Building Sacred Traditions in Birth
by Whapio Diane Bartlett, traditional midwife
© 2001 Midwifery Today, Inc. All rights reserved.
[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 58, Summer 2001.]
During the past 18 years, my apprenticeship with birth has challenged me to redefine my concept of boundaries, trust, fear and responsibility. Today, if I could make one statement about building a birthing community it would be this—build on what you know and believe is sacred. I say this to women and families, the true architects and builders of all authentic birthing communities. Claim what is sacred to you and insist that your birthing traditions reflect the most intimate and holy desires of the soul.
I know what is sacred to me. Over the years, I have learned what is sacred to others. Always mysterious and profound, the sacred takes us out of our mundane reality and puts us in touch with “the more.” To connect with the sacred is to access our source of passion and personal power, our depths, our art, our imagination and our true selves. The most memorable aspects of my midwifery and the most important have been discovering and sharing elements of the sacred with the women and families I serve.
Early on in my days as a midwife, I was attending women in a small town in rural Georgia with my partner, Jackie. One of our clients, a Mennonite woman named “Alma” who was carrying her sixth child, began labor early one spring morning. Things progressed slowly and we spent the day taking endless lovely walks through the alfalfa fields. As evening fell, we received a call from another client in the same town informing us that she too was in labor. We decided that Jackie would go to be with “Kate,” and I would stay with Alma. As Jackie left we hugged each other tightly and locked our eyes together, wide and searching. This was the first time we would be going to a birth without the other. This would be the first time one or both of us would be catching a baby and performing the duties of midwife alone.
As the night progressed, Alma’s labor seemed to stand still. Kate on the other hand moved fast through the night and at 5 a.m., Jackie called to say that Kate seemed ready to push and would I be able to come over and help. I can still hear Jackie’s voice as she whispered her concerns about the size of the baby’s head and her fear that Kate would have a huge tear. During this night, Alma had been alternately resting and trying to augment labor by walking, pacing, crawling, bathing and massaging. We both knew she would not be having her baby any time soon, and when I spoke of leaving for a short time, Alma’s voice cracked a bit as she said she guessed that would be all right. Her eyes told a different story. Her eyes said, as plain and loud as any voice in the stillness of the night, Please do not leave me for any reason.
Alma was my friend; Jackie was my partner. Alma was still in early labor; Jackie was worried about shoulder dystocia.
“Let’s pray about it,” Alma whispered, and we both quickly dropped to our knees beside the bed, a soft light playing about our faces in the early morning. I knew that the answer to this prayer would affect not only what happened between Alma and me, but also the whole fabric of birth until the end of time. We knelt quietly for a few moments as we were drawn into the sacred. Then I heard Alma begin to speak to God. She sought strength and courage for herself, wisdom and guidance for me. In my own words, I prayed for the same. As we rose from our knees the air was very still between us and in this exquisite moment, nothing else existed except my ability to respond to her need and hers to mine.
“My place is here with you,” I said quietly. As she rushed to hug me, even more tightly than Jackie had, the stillness vibrated with meaning and power. We understood each other completely for this one moment. Our eyes locked, wide and searching for a confirmation that we had touched the deepest places in our souls. As we smiled at each other, we knew it was true.
Six hours later Alma and I drove to Kate’s house to pick up Jackie and welcome Kate’s 10-pound 2-ounce son onto the planet. No dystocia and only a tiny tear. It was a year for boys—early the next morning Alma and her family welcomed their new son into the world. Jackie and I were honored to attend.
We are all waiting expectantly to experience the sacred with one other. I find the calling to midwifery incredibly powerful because we have a constant opportunity to rub elbows with the Great Mystery and hopefully facilitate the sacred in the life of those we know and come to love. With that calling also comes incredible responsibility. The ability to respond to the sacred presumes the maturity to put aside individual expectations of how an experience should unfold and defer to the parents’ intuitive grasp of what is highest and holiest for them.
When we remember that the knowledge of birth is within us, we find we need to rely less and less on others to create the experience for us. As in some spiritual communities many of us are realizing that we wish to rely more on our intrinsic knowledge of God than on priests and pastors to give us the authority and permission to access the divine. It’s the same with birth; it’s the same with healing. When possible, we can and should do this under our own authority with less and less reliance on practitioners whether they are midwives, doctors, therapists or priests. This is not to say that practitioners are not important, they are and they will be for many years to come. But I have learned from encouraging others to share their experiences with me that practitioners are not always necessary.
In Alma’s case my presence with her was important and initially felt very necessary. In connecting with a deep part of her soul, I became aware that the place she went to and shared with me was her place of ultimate goodness and generosity of spirit. She was willing to give up her need for my company to make things better for Kate and Jackie. In that sacred moment, her goodness was revealed to both of us. The experience we shared was ultimately not about whether I should go or stay but about who we are, what revelations are granted to us and how we honor and cherish these gifts of the spirit.
A few years later, still working in rural Georgia, I was called to attend “Loretta” and “Harold” with their fourth child. Loretta had a different midwife for each of her first three births and she and Harold had considered not having a midwife at all for this birth.
Loretta and Harold were deeply spiritual people who wanted the sacred element of their birth recognized and protected. As a couple, they were committed to birthing under their own authority. Their wishes were that we should all become close friends during the pregnancy. Prenatal visits were a time of catching up, having dinner, listening to the stories of their lives and sharing bits from mine. We kept charts and checked blood pressure and urine. We palpated the baby, measured fundal height and talked incessantly about birth. It was understood, however, that my role at the labor and delivery would be integrated into their experience of what is sacred. I would not be checking heart tones or doing any vaginal exams. Indeed I would not speak to or look at Loretta during labor, and I would not be in the room unless specifically called.
I would be doing no coaching, breathing, massaging or catching. Loretta, traditionally a heavy bleeder in the postpartum and during her periods, asked that no herbs or homeopathics be administered unless requested. Invited into this sacred realm, I would now be taught what had meaning to this wonderful couple and what did not. They were teaching me how to be the midwife they needed. In return, I shared my knowledge of birth through the stories of other families I had attended. My presence was important to them but not necessary for their birth to unfold in its profound and mysterious ways. As I sat in the house during labor, I was overcome with gratitude and love for Loretta and Harold and for the family traditions they were building. When Loretta started to push I was invited to enter the birthing room—not to look or speak but to sit in sacred space with them and share this holiest of moments as a friend and midwife. Her birthing was beautiful; Harold caught another baby boy and I learned some valuable lessons from my friends and clients.
I learned that Loretta and Harold are powerful, responsible people who are reweaving the fabric of consciousness on this planet. I learned that midwifery is primarily facilitating the sacredness of bringing forth life on this planet. And I learned that my conceived ideas about bleeding more than two cups after delivery were slightly absurd and entrenched in a paradigm that says there is only one way to look at things. Some women need to lose more blood than others do—now I follow the clues.
In the 10 years since attending Loretta, I have learned hundreds of ways to facilitate birth. Always, it involves standing back and learning how the parents wish the birth to unfold. Countless families place a great priority on directing their own care and want a conscious and sacred relationship with birth. The more it is their own experience the more the concept of a sacred birth has a place of reverence and value in the culture. Couples assure me that when they are managed or facilitated by someone else, even by loving and caring midwives, it becomes less of a peak experience for them and harder to effect a change in consciousness.
Rules that are imposed prevent the experience from flowing in a natural direction. Forced to follow a secular path rather than a natural, sacred path, the numinous, magical quality of birth has been sacrificed for what the practitioner believes to be the perfect or appropriate experience. If we replace “sacred” with “safe,” “psyche” with “techne,” we cannot expect parents to grow richer and stronger in character. Now, I have no routines or birthing rules—to me every birth is deliciously different and unfolds in its own unique way. When couples direct their care in a responsible manner, I can be comfortable in many types of situations.
When I worked with “Valerie” and “Mitch,” Valerie spent most of her second pregnancy healing from her first birth. Each prenatal brought a new rendering of her traumatic story, a story that each of us has doubtless heard in one form or another: a hospital birth catapulted into technical overdrive, caregivers who were not caring, violence and sexism that in any other arena would have resulted in a lawsuit. In essence, Valerie, Mitch and their daughter were physically fine and emotionally, mentally and spiritually devastated. As a deeply spiritual couple, they had a long way back to the light. Valerie approached her impending birth with a fair amount of anxiety and trepidation but when the day came she breezed through labor and delivered her second daughter, born in the caul, into the waiting hands of her husband and her midwife.
A year and a half later she stood in her bathtub and delivered her third daughter into Mitch’s hands. I was in the next room. Two years later Mitch called me on the phone when Valerie went into labor. I lit a candle, said my prayers and waited to hear. After three hours, Mitch called to say that Valerie birthed her first boy. A year and a half later Mitch phoned to ask a question about the placenta after the birth of their second son.
From Valerie and Mitch I learned that some couples prefer that their midwife be a dear friend who can be trusted to hold a space of prayer and meditation rather than hold a hand or perineum. I learned that autonomy is more important to some than symphony. And while I do not think that birth is only sacred or even more sacred when just the parents are present, I learned that it can be. I learned how to be comfortable in whatever role parents choose for me. I have not given up or abandoned the clinical areas of my practice that also serve families well. I still do vaginal exams, breathe with moms and carry oxygen. But for me it is imperative to create a practice in response to the needs and desires of birthing couples and birthing communities.
In sharing these stories I am addressing midwives who value the sacred enough to listen to women and their families and change their comfortable existing birthing practices to respond in kind. I am searching for midwives who realize that it is not the care providers who create the birthing community and then invite mothers and fathers to join them. Parents create birthing communities that are built on their concepts of what is important and necessary. Into their community, they invite midwives who are willing to learn as well as teach.
I am profoundly touched by the concept of tribal midwifery that flourishes in the community where I live and work. Here, a group of about 20 mothers are raising their families and having their babies. To me, this most ancient and authentic form of woman care works beautifully, safely and responsibly. Most of these women have studied birth, have midwifery skills and attend each other in birth as the need arises. No money is exchanged and there is always an older midwife to turn to for advice and guidance. If interface with the medical model becomes necessary, it proceeds with respect and grace. Each woman who midwifes another is totally conscientious and invested in providing the most competent and compassionate service possible. This birthing community is built on love and respect, on commitment and integrity, on the understanding that the knowledge of birth belongs to everyone—not just an elite few. All view birth as inherently safe and feel that families have the right to create their own unique birthing traditions.
What is most important and primary is their view of birth as a sacred event able to raise the consciousness of the individual and the planet. This vision encompasses the idea that each participant in the birthing process comes into a more valuable state of consciousness through this experience. We do not strive to control birth or each other, and we recognize that a more valuable state of consciousness may include pain, disappointment and even death.
When I tell these stories to others, I am saddened to the core to have midwives shake their heads in disbelief and walk away convinced that they would never do such things while believing those that do to be reckless, incompetent or dangerous. I feel pained to hear other practitioners comment that a happy and blessed outcome was just lucky and that luck might run out one day. These days I am honored to teach “sacred midwifery” to women who value the ancient ways of our grandmothers, who believe that the sacred means trusting the natural unfolding of birth and the intrinsic authority of the parents. One of my major tenets is that we all hold a strand of the web, a spoke of the wheel. We are all equally valuable and should be equally visible.
The great poet, Rumi, tells us, “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” That field is the place of the sacred birthing community, where families can learn and teach and flourish.
Whapio Diane Bartlett has practiced traditional midwifery for 18 years. She currently directs The House of La Matrona, School of Holistic Midwifery and Women’s Arts in the southeastern United States.
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