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!
Join the discussion 10 Comments
Love this analogy! I’m currently going through a Brene Brown/Glennon Doyle Melton online course that is all about the hero’s journey, so learning how birth and motherhood also fit this equation is fascinating!
Do you recommend their course, Laura?
I, too, love this frame around birth and any challenge, really. The idea that we are the heroine in our own journey feels so very empowering. I am reminded of the women with whom I work, those who really “fly,” those who experience lasting success in their nourishment journey, are the ones who clearly “evolve out of this position of psychological immaturity to the courage of self-responsibility.” Thank you, Allison! Another though-provoking post for sure. xxoo
The universal is in the specific, right, Sue Ann? My metier is birth and motherhood, and yours is food and family!
Very thought provoking post. The concept of the birthing woman as a hero in her own mythological journey is fascinating, except of course it is not mythical, it is very real! I can look at this from both ‘sides’ if that is an acceptable way to put it,having been a birthing mother twice, and a nurse for some years too (though not a midwife). The nursing model we used was one where we assisted the patient to perform those life tasks that s/he could not perform as a consequence of our (meaning the whole health team) interventions, i.e., anaesthetic, surgery, reduced mobility post op plus as thousand other complications and situations, each uniquely pertinent to each individual patient. Thus we did the Minimum, in the most positive way possible, we took away the Least of that person that we could, maintaining as Much of their essential selves as possible during their hospital stay (forgive the capital letters, hard to create emphasis in ‘comments’!) However; pain management was of paramount importance, and was carefully titrated for each individual. Pain inhibits healing, it prevents psychological wholeness, it induces vulnerability, it frightens and terrifies, it prevents progress through the post operative phase to recovery. I realise that giving birth is different of course, but I also think that it is easy to eulogise pain when you are not being torn apart by it yourself! I agree that is is essential that the medical team, and the birthing mother and her support team are all ‘in it together’, making joint decisions, and there is a balance to be found there for sure.
Absolutely, Penny. It sounds like you and your colleagues were doing such good work supporting mothers!
A compelling read – you encourage the mother to look at her whole self and her whole journey of birth and beyond. You help her see that she can take back her power, find support and guides along the way, and more fully experience childbirth victoriously, not as a victim. Gorgeous!
Thank you, Laura!
I love any death and resurrection story! I really believe in the idea of maiden dying and mother being born. When I was a young mother I had a new framework for asking friends if they were “peers” of mine: “How old are your children?” It told me how long ago they became a mother and how long they have been on this journey of transformation with me.
Personally, I never found medicine or my experience in the hospital to numb me, however. My team there was great about treating me like a woman in transition, whispering when I was whispering, cheering when I cheered. They were all there, as I went through an unexpected surgery, and as I held my baby for the first time. I felt surrounded and held and nurtured.
My heroine’s journey is more about the mother I became and am still becoming in the 23 years after my eldest took her first breath.
And I have always looked to mothers like you, a few steps ahead of me, to be my mentors!