- Psychedelic Motherhood: The Altered States of Birth - July 7, 2021
“It was getting us both very high… “In fact, everybody in the room looked golden to me. Valerie and Amber and I hung out and kind of melted into each other and fell in love.”
– Amber’s Birth Story; Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery (1975)
Psychedelics and childbirth. Not two words we often put together. In the stories of Amber and others like her in the classic 1975 childbirth guide Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, one of the foundational figures in modern midwifery, there’s a vision for childbirth that is sensual, ecstatic, and decidedly psychedelic. A strange juxtaposition to the typical media portrayals of childbirth. Close up of a woman screaming in agony, swearing obscenities at her partner, and demanding pain relieving drugs. And then cut to her gazing with pure adoration at the newborn child. Labor and delivery in this version is a story of trauma followed by the bewildering wonder of new motherhood. But, on The Farm in Tennessee, a community shepherded by counterculture hero Stephen Gaskin, the women under the care of Ina May and her midwives describe a rich tapestry of heightened sensation, shifts in the sense of time and space, feelings of expanded consciousness, emotional oneness, and connection with a larger cosmos or collective. In short, they use the language of psychedelics.
This post feels transgressive to write because bringing together the illicit language of psychedelics with the secretive realm of childbirth collides two realms that women are not supposed to speak about so explicitly. Like the incomplete histories of women and psychedelics, we don’t have the full story of childbirth on record, because women’s birth stories are passed along in conversation, the oral tradition of sisters and friends, mothers, and daughters. So, how do we make sense of these curiously psychedelic stories told by women like Amber who delivered their babies on the Farm? What made their births so psychedelically attuned? And what would it mean for modern women to harness that psychedelic energy?
If we look at first-hand accounts of childbirth and psychedelic trips, they suggest a closer kinship than our cultural taboos have space for. I am not advocating for the use of psychedelics during pregnancy and labor. Though there is little western scientific literature on the harm or benefit of psychedelics on pregnancy and fetal health, such use may put mother and baby at risk. Though we might look to the Wixárika or Huichol Indians of Mexico who are known to use peyote, and women of the Amazonian Santo Daime religion who take part in “Daime” or ayahuasca ceremony during pregnancy, and in some cases, labor, believing it allows the expectant mother “to experience the pregnancy and contact with the baby, to interiorize the experience more profoundly.” I bring them together as a thought exercise, to see how we might develop a language for the altered state of childbirth and the transformations enacted in that wondrous bodily process.
“Psychedelic states of body and mind offer us a map for navigating one state of self to another: from complacency to awakening; from individual to bonded parent.”
Psychedelic states of body and mind offer us a map for navigating one state of self to another: from complacency to awakening; from individual to bonded parent. In childbirth, this altered state is not triggered by external psychoactive agents, but by the emerging baby itself—a hormonal chain reaction set off within the mother’s body by the emergence of a new life, propelling the mother into the altered state of labor, birth, and then motherhood itself.
Psychedelic Vagina and Buddha Babies
“Douglas held up a mirror for me to see my vagina and I was amazed. It looked very psychedelic, like the big pink petals of a flower opening up. It was really beautiful. It surprised me and I felt like I had a new respect for my body. I remembered and told everyone how the story of Buddha says he was born from a lotus blossom. Everybody, every Buddha, is born that way.”
Lyle’s Story, Spiritual Midwifery (p. 214)
I wanted a natural childbirth. No drugs. No epidural. Just pure awareness for myself and for my child for that moment of entrance into the world. I spent the last half of my pregnancy preparing for this natural birth, working up the endurance for what lay ahead. I did prenatal yoga, stretching the body and meditating to find my center. I read voraciously, finding solace in even the most traumatic of birth stories, because as the cliché goes: knowledge is power. But, I kept asking myself, how would I really prepare? How would I summon and trust my inner strength as the power of labor began to overwhelm? Especially if I were to believe all the media stories: women unmoored by the pain. Their sense of control set loose. Their grip awash. How would I cope? What would I need? As I was pondering these questions, seven months pregnant, anxiously awaiting the due date, some solace emerged in a strange set of birthing books: Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Spiritual Midwifery. I stumbled upon these as recommended guides for natural childbirth, and was surprised to find some curiously psychedelic stories.
As a psychedelic historian, the psychedelic metaphors of The Farm women were a comfort as I anticipated the birth of my own child, not because I thought it would be pure ecstasy or a wondrous body high (psychedelics themselves do not always deliver such one-sided effects). Rather, psychedelic language gave me a useful map of the powerful emotional terrain I would journey through in labor. The gradual, yet distinct, stages of labor (early, active, transition, and pushing) are sequenced like psychedelic experiences: the onset, the peak, the comedown, and the fleeting traces remain as cognitively hazy, yet emotionally vivid, flashbacks in our memory.
Set and setting are essential: a relaxed mindset, safe and comfortable settings, and caring, competent aides can markedly improve outcomes for mother and child. Like shamans and psychedelic therapists, midwives, doulas, and other support persons play a crucial role in creating and facilitating the set and setting for labor and delivery and for guiding a woman through the process. Understanding childbirth as psychedelic gave me a set of tools: preparing a setting that would put my mind at ease; surrounding myself with reassuring guides on the same wavelength who could steer me back when I entered rockier waters; holding onto totems to anchor me to the everyday, pain-free state to which I would eventually return, and to enter the birthing state with curiosity and joy at this immense range of human experience; and, most importantly, to open myself up to be transformed by motherhood.
Searching for the Psychedelic. Finding a C-Section.
“mother is a cocoon where
cells spark, limbs form, mother
swells and stretches to protect her
child, mother has one foot in this world
and one foot in the next,
mother, black venus”
Beyoncé, I Have Three Hearts (2017)
The preparation for parenthood begins with the transformation of the body. The pregnant body dramatically changes over the course of the forty weeks of gestation. Organs and skeletal structures shift and move to make room for the expanding fetus. An entirely new organ, the placenta, grows to nourish the new life. Externally, there is the emergent bump, with the necessity of a new wardrobe to accommodate the changing form. The pregnant woman becomes an expectant mother over time. With each bodily change, the swelling belly, breasts, hands and feet, I became aware of my emergent identity as a mother. I experienced my own skin anew, my pregnant body anchoring me to my bodily present. I entered the transformative space of motherhood as I meditated on my baby bump, dreaming of the future child I had only begun to know. I approached full term this state intensified as the baby increasingly kicked, hiccupped, and squirmed within me.
During my labor, this intense bodily awareness reached its apex. As the uterus insistently tightened and relaxed, I drew increasingly into myself, acutely aware of my body. In labor, women often feel their bodies and minds taken over, moved by an instinctual force to deliver their babies. Energy coursed, stretched, and ached within me; with cramps insistent, rhythmic, and powerful. In Gaskin’s books, contractions are called “surges” or “waves” a language that moves away from metaphors of mechanical pain to a more ecological sense of the body. With each surge, my vision narrowed into a tunnel, the activity edged out. My memories of this time are like flashbulbs: the fiery skyline of sunrise moving to sunset; the smell of food mistakenly ordered; clock time irrelevant; spatial boundaries disappeared; staring out the window like I was high. My vision focused on the distant vistas, drifting into the space of a passing cloud, a darting bird, a pine bough as it shimmied in the wind. I inhabited these forms as I breathed through each contraction. These visions were a place for my mind to temporarily take refuge from my body’s push and pull.
Unfortunately, where my experience diverged from the women under Gaskin’s care was in the final stage of delivery. On the second day of labor, my son’s heartbeat began to drop and, after careful, yet anxious, consideration of our options, we underwent the Cesarean section to get him safely into the world. Amidst my disappointment at this outcome, I remember during the surgery looking up at these big overhead spotlights that had an incandescent rainbow glean to them and thinking “well, this at least is psychedelic,” finding a moment to laugh to myself in what otherwise was a peak stressful moment as we waited for him to be brought out in the world, unsure of his condition. First, I heard him. His voice rang out like ripples in a pond. And then I saw him. My universe closed in and expanded all at once. The perimeters blurred, partly with tears, partly with my singular focus on his very presence. His skin seemed to glow, a halo of rosy pink. Locking eyes with him I felt my life, my heart and mind, transform. My being changed in a moment as I became a mother, his mother.
“My son’s birth was psychedelic… Through his birth, I transcended my individual self and connected with something sublime, a kind of psychedelic grace.”
My son’s birth was psychedelic. Not in far out visions or swirling Day-Glo colors, but in a greater cosmic sense. Through his birth, I transcended my individual self and connected with something sublime, a kind of psychedelic grace. Was my birth experience psychedelic because I wanted it to be, because I framed it as such? Is it simply then a matter of perspective? Well, yes, perhaps so. So what’s enriched in my experience by framing birth as psychedelic? Most simply, it helped me transform into a mother.
The Altered States of Motherhood
Language shapes our experiences, giving us containers for understanding the sensations and emotions of being in the world. A new language of birth is needed that empowers women’s bodies and minds, and one that honors the integrative support that is needed for women before and after they undergo these profound transformations. What I found in Ina May Gaskin’s books was that their psychedelic metaphors offered up surprisingly fitting language for the altered states of birth. The language of psychedelics, one of healing and integration, rather than pain and trauma, could help guide women in understanding the profound bodily, hormonal and emotional transformations that take place in this life-altering experience.
If we treat birth as psychedelic, if we accept that entering motherhood happens through an altered state, we can see motherhood as adaptation. Motherhood, fatherhood, or any parental role for that matter, is a radical change of identity, altering the way we see and experience ourselves, each other, and our world. Yet, we must balance how to remain stably ourselves while we also learn an entirely new persona. Some may choose to sling off this new parental identity, disavowing their responsibilities to child and partners. Could such cases of parental abandonment be the result of a failure to acknowledge and integrate the shifts in self-perception that this altered state of childbirth should have brought?
“Motherhood, fatherhood, or any parental role for that matter, is a radical change of identity, altering the way we see and experience ourselves, each other, and our world.”
There can be a painful sense of separation in birth, a physical and psychic disconnection as both mother and baby begin their lives as independent beings. Integrating birth experiences, particularly difficult ones, can help heal such bodily and psychic traumas, to bring together the seemingly contradictory waves of emotion when ecstatic joy collides with postpartum mourning and depression. Psychedelic frameworks can teach new parents about the power of integration as they straddle these two worlds.
Recordings are now available to watch here.
My own psychedelic thinking and experiences opened me up to be willingly transformed by pregnancy and birth (despite the C-section). Like the transformation of a psychedelic trip, I trusted that the core of my being would remain. Many new mothers fear their identities will disappear in motherhood. As any new parent can attest, the ratio of self-care gets seriously imbalanced amidst the blur of feedings, diapers, baby smiles, and late nights. It’s easy to get caught up in the mythical expectations of self-sacrifice. This is, of course, only a myth, and one thankfully with diminishing currency as women’s identities become increasingly expansive. Yet, the fear of self-dissolution remains for many new mothers. Psychedelics teach us that this kind of ego-death can be beneficial, enabling a self-reflective letting go of the past and embracing new shifts of perspective while remaining faithful to a core sense of being. Psychedelics would ask mothers to kneel to that divine altar of motherhood, humbled in its power, but without all the self-sacrifice that patriarchy would have us believe.
“Mother has one foot in this world / and one foot in the next,” as Beyoncé writes in her tribute to the birth of her twins. Like Gaskin’s stories, Beyonce’s poem I Have Three Hearts is the language of the psychedelic—of spaces in between, of mysterious connection between two worlds, and how to evolve amidst these immense life-altering experiences. Psychedelic language adds to our understanding of the incredible in-between of new parenthood, about how we talk about such extreme states of physical and emotional experience, and how we might use the lessons of psychedelic integration to support new parents through birth into parenthood. The language of psychedelics speaks to the divinity of mothers’ bodies, shining a glowing light on the miracle of new birth, and reminding us of the precious fragility and powerful strength of a mother’s identity emerging, as if from a cocoon, utterly transformed and ever transforming.
Art by Mariom Luna.
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