In 2010, Pam England wrote a series of pieces about ways in which we can change birth in our culture. The Birthing From Within leadership and blog team has chosen some of these pieces as inspiration and jumping-off points to create a new 12-part series about changing birth in our culture that reflects current understandings within the birth world as well as our current approaches and offerings as an organization. We will be sharing one piece for each month of 2019, both on the blog and in our monthly newsletters. We hope you enjoy this wonderful material, both the archival treasure and the new, innovative insights!
In January we tuned in to how the way in which parents speak to their children about their births can have a long-lasting impact on their children’s perceptions of birth, both now and in the future. This month, we span the years to explore how our relationships with our elders can impact our understandings of birth both for ourselves and as a component of our shared past. In order to invoke true change, we must reach down deep to our roots and call forth our elders to do what only they can do: patiently instruct us through the telling of cultural and mythical stories, and preserve and perform the rituals that guide us across thresholds that we might hesitate to cross on our own.
If we reach far enough back, we will find that all human cultures have traditions of initiating their youth; the practice of initiation and moving into elderhood is thus in all of our blood. Being cut off from this practice is affecting us in the same way that we would be affected if a vital nutrient went missing from our diets. Our growing lack of true relationships with elders and resulting lack of initiatory paths are part of the roots of sickness in our modern systems.
To regain our well-being as a culture, and to change the ways in which we perceive and prepare for the life-changing experience of giving birth, we must once again draw upon medicinal stories and rituals of initiation.
In cultures that utilize the wisdom, extra time, and patience of their older members to initiate its youth, there is a bridge by which youth can cross over into adulthood. But not just any older person can build that bridge, as author Michael Meade points out. Meade makes a humorous distinction between elders and “olders.” He says that most people — particularly in our culture as it currently stands — just get old and become “olders.” All of us become older without effort. Few become elders.
This isn’t to say that the olders of society are to blame for their lack of bridge-building skills. If they themselves had been truly initiated into adulthood, their story would likely be different. Their knowledge would encompass more than just our modern stories of order, hierarchy, and facts. They would be more in tune with the cycles of life and familiar with loss. They would not be at all ashamed of imperfection, for they would know that in imperfection lies wildness, and that wildness is a cornerstone of growing into a true elder, one who is not to be contained, controlled, or subdued.
Imagine how birth would currently be perceived had all of our grandparents and great-grandparents been celebrated at their time of puberty and menarche, and supported in being conscious and wild when birthing their babies.
Perhaps we would have very different understandings of the importance of these life events. Maybe we would be less fearful, confused, and overwhelmed. Maybe we would be more connected to our bodies and our lush inner worlds. Maybe we would be more confident in our ability to create life, and in our worthiness as parents. We can only wonder how different the rates of induction, cesarean, and postpartum depression would be, both nationally and worldwide, if only today’s “olders” had been nurtured and initiated as the elders they were meant to be.
So what happens to a culture – a birth culture – with few elders? Just look! It becomes a culture populated by uninitiated adults who are trapped in eternal adolescence.
Adolescents who are victims, rebels, or princesses; who are following ego-centric whims; who seek security and avoid risk, age, or death at all costs; and who are depressed and numbed. A culture without elders becomes eternally adolescent in this way because when it was time to “leave home” and leave the adolescent identity, there was no elder, no death-embracing or death-defying tasks, no ritual to allow the child to “die” and the adult to be “born.” Today’s adolescents are primed for career and material gains as opposed to true life success. They are encouraged to find ways to ensure that they are always comfortable and never lacking in “things” to solve their problems and provide entertainment, and they are taught to market themselves from a young age so they always have something to sell. These values lack soul, and soul is a crucial element of being human, particularly for a human who is about to embark upon the winding journey that is the childbearing year.
In his book Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin, the founder of the Animas Valley Institute, addresses the “indigenous process by which a human child grows into a soul-initiated adult…Every step of leaving becomes a step of arriving…As you separate from your former society-centered identity, you claim more of your nature-and-soul-centered identity.”
What does an elder look like? Plotkin captures the essence as follows:
A genuine elder possesses a good deal of wildness, perhaps more than any adult, adolescent, or child. Our human wildness is our spontaneity, our untamed vivacity, our innocent presence, our resistance to oppression, our rule-transcending vivacity and self-reliance that societal convention can never contain. We are designed to grow deeper into that wildness as we mature, not to recede from it. When we live soul-centrically, immersed in a lifelong dance with the mysteries of nature and psyche, our wildness flourishes.
If you are not yet an elder, commit yourself to knowing yourself and to completing the tasks of each stage of life. Prepare yourself to become an elder, not just older. Prepare yourself to be approached and asked for guidance by those in generations to come: those who you’ve helped to be born; those who you’ve fed, clothed, and prayed over; and those who you’ve observed from afar as they grew up around you.
One day you will be an elder, so long as your wildness remains reachable and your fear does not cause you to recede from it.
The mechanisms of modern society are no replacement for our children, family, elders, and ancestors – the individuals who are listeners and givers of rich stories and life experiences. In nourishing our relationships with those to whom we are directly connected, especially those who have come before us and have much life experience to draw from, we nourish ourselves and build the potential to nourish those for whom we will be elders. This change is a beautiful one and can lead to the weaving of a deep spiritual and familial tapestry for all who commit to diving in deep.
Though our “olders” may not all be the elders for whom we yearn, many of them are ripe and ready to burst with the fruits of their lifelong labors. Often they are simply waiting for someone to show some interest in what they have to offer, to acknowledge them as people of value who are worth engaging with and listening to, and to truly appreciate them as members of society who want to see things improve for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They may not have many rituals to pass down, as they too suffer from the lack of eldership, but they very likely have recipes to share, stories about becoming parents, stories of failure, stories of accomplishment. The possibilities are innumerable and intriguing.
Let us cherish our elders and remember how they can make a lifelong impression on those who are willing to call on them to share their wisdom and insight.
This is part of a 12-part series about Changing Birth in Our Culture.