Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Elizabeth P Myler, BSN, RN, LLLL, IBCLC
A celebration of a woman’s transition into motherhood: the Mother Blessing ceremony
Pregnant mothers are bombarded with advertisements for “must have” gear and gadgets that claim to hold, soothe, feed, contain, and even comfort a baby. Magazine articles about planning a baby shower focus on helping you accumulate these material items. The media urges you to plan for epidural anesthesia so you can enjoy your baby’s delivery. Your friends tell tales of difficult deliveries and how they had trouble initiating breastfeeding. What can you do to prepare yourself for a better beginning to motherhood?
Multiple studies have shown that common birth practices such as induction, limited maternal mobility, epidural anesthesia, surgical birth and episiotomies can all contribute to difficulties for the breastfeeding dyad (1). Although early separation of the mother and infant are common in many birth facilities, the delay of the first latch and breastfeed leads to a predictable cascade of events that make these interventions strong predictors of formula supplementation (2). This isn’t surprising. Other mammalian mothers (particularly primates) are known to reject or abandon their infants who are disturbed during or just after birth (3).
There may be other costs as well to distancing ourselves from the primal instincts for birthing and feeding our babies upon which our earliest human ancestors’ survival depended. Our busy millennial lives where mothers’ homes are often far apart and principal communication is often electronic, rather than in person, may contribute to young mothers’ fear and detachment from their motherhood experience. Research about common causes of and risk factors for maternal depression cite social isolation and a lack of social support (4). But despite these dramatic changes in our lifestyles from primitive human cultures, our neocortex and midbrains have not changed much at all in 200,000 years. Surely our biological maternal instincts are not gone either.
How do other cultures around the world prepare young mothers?
When I was a 22-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in a remote traditional village underneath the rainforest canopy of Cameroon, West Africa, I witnessed how very young girls saw their extended families of big sisters, aunts, cousins, mothers and grandmothers give birth, breastfeed, and provide for their babies in every way. In a village with no electricity or running water—there were also no dolls, books or movies—children learned their roles through the real world experience gained from communal living and regular gatherings of relatives and neighbors.
Once a new mother emerges from her recuperation period, she can be seen publicly breastfeeding on every stoop, corner or car park, often with the breast fully exposed in plain public view. Although ankles may be chastely covered, the naked breast with a little mouth attached to it is a norm of daily life. Infants are carried close to the mother’s breast or in another person’s capable arms at all times, and separation of the infant from caretakers in the early period is a completely foreign concept. Sharing both sleep and wakeful stages with their babies allows mothers and fathers to learn about their unique baby’s needs more quickly and to meet them more adeptly. New, often quite young moms, gain confidence quickly and are supported readily in times of difficulty. Because mothers nurse their babies together in groups, common problems are quickly addressed and mothers learn ways to solve their problems and cope with the diversity of their infants’ behaviors at the breast.
The renowned “mother of midwifery,” Ina May Gaskin also describes these concepts of observed learning in an interview about her 2009 book Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding:
“It’s much easier for any woman to breastfeed if she has had the gift of watching many other mothers breastfeed. We are social creatures, and we learn from watching others. Primatologists have learned that primates in captivity have trouble nurturing their young unless they are permitted to live in social groups.”
“Mammals—whatever the species—have trouble lactating or getting their milk into their young when they are forced to be in stressful environments. Milk doesn’t flow from mother to infant unless the mother and her newborn are able to spend uninterrupted time with each other. The human is the only mammalian species that routinely separates its newborns from their mothers during the first few hours following birth.” (5)
What can you do to help awaken your instincts and to create a safe, special space to explore the kind of mother that you intend to become?
Evoking the wisdom of the village: the Mother Blessing
One way you can foster a powerful start to the journey into motherhood and breastfeeding is through a tradition that comes from Native American tribes, The Mother Blessing Ceremony.
“Whatever happens here on Earth must first be dreamed.” This ancient Navajo saying refers to Blessingways (6), sacred, spiritual ceremonies performed by Native Americans to celebrate life’s significant rites of passage. The term now preferred for secular, prenatal ceremonies that borrow inspiration from the Navajo tradition is The Mother Blessing. The Mother Blessing commemorates the events of birthing a baby and becoming a mother in a more distinct and meaningful way than the traditional baby shower.
The Mother Blessing commemorates the events of birthing a baby and becoming a mother in a more distinct and meaningful way than the traditional baby shower.
The Mother Blessing Ceremony is planned by women who are close to the expectant mother. Special gifts and activities can serve to inspire, ground, comfort, and honor her unique maternal strengths. Often, the thoughtfulness and attention to connecting with her own instincts will set the tone for many of the decisions to come in her lifetime of motherhood. To prepare for a natural labor and birth and to breastfeed her newborn, the Mother Blessing pays homage to the collective wisdom of the millions of women who have come before her in this shared experience. A traditional baby shower may be an event in which the expectant mother is often given impersonal gifts, purchased from a baby registry, while her female friends and relatives look on and play entertaining games. The Mother Blessing is a dramatic shift in focus towards the enormity of the act of birth and to the necessary physical, psychological and emotional preparation of the mother.
The Mother Blessing is a dramatic shift in focus towards the enormity of the act of birth and to the necessary physical, psychological and emotional preparation of the mother.
She is surrounded by a group of women who will share and honor her birth and breastfeeding vision. The ancient tradition of women helping women through the childbearing years as mentors and assistants can have long-lasting implications for her identity as a mother, for her success, and her enjoyment of motherhood and breastfeeding. Consider hosting a Mother Blessing for a new mother in your life. Here are some tools to get you started.
Fun ideas and important considerations when planning the Mother Blessing
The location. Consider having the Mother Blessing at a personal, private and comfortable setting, especially the mother’s home. The ceremony can take place outside if the mother enjoys nature.
The guests. The intimacy of the group distinguishes this ceremony. This means the group will probably be all female, but it would be possible to create a special role for the father or close male relatives to be present if this is important to the mother. But invite only close friends and family who really appreciate and honor the mother’s intentions for the birth and nurturing of her baby. You may want to invite the birth attendant(s) (midwife, physician, doula) if they have a close relationship with the mother or have delivered the mother’s previous children. It is ideal to invite other nursing mothers so she can build a memory of this image to help guide her.
The space and ceremony. Think about what you wish to announce, express or offer to the mom. Remember that the more involved the group is in the process, the more prepared they all can be to lend support in the ceremony and after the baby is born too.
Consider burning some sage to “smudge” or “clear” the space and prepare the participants to “let go” of some interference in their own head and be fully present for the mother. Participants can each bring an item from their matrilineal line, or something that the mother would recognize to contribute to the centerpiece.
A large candle can be placed in the center of the room and each participant given a long tapered candle that they light from the central one, while a poem can be read to open the festivities and set the tone for the events unfolding. These candles can then be passed out at the closing of the ceremony and given back to the guest with instructions to re-light the candle when they hear the news that the mother is in labor.
Presentation of gifts. Remember that the gifts must come from the heart. They take some thoughtful consideration and often fabrication, but are sure to last a lifetime, unlike most commercial baby items. The presentation of these gifts will form a major part of the ceremony. Give the mother plenty of time to “take-in” what she is being given and to feel the love and support that the participants are offering.
Gift ideas to consider
Letters. First ask the mother to write a letter to her unborn baby reflecting on the birth journey they will be sharing. This can be read to the group (by the host, if the mother is shy) so that all can carry the vision for her smooth delivery and greeting of her babe for the first time. Next, ask the invitees to write a letter to the mother-to-be highlighting her unique capacity to bear and nurture her child. An alternative can be for the letters to be addressed to the baby, explaining how special mommy is for the family and the world. The letters should be prepared ahead of time and can be artfully made into a scrapbook, which she will treasure always and may find helpful to read in times of doubt and uncertainty that can plague all mothers.
Create a special quilt for the baby woven of squares of fabric contributed by the guests. The squares can come from items of clothing that the mother will recognize or have some significance to her. Examples include: her own baby quilt, previous children’s clothing or a pattern that typifies the mother’s hobbies or interests. Neutral tones or patterns can be woven in to decrease busyness if some of the fabrics are drastically different.
Make a bead birth necklace. This ritual is derived from African tribal traditions. Each participant chooses a bead and says a particular blessing or wish for the baby or for the mother’s labor, as all the beads are strung together into a necklace for her to wear as labor approaches.
Beautification and grooming of the mother. Perhaps make a cast of the mother’s belly for her to paint or decorate later and hang in the home or baby’s room. (This can be time-consuming and messy, so be prepared. It might be better to do this ahead of time and simply have the belly cast at the ceremony for all to admire.) Similarly, a natural tattoo is the herb henna and there are many decorations that can be done on the mother’s belly or hands and feet. Again it can be messy, so be prepared. Brushing her hair, washing or massaging her feet or shoulders can be relaxing, but it may be too much tactile stimulation for some women, so ask her ahead of time, if she thinks she would enjoy these things.
Potluck feast and meals for the mother. It is helpful if everyone brings a dish for all to feast on after the ceremony and a freezer meal for her family to enjoy after the baby is born. Alternatively contribute meal gift cards to local restaurants that deliver or have take-out menus.
A closing ritual. Take a ball of soft yarn or string. Wrap the yarn once around your wrist first and then the person next to you, slowly weaving the ball so you are all connected. You can say a few words about your pledge to all remain connected in spirit to the mother as her day of delivery nears. Each guest can then be freed from the web and the individual strings tied off as bracelets. They should remain on the guests’ wrist until they receive the call that the mom has given birth. Additionally, or instead, a bouquet of dried flowers can be made for the mother as each person says a few words as she adds a new flower. The mom can place this bouquet near her during labor to remind her of the support of her group.
Lastly, once you have found your tribe, keep this village network going and continue to support your mothers by getting together as a community of sisters and friends. Gather together in one another’s homes or in local restaurants, cafés, and parks, talk about your birth experiences, and breastfeed your babies openly, while your older women friends can be companionably supportive to help you gain confidence. Attend local La Leche League meetings and prepare food together. Listen and share the challenges and joys you are all experiencing together.
Let’s honor the graceful function of nature’s design and let’s really support our new mothers by giving them something that can’t be found on a gift registry or at the mall. Let’s give them the gift of shared experience with the wisdom of the ages.
1. Smith, L J., 2007. Impact of birthing practices on the breastfeeding dyad. J. Midwifery Women’s Health 52 (6): 621-630. Smith, L.J., 2008. Why Johnny can’t suck: impact of birth practices on infant suck. In Supporting Sucking Skills in Breastfeeding Infants. Genna, C.W., ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
2. Kurinij 1991. Early formula supplementation of breastfeeding Pediatrics Oct;88(4):745-50.
3. Blauvelt, H. 1956. Neonate-mother relationship in goat and man. In Group Process. Schaffner, B. ed., 94-140. New York: Josiah Macy Foundations.
4. Kendal-Tackett K. Depression in New Mothers: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment Alternatives. New York: Routledge 2010.
6. blessingway—hozhooji: ceremony to awaken one to natural order (hozho); choosing constructive and life-affirming choices; healing from intentions and decisions that destroy oneself and others.
Elizabeth Myler is a Registered Nurse, Board Certified Lactation Consultant, La Leche League Leader and writer with a background in reproductive biology, psychology, and maternal/ child health. She is the co-founder and co-owner of a busy private lactation practice, Mahala Lactation and Perinatal Services, LLC. She lives in Northern NJ, USA with her husband and three sons.