by Vanessa Wingerath
This piece appeared on WhattoExpect.com August 18, 2016
I love baby showers. The baby clothes, the delicious treats, the pregnant goddess sharing her glow, and, especially, the unique combination of anticipation, excitement, and nerves that soon-to-be parents often have. It feels special to share in that jittery and joyous energy.
However, I have always been attracted to traditions from other cultures, particularly ones that have symbolic, emotional, and spiritual weight. For example, the Maori people of New Zealand plant the baby’s placenta in the land of their ancestors as a way of tying generations together. In many Indian cultures, the mother’s belly is adorned with henna before and after her baby is born, and it’s believed that this practice prevents postpartum depression. These types of rituals offer more than just material gifts. They initiate a new mother into her tribe.
I grew up with minimal religion and barely any ethnic or familial customs, and I’ve always been envious of my friends who have rich traditions by which to mark and celebrate their lives. A connection to a culture helps us feel less alone. Pregnancy and motherhood changed me in such profound ways that I yearned for a meaningful ritual that would help me welcome my friends into the motherhood community. I wanted one with a slightly different focus than a traditional baby shower -- one that would bring together my circle of female friends and family members and make space for them to share their wisdom. One that would fully acknowledge both the transformation the expecting woman was about to embark upon and that she’d need more support than she probably ever has before.
I first heard about an ancient Navajo ritual called a “blessingway ceremony” in birth class when I was pregnant with my oldest. It spoke to me because it involved family and friends not only giving gifts but also pampering, adorning, blessing, encouraging, and uplifting an expecting woman with a deliberate, emotional purpose.
A blessingway ceremony dips into the spiritual realm, and is more focused on the new mom--and her transition into birth and motherhood--than on the baby. I planned one for my dear friend Amy, with the purpose of creating a visible circle of women who would be her community throughout her journey into motherhood. We each presented her with a flower that represented “mother” to us. For example, a bird of paradise flower was especially meaningful because, “the bird of paradise is always at the center of the bouquet and as a mother, you are always surrounded by your children” as one friend explained.
Then, some of us shared birth stories, poems, and personal reflections on family and motherhood. We reminded Amy of her strengths and personal fortitude to help banish any residual fears or doubts she had about birth and parenting. Amy’s mother recounted the story of Amy’s birth, which was a privilege to hear.
We didn’t have to reject the traditions we liked about baby showers to create a blessingway: We still showered Amy with baby gifts and the “oohs” and “awws” and pictures taken were part of the whole experience. But we also incorporated a variety of ancient rituals we knew she would find most meaningful. For us, those rituals included giving Amy a crown made out of flowers and tying strings around each other’s wrists to remind us of her impending life transformation as we went about our days. We removed the strings when we heard that she had given birth--which, in this case, was only two days after the blessingway!
Most important, the blessingway gave us all the opportunity to be emotionally vulnerable and open. Sometimes that felt uncomfortable: Even when people crave intimate connection--like when they are about to give birth -- it can be scary to feel emotionally exposed. There was crying at our blessingway and moments of discomfort, but the love and support that were acknowledged with words, symbols, and gifts brought us all closer.
With two young children of my own, I’ve learned that being a mother can be isolating. We often forget that there are so many women around us who understand, share in our experience, and have a lot to offer. Rituals like the blessingway and the baby shower are just some ways we acknowledge we are complicated beings who take on momentous challenges and we need one another’s love and support.