whole experience, when I was happy about being pregnant, not yet exhausted by it, and also excited about having a baby, with few worries… Also the “work” of being pregnant, seems to start to pay off with the true magic of feeling your baby’s first identifiable movements, and finally having a real dome emerge from your belly, rather than the earlier “bloated” look of the first trimester. I imagine that this most have been the time in the distant past when mothers-to-be were most often CERTAIN they were in fact pregnant, and not just sick or hopeful.
For me those first kicks, in both pregnancies were magic in real life. For me the motion caused an upwelling of excitement, and a sudden love and connection with my experience… far greater than anything in the first trimester. I would often “speak” to and send mental images to that infant within me. I would similarly wonder about the thoughts of my babies. Do we know fear then? Can we feel love? Do we believe… obviously we cannot have a name or idea of what we believe… but can an infant, not yet born, believe? In thinking about these things it causes me to further reflect on my own spirituality. Yes, I believe what I claim, and in fact I have experiences upon which that believe is formed, and each stage of my life seems to add to that solid foundation of my belief… But I wonder how primal and instinctual that desire to search for ‘the truth’ is? At these times before we are born, yet we are “alive” do we all share a natural yearning to seek out knowledge? I’d like to imagine so…
The Third “Trimester”
The last stage of pregnancy was for me less enjoyable than the first or second. For most of it, it is the culmination of growth for the baby, and the time at which he or she makes her last, unconscious efforts to be ready for life outside the womb.
Let me speak about the womb for a minute. It acts as a sacred space, a temple, within which the magic and ritual is performed. At the end of pregnancy it is seemingly stretched to its limit holding a great amount of tension, and it would seem that it could not sustain this for long, yet incredibly it does. I don’t think it should be any mystery why pregnant women have long been revered and inspired awe. In rituals of all types the chalice, or other vessel, is often representative of the life-giving womb… appropriately filled with water or other nourishing fluids. The third trimester pregnant form is spherical and supple, which is a wonderful similarity with the magical “circle” and with the earth itself, which is the great womb from which all life emerges.
Unfortunately the magic and wonder of this stage of pregnancy is easily overlooked because the “shadow” aspects of pregnancy tend to take the stage. In my first pregnancy I had “gestational diabetes”. In short, the strain of pregnancy on my body overwhelmed it and I could not produce enough insulin to maintain a “normal” blood sugar on my own. That added an element to that pregnancy’s experience I had not expected. I was challenged to work though the struggles involved with that condition, which for me were just as much emotional as they were physical and dietary. I think almost every pregnancy, even an “uncomplicated” one, causes the mother to face some struggle… It may be a challenge to become a mother, when their own was deficient. It could be to overcome an addiction, or to find a means of supporting their new baby… or it could be finding hope and forgiveness within oneself.
For me, the spiritual aspect of my challenge was to overcome the overwhelming feeling of betrayal I had within myself. I felt as though my body had betrayed me… or that I had betrayed my body, or worse that I could betray the unspoken contract between me and my infant. I had to find forgiveness, acceptance and a strengthened WILL, to do all in my power to have a healthy baby. Luckily, that will- with the grace of the gods, won out and I did have a healthy baby.
In the second pregnancy, I had a deep, and justified fear that I would again face the same condition and struggle, and I had to learn to have hope, faith and peace with myself once again. I was ecstatic when the day came that I was told that somehow, against the odds… the hard work and life changes I had made between my pregnancies had resulted in a healthy- diabetes free, pregnancy.
Yes, this was a personal experience and is not shared among everyone… but is that not the case with all rituals? Each person brings a new perspective… each takes away a slightly different lesson. Pregnancy is like a mystery itself… you can only experience it to KNOW… yet, one person’s account can be vastly different from another’s… but each may bring the individual closer to seeing a sliver of “the truth”.
With both pregnancies… the last trial was in waiting. Patience has never been my strong suit, and it seems to be a theme in my life. “Good things come to those who wait” never seemed truer than in the third trimester…
The conclusion of a pregnancy is its greatest challenge. Like in all rituals… it is a great climax that finally results in something truly magical. That is what I believe all births to be. Mine were both “mostly natural” births… with minimal interventions. That is not to say that all other “kinds” of births; c-sections, those with epidurals, etc … ar “un-natural”- and all I deem magical and incredible.
However, the process of birthing a child… without any pain medication, if one is disposed to do so, and able to do so… really is a spiritual and incredible experience. That is not to say it is not terrifying and difficult and yes, painful, as well. Since I cannot speak to everyone’s experience, I will only describe mine. (For both of my deliveries were fairly similar…)
The progression of contractions, one after another was like the extremely slow beating of a drum inside of me, at first distant and actually relatively painless… but with each one gaining in intensity. My entire body was readying and anticipating the process soon to come. For a few hours I was very happy and could even crack jokes as I tried to relax and wait patiently for the “work” of labor.
Soon enough the humor stopped… My “vision” and recognition of the world outside of my own progress narrowed greatly and I found myself only capable of expending my energy on focus and breathing. Deep within me a hidden strength began to well up, but also its’ shadow as well- doubt. In my second birth this was only barely calmed by the fact and consolation that “I’d done this before…”, the first time around I simply reminded myself that “this can be done, and has been by generations past! My mother did this, and hers, and so on”. Nearer and nearer I marched towards delivery both times, and it both times… just before the moment that I was to transition into the pushing stage of labor, that doubt reared its ugly head… “could I do this? (or do it again?)” But from that doubt I was able to muster a great and terrific force… my will and determination. I was able to render from within the power and grace to take just one more breath and then another… each one a great summoning individually. This strength came from surrendering myself to trust… trust in my own body, despite the pain… and trust in the process. And trust in the irrefutable fact that I was past the point of “no return” and the only way out of the pain was to charge headlong into the “battle”- which at that moment was delivery.
Then I felt “the urge”. I can say, and I think many mothers would agree… the urge to push is one of the most primal and incomprehensible feeling of desire a person can have. It feels illogical because you want nothing more than to do the one thing that will cause you to experience even MORE pain, as long as that ends the endless march of contractions. In pushing, a physical strength is rallied that is unbeknownst to the mother, and an equally formidable mental resolve. When I was finally “allowed” to start pushing I entered a mental tunnel… in which the only world that existed was within, and even those aiding me were just fragments and shadows of the REALNESS of birth. Although at that moment I might not have agreed… the intensity of labor makes one feel so incredibly ALIVE. It is the greatest climax of humanity that I can imagine, rivaled only by our passage in death. Each push is a trial itself and the moment of release or relief is when that child is born and takes its first breath.
At that moment… the rite is done… the magic is finally created, and culminated… From that moment on life is never, ever, the same. And I do feel that in many ways it is an initiation… the initiator being those who have come before, but the step is only taken by the mother. Was the journey , and the practice of this ritual, worth it…
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