Childbirth as the Ultimate Transformation & Why Painkillers are Robbing Women of their Rite

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Artwork by Alex Grey.

Motherhood.  Childbirth.  These are daunting subjects, especially for those who have experienced them, in whatever variety.

Much has been said, and written, about what it means to give birth — and further what it means to be a woman.  However, I find especially significant what famed mythologist Joseph Campbell has to say on the subject.  In his interview with Bill Moyers entitled “The Power of Myth,” which was a TV special aired on PBS in the eighties, he says,

(speaking of primitive society traditions)

Campbell: The girl becomes a woman with her first menstruation.  It happens to her.  Nature does it to her.  And so she has undergone the transformation and what is her initiation?  Typically it is to sit in a little hut for a certain number of days and realize what she is.

Moyers: How does she do that?

Campbell: She sits there.  She’s now a woman.  And what is a woman?  A woman is a vehicle of life.  And life has overtaken her.  She is a vehicle now of life.  A woman’s what it’s all about.  The giving of birth and the giving of nourishment.  She is identical with the Earth Goddess in her powers.  And she’s got to realize that about herself.  The boy does not have a happening of that kind.  He has to be turned into a man and voluntarily become a servant of something greater than himself.  The woman becomes the vehicle of nature, the man becomes a vehicle of society.  The social order and the social purpose.

If a woman is identical with the Earth Goddess, then she is identical to the Earth itself — out of which the Goddess operates and manifests.  So, what are we, as women?  We are nature.

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A woman sits in nature.  A woman is in nature.  A woman is nature.

So if I, as a woman, am nature incarnate (I am also a mother) then my eyes must be the eyes of nature.  Campbell goes on to deduce the same about humanity as a whole.  But we are looking squarely at the process of becoming a woman, and of becoming a child-bearer. If my eyes are the eyes of the creation, then I am the creation, seeing itself.  But what about a creator?

If you accept that there is a creator, then you must also accept that there is a destroyer.  The creator must also be the destroyer.  Why?  To destroy what the creator has created, then the destroyer must be equally as powerful.  Or, that’s to say, equal.  This brings us full circle because what creates and destroys, at the same time, indiscriminately?  Ah.

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Nature.

Why is the acknowledgement of the destruction inherent in nature (and thus women) necessary to understand childbirth?  Well, that’s a violent and bloody reality.  Because childbirth — bringing forth life — is a destructive process.  This is the paradox of life.

As Roanna Rosewood describes in her book, “Cut, Stapled, & Mended: When One Woman Reclaimed Her Body and Gave Birth on Her Own Terms After Cesarean,”

There is nothing flowerlike about this.  It’s not soft or gentle or sweet smelling.  This is a stretching torture machine complete with a wrecking ball ramming into my bones, forcing apart sockets that have been firmly in place for my entire existence.  It’s rearranging my innards with complete disregard.  My pelvis is breaking open.  I am an obstacle.  My body is irrelevant.  I could not have imagined this violence, this betrayal from nature.  Birth is happening through me, in spite of me, and with complete disregard for my being.

Even though her words aptly illustrate what birth is like, words do ultimately fail it, so great is its magnitude.  In our most basal and primitive experience, an ode to the thousands of generations that just happened to form a direct line to us, to which we must thank for our existence, we connect to something beyond words.  The pain ensures that words will fail it.

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Artwork by Alex Grey.

Death is so intimately tied to life, it could be no other way.  To deny death, is to deny life.  For nine (or ten depending on who you ask) months we were the vessel of life.  It grew within us and we were the creation…creating.  It can only be brought forth with a death… our death.  Tragically, sometimes that means a literal death, but more often it’s a psychic death.  Death is violent, death is abrupt, and death can never, ever be avoided.  It must be felt — with our entire being… only then can new life come forth.  This is the lesson of womanhood.  This is what it means to birth a child.

Rosewood continues,

I see Death in the corner of the room, grinning gleefully.  She is waiting to see what will become of what was once my body and is now nothing more than Creation’s obstacle.  There is no warm light, no tunnel, no loved ones waiting to greet me.  There are blood and guts and shit and pain and the destruction of a woman’s body.  My body.  Deep inside there is stinging.  This is my skin ripping open with each downward movement.

She then goes on to detail how the only way out of the pain was total and utter surrender.  To the pain.  To the process.  To death.  Indeed, the only way out is through.  That’s when the bliss started for her.

Is this what we signed up for?  If we women had individually been given the choice to be born as a man or a woman, perhaps some of us would have chosen the former.  But this sort of preoccupation with imaginary scenarios of choice over nature isn’t helpful in any practical way.  Let’s stay grounded here.  Because childbirth certainly does.

Campbell contends that each of us must go through certain maturation points, in order to live our lives with purpose.  To be in harmony with the Divine.  These are commonly referred to as rites of passage.  Motherhood and childbirth could be considered the ultimate rite of passage for women (and ultimate sacrifice).  Because death is transformation, when we die, we also transform.  So now we get to the crux of the matter…

To be in step with nature, to be in step with our own power — do we walk through the pain?  Or do we dull it?  If we do dull it, are we then robbing ourselves of the alchemy of childbirth?  A fundamental step is skipped over — relief.  We can now birth our children without feeling a thing.  So what then, becomes of the vital cycle that birth and death bestow upon a woman’s journey towards wisdom?  Towards maturation?  Are we giving up our transformation, our ultimate rite, our greatest lesson… for comfort and ease?

This is a personal question, and I only mean to pose it.  It is up to you, to answer.


A video created to accompany this blog entry


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Powerful Quotes by Joseph Campbell

Who is Joseph Campbell?

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From Wikipedia,

Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase: “Follow your bliss.”

One of his most memorable works was actually a series of interviews with Bill Moyers in a 1988 PBS documentary entitled, “The Power of Myth.”  Henceforth, a myriad of deeply insightful and profound quotes were gifted to the viewers of that series.

Let’s revisit some of the most impactful nuggets of wisdom straight from Joe Campbell:

But if you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.

What am I? Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss.

(on what time is)  Our experience, yeah. But the ultimate, unqualified mystery is beyond human experience. It becomes inflected… there is a condescension on the part of the infinite to the mind of man, and that is what looks like God.

One could say that the images of myth are reflections of spiritual and depth potentialities of every one of us and that through contemplating those, we evoke those powers in our own lives… to operate through ourselves.

-Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth