Becoming a mother is not simply about bringing forth new life; it is a process of separating a nine-month connection between a mother and her infant, between two beating hearts in one body…
We have been talking a lot lately about what a big deal it is to give birth to a baby – not only physically, but psychologically, emotionally and even spiritually. And yet in Western culture, new mums are often expected to be up and about again so quickly – how many mums have you seen at a coffee morning with a two-week-old in tow, brunching with a three-week-old in the pram, or picking up the toddler from nursery with a three-day-old in the car seat? We have definitely been all of these mothers, and while it is great to have the option and physical ability to do these things, there doesn’t seem to be enough acknowledgement of the huge physical and mental leap that has been taken to become a mother.
We’ve recently heard of some interesting ceremonies to acknowledge the transformative nature of birth, and came across an article written by midwife Ali Monaghan about birth sealing. Here she sheds some light on the practice:
“Birth Sealing is a way of bringing closure to the birth, and giving a woman a chance to reflect on the experience she’s been through – processing and acknowledging any of the emotions it brings up for her and debriefing the experience. Pregnancy and birth is all about opening on so many levels: opening yourself physically, spiritually and emotionally, opening yourself up to the vulnerability of a new and powerful love, and opening yourself mentally and psychologically to the needs of another human being (and being willing to put those needs first). Birth sealing is one way of recognising this amazing transformation.
Around the globe
“In many different cultures around the world there are still ceremonies and customs that ‘seal’ the birth for women, such as an extended ‘lying-in’ period for 30-40 days after the birth, certain foods to be eaten or rituals to attend, and in some traditions even physical practices like massage, belly binding, acupuncture or Ayurvedic treatments. Unfortunately in our Western culture we’ve lost nearly all of these practices, but I think the need for something to mark the occasion is still very strong, and a lot of women feel the lack of it in our society.
“Birth sealing can be done formally, through a ritual like the one Sacred Postpartum has created, involving a physical Bengkung belly bind and spiritual ritual, or informally through birth debriefing. At its very heart, sealing a birth involves acknowledging the transition a mother has been through, recognising the incredible work she has done and is currently doing – the work of giving birth, which is in itself a monumental achievement, but also the ongoing work of mothering--and honouring her for this.
“I first discovered the idea of creating a birth sealing ritual through Anni Daulter’s Sacred Living Movement (Sacredlivingmovement.com) as I was researching ways to learn more about Bengkung belly binding, which is a Malaysian postnatal tradition. As a midwife, I wanted to be able to offer belly binding as a postnatal service to my clients, but I saw how belly binding is only one part of it. I think in Western culture there is a lot of interest and exploration into this area right now--not just birth sealing, but also finding ways to bring more meaning and spirituality to pregnancy, birth and the postnatal period. For example, in the past 10 years Mother Blessings, based loosely on a Navajo tradition known as a Blessingway, have also grown in popularity in the West (and particularly in the US) as a way of honouring and celebrating the woman’s pregnancy and allowing members of her community to cocoon her with love and blessings for her upcoming birth. To me, the idea of birth sealing feels very new, but at the same time it feels like we’re trying to create customs to replace those that used to exist in our culture but now no longer do. However, one note of caution: as we in the West learn more about these traditions that already exist in other cultures, it’s imperative that we use them respectfully and not only credit the culture and tradition that they’re from, but use them in the context of that tradition.
Why birth sealing?
“As a midwife, birth sealing makes sense to me on so many levels. A woman’s body opens through the process of giving birth--her cervix dilates, her womb opens, her pelvic floor stretches. Her heart opens to love and accepts and welcomes the new child into her life. Her new role as a mother opens her up to lots of new emotions – joy and excitement and awe, but also fear and uncertainty and the heavy weight of new responsibility. A woman needs to seal herself again, physically, emotionally, energetically and spiritually. She needs to get used to being the only occupant of her body again, after sharing her life force with another person literally inside of her. She needs to get used to the new emptiness inside of her, while at the same time getting used to the huge changes and upheavals happening in her life –which affects her identity and sense of self.
“As a mother, I am very conscious of the fact that the ‘work’ of mothering is very low-status work in our society. It’s unpaid and viewed as not very interesting or exciting. But at the same time, it’s the most relentless and difficult work you’ve ever done before in your life, so there is a big dichotomy between how parenting is perceived, and what it actually entails. I think birth sealing is one way of honouring and recognising all of the important work a woman is doing as a mother.
The journey without birth sealing
“Like many women, I never had a formal sealing ceremony done – although that certainly would have been nice! With the birth of my first son, it wasn’t something that was even on my radar yet, although I felt so empowered and ecstatic after his birth that I re-told my birth story to anyone who would listen, and even wrote it out long-hand at one point, which I think allowed me to informally seal the birth on my own pretty effectively. I also had a lot more help lined up after my first birth, and overall had a fairly positive and nurturing postnatal experience. With the birth of my second son I had already begun to learn about Bengkung belly binding and had started the Sacred Postpartum certification program, so intellectually I knew a lot more about it.
“However, my second son became very ill with meningitis shortly after he was born, so any reflection or processing of the birth was put on hold while we were dealing with the stress and worry of his illness. And perhaps not surprisingly, I ended up developing postnatal depression after his birth, even though he made a full recovery from the meningitis. It was as if a beautiful postnatal process had been unfolding like a record playing on a record player, and then all of a sudden the needle was scratched off the record and we ended up on this completely different postnatal track. I can’t ascribe all of that to a lack of birth sealing, but it would have been helpful to have some way of debriefing from the stress and trauma of my son’s illness and finding a way to remember and honour the birth itself, which had been a lovely and peaceful homebirth and a gorgeous postnatal recovery... up until the moment he got sick.
“I was very lucky in that both of my birth experiences were very empowering to me and I felt like I had been well supported, respected and listened to throughout. Unfortunately, I know that many women don’t come away from birth with such positive experiences, but in those situations I think birth sealing might be an even more important process, as a way of reflecting and hopefully ultimately healing from their births.
Taking on birth sealing
“Because many of these traditions have been lost in our culture, they have to be reclaimed by a new generation, which means that we’re basically on our own in terms of creating them. One of the easiest things to do might be to get someone else to hold or care for your baby for an hour and prepare a really special bath for yourself, with candles and essential oils or bubbles or even flowers in it, and give yourself the luxury of time to yourself, which is something we so rarely get as new mothers. Writing down your birth story is also a very helpful practice, or journaling about the thoughts and emotions that come up when we think about our birth. Or asking a friend to throw a special postnatal party for you, which could be as simple as surrounding yourself with close friends and family members and having a nice meal together to mark the occasion and celebrate the fact that you’re now a mother, having come out on ‘the other side’ of the pregnancy journey, as it were.
“There are lots of ideas on the internet with regards to Mother Blessings, and many of these can also be incorporated into ‘sealing ceremonies’ as well. Of course, pampering is another lovely way to do it, through massage or other treatments that feel nourishing to you. It’s also really important that we have a solid postnatal plan in place, with plenty of support and help through the first few months, whether in the form of your partner home from work or a parent or a family member staying over, or even the help of a postnatal doula or mother’s helper.
Read more on Ali's blog about midwifery and motherhood here
Recognise these techniques?
The term ‘birth sealing’ may sound completely alien to your ears, but these ceremonies have been taking place for generations in several cultures. The concept of birth sealing follows the ideology that mothers are still ‘open’ after the trauma of childbirth, physically and emotionally and the ceremonies are intended to honour the mother for that she has endured. While after birth sealing a woman is said to transition into the role of a mother with complete spiritual wellness, the ceremony can be interpreted in many ways in accordance to culture…
The Tucking In ceremony takes place on a typically flat surface, where scarves are laid out at the six key points on a woman’s body. Warm, lavender scented rice or flax seed packs are laid down beside the woman’s body and the scarves are wrapped around her to lock in the warmth, blessings being uttered as it is conducted. The ambience is set as well, with numerous candles, scents and any significant item that is of importance to you.
The mother lays in the relaxed state for a short while, and is then unwrapped to symbolise the “pulling together” of her body.
Bengkung Belly Binding
Much like Tucking In, this Malaysian tradition concentrates on regaining the body’s pre-pregnancy stature. During pregnancy, the body expands to accommodate another life, hence increasing in size and swelling. After birth, the excess water, fat and air is no long necessary for the mother, hence this process of birth sealing binds the torso. Special belly binds are available online as well.
A warm herbal firming paste, made of all organic substances, is applied all over the tummy area for a toning and strengthening effect. A piece of cloth or muslin is then spread across the paste, on top of which the belly bind is worn. The bind is typically worn under loose vests or cotton shirts, and is maintained to a span of 40 days, or longer. Belly binding is said to improve posture, help in pelvic alignment, provides support to the torso, helps in organic shrinkage, and many more added benefits. But most importantly, it seals your birth!
Following the Latin American tradition, the method sees a rebozo (typically long garment) is wrapped around you pelvic area and hips like a hammock, and is used to rock your hips in a very gentle, rhythmic manner. This is known as ‘sifting’. The sifting is followed by a massage from the pelvic bone up to the ribs, by using a mixture of several essential oils. The main motive of the massage is to ease the tension that remains in the uterus after childbirth. A second round of sifting is done, and the ceremony ends with the rebozo being wrapped around the woman’s hips. Once wrapped, she can remain in the state of release for as long as she wishes.
This process helps on releasing tension and overall relaxation of the body, but also helps with deeper and emotional “letting go” and achieving the motive of being “sealed”.
Not unlike the commonly known ‘baby shower’, a blessingway (also known as Mother Blessing), is native to the Navajo culture. This mainly follows sharing, celebrating and empowering a pregnant mother as she prepares herself for birth and motherhood. This occurs before birth where the to-be mother is showered with gifts and blessings from all the females in her life (mother, grandmother, aunties, friends, etc.) and is pampered with massages and hair braiding.
During this time her female counterparts sit in a circle with her and honour the mother by either sharing stories about their own experiences, or by expressing their hopes and appreciation for her. A process called ‘smudging’ is also done by burning dry sage, to clear the air of all negativity. Poetry can be recited, along with chanting and singing. The event is meant to empower the mother and make her feel prepared to take on motherhood with her loved ones by her side.
This method of birth sealing is often practised in India and China and usually involves the mother and her baby not exiting the house for a certain amount of days. It can prove beneficial for the mother as it prevents her from catching infections which she may be vulnerable to post-birth. It also allows her to avoid stress, which can interfere with lactation, and to rest in order to regain her strength after delivery.
A ceremonial bath is exactly what you may think it to be – except much more luxurious. It usually entails the mother bathing in flower petals or a milk and honey bath in a relaxed atmosphere, with candles and the aroma of essential oils. This is often done to symbolise the cleansing of the body and mind, restoring one’s femininity by embracing the postnatal body.
Photos by Istock/Shutterstock