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From Mother Blessings to Red Tent Circles: What comes after a Sacred Pregnancy?

IMG_5745In 2008, a small postcard at the local Unitarian Universalist church caught my eye. It was for a Cakes for the Queen of Heaven facilitator training at Eliot Chapel in St. Louis. I registered for the training and went, driving alone into an unknown neighborhood. There, I circled in ceremony and sisterhood with women I’d never met, exploring an area that was new for me, and yet that felt so right and so familiar. I’d left my two young sons home for the day with my husband and it was the first time in what felt like a long time that I’d been on my own, as a woman and not someone’s mother. At the end of the day, each of us draped in beautiful fabric and sitting in a circle around a lovely altar covered with goddess art and symbols of personal empowerment, I looked around at the circle of women and I knew: THIS is what else there is for me.

My work following the birth of my first son came to center heavily around pregnancy, birthing, and breastfeeding, Mollyblessingway 156the stage of life in which I was currently immersed. I’d wondered several times what I would do when those issues no longer formed the core of my interest and personal experience. How could I ever stop working with pregnant and birthing women? How could I stop experiencing the vibrance and power of pregnancy and birth? Would I become irrelevant in this field as my own childbearing years passed me by? Looking around the room at Eliot at this circle of women, only two of whom were also of childbearing age, I knew: my future purpose would be to hold circles like this one. I found something in Cakes that I needed, the recognition that I wanted to celebrate and honor the totality of the female life cycle, not just pregnancy. As a girl, I loved the mother blessing ceremonies my mom and her friends held to honor each other during pregnancy. They hosted a coming of age blessingway for all of their early-teen daughters as well and I helped to plan a subsequent maiden ceremony for my younger sister several years later. Locally, we carried that tradition forward into the current generation of young mothers, holding mother blessings for each other and enjoying the time to celebrate and share authentically and deeply. After my training, I facilitated a series of Cakes classes locally, attended a women’s retreat at Eliot Chapel, and began to facilitate quarterly women’s retreats for my friends. One of my stated purposes was to honor and celebrate one another without anyone needing to be pregnant. Somehow, even though our own local mother blessing traditions were beautiful, we had accepted that the only time we had ceremonies with one another was when someone was pregnant. I wanted to change that!

This year, my offerings has expanded from the women’s spirituality retreats and classes I held in my own home, to a Red Tent Circle held at WomanSpace in my nearby town. Our local Red Tent Circle definitely doesn’t focus exclusively on menstruation or on currently menstruating women (all phases of a woman’s life cycle and her many diverse experiences and feelings are “held” in that circle)–in fact menstruation sometimes barely comes up as a Mollyblessingway 215topic—however, one of the core purposes of our circling together is in celebration. We gather together each month to celebrate being women in this time and in this place, together. As I noted, I started out my work with women focused on birth, breastfeeding, and postpartum. While those are formative and central and important life experiences for many women, it became very important to me to broaden my scope to include the totality of women’s lives, not just pregnant women. I want to honor and celebrate our whole lives, not just pregnancy and birth. Having a mother blessing ceremony during pregnancy is beautiful and important and special, but I feel like that care, attention, value, and ceremony can be brought into the rest of our non-pregnant lives through gathering together in a Red Tent Circle. This is one reason why I developed an online Red Tent Initiation Program. This program is designed to be both a powerful, personal experience AND a training in facilitating transformative women’s circles. These circles bring the sense of celebration and power we may have experienced during our pregnancies and from our Mother Blessing ceremonies more fully into our lives as the honor the fullness and completeness of women-in-themselves, not just of value while pregnant.

I long to speak out the intense inspiration that comes to me from the lives of strong women.” –Ruth Benedict

I believe that these circles of women around us weave invisible nets of love that carry us when we’re weak and sing with us when we’re strong.” –SARK, Succulent Wild Woman

I am inspired by the everyday women surrounding me in this world. Brave, strong, vibrant, wild, intelligent, complicated women. Women who are also sometimes frightened, depressed, discouraged, hurt, angry, petty, or jealous. Real, multifaceted, dynamic women. Women who keep putting one foot in the front of the other and continue picking themselves back up again when the need arises.

I feel like my interest in social justice, women’s rights, and human services are intimately entwined with my spiritual life. Indeed, I almost cannot separate the two. I believe it is possible for us to have a truly loving world—a world in which the inherent dignity and worth of girls and women is not in question–and there is much good work that needs to be done in order for this world to be a reality.

This work I am now doing, both in person and online, represents an integration of something I feel with my mind, heart, and spirit. My whole being. At that Cakes training years ago, I glimpsed the multifaceted totality of women’s lives and I longed to reach out and serve the whole woman. My range of passion has extended from pregnancy and birth to include the full woman’s life cycle, rather than focusing exclusively on the maternal aspect of the wheel of life as I did for ten years. I create rituals that nourish, plan ceremonies that honor, facilitate workshops that uncover, write articles that inform, and teach classes that inspire the women in my personal life, my community, and the world. This is what else there was for me.

So, after you’ve experienced a sacred pregnancy filled with ceremony and ritual and celebration, what else is there for you? After you’ve worked for years with pregnant and birthing women to honor and celebrate them in their tenderness and strength, how might you branch out to hold space for all of women’s experiences and the many transitions of their life cycle? Like me, you might find your answer in holding a monthly women’s circle.

Learn more about our Red Tent Initiation Program, this in-depth online class is designed to be both a powerful, personal experience AND a training in facilitating transformative women’s circles.

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Wisdom from Moon Time for Red Tents

IMG_3728“At her first bleeding a woman meets her power.
During her bleeding years she practices it.
At menopause she becomes it.”

(Traditional Native American saying)

One of my favorite books to have available on the resource table of our local Red Tent Circle is Moon Time, by Lucy moontime2Pearce. I reviewed it in this post, but didn’t have room for all the juicy quotes I wanted to share! One of the ideas I include in my own Red Tent Resource Kit book is to use womanspirit wisdom quotes to stimulate a discussion in the circle. Here are some quotes from Moon Time that would make great launching points for a sharing circle at the Red Tent:

“It is my guess that no one ever initiated you into the path of womanhood. Instead, just like me, you were left to find out by yourself. Little by little you pieced a working understanding of your body and soul together. But still you have gaps.”

Questions for circle: Were you initiated into the “path of womanhood”? What gaps do you feel?

“You yearn for a greater knowledge of your woman’s body, a comprehensive understanding of who you are, why you are that way. Perhaps you have searched long and hard, seeking advice from your mother, sister, aunts and friends, tired of suffering and struggling alone. You may have visited doctors, healers or therapists, but still you feel at sea and your woman’s body is a mystery to you. Or maybe you have never given your cycles a second thought … until now.”

Questions for circle: What do you feel like you need to know about your body? What mysteries are you uncovering?

“Through knowledge we gain power over our lives. With options we have possibility. With acceptance we find a new freedom.

Menstruation matters.”

Question for circle: How does menstruation matter?

Additional information about why menstruation matters on a physical, emotional, and relational level:

We start bleeding earlier today than ever before, with girls’ first periods occurring at 12.8 years old now, compared with 14.5 years at the beginning of the last century. Coupled with lower breastfeeding rates, better nutrition and fewer pregnancies, women now menstruate more in their adult lives than at any time in our history.

From the age of 12 to 51, unless you are pregnant or on the pill, every single day of your life as a woman is situated somewhere on the menstrual cycle. Whether ovulating or bleeding, struggling with PMS or conception, our bodies, our energy levels, our sense of self, even our abilities are constantly shifting each and every day. And yet nobody talks about it…

via Moon Time: Harness the ever-changing energy of your menstrual cycle

As I noted in my review, one of the things this book was helpful for to me personally, was in acknowledging myself as a cyclical being and that these influences are physical and real: IMG_5194-0

Each month our bodies go through a series of changes, many of which we may be unconscious of. These include: shifts in levels of hormones, vitamins and minerals, vaginal temperature and secretions, the structure of the womb lining and cervix, body weight, water retention, heart rate, breast size and texture, attention span, pain
threshold . . .

The changes are biological. Measurable. They are most definitely not ‘all in your head’ as many would have us believe. This is why it is so crucial to honour these changes by adapting our lives to them as much as possible.

We cannot just will these changes not to happen as they are an integral part of our fertility.

From there, another relevant quote:

“There is little understanding and allowance for the realities of being a cycling woman—let alone celebration.”

Questions for circle: What allowances do you make for yourself as a cycling woman? Are you able to celebrate the experience?

In my own life, I’ve had to reframe my understanding of the impact of the monthly moontime experience by looking IMG_4269at it through the lens of healthy postpartum care following birth—it is crucial that we care for our bodies with love, attention, respect, and time. Our local Red Tent Circle definitely doesn’t focus exclusively on menstruation or on currently menstruating women (all phases of a woman’s lifecycle and her many diverse experiences and feelings are “held” in that circle)–in fact menstruation sometimes barely comes up as a topic—however, one of the core purposes of our circling is in celebration. We gather together each month to celebrate being women in this time and in this place, together. I started out my work with women focused on birth, breastfeeding, and postpartum. While those are formative and central and important life experiences, it became very important to me to broaden my scope to include the totality of women’s lives, not just pregnant women. I want to honor and celebrate our whole lives, not just pregnancy and birth. Having a mother blessing ceremony during pregnancy is beautiful and important and special, but I feel like that care, attention, value, and ceremony can be brought into the rest of our non-pregnant lives The_Red_Tent_Resourc_Cover_for_Kindlethrough gathering together in a Red Tent Circle. This is one reason why I’m so excited to offer an online Red Tent Initiation Program this summer. This program is designed to be both a powerful, personal experience AND a training in facilitating transformative women’s circles.

Back to Moon Time quotes!

“There is no shame in tears. There is a need for anger. Blood will flow. Speak your truth. Follow your intuition. Nurture your body. But above all … Let yourself rest.”

Questions for circle: Do you allow yourself anger and tears? Do you feel shame? How do you speak your truth? How do you give yourself time to rest?

To be clear, I wouldn’t use all these quotes at one Red Tent Circle! I would use them individually at different gatherings. This one blog post has enough potential circle discussion prompts to last for more than six months of Circles! 🙂 This month I also bought a bundle of copies of Moon Time to have available for women at our local Red Tent.

More good discussion quotes here: Talk Books: Cycle to the Moon | Talk Birth.

And, there are others in my Red Tent Resource Kit.

Please consider joining us this summer for the Red Tent Initiation Program!

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Weekly Tidbits: Birth, Postpartum, the Triumvirate, and Anthropology

IMG_3501My sister-in-law shared a link to a really potent article from The Guardian about birth, midwifery, postpartum, and supportive friends. When she shared, she brought tears to my eyes by thanking me for being part of her own “triumvirate,” described by the post author as…

I needed a maternal figure, a dedicated and present midwife, dear and loving friends. I was blessed with one out of three. It could have been worse.

The only people I know who did just fine in the postpartum period are those who score the triumvirate: well cared for in birth, surrounded by supportive peers, helpful elders to stay with them for a time. The others, wild-eyed at the supermarket, prone to tears, unable to nurse or sleep or breathe, a little too eager to make friends at baby groups – I can spot them at 20 paces. We form a vast and sorry club.

via My friend breastfed my baby | Life and style | The Guardian.

I’m lucky enough to have also scored the triumvirate (I find it takes pretty careful planning and active attention to put it into place!). When my midwife came to visit me postpartum and commented that I was looking good and I replied that people kept telling me that, she said that rather than just saying “thank you,” I should point out my looking good was directly related to having excellent postpartum care. And, she was right. I did not look, feel, or sound depleted, exhausted or overwhelmed precisely because I was being taken care of. I had great prenatal from my midwife along with six weeks of postpartum follow-up visits. I had a postpartum doula for immediately post-birth support and several follow-up visits as well as meal calendar coordination. I had my mom, who cooked for us and cared for our other children. I had my sister-in-law who came to stay for several days and helped with cooking and cleaning. I had friends who brought me dinners and took my kids to playgroup. I had my husband, who got to enjoy our new baby with me because he wasn’t trying to do all of the above!

When I think of my triumvirate, a specific moment comes to mind. I am sitting in the bathroom holding my brand new baby, still attached to me by his cord. We are waiting for the placenta to come. My midwife is close by, peeking over, but not being hands-on or aggressive. My mom leans over to take pictures. My doula is standing in our bathtub to make room. My husband is kneeling near me and my other children are gathered around to cut the cord. In the driveway outside, my friend waits with her three children to take my kids to playgroup. This is what birth support looks like. I am surrounded with love and care.

The author of the article quoted above did not have the same experience…

Two weeks later, I gave birth at home, after a 13-hour posterior, or back-to-back, labour, which the long-practising, well-respected midwife did not bother to attend. Frankly, it felt like staring death in the face, by which I mean an altogether normal and intense physiological process that has nothing to do with the ordinariness of daily life. Throughout, my husband and doula repeatedly called and texted the midwife, whom we had found privately. She told us it was “probably” early labour. From inside the grip of what turned out to be very active labour, I managed to flat-out demand that she join us, speaking at the phone while the doula held it to my ear. The midwife sounded annoyed, vaguely put-upon. It was another three hours before she arrived. Minutes later, with a great and unbridled roar, I delivered my son into bathwater.

We wept with joy, held him, kissed him, named him. Eventually, I got out of the bath. My husband lay in bed with our new son on his chest. I showered in a state of trembling, happy shock. The midwife perched on the sink and told me a story about her estranged sister. She handed me a towel, and I remember commiserating, trying to comfort her about her unfortunate relationship with her family, as though we were two cool girls hanging out in the bathroom at a party. One of us just happened to be naked and bleeding, immediately postpartum. I didn’t care; I was too ecstatic. Having just given birth, I felt omnipotent. Epic. Heroic. Unstoppable.

via My friend breastfed my baby | Life and style | The Guardian.

I wrote about the value of breastfeeding support here:

But, what happens after the birth? I’ve often thought that my role in breastfeeding support, while less “glamorous” or exciting than birth work, has had more lasting value to the women I serve. Breastfeeding is the day in, day out, nitty-gritty reality of daily mothering, rather than a single event and it matters (so does birth, of course, it matters a lot, but birth is a rite of passage, liminal event and breastfeeding is a process and a relationship that goes on and on for every. single. day. for sometimes years). Anyway, sorry for the brief side note, but I enjoyed reading this article about the celebrity culture surrounding pregnancy and birth with its obsession with who has a “bump” and then how after the birth the main deal is losing that weight and having a fabulous bod again! Woot!

via Tuesday Tidbits: Birth Thoughts | Talk Birth.

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I shared this pic on Instgram this week in honor of the theme of “self-care” in the online Equinox 15 event I’ve been taking part in.

I’ve only recently recognized that while I was surrounded by excellent support for birth and postpartum, I’m not really giving myself much credit lately for still having just had a baby. Yes, Tanner is almost 5 months old, but that moment in the bathroom was only five months ago. I still need quite a bit of help and that normal and okay. I need to recognize what I’m capable of, which is a lot, while also still recognizing what I need and what the pace of my life can be and can handle at this point in time. I also recognized that I have difficult admitting or expressing how difficult it feels sometimes to be incorporating a new baby into the family, to be working around “baby time” again, and to be physically bound to a baby again. It is hard to admit, because Tanner is such a treasure of a baby and I enjoy him so much and love having his adorable, babiest of babies self in our lives. However, it also sometimes feels hard to be doing this all again and I often feel “old” and kind of worn out and ragged lately.

This brings me to a lovely article about vulnerability as strength (something my doula reminded me of several times following Tanner’s birth):

…Today I stood swaying my daughter to sleep in my mommas group shedding tears because of the intense sleep deprivation over the last 6 weeks. My tears fell and I was held with empathy, no one solved my problems; women just heard me and held me in my challenge. We heard each other, others cried, we softened, we opened ourselves up to the wisdom that each expressed and afterwards our hearts felt happier and lighter. Something sacred unfolded. I was in a container that was safe to share my soul, to be naked in front of these women, to admit I was not perfect and I didn’t have all the answers. And I felt better. I was not alone.

The more I allow myself to be vulnerable, the more I receive, the more I soften, and the more I open myself up to support. We are not meant to mother alone. The first year of our child’s life is a raw experience. It is amazing; it is illuminating, joyful, and raw.

via Vulnerability as a Strength | Mothering Arts.

This container is so important. Though, I will also acknowledge that for my personality, being told to “take it easy” or to “lower your standards” or “don’t have such high expectations of yourself,” often registers for me as being told: You’re not capable. I don’t believe in you. Give up. So, I personally, when trying to create a container of safety or support for other women I will not usually use those sorts of phrases.

Related to the idea of postpartum tenderness and triumph, I enjoyed this photo series of newborns and mothers: Born yesterday: mothers and their newborn babies – in pictures | Life and style | The Guardian.

Bringing the discussion around to anthropology and birth though, this interesting recent article suggests that it is the mother’s metabolism (and energetic reserves) that creates the human gestation length rather than the size of the pelvis as often commonly theorizes:

We’ve been doing anthropology with this warped view of the male pelvis as the ideal form, while the female pelvis is seen as less than ideal because of childbirth,” she said. “The female births the babies. So if there’s an ideal, it’s female and it’s no more compromised than anything else out there. Selection maintains its adequacy for locomotion and for childbirth.

via Long-held theory on human gestation refuted: Mother’s metabolism, not birth canal size, limits gestation — ScienceDaily.

In a past article about the wise women behind and around us, I included this interesting quote from Tsippy Monat:

“Anthropology describes trance as a condition is which the senses are heightened and everyday things take on a different meaning. Communicative competence with other people may increase or may not exist. Facts of time and place are revealed differently than in normal everyday consciousness. This description reminded me of situations encountered at birth because birth is a condition in which the mind is altered. When I accompany births, I experience the flooding of oxytocin and endorphins. In Hebrew, the root of the word birth can also mean ‘next to God’” (p. 49).

via Thesis Tidbits: The Wise Women Behind, Within, and Around Us | Talk Birth.

And, speaking of historical experiences of birth support, I re-visited this guest post about birth witnesses:

The only way to understand birth is to experience it yourself. The ONLY way? That comment stayed with me, haunted me. I became a doula after my daughter’s birth because I wanted to be able to provide women with support and knowledge that could give them a different experience, a better memory than what I had. I just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a way to understand birth at all except to experience it firsthand. Certainly there wasn’t always this fear and unknown around birth that we each face today. Not always. I began studying that idea. What about other cultures? What about our culture, historically? What about The Farm? There wasn’t always this myth and mystery about birth! I realized there was a time (and in places, there still is) when women banded together for births. Mothers, sisters, cousins, daughters, aunts, friends. They came together and comforted, guided, soothed, coached, and held the space for one another during birth. These women didn’t go in it alone – they were surrounded by women who had birthed before them. Women who knew what looked and felt right, and what didn’t. Women who could empathize with them and empower them. In addition to that, girls and women were raised in a culture of attending births. Daughters watched mothers, sisters and aunts labor their babies into this world. They saw, heard, and supported these women for the long hours of labor, so when they became mothers themselves, the experience was a new, but very familiar one for them. Birth wasn’t a secretive ritual practiced behind the cold, business-like doors of a hospital. It was a time for bonding, learning, sharing and sisterhood. Girls learned how women become mothers, and mothers helped their sisters bring forth life. It was a sacred and special part of the birthing process that has become lost in our institutionalized, over-medicalized, isolating and impersonalized system today.

via Birth Witnesses | Talk Birth.

And, another regarding women’s rites of passage:

“I love and respect birth. The body is a temple, it creates its own rites, its own prayers…all we must do is listen. With the labor and birth of my daughter I went so deep down, so far into the underworld that I had to crawl my way out. I did this only by surrendering. I did this by trusting the goddess in my bones. She moved through me and has left her power in me.” ~Lea B., Fairfax, CA (via Mama Birth)

via Rites of Passage… Celebrating Real Women’s Wisdom | Talk Birth.

In just a few hours, I’m headed into town for our first local Red Tent Circle. I took this photo yesterday in honor of the spring equinox and the themes of manifestation, intention, and creativity. May we walk in harmony with each other and may we be surrounded by circles of support.

Happy Spring!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

“Come into my lap and sit in the center of your soul. Drink the living waters of memory and give birth to yourself. What you unearth with stun you. You will paint the walls of this cave in thanksgiving.”

–Meinrad Craighead

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This year I’m thankful for my sweet new baby as well as for my other children, a husband who is home with us, the opportunity to pursue creative work together, my parents who live so close and who are so helpful, our first nephew who is so smiley and cute, my friendship with my sister-in-law, and our “tribe” and community of friends. This year has been a really formative year for us and one in which we have completed a lot of significant projects and focused our energy in building our creative business together.

Several years ago on Thanksgiving, I wrote a “top ten things I love about having a baby” post about Alaina. I need to write one about Tanner too, since he is a much younger baby on Thanksgiving than she was. I still identify with a lot of the points though:

10. Having a baby! Being one of the babymamas. Being a mamatoto. It just feels really right to have a baby on my hip and at my breast.

via Top Ten Things I Love About Having a Baby | Talk Birth.

It is my tradition to share my “Rest and Be Thankful Stage” post on Thanksgiving as well:

During my first labor, I experienced what Sheila Kitzinger calls the “rest and be thankful stage” after reaching full dilation and before I pushed out my baby. The “rest and be thankful stage” is the lull in labor that some women experience after full dilation and before feeling the physiological urge to push. While commonly described in Kitzinger’s writings and in some other sources, mention of this stage is absent from many birth resources and many women have not heard of it.

via The Rest and Be Thankful Stage | Talk Birth.

As a thank you to our Brigid’s Grove customers, we’re offering free shipping for United States customers in our etsy shop through December 1st. For our international customers, we have a thank you discount code for 10% off: SMALLBIZSATURDAY.

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Mother Blessings and the Power of Ritual

Mollyblessingway 116You are the
most powerful
intelligent
inspirational

Woman

Close to my heart.

You continue to
become
exponentially more amazing.

Always giving
others the step UP.

Force of the cosmos
connecting the Web

You are.

Thank you.

–Phanie

 

At the end of September, my friend sat on the floor during my mother blessing ceremony and wrote the above poem for me. When she gave it to me she said, “I’m not like you, I don’t write things and share them on the internet.” It was very powerful to receive the gift of written word from someone who does not often write, but who knows how deeply writing speaks to me. 

My mother’s circle of friends began holding mother blessing ceremonies for each other in the early 1980’s. At the time they called them “blessingways” in honor and respect for the Navajo traditions that inspired them to begin their own tradition. As awareness of cultural appropriation increased, we shifted our language to use “mother blessing ceremony” instead, though I confess that “blessingway” remains the term rooted in my heart for these powerful, mother-honoring celebrations of the power of the life-giving woman. After having been blessed with a ceremony during her last two pregnancies in the late 1980’s and having co-hosted coming-of-age blessing ceremonies for me and my sisters in the 90’s, my mother reintroduced the mother blessing ceremony to my own circle of friends during my first pregnancy in 2003. We’ve been holding them for women in the area ever since. I believe each pregnant woman deserves a powerful ritual acknowledging her transition through pregnancy and birth and into motherhood, regardless of how many children she has.

Early this year, I became unexpectedly pregnant with the baby who will arrive into our arms at the end of October as our fourth living child. I did not intend to have more children and it has been hard for me to re-open the space in my mind, heart, and family to welcome another baby when I had mentally and emotionally “shut the door” and moved on from the childbearing chapter of my life. (However, it turns out that writing blog posts about how you’re not having any more children is not, in fact, an effective means of birth control.)

In the book Rituals for Our Times, the authors Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts, identify five elements that make ritual work. Mother blessing ceremonies very neatly fulfill all of the necessary ritual elements (which I would note are not about symbols, actions, and physical objects, but are instead about the relational elements of connection, affection, and relationship):

  1. Relatingthe shaping, expressing, and maintaining of important relationships…established relationships were reaffirmed and new relationship possibilities opened. Many women choose to invite those from their inner circle to their mother blessings. This means of deeply engaging with and connecting with those closest to you, reaffirms and strengthens important relationships. In my own life, I’ve always chosen to invite more women than just those in my “inner circle” and in so doing have found that it is true that new relationship possibilities emerge from the reaching out and inclusion of those who were originally less close, but who after the connection of shared ritual, then became closer friends.
  2. Changingthe making and marking of transitions for self and others. Birth and the entry into motherhood—an intense and permanent life change—is one of life’s most significant transitions in many women’s lives. A blessingway marks the significance of this huge change.
  3. Healingrecovery from loss, special tributes, recovering from fears or scars from previous births or cultural socialization about birth. My mom and some close friends had a meaningful ceremony for me following the death-birth of my third baby. I’ve also planned several mother blessing ceremonies for friends in which releasing fears was a potent element of the ritual.
  4. Believingthe voicing of beliefs and the making of meaning. By honoring a pregnant woman through ceremony, we are affirming that pregnancy, birth, and motherhood are valuable and meaningful rites of passage deserving of celebration and acknowledgement.
  5. Celebratingthe expressing of deep joy and the honoring of life with festivity. Celebrating accomplishments of…one’s very being.

Notice that what is NOT included on this list is any mention of a specific religion, deity, or “should do” list of what color of candle to include! Mollyblessingway 177I’ve observed that many people are starved for ritual, but they may also be deeply scarred from rituals of their pasts. As an example from the planning of a past ceremony, we were talking about one of the songs that we customarily sing–Call Down Blessing–because we weren’t sure if we should include it in case it would feel too “spiritual” or metaphysical for the atheist-identified honoree (i.e. blessings from where?!). I also remembered another friend asking during a body blessing ritual we did at a women’s retreat, “but WHO’s doing the blessing?” As someone who does not personally come a religious framework in which blessings are bestowed from outside sources–i.e. a priest/priestess or an Abrahamic God–the answer, to me, feels simple, well, WE are. We’re blessing each other. When we “call down a blessing” we’re invoking the connection of the women around us, the women of all past times and places, and of the beautiful world that surrounds us. We might each personally add something more to that calling down, but at the root, to me, it is an affirmation of connection to the rhythms and cycles of relationship, time, and place. Blessings come from within and around us all the time, nothing supernatural required.

I also find that it is very possible to plan and facilitate women’s rituals that speak to the “womanspirit” in all of us and do not require a specifically shared spiritual framework or belief system in order to gain something special from the connection with other women.

In the book The Power of RitualRachel Pollack explains:

“Ritual opens a doorway in the invisible wall that seems to separate the spiritual and the physical. The formal quality of ritual allows us to move into the space between the worlds, experience what we need, and then step back and once more close the doorway so we can return to our lives enriched.”

She goes on to say:

You do not actually have to accept the ideas of any single tradition, or even believe in divine forces at all, to take part in ritual. Ritual is a direct experience, not a doctrine. Though it will certainly help to suspend your disbelief for the time of the ritual, you could attend a group ritual, take part in the chanting and drumming, and find yourself transported to a sense of wonder at the simple beauty of it all without ever actually believing in any of the claims made or the Spirits invoked. You can also adapt rituals to your own beliefs. If evolution means more to you than a Creator, you could see ritual as a way to connect yourself to the life force…

In the anthology of women’s rituals, The Goddess Celebrates, wisewoman-birthkeeper, Jeannine Pavarti Baker explains:

The entire Blessingway Ceremony is a template for childbirth. The beginning rituals are like nesting and early labor. The grooming and washing like active labor. The gift giving like giving birth and the closing songs/prayers, delivery of the placenta and postpartum. A shamanic midwife learns how to read a Blessingway diagnostically and mythically, sharing what she saw with the pregnant woman in order to clear the road better for birth.

Baker goes on to describe the potent meaning of birth and its affirmation through and by ritual acknowledgement:

Birth is a woman’s spiritual vision quest. When this idea is ritualized beforehand, the deeper meanings of childbirth can more readily be accessed. Birth is also beyond any one woman’s personal desires and will, binding her in the community of all women. Like the birthing beads, her experiences is one more bead on a very long strand connecting all mothers. Rituals for birth hone these birthing beads, bringing to light each facet of the journey of birth…

As my friends spoke to me at my own mother blessing ceremony, I felt seen and heard. They spoke to me of my own capacities, my Mollyblessingway 190strengths as a leader, teacher, and organizer. And, while I believe they were also actually trying to remind me of the opposite message, to take it easy and relax sometimes, one of the things I woke up the next day realizing is that yes, I do feel overwhelmed and overbooked and stretched thin at times. And, yes, I do whine and complain about it on Facebook sometimes, but in the end, I am always enough for whatever it is. I get it done anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever felt overwhelmed and then not done it (assuming “it” wasn’t a self-imposed expectation that I mercifully realized could be let go of). That is one my strengths: feeling the fear or the strain or the pressure or, yes, the excitement and thrill, and NOT getting paralyzed by it or letting myself off the hook. I work my way through and come out the other side, usually with my smile intact, my energy full, my head bubbling with ideas, and my eyes casting around for the next project. Occasionally, I do drop a ball, but pretty rarely, and when I do, I either find it or explain where it went and why I’m going to let it keep rolling away.

I discovered in this post-ritual reflection that it is just part of my personal process to be able to say, and be vulnerable enough to have people hear, see, or read, that I think maybe I can’t do something or that I’ve said yes to too much. The answer for me is not, “then don’t” or “stop” or “quit” or “take it easy,” it is to move forward and to see, again, that I was actually enough for what scared me or felt too big or too exhausting. I woke up the morning following the ritual in appreciation of my own capacities and how they continue to expand, even when I feel as if I’ve reached my own edges. I actually feel “too much,” “too intense,” “too big,” or “too fast” for people a lot, but what I don’t ever need is to be told to make myself smaller. I usually need to be able to say, “Yikes! What am I thinking?!” have that held for me for a minute, and then do it anyway. Just as those of us deeply invested in birthwork would never tell a laboring woman, “you’re right. You probably can’t do this. You should probably quit now,” my mother blessing ceremony reminded me that I am stretched thin precisely because I have it in me.

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I wish for you a life full of ritual and community.” –Flaming Rainbow Woman, Spiritual Warrior 

(in The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for Teens)

Molly is a priestess, writer, teacher, artist, and activist who lives with her husband and children in central Missouri. She is a doctoral student in women’s spirituality at Ocean Seminary College and the author of Womanrunes: A guide to their use and interpretation. Molly and her husband co-create at Brigid’s Grove: http://brigidsgrove.etsy.com.

Portions of this post are excerpted from our Ritual Recipe Kit booklet.

Adapted from a post at Feminism and Religion.

Other posts about mother blessings can be found here.

All photos by my talented friend Karen Orozco of Portraits and Paws Photography.

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Pap Smears I Have Known

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Photo by Karen Orozco, Portraits and Paws Photography

Your body is your own. This may seem obvious. But to inhabit your physical self fully, with no apology, is a true act of power.”

–Camille Maurine (Meditation Secrets for Women)

“I used to have fantasies…about women in a state of revolution. I saw them getting up out of their beds and refusing the knife, refusing to be tied down, refusing to submit…Women’s health care will not improve until women reject the present system and begin instead to develop less destructive means of creating and maintaining a state of wellness.”

Dr. Michelle Harrison (A Woman in Residence)

One afternoon at the skating rink for homeschool playgroup, a few of my friends sit in a hard plastic booth and the conversation turns to pap smears and pelvic exams. Later, I read Michele Freyhauf’s post about her hysterectomy experience and the skating rink pap smear stories come back to me with vivid clarity.  Being a woman is such an embodied experience and we have so many stories to tell through and of our bodies. During my conversation with my friends, I warn them: watch for my new one-woman show…Pap Smears I Have Known. At the time, several other friends are preparing for a local production of the Vagina Monologues and I have a vision: The Pap Smear Diaries. But, really, how often do we have a chance to tell our Pap smear stories, our pelvic exam stories? Where are they in our culture and do they matter?

Three experiences come to mind as I talk with my friends…

1999. I am married, twenty years old, and a graduate student. I go to the student health center for my annual exam. As I walk up to the door and place my hand on the handle, I feel this intense, visceral reaction in my body of wanting to run away. For a few moments, I can’t open the door, instead I think only of fleeing. The thought comes to me: I’m going in here to volunteer to be assaulted. Having to undergo a routine pelvic exam and pap smear as a condition of having access to birth control pills feels like a routine humiliation, like a ritual of physical invasion and “punishment” designed to shame young women who dare to have sex.

This is MY BODY.

2003. In my Type-A way, I head to a doctor for a “preconception visit” before my husband and I begin to try to conceive our first baby. This appointment is at a birth center in which you wear flowery housegowns instead of paper dresses. When the doctor touches me (she asks permission first), I flinch and recoil slightly. She looks at me with surprise: “haven’t you ever had a pap smear before?” I am intensely embarrassed because I know what she is thinking: she is thinking I must have been sexually abused and she is probably writing that on my chart right now. I haven’t been sexually abused, though I’ve spent my formative late teens and early twenties working in domestic violence and sexual assault centers. I’m not sure why this feels so embarrassing to me, and I also still wonder, isn’t it actually more normal to flinch when a stranger pushes their hand into your body than to be totally cool with it? Later at this birth center, I give birth to my first son. In what will eventually be six pregnancies, I only experience a single pelvic exam ever while pregnant, during his birth immediately before pushing. This is good. I prefer hands kept outside my body. After his birth, clots form in my uterus and prevent it from clamping down properly. The doctor does a manual exploration of my uterus to remove the clots. I scream out at first with the pain of this invasion and then hum my Woman Am I blessingway chant in order to cope.

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2009. My third baby has died unexpectedly during my second trimester. I give birth to him at home alone with just my husband. The baby’s birth is surprisingly peaceful and empowering, but then the clots come, eventually the size of grapefruits. When I become unable to distinguish whether I am fainting from the unbelievable sight of so much blood or dying from the loss of it, I ask to go to the emergency room. The ER doctor tries to examine me to see if I am hemorrhaging, but she only has a child-sized speculum. She is unable to get her hand inside me because of the clots in the way. She puts the miniature speculum in over and over and it keeps flopping out because it is too small for me. I have never been so miserable. “This wouldn’t hurt so much if you’d stop moving around so much,” she says in an irritated voice. When she leaves the room, she leaves bloody handprints streaked along the sides of the bed and my blood in a puddle on the floor.

This is MY BLOOD. 

“…no woman is powerful, no woman has ‘come a long way baby’ when she’s made into medical mincemeat when giving birth. No woman is powerful when she lies on her back and flops her knees open for stranger’s fingers and casual observation.”

Leilah McCracken, Resexualizing Childbirth, quoted in Birthdance, Earthdance, master’s thesis by Nané Jordan (p. 58)

This February, I attend the local production of The Vagina Monologues performed by several of my friends before an encouragingly full theater in our small Midwestern town. One of them delivers a powerful portrayal of “My Angry Vagina.”  She is amazing and intense and angry as she stomps across the stage:

“…why the steel stirrups, the mean cold duck lips they shove inside you? What’s that? My vagina’s angry about those visits…Don’t you hate that? ‘Scoot down. Relax your vagina.’ Why? So you can shove mean cold duck lips inside it. I don’t think so.  Why can’t they find some nice delicious purple velvet and wrap it around me, lay me down on some feathery cotton spread, put on some nice friendly pink or blue gloves, and rest my feet in some fur covered stirrups?”

During my pregnancy with my daughter three years ago, I buy urinalysis strips on the internet and keep track of the protein, sugar, and leukocytes level in my urine. I monitor my blood pressure in the pharmacy section of the grocery store. I buy a Doppler and check her heartbeat myself. When I find myself continually worried about what I will do if she is not breathing at birth, I travel to a city several hours away and become certified in neonatal resuscitation. I buy a neonatal resuscitation bag and show my husband and mother how to use it. After she is March 2014 116born, breathing well, in wild, sweet relief into my own hands in my living room, I drink liquid chlorophyll to rebuild my blood supply and I ingest my own placenta dehydrated in little capsules prepared by my doula.

An acquaintance comes to me complaining that her insurance company does not cover her prenatal visits and she is tired of paying more than $100 for a five minute visit while they check her urine and the baby’s heartbeat. I feel a little nervous about it, but I pass her my Doppler and my leftover urinalysis test strips on the front porch of my little UU church. Later, she tells me how empowering it is to take care of these responsibilities herself, rather than going to the doctor for something she is perfectly capable of doing. Another friend borrows my Doppler several times to check heartbeats for other friends—sometimes with good news and sometimes with bad news—and in January of this year I have the honor and privilege of finding my brother and sister-in-law’s first baby’s heartbeat for the first time.

My friend asks to borrow my neonatal resuscitation equipment in case she needs it for a birth she is attending (it has already been to several other friends’ houses during their births). I tell her, “I love black-market health care,” and pass it to her furtively at the bowling alley.

Later, I reflect that it isn’t black-market healthcare that I love, it is women taking care of each other and themselves. I love empowered self-care. I love feminist healthcare, though it has yet to exist on a systemic level in this country, and I love the possibility and potential found in taking the care of our bodies into our own hands whenever we can.

I have yet to invest in any speculums, but maybe I should. And, purple velvet.

This post was previously published on Feminism and Religion.

Magic House Day Trip

This is one of those posts that is in lieu of keeping a scrapbook!

As one of their prizes for the summer reading program at the library, the kids got free tickets to Magic House, a children’s museum in St. Louis,. In an unusual stroke of convenience, three of our St. Louis area friends (two of which have Magic House memberships already) were all available to meet us there on the same day at the same time (when does this ever happen without major machinations?!). And, the kids’ best friends from our own town were also able to go and met us there. It is a chaotic, loud, and crazy place to meet if you think you are going to get any quality friend visiting in, but it was a lot of fun for everyone and I’m still a little in shock that it worked out so well to meet everyone! I’ve never been there before (our kids went with Mark a couple of years ago), so I staggered around in kind of a sensory overload daze looking at everything. Thank goodness my friends were familiar with the place and could steer me around when I stood still for too long. I expected that our families would end up getting separated from each other at some points–too many people to coordinate all walking around together–but I didn’t expect to divide by age more than family. So, I ended up following Alaina around to the sections she wanted to go to with my two friends who also have little children and Mark ended up taking the boys around to the parts they wanted to go to with our two friends that have bigger children and sometimes we all overlapped!

Because I was mostly with Alaina, I don’t have many pictures of the boys doing cool stuff, but here is a gallery of the few pictures I did get from our expedition:

After using our free tickets for Magic House, we then took a quick trip to Hobby Lobby (despite wishing to boycott, they were right on our way and we had things we needed to get!) and unashamedly went through the line as five separate transactions thus getting five 40% off coupon purchases. The kids have never been to an IHOP and there was one right there, so we decided to go there for dinner before leaving the city. Handily, kids eat free at IHOP from 4-10. I had no idea, so that was a nice surprise! However, the power went out shortly after we placed our order and resultant delay in getting our food meant that we got five dinners, plus bonus plates of toast, happy face pancake, and lemonades for the road for $7 total. I think this was officially the cheapest little day trip we’ve ever been on! (The waitress said the lemonades were because we were the only people who were nice to her about the wait.)

Me to kids while waiting at IHOP as they were getting antsy and writhing around: “this is what is called a public place.”

Alaina, loudly: “no, this is called a BUTT place.”

Apparently, many of hours of fun at Magic House do not contribute to beautifully behaved three-year-olds, because after this incident, she also peeked over at other diners and stuck her tongue out at them when they waved nicely to her. At least she was useful in getting 40% off by going through the line with her little handful of money at Hobby Lobby. 😉