Crippled with antenatal depression, unable to think clearly, and very much not in the mood to celebrate with a baby shower, I stumbled across ‘blessingway’ in my research and felt a faint warmth of hope wrap around me.
Here was an opportunity to relax with those close to me, be enveloped in love and support, and begin to heal.
Blessingways are based on a Navajo ceremony to celebrate the transition into motherhood. The ritual is ancient and North American Indians viewed it as the second blood rite for a women (her first being her first menstruation).
“The entire Blessingway Ceremony is a template for childbirth. The beginning rituals are like nesting and early labor. The grooming and washing like active labor. The gift giving like giving birth and the closing songs/prayers, delivery of the placenta and postpartum.”
— Jeannine Pavarti-Baker
While there are key aspects to the traditional ceremony, it has been Westernised and adapted to suit the modern pregnant woman. What remains the same is the concept of a mother-to-be surrounding herself with women who will support her, and her acknowledging that she will receive this energy in return.
The ceremony aims to create a sacred space, where women sit in a circle, fears are expressed and experiences shared, preparing the mother to be for her birth and child.
For me, that circle of friends was evidence of a group of family and friends who were there to love me, even though I felt unlovable, wary and despairing. The depression had been unexpected, sudden and all-consuming, and I had been frightened on several occasions of the depth of feelings that overwhelmed me, threatening actions that I couldn’t control.
I wanted desperately to heal, to be a better mother to my children, to smile again. I hoped the blessingway would cast light upon the baby I carried and heal the relationship between us that I felt had been threatened by the thoughts in my mind.
So, I made an arrangements for a sunny afternoon, with the support and help of two special women in my life: one of my mothers, and one of my sisters. Throughout the pregnancy they had been unwavering in offering the extra support I needed. My partner took away the children for a few hours, which I needed yet still made me anxious. I put down a footbath for each guest and filled it with organic petals and herbs in warm water, and they arrived each clutching a wooden or glass bead.
Each guest spoke her blessing, and threaded her bead onto a leather string. Several beads from those unable to attend were also added, so that at the end I was presented with a very long and heavy necklace. The love it represented was overwhelming, and I hung it over my bed for the last month of my pregnancy before adding it to the birthing kit.
After we had strung the necklace, everyone took turns to don a paintbrush and paint my belly. This greatly upset an elder member of my family who grew up in a time when pregnancy wasn’t flaunted, but after she left and everyone else continued, I thought my stomach was a very sunny canvas and it made me smile. In some blessingway ceremonies, women do belly castings (or decorate the belly casting done in advance) or use henna instead of paint.
I loved the idea of a Prayer Bunting, where guests decorate a piece of cloth with fabric markers, and these are sewn together to hang over the birthing space (and then later in the nursery). However I opted instead to have my friends and family decorate organic baby bodysuits with black fabric paint. Every time I dressed baby, I was reminded of my blessingway. Another craft project to consider is painting rocks with inspiring messages for labour.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sharing stories over mini bites of food (I had delighted in baking tiny cookies, tiny cakes, tiny cuts of fruit!) before the men in our lives joined us for dinner. It was a lovely afternoon, and I felt more charged and positive about my pregnancy and the impending arrival.
The candle we had lit during the ceremony was relit a month later, on a midsummer’s night. It burned for several hours, watching the sun break through the morning, and lit a glow over the face of a new baby as he was born in the water at home. As I clutched him, staring at his face, all I felt was relief that the pregnancy was over.
After I had birthed the placenta and was helped out of the pool, my support team resettled me on the couch and placed baby back into my arms, along with the heavy bead necklace. I asked for them both to be taken away, and I watched him being cuddled by his grandmother. Slowly, the negative feelings I had carried for months ebbed away, and by the time the pool was drained, I was ready to greet and love my new baby.
Ashlee Sturme is a Bay of Plenty mother who is on a journey to be more connected with her children and her environment. She writes at www.themotherhoodproject.co.nz
Some Blessing-way Rituals you might like to incorporate into your mother blessing:
Washing of feet – washing a mothers feed in warm water and scented oils will relax her. It is an act of service to the new mother acknowledging her contribution.
Using henna to paint hands, belly and feet to honour the baby within.
Massage – gentle shoulder or foot massage to relax the mother.
Smudge sticks – dried sage, rose petals and other herbs burnt and used to ‘cleanse’ the birth space.
Prayer flags – hung in the birthing space with written words of love and support.
Affirmations – the mother is given affirmations written or verbal to help with her birth journey.
Letting go of fears – the mother speaks her fears or writes them down and they are ‘blown away in a bubble’ or floated down stream.
Chanting or prayer – Karakia and Waita (prayer and singing)
Feeding the mother – bringing the mother her most desired food, filling her freezer.
Guided meditation – to help a mother release her fears and welcome her baby.
Circle of beads – each one a thought of love or kindness from a friend.
Brushing and braiding of hair – pampering the mother to relax her. The hair can then be unbraided at the onset of labour.
“All the knots were untied and the windows and doorways opened”
— Rachel Pearson
Belly cast – a memento of her magical state.
Sister circle – a symbol of connectedness, a band around the wrist or shared token.
Lighting a candle – lighting a candle at the blessingway and again at the birth.
Making an ipu whenua – a vessel to bury the whenua in.
Making muka – extracting muka fibres from flax to tie the pito (umbilicus).
Gifting for an altar – each woman gifts the mother a small item for her birth altar.
Moon based ritual – any ritual relating to the moon. A full moon circle.
You may choose to do all of these, or none. Each ritual is as individual as the person.
Editors Note: Blessingways are a traditional Diné (Navajo) ceremony, and as such it is important to respect the origins and purpose of blessingways as they occur in Diné society. A mother blessing is a ritual that honours the birthing mother and prepares her spiritually for her journey. Blessingways are a celebration of creation, harmony and peace. Their original form and purpose was to bless using song and can sometimes be referred to as the ‘singing over’. When engaging with other cultural practices, it is easy to appropriate their practices without honouring them. Using the term mother blessing and entering a blessing ceremony with clarity and conscious intent will honour the origins of the blessingway. To learn more about the Diné people and the blessingway you can start here.
Why I am now calling the ceremonies I officiate and help organize “Mother Blessings” or “Mama Blessings” and not Blessingways…
“In 2004, Native feminists wrote us to request that the term ‘Blessingway’ no longer be used to describe non-Navajo prenatal ceremonies such as the one described in this article. They explained that the term ‘Blessingway’ refers to a sacred spiritual ceremony performed by the Navajo people to celebrate rites of passage that occur throughout the entire life cycle, and not only the passage into motherhood. They suggested the term ‘Mother Blessing’ was a more appropriate term for a ceremony that was influenced, and respectful, of this tradition, but not practiced in accordance with the Navajo faith and culture. We completely agree.
Out of repect for the great history and importance of the Blessingway to Navajo people, many doulas, midwives and mothers now use the term ‘Mother Blessing’ to denote the celebration outlined in this article — a practice we have also adopted.”
Thanks all. Signed, Marlene Pray