A review by Niki Whiting
I admit I am completely intrigued by the idea of shamanic midwifery. Jane Hardwicke Collings, an Australian, has forged this path, combining traditional midwifery with shamanic concepts and work with the Divine Feminine. She trains other women, midwives and doulas, in this process, which, from her websites, is more of a set interpersonal skills and mindset, than an actual magical system.
I was sent the e-book version of Collings’s book on preparing for natural childbirth, as this book may be of interest to our readers here at Pagan Families. For those that loved Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery this book will be a welcome companion. Collings places absolute trust in the female body to birth healthy babies, she trusts the birth process implicitly, and she advocates for a return to embracing the sacredness of birth. The entire book is a reminder to women to really listen, and listen deeply, to our bodies and our intuition. Personally, I agree with this need to listen, from a spiritual perspective but also from a feminist perspective, recognizing that our society does not encourage anyone to listen to their bodies, much less women’s reproductive cycles. Collings has a lot to say about the need to embrace not just pregnancy and childbirth, but menarche (the onset of menstruation) as well. She believes that listening helps us endure pain. I agree that the overculture tells us that pain is bad and should be avoided. Those of us interested in natural birth know that pain is information, the pain slows us down and, as Collings reminds us, forces us to focus on the work of birth.
In addition to agreeing with a lot of her philosophy on birth, I loved all of the questions sprinkled through the book. Collings has several lists of questions that an expectant mother should ask herself – things related to the birth experience explicitly and things about her own past and feelings about her body. Collings also has a variety of rituals and suggestions for new and expectant mothers, such as the birthing way and the naming ceremony, that help foster community and mark out birth as a sacred rite of passage.
While this book comes from a Pagan perspective, its language is not so partisan that a woman from another faith tradition couldn’t get a lot out of it. I think any woman with a belief in birth as sacred and perhaps a more liberal spiritual viewpoint (a concept of the Feminine Divine is almost always associated with the more liberal strains in every tradition) will find this book welcoming.
For all of those positives I don’t recommend book this solely on its own, nor as the first book to read for a first time mother. There are a few tonal and theological flaws that rub me the wrong way. The first is the strong sense of gender essentialism in the first part of the book. Yes, only women can bear children, and it is a profound and unique experience. I trust the female body to birth. But I find phrases such as birth is “a process that the female body is built for” and discussions of the right hemisphere of the brain being “feminine…. non-rational, metaphoric, intuitive” and the left brain as “masculine” very unhelpful and more than a bit alienating for those that don’t fit typical gender expressions – or for those whose female bodies can’t bear children.
Collings breaks up women’s lives into four phases: Maiden (0 to birth), Mother (childbirth to menopause), Maga (menopause to retirement), and Crone (retirement to death), outlined on page 10. This is particularly problematic as the entirety of a woman’s life is defined by her fertility. What of those women who aren’t fertile? Who choose not to bear children? What of the 30 year old cancer survivor who enters early menopause? The mention of retirement also smacks of economic privilege, as many women in the world do not have the luxury of stopping paid work. What of the women who never engaged in paid work to begin with? Perhaps I am making too much of this essentialism as this is a book about the bearing of children, but creating systems that lay claim to defining women’s mysteries based on fertility seems a little narrow-minded.
Another, more personal, issue with the book are the statements that we have the births we believe we will have. Early in the book (page 5) Collings says, “As with all normal bodily functions, birth can be influenced by the thoughts, beliefs, and fears created by your mind, as well as your health.” I think it is hard to argue with this. But more sweeping statements about how every birth is the birth we need and create with our beliefs feels awfully cold and smacks of bad theology.
This point is rather personal for me. My first child was born premature and spent the first month of his life in the NICU. I was in excellent health, practiced daily meditation, and believed implicitly in the strength of my body and its ability to birth naturally. I had a midwife and a supportive partner. But for whatever reason (no medical reason was ever diagnosed) my son came early. I was able to have a rather easy and enjoyable birth, given the circumstances, and I learned a lot from the experience. But the idea that my family somehow “needed” that experience and that my beliefs somehow encouraged a preterm birth smacks of a misguided belief in spiritual healing. Seeing as how she also mentions the Law of Attraction in two places I am not sure her theology is sound.
Collings’s enthusiasm for women and natural birth is clear throughout this book. Her voice is forceful and encouraging, which I quite like. However, there is one place where I felt this tone took an antagonistic turn. In her chapter on “So-called High Risk Birthing” which covers VBAC, breech and twin births she lays out all the reasons these births are typically done in hospitals, their risks, and questions a woman in these situations can use to gain more information from her care-provider. Collings acknowledges that many midwives and OBs aren’t trained anymore to deliver in these situations. She encourages home birth in these situations and takes a rather manipulative turn when she says “You won’t make a friend of your obstetrician if you go against his or her recommendation. Would you rather be told that you’re a good girl or know that you are a powerful woman?” (pg 65)
Minor annoyances in the book were the lack of firm editing and a strange organization, for example at the end of an early chapter Collings reprints an entire newsletter from an organization she belongs to. Her history of childbirth jumps centuries and makes sweeping statements. Some of these editing and formatting issues may be due to the e-book format; I’ve not seen a hard copy to compare it to.
While I have strong opinions on some of the philosophical and theological components of the book, I still think this could be a beneficial and welcome book for the more experienced mother or doula. With beautiful, intimate pictures of pregnant and birthing women, suggestions for healthy eating, recipes for labor tea, and lists of helpful questions and rituals, I think there is much to be gained from reading this book.
For more information you can check out the following sites:
Buy the book here – available in e-book format