Lately in my house, we’ve been thinking about the reality of death. No one is terminally ill, and no one we know has recently died, so I realize this sounds rather morbid. Let me explain.

Last May, my husband joined a hundred other men in the desert of New Mexico for five days to participate in a rite of male initiation. A year ago, neither of us had ever heard of such a thing—at least not in our modern Western context—but when he stumbled upon Illuman and got to know the purpose behind it, he was intrigued. As he researched more on the subject of rites of passage, we were both fascinated to find that some form of such a ritual is present in almost every indigenous culture on earth, and has been throughout history. Clearly, there is something substantial here that our “advanced” Western culture is missing.

His story is not mine to tell, but yes, it is fair to say he was changed—even months later I can see that. He is simultaneously more confident and more compassionate, and there is an awareness of his unconscious that he did not have before. Where did this transformation come from, I wondered. According to my husband, a rite of initiation includes the following:

  1. There must be a loss of control and a reckoning with the truth that your life is not about you.
  2. A confrontation with death that was more mental, emotional, and spiritual, rather than physical.

If it’s effective, your ego will be put in its rightful place. You will have a deeper sense of self than ever before, but you will be humbled and willing to serve rather than be served. Not that it’s a silver bullet for character development, of course: you will continue to grow and struggle throughout your life. But the markings in your soul are deep and can be returned to when recalibration is in order.

A Woman’s Initiation

I sat on these ideas for days, nursing an irrefutable feeling that I had experienced such a thing but wondering if it was hubris to claim it. A metaphorical death? An acute loss of control? Confronting the reality that my life is not about me? Feeling permanently changed? It all resonated too deeply to deny: I had indeed experienced my own personal rite of passage four years ago.

I was in intermittent pain but still feeling optimistic enough for giddy excitement when my husband and I arrived at the historic home-turned-birth-center where we would meet our son. Those feelings didn’t last long.

Before I knew it, I was stripping off my clothes and all but diving into the claw foot tub, desperate for some relief from the back labor that had no mercy. My recollection of those hours is hazy, the part of my brain that stores memory too clouded by the pain to do its work. I was lost in the feeling of being torn apart. It felt like drowning in a sea of knives. It felt like dying.

Finally, finally, the midwife said I could push. Three hours later my son was still stuck—not in danger, but not making progress either. I’d never known such despair and had long abandoned any idea of being an active participant in the birthing process. I lay limp and exhausted as the contractions rolled over me and my uterus surrendered to hopeless pushing. Half an hour later, an episiotomy was cut and I gave up every last drop of strength I had to see my son emerge. In seconds he was on my chest, covered wet with life.

As the dust of my recovery settled over the next few weeks, I experienced a heightened awareness of having been changed. I had looked my own mortality in the face. I had opened my hands to accept that I am ultimately not in control. I had embodied an understanding that my life is not about me. I had walked away changed; more sure of myself and yet more empty of myself than ever before.

I had been initiated.

Is childbirth the only rite of passage a woman can go through? Of course not. Can a woman birth a child and not experience the birth as initiation? My gut instinct is, yes. This is just my story, although I think it is likely the story of millions of other women through the ages as well. In an age when childbirth is diminished as a mere medical experience, we would all do well to assign a little more weight to the reality of what happens to the heart of a woman in the process.

Bringing a child into the world always has the potential to change us. But perhaps whether or not it actually does is determined by our response to it. We can receive it all with open hands—the physical experience, yes, but also the death of self-centeredness, the newfound softening, the compulsion to care more for the world around us—or we can more or less stay the same.

Brawny individualism has staked its claim on our generation, but the wisdom of our ancestors beckons us, men and women alike, from beyond the veil. Unbroken of our immaturity and pride, we can never step into our place as leaders in modern society. But if we submit ourselves to the process of softening—if we can orient ourselves in right relationship to the world around us, neither the center of it nor impotent in it—we will be free to grow and mature into the elders that this culture of perpetual youth so desperately needs.

And for women uniquely, childbirth is one means to that end.