The Blessingway

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I first heard the word Blessingway when I was invited to one last summer.

A friend was pregnant with her fourth child, and I had no idea what in the world a Blessingway was. New age mysticism? Chanting and meditation? Coven of witch territory?

It was actually none of the above.

The best way to explain a Blessingway is this: it is the alternative baby shower for mothers.

Ironically, Blessingways are steeped in more solid tradition than baby showers.

A Blessingway is an ancient Navajo ceremony to celebrate a woman's transition into motherhood. The Navajo have a saying, "whatever happens here on Earth must first be dreamed", and that's exactly what a Blessingway does. It is a ceremony (or the "dream") that is a prelude to a major life event (and, as we all know, motherhood is a pretty life-altering event).

Similarly, Blessingways can be held for women undergoing any major change in her life: divorce, move, career change, remarriage - the ceremony is can be creatively adjusted for other life events.

While baby showers can be more commercial in focus, the Blessingway serves up a refreshingly sharp contrast.

There's no booty of pink and blue gifts. The Blessingway is about the woman we know best - not the unknown baby inside her - but our friend and sister, the mother-to-be.

And while society seems eager to chuck aside the mother in favour of holding a cherubic gurgling baby, a Blessingway provides the mother with memories of a true show of support from her friends.

That lasts much longer than those newborn sleepers.

Blessingways can have many different elements. By involving the mother-to-be in the planning process, you empower her to make the ceremony her own. There are rituals associated with the ceremony, including creating birthing necklaces and bracelets, hair brushing, foot washing, sage burning, sharing birth stories, passing on blessings and good wishes, giving gifts and feasting on potluck fare.

The guest of honour can pick and choose what activities appeal to her. Guests can bring either handmade gifts, or inexpensive store-bought personal gifts for the mother.

Sage can be burned at the beginning of the Blessingway to bless the woman's house (for either a homebirth, or for after the baby is brought home from the hospital). The mother can have her hair brushed or braided with flowers by her sister or mother (or, in lieu of their presence, by friends).

A lovely sentiment is to share birthing experiences while brushing the mom's hair. If her midwife is there, she may wash the honouree's feet in a warm bath filled with herbs or flowers. (If all this touching seems too intimate, these bits can be certainly skipped. At my first Blessingway, I considered bolting for the door when it was my turn to brush hair. I resisted that temptation and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the act of brushing my friend's hair).

Other ideas to consider for a Blessingway are: making a belly cast beforehand and having guests decorate it, painting the mom's belly and photographing it (!), or passing around a newborn blanket for each guest to paint on or embroider.

Plan whatever feels right for the mom involved. A good reference book for Blessingways can be found in Jennifer Louden's, Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book.

I ended up being so taken with the beautiful sentiments from that summer Blessingway that I arranged one in November for my dear friend Mo, who was expecting her third child in early December.

With Mo, I discussed who would be included on the invitation list and what traditions she felt most comfortable with. (She nixed tactile stuff: the belly painting, the hair brushing and foot washing).

I called her friends and said that I was holding a Blessingway for Mo. The silences on the other end of the line told me that they knew as much about Blessingways that I did a few months ago.

I explained that a Blessingway was a twist on the baby shower: that we would be celebrating Mo as a woman and as a friend and supporting her as she journeyed into motherhood of three children.

Instead of a baby gift, I asked the guests to bring a small personal gift for Mo and a chocolate treat for the potluck feast (since chocolate is the guest of honour's favourite food group).

On a sunny cold November afternoon, we met to honour and celebrate our friend Mo. I had Sarah McLachlan playing on the stereo, and tiny tea lights flickering in the window. I began the Blessingway be explaining its purpose: to bless Mo's way into childbirth, so she could remember all women who have gone before her in child bearing and so we could pledge our support to her as she entered into her birthing experience.

There were three formal activities in this Blessingway: we made a birthing necklace, wove cord bracelets and passed a lit candle while we spoke a blessing to Mo.

The birthing necklace was created from black cord and special beads I carefully chose from a bead store. We passed around the cord and added one bead representing each child we had. The necklace was for Mo to take to wear or hold during childbirth to serve as a calming focus. Then she could add a bead after her third child was born and pass it onto a pregnant friend.

I explained that the act of creating the necklace symbolized the strength of our shared experiences as mothers and women.

Next, we wove a cord bracelet for us each to wear until Mo's baby was born. After the birth, we were free to cut off the bracelet; in the meantime, it was a constant reminder on our wrists of Mo's upcoming journey.

I passed around a ball of black hemp string and we all wound the cord around our wrists. When the cord connected us all, I explained that this symbolized us as sisters united as one and represented the circle of women and the circle of life.

Then, we cut the cord with scissors, leaving enough length to twist or braid the bracelet into our own designs. Though it appeared we were then separate, the bracelet reminded us as women, we were all cut from the same ball of yarn.

Our last formal activity as a group was the lighting of the candle. I lit a large white pillar candle that was placed on a clear blue glass holder. I passed the candle around and we each gave a blessing to Mo.

Our words took the form of thoughts on Mo and motherhood, and wisdom drawn from our own childbirth experiences. We gave her the candle to light during birth, hoping that our sentiments would echo and provide strength during childbirth

My favourite part of the afternoon was when I asked everyone to describe their connection with Mo - how they met her, what drew them to her, why she was important to them. When else do we have opportunity for close friends to share openly about their feelings?

This was a very touching moment, and we were all weeping (and sobbing!) by the end of it. In conclusion, before the gifts and feasting, I read a poem, which is traditionally used as concluding words:

An Ode to Faith
-by Patrick Overter

When you have come to the edge
Of all the light you know,
and are about to step off>
Into the darkness of the unknown,
Faith is knowing that
One of two things will happen,
There will be something solid to stand on,
Or you will be taught how to fly.

For women, a Blessingway is an opportunity to show our spirit and support for another woman we love. She can garner our collective experiences and power and use it to solidify her own strength to follow her new path.

Sue Robins is an at-home mother and freelance writer.

1. 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.

However, for copyright reasons we cannot alter the original article that follows (written in 2001), so we must leave this particular article unchanged. But in all future references to this type of prenatal celebration, we will use the term 'Mother Blessing.'

Many thanks,
--Editor, Network (June 2004).