There are so many words that are special to Birthing From Within, words that we use in very specific ways that are important and meaningful — but not always entirely self-explanatory. The purpose of the BFW Dictionary posts is to shine a clarifying light on the language used by BFW and its practitioners and to explain how some of these words are so central to our unique approach to the childbearing years.


noun. A hinged barrier used to close an opening in a wall, fence, or hedge.

— Oxford Dictionaries online

When the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna heeds the call to descend to the underworld, she encounters seven gates on her way down. At each gate, the gatekeeper Neti strips away one of her seven me – the symbols of civilization and power that she had carefully assembled for her journey, such as her crown and her measuring rod.

BFW practitioners use the myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld as a tool to help parents and professionals feel and conceptualize the universal experience of initiation. The Gates of Descent portion of the myth illustrates the fact that when people undergo transformative initiatory experiences, they often feel as though things are being stripped away from them. Ideas, behaviors, and plans that they have been relying on, and that may have worked quite well in the past, can be rendered impossible, impermissible, or otherwise useless as the situation unfolds. This is a key understanding that we wish to create in our clients: things that they think are important or necessary now may not actually carry them through the experience in the ways that they wish or expect. The idea of crossing through a series of gates, and having something important taken away at each one, makes this understanding come alive.

We also use the gate metaphor in discussing the return journey, or ascent – the path from the transformative ordeal back to the integrated self. (Parents often refer to this journey casually as “getting back to my pre-baby self.” This is, of course, impossible – the pre-baby self is gone. That’s the tricky thing about the return: we must “return” to being something that we have never been before, which is the newly-transformed self, healed from the experience of transformation.) In this context, we use the phrase “Birth Story Gates” to refer to the understanding that the way in which parents tell their birth stories – to both themselves and others – tends to change over time in a relatively predictable sequence. The Gate of the Medical Story, for example, comes fairly early in the sequence. When passing through this gate, parents feel driven to narrate their birth stories in terms of medical details, and they may request copies of their medical records or quiz their caregivers as to precise chronologies of the medically defined events of the labor. (Their dilation timetable, for instance, or when various medications were administered and in what doses.) Sometimes, a parent may get “stuck” at a certain gate, and may require the help of a skilled Birth Story Listener in order to move forward towards integration.

In addition to the Gates of Descent and the Birth Story Gates, BFW practitioners also use “gate” phrasing when speaking generally of the changing emotional responses that a parent may experience at any given point in the childbearing experience: “In labor, you may find yourself passing through the Gate of Self-Doubt, or the Gate of Disorientation, or perhaps even the Gate of Holy Terror!” When discussing the postpartum period, we might float the idea that a parent could potentially pass back through the same gates on the ascent as they did on the descent, and be given the opportunity to consider whether to re-collect what was stripped from them. (Will Inanna still wish to carry her measuring rod back to the upperworld, now that she has a baby in her arms?)

The underlying question here is, why does BFW find the concept of the gate to be so useful?

Let’s start with some relatively straightforward reasons. First, everyone is familiar with gates as everyday objects, and everyone has gone through them before – probably many hundreds of times. Second, everyone knows that gates are very brief stopping points, if you even stop at them at all. They are meant to be gone through and left behind, not lived in. So the “gate” terminology emphasizes the understanding not only that a lot of the childbearing year is about moving through a variety of different states of being and feeling, but also that this movement and these states are normal, even mundane. As intense, and intensely personal, these states might feel, they are well-known locations, and we can name them – The Gate of Fear, The Gate of Gratitude, etc. – and you can be sure that others have passed through them before you, and others will pass through them after you. 

Also, though, beneath this solid ordinariness lies the fact that the gate is a powerfully evocative symbol.

A gate is a barrier, often tantalizingly semipermeable, allowing or preventing passage between distinct spaces, usually placed with the expectation that only certain people may pass through, and that some specific action (unlocking or unlatching) may be required in order to pass. It’s no accident that some of the more memorable set pieces in the Western literary canon revolve around the opening of a gate: the Sotherton episode in Austen’s Mansfield Park, the porter episode in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the wooden (Trojan) horse episode in Virgil’s Aeneid.

These artists – and many others as well – understood that the very idea of a gate automatically raises some interesting questions. Why is there a gate in the first place? How is that side of the gate different from this side – what is being separated? Who might want to go through, and why? Who is allowed through, and how is that decision made? How do you get through? Must you make some sort of change in order to go through, or does the act of going through change you, or do you become something else simply by virtue of being on the other side? Once you pass through a gate, is there potential for rewinding – is it possible to unpass? (Austen, Shakespeare, and Virgil all suggest that the answer to that last question must be NO; once the gate has been gone through, everything has changed.)

So, in addition to granting parents a simple, concrete way to conceptualize perinatal phases and stages, “gate” phrasing brings a sense of great symbolic weight to the conversation.

Birth is both commonplace and extraordinary, an identifiable physical event and a numinous psychic experience. The image of the gate unites these two aspects of birth, making it a perfect recurring motif for thoughtful childbirth preparation.

About Koyuki Smith

Koyuki Smith is a BFW mentor and facilitator, and she edits the BFW blog, Through the Labyrinth. She loves thinking, teaching, and writing about the universal experiences of initiation and transformation - especially how art and literature can illuminate, interrogate, and even guide those experiences. She lives in Harlem with her husband, her two sons, and a little dog, too. Learn more about her work at

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