[Author’s Note: I seek to reclaim a wider understanding of birth in society-at-large and in human spirituality. Birth mysteries have been invariably silenced, lost, or co-opted towards metaphors that disconnect our birth-y origins from actual mothers and women. As a foundational experience of human life, re-visioning birth can provide socially transformative values. I want to open a birth-based dialogue into the deep Goddess energies of S/he, from Her powers of creation and renewal through female generated being. Understanding Goddess—and goddessing—as a verb and a process, is enriched by honouring the inherently female-originated condition, wisdom, and value of the human process of gestation and birth.]
Birth invites mystery into our lives if we can, or want to, receive that. Wound up into that mystery is personal and societal fear of death, which birth…stands at the doorway of. So much of medical birth practice is about diverting this mystery into knowable forms with time-tables, charts, clocks and interventions. Yet birth is older and wiser than our clocks and technological tricks. Every birth unfolds in its own way in its own time. Birth inherently asks a mystery of us, women in particular. This is a true gift of listening to its calling, allowing the mystery to be present and unfold in our lives as the new being emerges into our arms. (Nané Jordan, Birthdance, Earthdance, 2002, p. 116)
I have a life-long passion to wander in the field of “birth” and birth-giving through women- and love-centred practices and philosophies. I have variously pursued my birth-calling as a midwifery student and lay midwife, a birth advocate/activist and post-partum caregiver, as a ritualist, and through writing and scholarship that highlights women’s voices and experiences. Alongside others, I feel called to improve the existential conditions of birth’s experience for and by women, to allow the unfolding of its mystery in our lives as the gift of life’s flow and being-ness—a hallmark of Goddess consciousness. We can improve birth experience for all, by incorporating women’s and midwives’ knowledge of natural birth physiology and support. This holds the potential for ecstatic birth in its ‘oxytocin’ high. Oxytocin, as the “love” hormone of felt wellbeing and human bonding, is released during love-making, breastfeeding, AND birth-giving when women are able to stay in their own experience. In this way, technocratic and medicalized interventions during birth (see: van Teijlingen, E., Lowis, G, McCaffery, P. & Porter, M., 2004) must be kept to a judicious use in healing, and not as a tool of control over women’s bodies and minds.
This essay gleans my philosophical and thea-logical (the study of goddess) bent and voice, my desire to locate “birth” in the great landscape of human experience and goddess philosophy. How can we think about and with this experience? The musings that follow mark my desire to reclaim a wider understanding of birth in the culture-at-large and in human spirituality, where its mysteries are invariably silenced, lost, or co-opted towards metaphors that disconnect our birth-y origins from actual mothers and women. As a foundational experience to human life, re-visioning birth can provide socially transformative values. We can heal birth and the trauma that is too often experienced by women, babies, and men, through love-centred practices that ultimately support life-centred ways of knowing and being. Birth matters, as highlighted by midwife Ina May Gaskin (2011). How and where women give birth, how women are cared for, blessed, supported, accompanied—who is with us, and what it feels like, are all vitally important to the beginning fabric of our earthly being, and to the bonding love of mother and child.
As thealogians contend, Goddess is in the experience—experience matters, as do the symbols, rituals, and values in the meaning-making of peoples and societies. I seek to open a pathway towards a story and philosophy for birth in its meaning writ large. I want to open a birthy-dialogue into the deep Goddess energies of S/he, in Her powers of creation and renewal through female generated being. Understanding Goddess—and goddessing—as a verb and a process, is enriched by honouring the inherently female-originated condition, wisdom, and value of the human process of gestation and birth.
In her book Introducing Theology: Discourse on the Goddess (1999), Melissa Raphael writes, “for throughout the world, the worship and symbolism of female divinity seems to have preceded the worship and symbolism of male divinity,” she continues in brackets with the statement: “(probably because the awesome mystery of new life comes from female, not male, bodies)” (1999, p. 75). Raphael evokes for us what is common and obvious about our embodiment, how the gestation of life is given from inside female bodies and origination. But why is there a need to bracket this statement and contain it as a probability? When I read this quote, I feel that her brackets belie our culturally ingrained hesitancy towards this ‘fact-of-life’. Birth from the female source is an unspoken truth, it can be assumed—yet it is something to be hinted at and not directly confronted in general philosophical discourse. Raphael’s brackets meet the limits of the English language, Western philosophy, and cognitive awareness in the ability to theorize our human capacity for gestation and birth in the still dominant patriarchal paradigm. Male-experience and God-head is given social-cultural-philosophical a priori. We have little understanding of what the female-centred implications of birth and birth-giving might be for women themselves, or for understanding divinity. Women are, in a full sense, the ‘source’ of life itself. In gestating thealogy, I want to open a Goddess-centred forum in which birth is studied as the primordial, re-generating ‘energetic’ event that it is. This is not meant as some essentialist reduction of birth-giving to female identity, but as a call to take a long look at ‘real’ birth and its experience, which is so often ignored.
Birth is an act of profound agency and wisdom that needs to be recouped from a history of patriarchal dismissal, with a simultaneous appropriation of its power in religious traditions (Rabuzzi, 1994). The condition of gestation and birth marks an ongoing, fluid process of creativity in which we are born, live, regenerate and die as beings. I suggest that we can only understand what birth is at a symbolic level by listening to, fully incorporating, and honoring its real experience by women as being sacred and central to human existence and the development of just, sacred and sustainable societies. Birth-giving is a complex, physical-emotional-mental-spiritual, immanently present, transcendently transporting, bodied, fluid-leaking, blood dripping, raw, intense, trance-inducing, gripping, serious or funny, orgasmic, painful, ecstatic entrance into life. Its free expression requires a condition of surrender and can manifest explicit, overwhelming love. We do not ‘do’ birth – birth does us!
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An earlier version of this paper was first presented as: Jordan, N. (2011, March). Gestating theAlogy through birth. Paper presentation in Goddess Studies section, at The American Academy of Religion / Western Region Annual Meeting, Whittier, CA.
Read Part 2.
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