Beads and Blessings

By Anne Nicholson Weber
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bead braceletWhen my friend Sandra was pregnant with her second child, she had a blessingway instead of a baby shower. Eight of her closest women friends came together one afternoon, each with an offering for a birth altar: a fan (to symbolize opening), a candle shaped like an egg to burn during labor, stones and feathers and talismans of all sorts. Each woman spoke in turn, placing her offering in the center of our circle and explaining its meaning. Some brought poems or other readings. We ate good food, and Sandra told us she felt strengthened to face the last endless weeks of pregnancy and the challenge of labor.

The blessingway is reputed to derive from a Navajo ceremony honoring the pregnant woman and preparing her for birth. My sister-in-law Julie, an anthropologist, says that while the Blessingway is an important aspect of the Navajo religion, it is not specific to pregnancy. But whether it has any true roots or is as artificially created as Kwanza, Sandra’s birth blessingway convinced me that, like Kwanza, it meets profound needs.

And so, when I was eight months pregnant with my third, I asked my mother to host a blessingway for me. In addition to my contemporaries, we invited my two daughters (ages five and seven) and five women of my mother’s generation whose mothering (now grandmothering) I have always admired. Having the elders there created the feeling of the women’s lodge I sought, but their pre-feminist (indeed, pre-”women’s lib”) ideas of decorum ruled out the more adventurous rituals practiced in some women’s circles, like foot washing and belly painting (which I think I might have liked). Although I didn’t want an altar like Sandra’s, I did want to create a talisman of some kind. In the end, I asked all the women who are dear to me–including those from out of town who could not attend–to send or bring not only a blessing but also a bead to be strung into a necklace for me to wear during labor.

The event began awkwardly. No one knew quite how to behave: Were we at a party or in church? Without the authority of tradition, we worried that what we were doing was silly or pretentious. But as we gathered in a circle and began to read the blessings aloud, the scene–bright afternoon and the wall-to-wall carpeting of my mother’s high-rise apartment–seemed to thin, like a scrim curtain as the lights come up behind it, half revealing shadows of an ancient night, a firelit circle, women’s mysteries.

The blessings were myriad: poems about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood, readings of all kinds, handwritten musings, and heartfelt good wishes. These built on one another, variations on a theme, a patchwork of woman-stuff about this most womanly of subjects.

The beads were myriad too. My five-year-old painted a wooden bead green and embellished it with gold dots. My sister-in-law Casey brought an ancient-looking turquoise scarab. My mother brought amber, which she knows I find magical. My friend Franny and her mother, Ruth, offered two pearl beads from a necklace that had belonged to Ruth’s mother. Most amazingly, my sculptor friend created a “bead” of silver cast in the shape of a stylized womb!

And how could it be that my best high-school friend, now living in Washington, DC, and my husband’s sister from Maine had chosen almost, but not quite, matching horn beads? How did my college roommate know that I would need a long oblong bead to match the amber from my mother? How was it that I received two jade animals, a fish and a bear? The symmetry seemed more than serendipitous. Strung together, these tokens of love–silver, glass, jade, and amber–became an object beautiful, weighty, and sacred.

I hung the necklace above our bed for the rest of my pregnancy and put it on when I was dilated to five centimeters. Within moments, hurricanes of birth power overtook my body, and our son appeared an almost miraculous twenty minutes later. My husband suggests that we should rent out my necklace as an alternative to pitocin.

I am neither religious nor superstitious, but this experience fed some primitive hunger in me. Our rituals can seem so empty, bloated by gift giving (in keeping with the materialism of our culture), but starved of the Jungian soup of dreams and myths that should nourish them. Although I relish an orgy of pink tissue paper as much as the next girl, cotton candy is no more food for the pregnant soul than for the pregnant body. The blessingway satisfied my craving for something much more sustaining.

And it’s not just me. Casey is eight months pregnant. Last Sunday, blessings and beads in hand, we gathered for the blessingway she had requested.

Anne Nicholson Weber is a part-time attorney, writer, birth educator, and mother of three. She lives in Evanston, Illinois, and can be reached at anneweber@aol.com.