Blessingways and Rites of Passage

I attended a fantastic workshop last week entitled Birth Altars and Blessingways: Using Ritual to Transform Birth, which really got me thinking about the major rite of passage inherent in birth, and how our society has a tendency to gloss it over with a thick veneer of materialism and call it a done deal. While many other cultures and religions have specific rites and rituals associated with pregnancy and the enormous transition from maiden to mother, we offer up the baby shower as our only ritual, and bombard the expectant family with toys and clothes and books, mostly for the baby and not the mother. Which is not to say that baby showers aren’t fun and fruitful, because hey, babies DO require a lot of new stuff, and buying gifts for people is always rewarding (and much appreciated by the expectant family, I’m sure). But I think the expectant family, and in particular the soon-to-be-mother, needs a little bit more than this. Our society needs a little bit more than this (or even a lot). This woman, this man, this couple, is about to change forever, a change that is so profound and fundamental and all encompassing that it could really use a larger, grander gesture to mark the occassion: something that dips into the spiritual, something that honors and recognizes the transition rather than the outcome, something that captures the joy and excitement of it, as well as the fear and grief and uncertainty. Something that acknowledges that being pregnant, having a baby and becoming a parent, requires a lot more than matching onesies from BabyGap. So, instead of just throwing a baby shower, why not have a Blessingway AND a baby shower?

The workshop I attended last week was great because it was very informative, low-key and discussion-centered, and I had a fantastic time talking with several other like-minded women, mothers and doulas and learning new ways to help women make their pregnancy more meaningful. Blessingways are a traditional Native American custom that celebrates motherhood, and the transition from maiden to mother. It’s a term I’d never heard before, but something that captured my interest immediately. A blessingway takes the emphasis away from the baby and baby-related stuff, and puts the emphasis instead on the woman and her journey into motherhood. We ended up discussing and brainstorming a lot of amazing blessingways by the end of the workshop, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites here.

1) Instead of baby gifts, have each of your friends bring a bead to your blessingway instead. Let each of them explain their wish or hope for the mother, birth and baby, and then ritually string all of the beads together afterwards. This becomes a powerful, physical symbol of love and support which the mother can then wear while she’s in labor, or hold or count or squeeze during a contraction.

2) Have all of the guests and the mother sit in a circle with a large skein of wool or thread. Each participant can take turns tying the thread around their wrists, and then tossing the skein of wool to someone else across from them in the circle without cutting it. Eventually, as everyone ties the thread around their wrists and tosses it to someone else in the circle, a large tangle of thread develops in the center. After everyone has tied their wrist, pull your wrists back, and the thread will stretch and coalesce into a visible web. This web is the physical manifestation of the love and support that surrounds the mother. Afterwards, everyone can keep the thread tied around their wrist and wear it until the woman delivers, as a token of support and a physical reminder that they’re still connected and thinking of her.

3) At the end of the shower, send all of the guests home with a candle, and have them light the candle as soon as they hear that the woman has gone into labor. The image of lighted candles in the homes of her friends will be a comfort while the woman labors, and the lighted candle will keep the woman in the thoughts of her friends, who will be wishing her well and sending her positive energy.

4) Have the guests decorate a cup for the woman (there are many different ways to do this—be creative). Then, sit in a circle with individual cups of juice or water, and pass the decorated cup around. As each of the guests receives the decorated cup, they can make a toast or a wish to the mother for her health, her pregnancy, her labor, the baby, etc. etc., and then pour some of the juice from their own cup into the decorated cup. At the end of the ritual, the woman will drink all of the juice in the full decorated cup as a way of taking in all of the good wishes of her friends. When she’s in labor, she can use the special, decorated cup as her own personal cup, which will remind her of her friends and their love and support, and keep her hydrated at the same time (women in labor need to drink a lot, and this is a good way to remind them to do so).

5) At the start of the woman’s pregnancy, have several close friends get together to bless and celebrate the pregnancy. People can take turns tying 9 knots in a cord, and pouring their love and hopes for a healthy pregnancy into each knot. The woman then gets to keep the cord during her pregnancy, with the knots as a physical reminder of love and health and blessing for the baby. At the end of the pregnancy, she can untie all of the knots herself, as a way of preparing or showing that she’s ready to go into labor and deliver her baby.

6) Decorate and pamper the mother. Instead of giving her gifts, give her a foot or hand or back massage (or all three!). Rub her belly with coco butter. Make a belly mask or paint a gorgeous henna tattoo on the woman’s belly. Braid and stroke the woman’s hair. Fill her with relaxation and joy and love, and help her to feel safe, loved and secure.

Two books were recommended in this workshop. I haven’t had a chance to read them myself, yet, but I thought I’d pass them on here, just in case you’re interested:

Mother Rising: The Blessingway Journey into Motherhood

Welcoming Ways: Creating Your Baby’s Welcome Ceremony With the Wisdom of World Traditions

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  1. Posted August 6, 2005 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Wow! These are some really wonderful ideas. I am in one of those life stages where LOTS of friends are having babies and I want to let them all know about this. It seems a little strange and sad not to have heard about such things all over the place, in fact!

    One tradition I have heard about is the tying of 9 knots in a cord. A variant way to do that: the woman and/or her friends tie the knots at the beginning of the pregnancy, imagining the baby staying safe and healthy through the full term. Then mom unties one knot at the end of each month, so she is untying the last knot when she is ready to give birth.

  2. The Student
    Posted August 9, 2005 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    Hi, Becca! You’re the first person who’s left a comment on here so far (though hopefully not the last). I know lots of other people have been reading this, but none of them have been brave enough to comment yet. Kudos for being so bold. 😀

    That’s a really neat variation, too. I like it. It seems like I’m in the same life stage as well, since *tons* of my friends are pregnant, or thinking about it, or just recently had babies. One of my pregnant friends just put together a really neat spin on the baby shower. Instead of letting her friends buy her *stuff*, she made up a list of chores we could do for her once the baby was born, and is letting us give that to her as our gift, instead of material things (although there are some material things on the list as well, like cloth diapers and breast pumps and the usual, for those who do want to give traditional gifts). The list includes things like: 1) Bring or cook us dinner for an evening or week after the baby is born, 2) Babysit for a night so that we can take a break and catch a movie!, 3) Come over and tidy up our messy, new-baby apartment for an hour on days when we’re too frazzled to take showers, let alone clean. 4) Make us a lasagna or some other meal we can throw in the freezer and defrost when we’re too busy to cook, 5) Pamper us! Bring us lotion, give us backrubs, help us to do something nice for ourselves in the midst of all the baby craziness, etc. etc. I thought it was an amazing list, and a really good way to make sure they’re going to get lots of nurturing and support once the baby is born, so that they can nurture and support the baby. I signed up for a few nights of cooking duty.

    Anyway, I’m glad this has sparked your interest, and maybe the interest of your pregnant friends as well. The world needs more blessingways, in my most humble opinion.

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