Elemental & Ancestral.
Descendants, transcendence, and birth.
By Nadia Kersel
“After just 3 or 4 generations of highly technological childbirth,
it seems very possible that our human oxytocin system is weakening…
In other words, our capacity to give birth is weakening”
~ Michel Odent
Our capacity to give birth, cultivated over countless generations, is eroding? Nope. I won’t have it. Not on this branch of the family tree, and not on my watch!
OK, I will admit that the task of reversing this phenomenon is not completely my responsibility. I am not in total control over how this happens, even within my own family. But, it is not ok with me that in such a short time, the diversity of experience around one of humanity’s most crucial life events is close to being lost. Like all my work in home birth, my hope for this article is to be able to spark a flint of knowing and of possibility which brings to light, even for one flashing moment, the ultimate truth – that all the wisdom of birth already exists within us. Furthermore, we can access and let that wisdom work if we are open to nurturing that spark into flame.
A version of this ultimate truth has been spoken and made manifest for me through my own experiences of birth. My intention here is to draw on those personal experiences and share my insights around how birth, and in particular, my choice to birth at home, has served as a catalyst – for my own growth and the creation of a deep connection to my lineage, cultural heritage, and birth wisdom.
“Now I walk in beauty. Beauty is before me. Beauty is behind me, above, and below me.”
~ Navajo blessing
Here’s some real deal, down-to-earth “birth capacity” for you: my Grandmother Anasoa gave birth at home in Samoa – 11 times over. It was her story that had me opening myself to the possibility that I could do the same – to birth, be happy and healthy at home. As far as I know, I am one of the first of her Grandchildren to birth at home too. This connection is one that has underpinned our relationship in recent years, and she takes great, whooping pride in our shared birth prowess. My other Grandmother, Uatifoti, has birth wisdom coming out of her pores – she attended countless birthing women in her days as a nurse midwife in Samoa, and supported me both physically and spiritually during my third birth. I absolutely depend on my connection to them, and their experiences to bring me through my births.
So, here I stand, a couple of generations later, in Aotearoa with three home births under my stretchy belt – and feeling rather privileged. Firstly, because my modern lifestyle lends me the luxury of time and means to “do-up” birth – with all the whim and fancy, and nest-feathering I desire. Secondly, because all the while, I create the space and ability to draw, and rely on my foremothers’ birth wisdom through a rarely acknowledged, ancient, and ethereal link.
Our modern society life is an increasingly worldly one – where many people lament that nothing is sacred. Considering how “small” the world has become in terms of communication and in-your-face media, I maintain that it is an absolute necessity to demark a sacred space and time, especially during pregnancy and birth. It seems to me that the very lifestyle which allows the luxury of what may seem like pure fancy or aesthetics; actually creates the necessity for it.
Decorating or preparing our physical environment is important. To me, it is an essential way of grounding and connecting with the environment, the Earth, and the way we do things as people – it reflects the comfort and humanity of our lives. Every culture on Earth has ways of doing this, from how we ritualistically mark the passing of time and life stages, to how we delineate our home spaces, and why we adorn ourselves to befit an occasion. “Doing up” my space, and myself for birth appeals to this human endeavour of making meaning from material things – using matter to symbolically appeal to the spirit and to declare what matters, to us, right now.
More than simply “nesting,” these actions create a living marker for the time, energy, and purpose of the birth space in our lives. The magic comes in how this actually helps us to access the divine, creating a link which goes beyond our worldly existence. I feel it as a liminal time-warp, where I can actively and even subconsciously, access the wisdom and truth from generations past, whilst becoming a vessel for bringing that truth into the future form of our family.
To consciously compose a space, creates an experience or memory of that consciousness which serves as an anchor. This is the “home” that we come back to, and where we find ourselves anew after surrendering and transcending to explore the spaces betwixt and between, and the energy/spirit of our birth experience.
Here are a few ways that I choose to create a connection between my reality and my spirit, and to those from my lineage:
Go to any Samoan household on this planet and chances are, there will be a no shoes rule – and this goes for anyone who comes into our homes. The outside grime stays outside! In my birth space, this is no different. I could not stand the thought of being the only one with bare feet in my birth space. During birth, I am tapu (sacred), and so is my home. There is also something about bare feet that keeps the people around me grounded and humble.
I include Samoan hymns and old chants in my playlist. I feel an instant, and multi-sensorial connection to my birth place, especially knowing that my grandmothers, and great-grandmothers sat on the grass, singing, and chanting these same songs.
This is a curtain or cover which is hung up to define space. Traditional Samoan fale (houses) are one big open space, with no walls for separate rooms. A pupuni was used as temporary walls, for many occasions, but especially during birth. Most times it defines where the public space ends. In my births, I use them to demarcate the tapu birth space. I also do this to keep my whole self within that space, and not distracted by my usual “working” spaces. I really don’t want to look at my pile of dishes while I am giving birth, and any water-pot filling or other work that my attendants are doing, can be done out of my line of vision.
Pictures of the women of my family, and of my husband’s family are central to this altar, as well as images or objects that bring me peace, reverence, or focus. This is where, in early labour, I pray and call on my faith, and on that of all the women, past and present, who have invested some of their life in me, either through shared lineage or shared heart bonds.
Inumia, inumia, ingāwaikaukau o tūpuna:
Drink, drink of the bathing waters of your ancestors.
~ Maori proverb
My gut-feeling for choosing home birth for my first baby was to uphold a sense of self determination and cultural autonomy. I felt that if my cultural identity and practises were not under threat, I would be more able to determine how and where to express those parts of myself – outside of approved norms, stereotypes, or distinctions that others may hold. In hindsight, I see that rather than cultural “safety” it was, in fact, creating an opportunity for me to freely discover how my culture lives within me. Through home birth came the relief of being free from the shackles of my culture having to look a certain way. I could then embody a truth that, in birth, I do not have to let my choices be held ransom to someone else’s concept of normal.
This is extremely important for me as my births have not fit within the approved “norm.” For all three of my births, my waters have broken “early” ranging from 2-5 days before birth. I choose to believe my own truth and my family’s truth, which is – the way that my body supports birth is well within the realms of healthy, and the potential of this has already been realised by other women in my family. This again, is an example of transcendence, from the worldly constructs of culture and norm to the mystical, timeless aspect of human and spiritual connection – knowing that there exists a connection between our familial ancestral lineages, and that it holds an important function in our lives. Almost every possibility has been lived already.
I rejoiced in making the choice to birth as my foremothers had, and in doing so, was able to easily access the wisdom that they held, and that I believe, flowed into me through the process of birth. With each pregnancy and birth comes a deeper consciousness of what home birth offers, in its wholeness, to my aiga/whanau. As well as having the physical, emotional, and conceptual space to birth with integrity and dignity; home birth also allows us the space and the self-determination to acknowledge and summon links with our ancestors, and our collective, longstanding truths actively, knowingly, and reverently
“Ia fili e le tai se agavaʻa- The wind chooses the quickness of the canoe.”
~ Samoan proverb
While I could have tried to substantiate my insights with facts and references to great thinkers from the various “ology’s,” I know that my story is powerful. All of our stories are. They hold the power to shape our perspectives. Familial stories, born from the lived experiences of those connected to us, can completely change the way we see ourselves. We have choices – which of those stories will we gather in our aid? And what quality of story do we create to flow through to our children, especially our daughters, during their birth time?
Precipice: The story of my surrender and transcendence in birth
I stand at a precipice, the wind is wild, and I can only see blurs, no form. But, I can hear someone’s ancient voice, through the wind (or is it the win. itself?), asking “who are you?.” I know then that I have to surrender who I think I am, and reclaim who I truly am.
When the wind blows me off the precipice (of what I once knew), I feel my “self” shattering into a million pieces. I have a knowing that some of those pieces will come back, and others will go with the gusts. The trick, I suppose, is in having the faith to trust that the pieces which wend their way back to me, will be enough to form a wholeness, whilst still leaving space for the mother in me to grow, and for the child in me to be born.
I know that any pieces of myself, whether they remain or not, are not just my own, and that birth is not just mine – It is the embodiment of the lives and wisdom of those who have come before me. This has all culminated in my potential, or capacity, for birthing my baby and myself as mother, into being.
My baby’s first breath is made of that wind and as it brings her life, it whispers to me, our shared truth – that when I am giving birth; it is giving to me.