Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich,the dauntless heroine with the baby on her hip.
“Giving birth is definitely a heroic deed, in that it is the giving over of oneself to the life of another.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth.
There’s no denying it: childbirth is intense.
Although nature has honed, over millennia, a strong design for reproduction, it has probably always been hard and its success never guaranteed. Mothers can become ill, and babies can fail to thrive. Sometimes birth is long; sometimes complications develop that overtax the mother or baby.
So we turn, as we do, to science and technology – to medicine – to eliminate the trial and uncertainty of birth. We know intellectually that certainty is rarely truly possible, but everything about medicine suggests it comes close: hospitals are temples of sophisticated technology, staffed by a fleet of highly trained personnel, and directed by doctors, who are products of one of the most demanding educational pipelines that exist.
Medicine has had great success at mitigating the trials of birth, but they are not without cost. It is widely understood that interventions to manage pain introduce risk and can create dysfunction and even harm mother and baby. Less acknowledged is that the medical perspective reduces the full range of sensations of birth to a problem of pain and reduces the mother to helpless sufferer. When she is numbed, the birthing mother may not get to experience how strong and powerful she is and may lose the possibility for ecstasy during birth.
Medicine has mitigated risk in birth, but we’ve paid for that, too. We have adopted medicine’s focus on risk, illness and injury and believe ourselves to be fragile. We have believed in their authority so much that we think we have none, and feeling powerless increases fear. In order to protect the hearts of those who practice it, medicine has drained birth of meaning, reduced it from a birth – redolent of new life! – to a delivery – redolent of . . . logistical efficiency.
It isn’t medicine’s fault. Because it deals only with the physical aspects of birth, it can only take us so far. It certainly cannot eliminate uncertainty. Nothing can. It’s part of every great endeavor. What we need is a model of birth that goes beyond the physical realm to embrace the mental – a model that accepts trial and uncertainty – and one in which medicine is a tool, not the master.
That model is the heroic journey.
Birth and New Motherhood as a Heroine’s Journey
Seeing birth as a heroine’s journey elevates it to a mythic event, rather than reducing it to a physical transaction. With that change of perspective, you, the mother, go from helpless to heroic in an instant. The trials you undergo and the risks you take on your journey to get your prize – your baby – are honored. Your Odyssean return – postpartum – is not overlooked but celebrated. The greatness of your transition from maiden to mother is acknowledged. Myth also provides help to the heroine, in the form of allies and tools, without displacing her.
Here are a few quotes from the great mythologist Joseph Campbell to illustrate my points. The heroic journey:
Embraces trial. “The trials [of a quest] are designed to see to it that the intending hero should really be a hero. Is he really a match for this task? Can he overcome the dangers? Does he have the courage, the knowledge, the capacity, to enable him to serve?”
Motherhood will push you to your limits, so birth pushes you. It shows you what you’re made of.
Acknowledges risk. “To evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires a kind of death and resurrection. That’s the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey – leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or mature condition.”
A great, under-acknowledged truth of birth is that you don’t just have a baby at the end of it. You become a mother – a new creation.
Goes beyond the material to acknowledge the spiritual, emotional, mental dimensions of this transition. “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
You needn’t become a mother to experience this transformation of consciousness, but it is a fast-track to it!
There are two more important points that make myth a rich way of thinking about the transition into motherhood.
Myth encompasses postpartum. After every initiation – the part of the quest in which the heroine faces trials in order to achieve the prize – there is a return, wherein the lessons of the trials and the prize itself are integrated into the heroine’s community. Birth, of course, is the initiation; postpartum is the return. Both halves of the motherhood journey are honored.
Allows for tools and helpers, but you remain the hero. Think of Harry Potter: his friends, the sword of Gryffindor, Dumbledore, etc. Heroes are never alone on their journeys, but their helpers don’t attempt to take the quest off their hands either.
Gather your birth team – partner, doula, midwife – and your home / postpartum team – partner, family member, friends and neighbors – to you. But never forget that you’re the heroine. Be like another popular hero, Luke Skywalker, who, Campbell says, “found within himself the resources of character to meet his destiny.”
Fear accompanies every journey that involves trial and risk. We cannot vanquish fear, but the empowering perspective of myth helps us to put it in its place. We cannot eliminate risk but a mythic perspective elevates it. We cannot forgo the trial if we want to know how powerful we are. You deserve a team on this journey, and all the tools you need, medical or otherwise. But this is your quest. You are the heroine.
Does this argument resonate with you? Does this shift in perspective make you sit up a little taller? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!