By Beth Osnes
Issue 138 - September/October 2007
We women have evolved a rather timid ceremony for preparing our fellow females for motherhood: the baby shower. The gifts provide some of the clothing and accessories a new mother is likely to need, but the shower usually shies away from the genuine majesty of this next step in a woman's life. With no malicious intent, most baby showers propagate a commercialism that belittles and "cute-sifies" the experience of motherhood and birth.
A true ceremony is a vessel for the swelling feelings that surround a life passage. It both contains and guides outpourings of emotion and, through its structure of ritual, ensures that our intentions arrive at the desired destination. Practically, a ceremony provides a beginning, substance, and an ending to a gathering of people who wish to honor an important occurrence in a life: an arrival or departure, a union, or an entering into life's next stage. Such transitions are not only witnessed by the surrounding community, but are supported both during the ritual and beyond.
You, brave mother, are just the gal to usher in a new tradition more nourishing to the soul than the traditional baby shower. But, like any expedition away from the status quo, it will take a bit of concerted effort, perhaps even some courage, to explore new and richer ground. If you think your family might write you off as a freak if you ask for a candlelit "wisdom blessing" instead of a baby shower with helium balloons, then begin slowly. There are degrees of transformation, so pace yourself.
When exploring new ceremonial ground, it helps to have a clear direction, both to guide the creation of the event and to ensure that you achieve your intention. It might be that you want your ceremony to nurture your mothering community, so that you can establish a council of women with whom you can share the challenges of raising your coming child. Do you want this ceremony to specifically welcome the new child? If this is your first child, do you want guidance for being a parent? If you're already a mother, do you want to be celebrated and nurtured for the greater strength you will need to care for another child? Do you want the blessings and prayers of your community?
A ceremony needn't be old to be meaningful, but it does need to be well-thought-out, and beautiful in some way. Simplicity, elegance, and clarity are good goals. A ceremony can braid together various traditions, but do try to keep one through-line that guides and shapes the gathering. For example, even if your event includes a Christian song, a symbol of Mother Earth, and a Rumi poem, it can still clearly focus on nurturing you as a new mother.
Talk with a good friend about the possibility of designing a birthing celebration that will incorporate your values, personality, and beliefs—the elements that stir you most deeply. With this friend, discuss these questions:
- What do I wish to accomplish with this ceremony?
- Around this goal, what images come most strongly to mind?
- How can this goal and these images be shared by a group of people?
- How might this goal be physically represented?
- How can we speak of it?
At this stage it's important that you be open to considering any idea—and take notes. This is the raw material you will use in the next step: designing your birth ceremony.
Designing Your Birth Ceremony
If you lead your guests into unfamiliar territory, they will want to feel that they are in good hands. Give them the security of a structure—one that makes sense and, through its design, conveys your purpose. Your design could be as simple as this three-part structure:
- The Beginning: a welcoming, to establish the purpose of the ceremony and briefly explain what it is and how it will be done.
- The Middle: the substance, to actually accomplish your goal for the ceremony (keep it simple and focused); this is the longest part.
- The End: an acknowledgment of what has just happened and what it means, a thanks to all involved, and a ceremonial sendoff (or a sending-over to the hors d'oeuvres and punch).
Examples and Ideas
I'll start with some rather timid ideas that merely send little shock ripples through Middle America, then move into more progressive examples, and finally into a grand prix event. Find your place along the spectrum wherever you feel most comfortable. This ceremony could be a happy hybrid—one small step for Aunt Suzy, one giant step for womankind—or it could be something else entirely. You decide.
- Into the structure of a standard baby shower, ask that a blank notebook (call it a "Wisdom Book," perhaps) be passed around; ask each guest to contribute some words of wise encouragement.
- Ask all those participating to bring some canned goods to donate to a women's shelter, to acknowledge and honor all mothers. With the food collected in a wicker basket at the center of the gathering, ask the women present to join hands and share a prayer for all mothers and children in the world.
- Give each guest a tapered, six-inch candle. Have your mother or some other older, trusted female light a larger, strategically placed, stationary candle, then ask each woman to light her candle from the bigger flame, and speak a blessing over you and your babe as she does.
- Provide an empty flowerpot for each guest. Scoop soil with your hands, planting seeds, bulbs, or seedlings; as you pass the watering can, speak a blessing to begin the nurturing of this new life.
- Make your gathering beautiful and grant a feeling of community by having someone lead the group in song—better yet, a song that can be sung in rounds. Keep it simple so that all can comfortably participate. Choose a confident leader to coax even the shyest voices out in song.
- If you love the outdoors and sitting around a campfire, consider finding a local farmhouse, campsite, or wilderness area—even a backyard with a fire pit—and light up a bonfire. Instruct guests to bring a blanket to wrap up in, and something they would like to throw into the fire—an old shirt, a poem, a log. As you're seated together in the night air, ask each woman to profess what warmth she pledges to this new child and then give to the flames the burnable item she has brought. Afterward, you can roast weenies or marshmallows.
- Feeling homey and want to stay close to your nest? Make a triple batch of bread dough, pre-knead it, and let it rise before your guests arrive. Seated together around a big table, ask each woman to sculpt, braid, or shape her piece of dough. Decorate your masterpieces with dried fruits and nuts, and put them in the oven. When they're finished baking, each woman in turn can tear off a small piece of the bread she has made to feed to the mother-to-be, while professing her promise of nurture for the new mom and her baby.
- If you love the wind, meet on a high plateau and spread quilts and blankets on the grass for all to seat themselves. Write blessings for mother and child on small pieces of paper, then attach these to the tail of a kite. Send the kite into the sky to deliver these loving intentions to the heavens.
- Integrate movement into your ceremony by inviting an experienced dancer—one who is comfortable leading people in physical expression—to lead a circle dance with simple movements. Be sure to inspire any shy limbs with some beautiful music. Dim lighting, such as candlelight, does wonders for easing inhibitions.
- Some of you mermaid souls out there may want to have your gathering at a body of water, be it a lake, reservoir, ocean, river, or even a pool. Use floating candles or strings of flowers to welcome the participants. Wade up to your ankles or immerse yourselves fully in the water, then ask each person to pour water into the hands or over the belly of the soon-to-be mother.
No Boy Scouts are likely to be in attendance, so anticipate what comfort issues, both physical and emotional, might need to be taken care of. For example, some people are extremely uncomfortable sitting on the ground; throw some folding beach chairs into your trunk before heading out, and bring extra blankets. You may want to give advance notice if participants are going to be asked to share words—many people feel uncomfortable with extemporaneous speaking. When you invite people to participate in the ceremony, let them know what to expect, and include a phone number they can call if they have questions or concerns. Clear communication will be your best bet to ensure that all the important people in your life actually show up and participate.
A ceremony should be a carefully constructed event that has been scripted and rehearsed by the key people involved. Do a practice run to work out any kinks before the big day, so that during the ceremony itself you can be at ease and fully present to reap the benefits of this bounty of love. Most of all, prepare yourself for the outpouring of love through a celebration of birth designed by and for you. Finally, congratulate yourself for having cleared a path for all the women who will come after you, a path toward meaningful ceremonies that celebrate and acknowledge the unfathomable glory of mothering and birth.
Beth Osnes is the author of Twice Alive: A Spiritual Guide to Mothering Through Pregnancy and the Child's First Year, and cofounder of Mothers Acting Up, a political movement to mobilize moms (www.mothersactingup.org). She lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado.