The influence of a vital person vitalizes us – paraphrased from Joseph
It was Joseph Campbell who, in the 1940’s, first brought to the public’s attention the Mythic and Archetypal principles embedded in the structure of stories. In his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Campbell identified the underlying patterns in myths, stories, and spiritual traditions. In so doing, Campbell created a standardized language that made it possible to uncover and communicate the underlying archetypal structure of these narrative traditions.
This journey has crucial links to Cosmic Law – the Laws that govern all of creation – natural, human, and divine. The same keys that govern the Universe are present in all things including myth and the structure of birth.
Here is Campbell’s structure:
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale
1. The Road of Trials
2. The Meeting with the Goddess
3. Woman as the Temptress
4. Atonement with the Father
6. The Ultimate Boon
1. Refusal of the Return
2. The Magic Flight
3. Rescue from Without
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
5. Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live
Birth as a Heroine’s Journey
While all myths are different they all contain some common similarities. In analyzing birth as the heroine’s journey I have touched upon all of Campbell’s suggested structural points to deepen the understanding of this sacred and magical moment in a woman’s life. Some women experience all of them while others skip through some of them.
In the end the journey, whether through the world without or the one within, is a rite of passage, from womanhood to motherhood and from spirit to incarnation. If one is conscious of her actions, desires, and power, then the other – the baby – comes into this world strengthened in the knowledge of of his/her own potential.
The young maiden dwells in her ordinary world until she is called to set out on the heroine’s journey. The journey from maiden to mother through the birthing experience begins in the ordinary world: regardless of social, economic or religious status, all women can give birth. The call to adventure is the point in a woman’s life when she is first given notice her potential to bear a child and bring life into the world. And that once a baby comes into her life everything is going to change. When a young girl starts her menstrual cycle, she is eligible for the journey. She can choose to enter the journey or not, but she needs to be conscious of her choices, for her life is forever changed. Often when the call is given, the future heroine refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, or due to career plans, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadeuacy, or not feeling ready. In other words, a range of reasons may work to keep her in her current circumstances. At times, the heroine enters her journey by choice; she is ready for a change and she is willing to fulfill her destiny in society as the pro-creator of a new life.
Once the heroine has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, a guide or magical helper appears, or becomes known. This mentor comes in the form of a midwife, friend, doula or more often a book. The mother-to-be’s soul resonates with a certain birthing experience. She senses that giving birth is a natural thing, something women have done for thousands of years, millions of times, relying only on their innate knowledge.
Entering the first threshold, she encounters the industrialized birthing experience, fraught with doctors, tests, ultrasounds and medical opinions. At this point, the woman crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the everyday world and venturing into a realm where the rules and limits are unfamiliar to her.
The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self, into the realm of the unknown. No longer can the heroine live an unconscious life: she now needs to ready herself to become a mother to another human being, teaching by way of example. This is the point where the woman is in between, or transitioning between worlds and selves. The world around her tells her there is one way of doing things, surrender to the machine, suspend her innate trust of her bodily temple, and give up her right to experience her desired outcome. These impositions lead to abdicating all decisions to a third party, regarding birth as a malady that needs fixing and management, supervised by an all-knowing doctor who will administer drugs or even surgically remove the baby to facilitate an easier birth.
But the mentor’s voice resonates in the conscious woman’s inner ear, she is the heroine of this adventure, she is the one who needs to make the choices which will bring her to her desired outcome. The inner struggle begins here. The separation has been made, or is being made or being fully recognized, between the establish
ed world and the unconscious self and the potential for a new world/self. The baby in her belly begs for communication and participation during pregnancy and for participation in the decision making. When the woman enters this stage empowered and conscious, she shows her willingness to undergo a metamorphosis, retiring the old self for a new version of self.
The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the heroine must undergo to begin her transformation. If she strongly feels she wants a natural experience she may finds family members who discourage her, friends who isolate her, doctors who scare her and in some states, governments with rules that stymie her (home birth being illegal in a few states in the US). At one point during her journey she may doubt herself: Maybe her instinctual desire to do things naturally is not the right one? Maybe she should listen to her friends and family? To the experts? She is new at this so surely they must know more or be better at this… Her gut feeling is squashed to conform to the rules of the outside world.
In this phase she also encounters allies or seeks them out: a friend who has had a natural home birthing experience, a doula and or midwife who encourages her to find her own truth. This is a key moment for her partner to stand by her and support her. The support of the partner enriches and strengthens the heroine more than any other ally. All heroines have partners, who may be helpful or throw the chosen path into doubt.
The meeting with the goddess represents the point in this life adventure when the woman experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all-encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. It is also known as the “hieros gamos”, or sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and may take place entirely within the woman. In other words, the woman begins to see herself in a non-dualistic way. She becomes one with the unborn child. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by a woman beginning to talk with and listen to her baby. Campbell symbolizes this step as a meeting with a goddess, unconditional love and /or self unification; here the heroine chooses to listen to her own inner guide.
Temptation. At one level, this step is about those temptations that may lead the heroine to abandon or stray from her quest: fear of pain, fear of not being good enough or strong enough. Fear of being different or of being isolated. For Campbell, this is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life. Oblivion versus consciousness, comfort versus struggle, drugs versus a natural birth.
Atonement. In this step the woman must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This might come in the middle of the pregnancy when a woman decides she needs to change care providers or needs to confront her doctor and stand her ground. But most likely this will be the birth process itself. Choices have been made: Whether she enters the hospital; where her final battle begins with the machine (very much a patriarchal aspect of the journey); or whether she has decided to have a home birth. She still has to face the final ‘battle’ of managing her contractions until the baby is ready to be born. This is the central point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving toward this place; all that follow will move out from it. For the transformation to take place, who she has been must be “killed” so that the new self can come into being. Even home-birthing moms need to slay the dragons of self-doubt, fear and pain. The birth is hereby no longer an ordeal but a miracle: the body knows it must hug the baby out no matter what.
To apotheosize is to worship. This is a god-like state; the woman is in heaven and beyond all strife. In the context of the birthing myth, one may consider this step as a period of surrender or rest. The baby is in the mother’s arms and the love flows freely without thought – outside the real world – from the realm of eternal, unconditional, ecstatic love. At times, in a hospital setting, this moment is denied to the mother. Baby is separated and mom is left alone stripped from the fruit of her quest. If the separation is too long both mother and child lose the precious and mystical union.
The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal or quest. The baby is born and s/he is in its mother’s arms. This is what the woman set out on the journey to obtain. All the previous steps served to prepare and purify the woman for this step. In many myths, the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the Holy Grail. Once again this is a critical moment in the journey; mom and babe should not be separated and processed. They need each other now, more than ever, to slowly embrace and comprehend this new reality. Their bodies cannot yet understand the physical separation and the process needs to be gentle and slow.
In many myths for a moment the hero might consider staying in the realm of adventure and refuse to go back to his/her normal world. Why, when all has been achieved, the ambrosia has been drunk, and we have conversed with the gods, would we come back to normal life with all its cares and woes? In the birthing myth, the refusal could be interpreted as the fear of caring for the child, oftentimes guided by the heroine’s own instincts. The postpartum blues lurching in the background, the baby is now without its connection and thrust into the world. Not only is it a reality, but there is a sense of loss from the complete symbiotic state of mother and child as well as the beginning of the new hero’s journey of separation.
Sometimes the heroine must escape with the boon. It can be just as demanding and dangerous to return from the journey as it was to go on it. The magic flight could literally be the new fight that mom has to endure in the hospital; to want have her baby in her arms following the birth or to room in with her newborn and to shield the baby from all interventions that are routinely suggested in that environment (elective vaccination, circumcision, elective medicine, formula, pacifiers).
Just as the heroine may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often times she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring her back to everyday life; especially if the woman has been wounded or weakened by the experience.
The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, integrate that wisdom, and then to figure out how to share the acquired wisdom with the rest of the world. This phase is often extremely difficult. A woman who has given birth according to her desire will never forget the feat. The sense of self-confidence gained in the process will linger long in the depths of her being. The other, the woman who was unable to have the birthing experience she desired, will keep the teaching in mind and will also grow from the experience. Once victorious, the woman has a moral duty to share her story with others.
In myth, the step called Master of the Two Worlds is usually represented by a transcendental hero. For our heroine, it may mean she is now more competent in both the inner and outer worlds. She may spread the good news, and she can now help her son/daughter on a future journey. Ironically, all women love to share their experience of birth with others. When they see a pregnant belly they feel a compulsive need to advise, share and pontificate. Our heroine has become an expert and she wants to share her story.Her empowered journey can change not only her immediate surroundings but the world. She has become a master of the two worlds. Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment; neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.
The birth is now no longer an ordeal but a miracle. Baby in arms, she takes the road back to the ordinary world with a treasure that has the potential of benefitting all from their shared learning experience in this matrix.
A Journey Within a Journey
The child growing inside a mother’s womb is going through a journey of its own. The birth is the baby’s journey from simple ethereal soul, to soul incarnate. The water of the womb represents unconsciousness. The soul is dipped in the water, temporarily forgetting its origins. Exploring new territories and mastering its five senses, emotions, and mental abilities, the baby in the womb is instructed by its mother – the mentor – about the adventure ahead.
But the baby hero has come with its own cosmic agenda. The adventure s/he gets is the one she is ready for, maybe even one that the baby decided to undertake before coming into this world. Thus, it is not only the mother who chooses the birth, it is also the child. The decision can be shared in a conscious pregnancy.
Ultimately the goal of the hero is to reach some sort of nirvana. This is the reason why he/she undertakes the journey.
The hero and heroine of the birthing miracle can only achieve their goals if they are strong in their center. And we can only be aware of our center and harness it if we are conscious and in charge of our life in the present time. The hero and heroine’s journey can only be fulfilled consciously. Athletes, dancers, martial artists, and spiritual leaders know about the power of harnessing the body’s center. It is through having a strong center – a strong core – that you can achieve the seemingly impossible.
When you hold your center and act from that place, you will achieve your goal. In the end, even the various mentors who are showing you the way to your center will not be able to get there with you. You are the only one who can find your own way. It is a personal experience.
What we seek in natural childbirth is the experience of being alive, feeling the rapture of giving birth to another human being, slaying the dragon of pain, vanquishing the fear of death, and emerging victoriously.
Birth is a heroine’s journey, regardless of the armor the heroine chooses. The difference is clear between those who co-create their experiences and those who abdicate to the dictates of industrialized medicine.