We’re living in an age where intervention at birth is rife. Some of it being life saving, much of it unnecessary. Even if you research as much as you can about natural birth and put things into place to avoid intervention, things can still unfold how you least hoped for.
To add salt into the wound, after you’ve had a traumatic or disappointing birth, the likely response you’ll hear from others is, ‘at least the baby is healthy.’
A healthy baby is what any parent could wish for, there is no question about it. But implying that a parent should just be grateful that their baby is healthy is completely dismissive of the feelings and experiences of a new mother – as if she served as a steel vessel and nothing more. No matter if you’re in a great deal of physical or emotional pain, most people seem to think that the whole idea of birth is to produce an end product of a healthy baby – no matter what you went through to get baby here.
Birth is highly transformative, no matter if you believe it or not, it changes who you are as a person. It’s an introduction into what to expect from breastfeeding and motherhood in general. Will your body be capable and do amazing things? Or will it fail and be broken?
It may surprise you that suicide that is the leading cause of death amongst new mothers in many countries of the world, including Australia.
Many people have absolutely no idea how powerful the process of birth and early parenting is to a woman, and by nurturing the mother back to health both physically and emotionally, the baby has the best chance at having a happy, connected, loving mother – so you not only have a healthy baby, but a healthy mother to boot.
Birth de-briefing is a form of post birth counselling, and is usually offered by women who are trained in birth, as well as some form of counselling. It has sprung up from what was a relatively unknown practice, and is making its way into the mainstream. We must take notice and look at how we can help mothers process their birth in a way that heals them, not judges them.
Another one of these ways is by having a birth reclaiming ceremony – something I really hope can gain some exposure and momentum in the mainstream, as it may help many new mothers avoid the murky waters of depression and feelings of failure as a woman.
What Is A Birth Reclaiming Ceremony?
Nurturing women who understand grief around birth experiences have been offering birth reclaiming rituals and ceremonies to help struggling new mothers process their difficult feelings. Because women are often judged for feeling badly about their birth experience, they tend to keep these difficult feelings to themselves.
A birth release ceremony is not exact in any definition, but it is a process during which a mother has a much needed opportunity to let go of the pain she harbours over her birth. It gives her an opportunity to be in the same environment as she hoped for her birth, with her newborn (but don’t let an older baby limit you), including her partner if she wishes. For example, women who transfer to hospital after a planned home waterbirth have an opportunity to get back into the birth pool (or bath), with a loving, supportive, understanding person who will be their ‘guardian of grief’.
Lisa Chalmers from Australian Doulas has helped several post-natal mothers with a birth release ceremony. She says, “I think it is so important that a woman doesn’t do this alone… we need our pain validated and this can be so emotional for women.”
What Happens During A Birth Reclaiming Ceremony?
Firstly, its important for the mother to be ready for her birth reclaiming ceremony. Depending on the woman and her journey, this will vary, but she will know when she’s ready.
Setting The Scene
Lisa usually helps women recreate what the mother wanted for her birthing environment. “Usually we set the ambience, run a bath or fill the pool, dim the lighting, light candles, close the curtains, play music or have silence – what ever the mum wants”, says Lisa.
“I usually hold the baby until mum is in a much more relaxed state and we chat a little – about how she is feeling and how she felt about the birth. Sometimes they can feel a little awkward or embarrassed, but once they feel safe with me or their partner, they really sink in to it. Once mum is ready, I hand her the baby. Sometimes they will go skin to skin and sometimes mum will just lay the baby down, face up and look at her baby. We may talk about washing away the smell of the hospital; or the sticky adhesive matter left after a bandaid.”
Letting It All Go
As you may imagine, this can be a very intense, emotional process, which may involve much grief and sadness. Holding all of this in can be incredibly painful too – it can be hard work holding yourself together, day after day. Having ‘permission’ and a space to let it go is so very important for the wellbeing of the mother, perhaps even her baby too.
“Sometimes mum may start to feel really sad, and apologise to her baby for not having the birth that she had planned – and usually by this time the mum will be crying. I either stay with her or leave – whatever mum wants. Sometimes the dad is in the bath or in the room too. Mum will often feed her baby and when she is ready, she gets out. We dry her and the baby and they snuggle up in bed, with clean sheets and connect – but with a new fresh beginning and with a lighter heart.”
The Power Of A Birth Reclaiming Ceremony
Lisa recalls one of her favourite stories was when she was a post natal doula.
“I wasn’t at the birth, but it was super quick and mum felt traumatised. I came in on a Monday, and the baby looked a little pinched. I asked the mum about feeding and she said she thought it was going okay. I offered to change the baby’s nappy – I took it off and it was bone dry. I asked how long it had been on and it was over 12 hours. The maternal health nurse was due over that day, so we had a bit of time to suss what was going on, since I was a breastfeeding counsellor as well.
From chatting, we realised her milk had not come in and the baby was clearly not getting anything. Mum was super stressed, baby was about a week old, and clearly not in fabulous shape. I talked about a birth reclaiming ceremony and we ran her a lovely warm bath. It was daytime so we closed the curtains and played soft music.As she climbed into the bath I saw her high, tense shoulders drop right down and she let out a big sigh.
When she was ready, I stripped her baby, and placed her on her chest and we sat quietly not saying a word. The mum started to cry, then sob, totally overwhelmed by the responsibility of being a parent and not doing a good enough job. All the while looking at her sleeping baby, holding her… and as the mum eventually finished crying… her milk started to roll down her breasts. She looked at me, so surprised, and said, ‘Is that what its meant to look like?’ She roused the baby and latched her on, and they stayed like that for ages, one little staving bubba who fed for ages. We got them out and eventually into bed. The maternal health nurse arrived and was extremely worried, wanting the baby in hospital. The mum explained with her knowledge that there had been a problem and now it was resolved and requested 24 hours at home, to see what happens. After lots of conversations between various parties, the mother was able to have her 24 hours at home, and the baby soon put heaps of weight on and was doing brilliantly.”
Virginia Maddock from Natural Beginnings is also a doula, and has supported a mother planning a HBAC (homebirth after caesarean). Virginia suggested a birth reclaiming ceremony after hearing about the mother’s previous difficult birth, which worked wonders. “Mama got in a bath with nice candle lit surroundings with myself facilitating and her midwife present. She talked about her last birth (failed induction, caesarean and disempowering obstetrician). Lots of tears and release. I then gave her the photo of her child as a newborn and suggested she tell her baby what she wanted to say, then asked her what she thought her child would say to her. It was wonderfully healing and allowed her to let go of guilty feelings she had held on to for far too long, and gave permission for her to forgive herself. I left her with homework of affirmations of forgiveness each time she went to the bathroom. She messaged me that night with huge gratitude. I am confident she is going to have a much better birth now.”
Finding Someone To Support You Through A Birth Reclaiming Ceremony
If a birth reclaiming ceremony sounds like it could be very helpful for you, but your partner isn’t comfortable or you don’t know anyone who would be appropriate to support you, please get in contact with a doula. Not many doulas have supported birth reclaiming ceremonies for new mothers, but are very equipped to help you with one, because they understand a woman’s emotional and physical needs for birth – she understands the rite of passage aspect of birth. Some doulas (around the world) may know of this process as a re-birth, but we tend not to use this terminology as to not get it mixed up with the other meaning of rebirthing which is completely different! You might like to send your doula this article so she understands what you’re after.
When choosing a doula to support you, it can be easy to choose the first one you speak to, because many doulas are so wonderful! But find one that resonates with you by interviewing/speaking to two or three.
Lisa recommends only doing a birth reclaiming ceremony with someone who wont judge, that will hold your hand if you want, pass a tissue, or give a hug. Every woman is different, but you need to find someone you are completely comfortable with and a guardian of your grief, which will give you freedom to let go, in order to get the best out of a birth reclaiming ceremony.
Make sure you communicate the things that are important to you – its fine if your wishes change at the time, but its important that the person supporting you knows if you want silence, touch or no touch, your partner present or not, etc.
Lael Stone from About Birth helps women with birth reclaiming ceremonies, releasing birth trauma in both mothers and babies. She suggests doing this process over two sessions – one to unpack and debrief the birth and the second for the ceremony. She also suggests: “It is important to talk through the birth with the baby to help the baby release any trauma it is carrying. Perhaps when mum is at peace she can then hold the space for the baby to release whatever it needs. I have had some extraordinary experiences with babies and even toddlers releasing their birth trauma.”
Supporting Someone Through A Birth Release Ceremony
If you’re supporting someone through a birth release or would like to offer one, here’s some tips:
- Ask questions and understand what she wants from you, without ANY judgment. Understand that it may change during the release ceremony.
- Make sure all distractions are OFF – mobiles, television, front doors locked, or any other noise opportunities. You may like to put a sign on the door for no visitors to ensure no door knockers or unexpected visitors drop in.
- Understand that there may be long periods of quiet, or crying. Give her space for silence if she needs it.
- Hold her – hold her hand, hold HER – if she wants this.
- Protect her grief and be okay with it. She will likely feel very vulnerable opening her soul to allow these stormy or sad feelings to flood out, which society tells her doesn’t matter as much as a healthy baby. Show her that her feelings DO matter.
- Keep the environment going (music, candles), for as long as she needs.
- Make sure she doesn’t feel rushed. Reassure her that you’re going to stay right there for as long as she needs.
- Make her a nice cup of tea afterwards and let her know you’re listening if she wants to talk.
- If she does want to talk, make sure to be present – give her your full attention, including eye contact, so she feels heard and understood.
A Special Note For Men About Birth Release Ceremonies
Dads – no jokes! I know sometimes humour is great to lighten a situation but this isn’t one of them. Its also important not to dismiss her feelings.
The power of her emotions may feel awkward for you to see, especially if you didn’t realise it upset her that much. But understand its a release that needs to happen and help her feel safe by telling her that her feelings are okay. Just like a rumbling volcano, if you try to seal it up, it will implode. Let it flow and her healing will begin. If you don’t feel comfortable or are unsure about doing this, suggest a doula to help you out. The birth didn’t happen to plan, so it may be upsetting for her if you start freaking out on her too. She needs someone as solid as a rock. You’ll do a great job by just being there, loving her and being emotionally present for her.