Toward a Magickal Birth
by Deirdre Pulgram Arthen ©1989
“It comes like the waves in the ocean,” my mother told me. “Powerful, strong and rhythmic. Unceasing. Wave after wave.” She was right. In labor with my son, my first child, he and I are carried over crest and trough, and we let go, freeing ourselves to be swept into birth. I feel and see my body writhing, snakelike and sensual as the waves come, one following the other. My body responds, knowing what to do. I let go. “You can’t fight the waves. Just let them carry you.” I hold her words in my mind, and, for one long holy moment, surrender myself to the magick as I have never done before.
Becoming a mother is a sacred act. Bringing forth a new life into this human sphere is, perhaps, the most powerful work that anyone can perform. Without it, we cannot survive. Without it, no heritage, no wisdom, no political or philosophical belief has any meaning. Since the beginning of time, the mystery of birth has been celebrated. From Paleolithic awe at the magickal power of women to create new life from within themselves, all alone, as the Earth produced life from nothingness, to the taboos surrounding childbirth practiced by tribal peoples around the world, to the “women only” midwifed births in pre-Industrial Europe, the mystery, the miracle, remains the same. Even now, in our society of “rational” and medically dominated childbirth practices, the light of the magic of new life pierces through the surgical masks and steel as a mother greets her newborn. Each birth connects us with all the births that have gone before and with the women who have birthed before us, with all life that is yet to be and with the Earth which is continually birthing.
Despite these natural connections, most women giving birth today find it a struggle to move beyond culturally ingrained patterns to an intimate and personal relationship with the eternal, spiritual side of birthing. We are confronted on all sides with horror stories, bad advice, and a medical community that considers childbirth to be a “procedure” rather than a healthy human function. We are further distanced from this natural process by a society which denies its young a place, which encourages the early separation of mother and infant in order to “teach the child self-sufficiency” and free the mother to pursue “more important” things in the professional world, and which sees the needs of the very young as imposing “demands” on the mother. Is it any wonder that so many women approach birthing fearfully, and disconnected from their own power?
My mother gave birth to four children, naturally, and with joy. For her stories I am forever grateful. The stories our mothers have shared with us are among our deepest beliefs about giving birth. If, like so many women in their generation, they were victims of a medical establishment that believed the doctor, not the mother, knew best how to bring a child into the world — an establishment that invaded the natural process with forceps, unnecessary Caesarians, and separation of mother, father, and infant, including feeding of sugar water and formula on a set schedule regardless of the needs of mother or child — it is no wonder we feel afraid. From the first time we hear stories like these as children, we pick up the loss our mothers felt. We sense the powerlessness they felt, not in relation to the power of life surging through their bodies, but in relation to those who would control, monitor and regulate them. As we listen to this kind of story, birth becomes an experience one must endure, something to go through and get done with as quickly as possible to attain an end result: the child. What a telling reflection of our goal-oriented society.
In our growing up, we are programmed to achieve, to produce, with the assumption that the end product will make us happy, and that whatever happens on the way to that end will be “worth it.” Stories about birth often include the adage, “You’ll forget all about the pain once the baby’s there.” Why should we forget the most powerful experience we have ever had? We are not taught to watch and enjoy the process of our lives, nor are we taught to celebrate and wonder at the moments of doing. Rather, we celebrate completion, accomplishment, production. This kind of teaching often leaves us with the feeling of having missed something. We aren’t sure just where it went, but somehow we lost the process. We are not sure how we got to this place. Something irretrievable has been lost, but we have learned that most often it is best to shake off the feelings, minimize our losses, and resume our travel down the road. We offer ourselves a lifetime of tiny denials and missed experiences. The work of relearning involved in changing these patterns can last a lifetime.
In the birth experience, we are presented with a unique opportunity for personal transformation. Pregnancy offers us nine months in which something in our life is utterly changed. It is a finite period of time during which we can choose to gradually alter our awareness by focusing increasingly on the “now,” while moving toward an ever-present goal. We don’t have to think about our goal in order to attain it. We can be free to experience the progress toward it moment by moment. Nine months is a specific time period which contains this particular piece of magickal work. If we fail to do it within that time, it is clearly too late. This imposed limitation can help us with our discipline; and it takes considerable discipline to make a change in ourselves so subtle, yet so all-encompassing. We must learn to resist the external pressure not to be aware. That sounds easy enough, but every fiber of our twentieth-century educated selves is struggling to do just the opposite.
The pressure says, “Don’t stop! Aim high and attain your goal! Sacrifice in order to achieve! If you stop, you are lazy, you are weak, you are self-indulgent!” There are times when this pressure might be useful as a motivating force, if taken without the attached judgments. But there are also times when it is destructive, and draws us away from experiences that feel correct to us on an intuitive level. Before we can make the choice about whether or not we want to impose this set of expectations and demands on ourselves, we must first learn to silence them. There are many techniques taught around the world fro stilling the mind, for lifting all concerns but the instant of consciousness. Meditation, ritual, prayer, trance, yoga, Sufi dancing — all of these address exactly this issue. For the time that one is truly engaged in these activities, the constraints of the external world are eliminated. One exists only in the “now.” All senses are finely tuned to a vivid focus on the moment, as if the rest of the material world did not exist and one were in relationship only with the divine. This is the state in which deep transformation can take place; not by learning, but by being, and through that being, knowing. If we are in this state as we give birth, we can “know” the experience, and we can be transformed by it.
In order to use consciousness-changing practices with any depth, repetition and patience are required. Many people pay lip-service to working with these techniques. Far fewer are able to reach the depths that are potential within them. Cloistered religious sects have been created to provide an atmosphere without “mundane” distraction, in which the participants will have support for serious pursuit of their chosen practice. Within the cloister walls, all actions become part of the practice. Life itself becomes a ritual. A constant awareness of the moment is carried by every member into all daily activities, and the depth of experience attained during times set aside for more focused work is dramatically increased. It is this type of constant awareness that we can approach during pregnancy to deepen our experience as we give birth.
In some tribal cultures, it has been customary practice for pregnant women to be sequestered, particularly as the time of birth approaches. This is not to suggest that we cloister ourselves during pregnancy, but that we come as close as we can to the state of attunement found in those holy places. We can make our lives a ritual. In our bodies, we are clearly manifesting one aspect of the triple goddess. We are becoming mothers. We are engendering new life. We are entering a period of our lives that will forever change us. We become mothers as soon as we accept the child in our womb as our own. As soon as we establish a relationship with that child, we will be mothers for the rest of our lives. No matter what happens to that child, she will always be a part of who we are. Perhaps this sounds obvious, but the implication is profound as we see the bridge we are crossing, never to return. Our decisions about how to work magickally with the transformation will affect us the rest of our lives.
I beleive that there is more to the world than what we perceive with our senses, that there is a realm of mystery and wonder which envelops our lives and transcends ordinary consciousness. Magick approaches this transcendent realm through the use of ritual and symbol as keys to unlock our awareness and experience of that alternate reality. A symbol can be anything that is seen not only in its physical form, but also as a reflection of an aspect of the greater whole. Ritual is the arranging of chosen symbols in a manner intended to alter consciousness.
At this time in our lives, so much is happening inside us physically and emotionally that it can be difficult to see beyond the morning sickness, the hormonal swings of our emotions, and the rounder and larger shapes of our bodies, to the potent symbolism inherent in our condition. We are continually confronted with material concerns. We need to be conscious of our nutrition, of our physical health, of our financial state, of our relationships with those who make up our support system. It is hard to maintain an awareness that our bodies, our babies and our souls are also powerful symbols with which to create ritual. We need to become the cloister in which not only our baby’s development is contained, but our inner process as well. If we can find a way to hold the knowledge of our symbolic nature, if we can find a way to concentrate on the relationship of our circumstance to the archetypal eternal birthing of the Earth Mother, we can not only deepen our own experience, but share that deepening with those we come in contact with.
We have an ocean in our womb. In that ocean, life begins again — developing from one tiny cell to an independent, conscious, mobile being. All of creation is happening anew inside of our body. We are all of creation.
This baby is all that is new, all that is potential in the world, all that can be, all that will be. She is all truth, all trust, all hope.
The love that we feel in our hearts toward our baby, that love which is sometimes so all-encompassing and so overwhelming that we are moved to tears, is the love ever-present in all of creation. It is the spirit that holds the universe together. It is our reason for being.
We hold all creation, all possibility, and all love within us, always. We can experience that in a new way during pregnancy. We have such clear symbols to work with that, by focusing on them, we can go further than ever before in our knowledge of the world we live in, and of who we are. With our new consciousness, we can give birth not only to our baby, but to all that we know. We can take the awareness that has grown in side of us, in our private cloister, and bring it forth into our lives and into the world. What we have to offer can heal our wounds, the wounds of others and the planet. It is vital to our survival. It is irreplaceable. It is worth the effort.
There are many ways to bring a magickal awareness into our daily lives; a few are listed as suggestions elsewhere in this article, but there are as many styles of working as there are women. Depending on our living situation, our paths may look similar or differ widely. Those women who have the freedom to spend hours each day in meditation or formal ritual may find that their consciousness is altered nearly all the time. Women who have other children to care for, or who work in high pressure environments, may find that sort of altered state impossible to cope with if they are to remain functional. It is up to each individual to select the level of intensity her life can hold on a day-to-day basis. It is quite possible to generate the heightened awareness we are discussing, and still maintain a successful career, a healthy body and strong intimate relationships. The problem is that sometimes we need to juggle those things when we know intuitively that we should not be trying to do so.
Despite the best efforts to integrate spiritual work with the “mundane” issues of day-to-day life, many pregnant women are forced to make some extremely difficult economic decisions. The United States is far behind many other technologically advanced nations in its policies towards pregnancy and birth. Women are not offered any significant amount of paid maternity leave, nor are their jobs guaranteed beyond a few months of absence. In some European countries, such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, women’s jobs are guaranteed for up to three years if they choose to be at home while they are pregnant or with their babies. In many instances, these women are paid a proportion of their salaries for the entire length of their absence. Many countries provide maternity care free of charge to all women, and include a great deal of education during pregnancy, as well as physical help after the baby is born. Infant mortality rates in these countries are far lower than those in the United States, where, especially among women of color who are financially disadvantaged, the statistics are appalling. If we believe that a mother’s experience during birth is one which is important to her, to her baby and to the community at large, we need to re-examine the priorities of our society and work toward change.
Whatever our circumstances, however, we can do this work. As the time of birth draws near, we can intensify our preparations, not only on a spiritual level now, but on a practical one as well. In order for us to take advantage of all of our preparation, we must create an environment for the birth in which we will be able to fully focus our energy without any unnecessary distractions. We must choose carefully the place in which we wish to give birth, the people we wish to support us in the process, and make contingency plans for any eventuality that might occur. While a woman may be at the peak of her power as she moves closer to the instant of birth, she is also in a very vulnerable position should anything unexpected occur. If she has made decisions ahead of time regarding as many possibilities as she can imagine, and if she is surrounded by people she trusts with whom she has shared those decisions, her ability to adjust to difficulties while maintaining her focus is greatly improved.
It is time, as labor begins, to summon up all that we have done to prepare for this most sacred of rituals. We never know exactly what the birth will be like, so we enter into the unknown tingling with anticipation. At the same time, we are filled with an inner stillness which echoes the timelessness of what we are about to do. Remember the stereotyped husband who gets flustered and drives away to the hospital, leaving his calm wife in the driveway? All women, regardless of preparation, have access to the racial memories that accompany birth. We know already. We just have to remember.
We enter the chosen place and create our circle. Relying on our intuition and those with whom we have chosen to share this experience, we begin to let go into the process, focusing on what we know. There has never been a time more requisite of perfect love and perfect trust, not only of our supporters, but of ourselves, our bodies, our babies, and the natural process that carries us. We must surrender our will to that process, and trust that it will carry us.
I look over at the altar I have set up in front of the mirror. I see my reflection as I hold the hands of two most trusted friends. We have prepared well for this. Our energy is in synch. I see my baby’s father sitting behind me, pressing on my back, helping me to let go, focusing his energy on the wonder of the process. I can feel his love flowing through me with the waves. Our midwife is at my feet, gently massaging them to help reduce any tension that might arise. Our reflections are framed with the symbols of birth: the goddess sculpture with her wide open vagina; a talisman of fur and feather inscribed with the words “Amazon Mother” given to me by a circle of women several months before; a gift from my mother of seashells she found and strung together; a gift from her mother, now dead — a string of amber beads. The candlelight flickers in the mirror. I know this will not last much longer, no matter what the midwives are saying. “Waves in the ocean…flowing like the tide.” I repeat the words to myself over and over. “I am the Earth…” “Let go…let go.” Before anyone expects it, Donovan’s head is visible, and ever so gently, with immeasurable joy, he is born and breathes and nurses, and is rocked in the arms of the Earth.
Magickal Birth Books:
- Transformation through Birth, Claudia Panuthos
- Birth Reborn, Michael Odent
- The Silent Knife, Nancy Cohen
- The Birth Report, Valmai Elkins
- Childbirth with Insight, Elizabeth Noble
- A Good Birth, a Safe Birth, Diana Korte and Roberta Scaer
- Immaculate Deception, Suzanne Arms
- The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, La Leche League International
La Leche League is a warm, family-centered, volunteer organization created by women to support each other in making choices about the care and feeding of our children. All women, pregnant, with young children, or just thinking about it, are welcome at meetings. There is generally a number listed in the telephone directory of any major urban area, or you can write to them to find a group near you. For support and information about breastfeeding and related topics, write to:
La Leche League International
9616 Minneapolis Avenue
P.O. Box 1209
Franklin Park, Illinois 60131-8209
DEIRDRE PULGRAM ARTHEN has been a witch, priestess and counselor for the past ten years. Over the last year and a half, her new role as mother has thrilled and challenged her in ways she never even imagined. She loves music, children, dancing and walking in the woods. She finds magick in every aspect of her life.