Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 111, Autumn 2014
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There is a saying here in the Ozarks that goes like this:
It’s all okay in the end. So, if it’s not okay, it’s simply not the end.
That is how I’ve felt as I’ve watched the deterioration of birth on our shared planet over the past 40 years. For nearly four decades I have watched the disempowerment of women’s instinctual nature surrounding their most basic and unique contribution to the future of our species: birth. This can’t be the end because it is simply not okay.
About two years ago, my intentional community (see morningstarcommunity.org) started what we call village prenatals. “Village” because they involve many women—women who are midwives, aspiring midwives, doulas, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, pharmacists, energy and body workers, ministers and anyone else who cares deeply about simple and sacred birth. “Prenatals” because the purpose of them is to support pregnant women.
As a community, we come together for many reasons. We gather for seasonal celebrations and summer retreats where we ponder the joys and challenges of living instinctually. We have youth retreats, maiden retreats, blessingways, community retreats, weddings and baptisms and once a month we gather for Church of Many Nations. The village prenatals have a sole purpose, which is to gather out of selfless service to support and encourage the instinctual life of pregnant women who are trying to birth in power against a modern current of fear and an environment of perpetual interventions.
…the key to birthing in solitude, instinctively and powerfully and with more joy than I ever could have imagined, derived from customized preparation and nurturing within a village prenatal group.
The mothers come from near and far. They have a variety of birth plans and care providers. We are there to shower them with village attention and support and to bathe them in a sense of belonging and being cherished. The one inspiration and encouragement we echo over and over in our stories, on our walks, in our drumming and deliciously in our feasting is this: Trust your Instincts. Follow what makes sense to you. Do it your way. Take your time. Find a place of peace to make decisions. Speak your Truth. Find your Truth. Your body has all the right answers. No one has your knowing. Build your instincts. Trust your instincts.
We walk in the fresh air along the gravel road. We walk in the creek. We laugh, sing, cry, listen and question.
“I love the stories. I learn so much and I don’t feel so alone.”
“I love the songs and drumming. It goes into my soul and I can carry you with me.”
“I love the food! I’ve never felt so nourished!”
“I want to come back! When can we meet again?!”
We also sit in a circle and pass the talking stick and ask, “Tell us about your ideal birth.” As women speak, we hold sacred space for them and carry their ideal in our hearts until we meet again. Their ideal birth evolves. It becomes more self-directed and powerful as they near their sacred time. We sit pow-wow style and they ask more questions. What did you do when it was too much? Did you want your husband and kids there? What foods did you eat? Did it hurt? Were you scared? Did you think you couldn’t do it? Did you hire a doula? Did you tear? Did you cry? What helped? How did you cut the cord? Did you give your baby eye ointment and vitamin K? What if I can’t do it?
We create what we call an elephant circle. The time, story, energy, prayers, blessings, tears, joys, excitement, soberness and the aura of holiness that we create while we are together lingers in a field of awareness long after we howl our goodbyes. That circle of love, where the impossible becomes possible and ease replaces fear and power is built, is the circle that shows up again while the mother is laboring. I will receive a text message while the moon is high in the sky. “Breathe with me! My baby is coming to me! Call the elephants to circle!” Out goes the word and, one by one, strong, caring women who also have birthed in great power rise from their beds and light their altar candles and stand under the moon and squat and sway and call out to the Great Mother in thanksgiving for another life coming among us. If the labor is long or has an unexpected turn, we might send out the Heidi halo, which is a message that calls the circle of women to greater prayers and greater service.
Later, when the mother returns with her hidden bundle tucked warm near her breast, she sits by the fire and tells us her story. She will say, “I felt you swaying with me! I called out to my ancestors and the angels and I heard the voices of women who didn’t give up and I found a power I didn’t know I had. I breathed deep and long and sounded like a wild animal.” Each woman nods and recalls her own power journey and the young pregnant women sit wide-eyed, ears perked and souls seeking.
We feel we have found a gold mine. The pearl of great price. A hidden treasure. A women’s secret. We started sharing our story of village prenatals and elephant circles with others. One powerful woman, a nurse and visionary for her people, joined us and then went home and started village prenatals in the inner core of Kansas City, Missouri. One Portland doctor plans to start village prenatals in her area. You don’t have to be a nurse, doctor or midwife to start a village prenatal—you just have to be a woman who has birthed in power. You just have to want to gather women of like mind and hungry heart. You simply need to feed and nourish the bodies, minds and souls of those women in your neighborhood, community, village or tribe so they know they are cherished and irreplaceable. If you teach anything, teach them to trust themselves. If there are aspiring midwives among you, learn from nature and leave to the care provider the ins and outs of risks and charting and childbirth education that involves numbers and stages and anything that activates the new brain. Stay with creating ease and wildish knowing.
Here is something Catherine, a doula/aspiring midwife, learned and not because we were “teaching” it. Ishvara, who you will read about a bit later, arrived to the village prenatal sick and tired as she dragged herself in knowing we would feed, love and nourish her. She peed in a cup toward the beginning. We looked at it and smelled it and pondered all manner of things it might mean. It was concentrated, cloudy and uninviting. We fed her, rubbed her feet, listened to the story of her whole family being sick for weeks, rocked her baby with our songs and wrapped her in warmth and love. We asked her to tell us again her ideal birth and added, “Tell us all about your postpartum plans.” Karrisa, who you will also read about below, is the queen of postpartum plans. Karrisa moved in closer as Ishvara spoke about her ideal birth and stuttered about how to create a viable postpartum plan. “Let’s make plan A, B and C!” said Karrisa. “I’ll bring some food the first week.” Someone else said, “I’ll stop by your favorite vegan restaurant and bring lunch.” Soon Ishvara had some ideas of her own. We fed her again and made her tea and rubbed her back and sang some more power songs we have written ourselves. “I don’t know what I will want when I’m in labor,” she sighed. “You will know when you are there,” decreed the women, “so just do what you know.”
And she did.
Oh, I forgot to mention that when Ishvara got ready to leave three or four hours later (sometimes we meet overnight), she peed in a cup again. Ahhh! There it was—healthy, clear, nicely diluted, beautiful pee that makes you smile. Catherine was thrilled. So was I. So were we all. Ishvara looked like a new woman when she left us, laden with jars of food, cheeks glowing and kisses on the wind.
Here is Ishvara’s story about village prenatals.
Participating in village prenatals has been an invaluable experience, to say the very least, for a multitude of reasons. In this modern day and age, I lack “the village” or “my pack” as we say in these parts. Coming together with a group of like-minded women is a rare opportunity for someone seeking a natural birth, given the current climate of fear that surrounds birthing. I have experienced what it feels like to be truly encouraged to do what feels right according to my instincts and intuition and encouraged to do what feels right in my heart—this truly is a rarity. There is also the collective experience of many women at hand. Often times when a question or concern was raised, I heard something along the lines of, “Well what I did was…” or “Well, what she tried was this…” I got to hear stories and insights that were uplifting, funny, empowering, powerful, honest and intimate—things that women need to hear about and talk about but don’t have the opportunity to with only a 15-minute visit with an obstetrician.
During each village prenatal, we spent a minimum of two to three hours together. With the unsurpassed guiding wisdom of Sister MorningStar, there were technical skills taught to the women in attendance, which I also learned a great deal from, including hands-on palpation techniques, drawing the position of the baby, listening for fetal heart tones, how to find a placenta, maternal health assessment using “a thousand eyes.” I got to be the best teaching tool—a real live woman. Sister also teaches skills that nourish the spirit of the birthing woman as well. Songs that praise the mama and womb baby that make us feel special and cherished were sung. Any of my immediate needs were addressed, such as hunger, thirst, the need for body work, etc. She asks essential questions like, “What is your ideal birth?” and starts a discussion about how to move towards it. She asks, “What do you fear?” and addresses those issues honestly, directly and with humor so that I always left feeling more confident and informed than ever. She asks about my postpartum plan and how I am going to organize the help I need. During this time we are all together, sharing our collective knowledge, experience and stories.
What I took away from these times together with this group of women was a sense of being empowered, cherished, encouraged and loved and, most importantly, I felt a sense of belonging. I feel that to change the current trend in the birth scene, we need to have these things so we aren’t lonely, estranged and vulnerable. Even if a woman has a great midwife, birthing against the modern current is harder when your team is small, maybe only including the mom, dad and midwife. But the bigger your team is, the better. For example, it can be a powerful experience to have two (or five!) midwives, your neighbor and her grown daughter, plus your immediate three or four best lady friends. To hear over and over, “What we did, you can do!” is potent medicine; much more potent that any supplement or drug.
Ultimately being a part of these village prenatals changed the choice I made regarding how I wanted to go about birthing my third child and I am sure that the prenatals were a secondary driving force. Secondary only to the instinctual choices I knew needed to be made, of course.
In 2012 we had the unique opportunity to support two women in their own home carrying our village prenatals “out into the world.” These two women are sisters-in-law and had the simple wisdom to live together during the early years of starting their families. One was expecting her second child and the other her first. What a rich time we had! What one didn’t wonder about the other did! We circled round and round as they pondered aloud how best to bring into reality their visions of a blissful birth. The room was filled month after month with stories that recounted the power of women in birth over the ages. There we were nestled in a little farm house surrounded by woods and streams and trees filled with birds singing. On the hearth of a stone fireplace, Karrisa squatted in power and said, “I want to birth like this!” We all squatted with her and then and there her elephant circle formed. We swayed and sang and talked to baby dear. We shared more stories, one women after another, of the many and varied ways one moves out of and into a squat, which often results in birthing in the squatting position. Native peoples around the globe squat to eat, to talk, to work, to poop and to call out to the Great Spirit. The more we squat in pregnancy, the more likely we are to squat at birth.
At village prenatals, there is no forbidden topic but we also do not focus on the facts and details of anatomy or physiology of pregnancy or birth because women defy facts. Story after story is filled with, “I was told this but I did that.” Who would think to check the cervix of a tiger? Some of the most powerful stories regarding the errors of facts about women’s bodies, babies and potentials come from HBAC mothers.
“I was told my pelvis was too small and then I birthed a larger baby naturally.”
“I was told my uterus was unfavorably positioned.”
“I was told my birthing hormones don’t reach a high enough level.”
“I was told my uterus would rupture.”
“I was told my baby or I would die.”
“I was told I would be sorry.”
Here is Karrisa’s story of her experience at the center of Village Prenatals.
How best can we prepare a woman for an instinctual birth? The power of stories of such births, both in the written form and from another woman herself, are, without a doubt, the path towards creating a vision of an instinctual birth. However, there must be something more, something big, something magical, to carry this vision forward to the dear babe at the hour of her birth. From my own personal experiences, the key to birthing in solitude, instinctively and powerfully and with more joy than I ever could have imagined, derived from customized preparation and nurturing within a village prenatal group.
My first pregnancy was guided along beautifully with the traditional midwifery model and my daughter was born peacefully at a birth center; my husband and I were ecstatic with our natural birth experience. And yet, I struggled in the first weeks of mothering, despite the solid postpartum care provided from the practice and my family. Fortunately, I soon found an incredible community of women who made it a practice to both honor and act on their instincts. Although we had all birthed out of the hospital, it was quite evident that they went about it differently. After years of listening, watching and working in this community, we were blessed with another pregnancy. I shared with this community my strong longing to birth simply, in a powerful squat in my bathtub like a goddess. Although I was only seven weeks along, they immediately gathered around and touched me like I was a holy woman while they whispered to my baby, squatting with me and listening to my fears while my feet, hands and belly were gently massaged. They envisioned with me a thriving baby within a joyous pregnancy. We made plans for ‘an ideal birth’ with a long and heavenly lying-in to follow with milk and wisdom abundance! This two-hour ritual was repeated monthly, with these same six to eight women coming to my house and bringing nourishing food and life-giving stories. After honoring me in a soul-filled blessingway ceremony, they returned to their homes to light candles for me and sending still more food and prayers. All the while, we received loving care from our same midwife with special attention towards postpartum needs. And when, after a few extra weeks of patience, I awoke pre-dawn and crept into our bathroom, closing the door to sway in darkness and solitude, I called on this village of women, recalling their stories, their support and their belief in my vision. It made all the difference in the world! My 10 lb cherub slid out from under a full squat in quiet waters just a few hours later. Of course, when my husband awoke and found me rocking on the toilet, he phoned our midwife. Her silent, in-tuned presence during those last 20 minutes, along with some very effective lower back counter-pressure, was very much appreciated.
The bliss of this birth has stayed with me for nearly a year now (in contrast to just a few days after the first birth) and I don’t think it will ever fade!
Karrisa is now one of the power women whose story and soul make up the elephant circle of our instinctual community and other women are filling the center.
Through village prenatals we have found a way that, at least for some, it is more than okay in the end—it is a glorious beginning.