Monday, January 05, 2009


When my daughter and her husband were married, a strand of beads was held in their hands. From a crystal bead that came from Great-great Grandmother Sarah's necklace to a stone from their favourite beach, each token holds a message from those who will support them in their marriage.

Just like birthing beads in Africa, where each woman attended by a midwife adds a bead to the midwife's strand, increasing its power and significance, this strand of beads gains its power from the wishes and love of each person who contributed a bead.

I have always loved ritual. As a child, I was more in love with the ritual of the Anglican church service than the Christian faith itself. I loved the music, the chanting, the link with history. When the church dropped the Book of Common Prayer and the use of Latin in daily service, I was ready to leave. I had to be content with the occasional trip to Europe, where, slipping into a Catholic Mass in Rouen, I could feel at home and recite the Latin words without thinking. In labour, I sang the Gloria without even realizing what I was singing. The ritual of recitation (not the faith) brought me strength.

In labour, these remembered rituals can be so potent. I often hear women in labour singing old hymns or songs or nursery rhymes in the shower. Women often revert to their mother tongue in labour, even if they've been speaking English for years. A Ukranian nurse shouting in the hallway has the power to make a woman from Kiev smile and relax. Sometimes, hair brushing, just like a mother will do for a child, will be the link to the past that calms a woman in labour.

At a cesarean birth long ago, Tibetan monks brought in a fuschia-coloured silk scarf, or kata, that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama. That was the first piece of cloth to touch the baby after birth. The OR was transformed by this ritual. The walls seemed to fall away...the surgical steel disappeared. All that seemed to remain was the baby, shining in the light.

Birthing beads, a mala, a blessed kata, a song, a whisper in the ear...these rituals mark our important life events. I wonder what rituals my own children will use to mark the birth of their own children...what rituals I will witness at the births of my clients this year... I wonder.

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