Someone told me the other day that Death Doulas are one of the fastest growing career fields out there right now. As a (currently not practicing) Birth Doula, this does not surprise me. The term Doula came into its modern – predominately American – usage in the early 1970s, in reference to a woman who provided non-medical care for a birthing woman. The word is Greek in origin and depending on who you ask, means “with woman” or “servant woman.”
While I suspect the earlier “servant woman” version is the correct etymology, the romantic in me appreciates the “with woman” version, even in its technical inaccuracy. This is because at its core, the role of the Birth/Postpartum Doula is the formalized return of what I believe in my bones to be an ancient cultural practice of women being with each other as a woman passes through an intense life transition.
Whereas before, when a woman gave birth, the older, multiparous women of the local culture would gather around her to see her through her passage from expectant to postpartum motherhood; now some of us approaching that same rite of passage use the Internet to reach out into the culture to hire a Doula to do that very same thing. How we bring it about has changed, but what we desire has not. We desire to be supported, cared for, & loved by someone who has gone through what we are about to — we desire to be with women.
The number of Birth Doulas in the U.S. and abroad, at this point, has increased dramatically over the last ten years and now it would seem that the Conscious Birth movement has birthed a Conscious Death movement, complete with Death Doulas. Again, how we secure the care we want at birth or at death has changed, but what we desire in those powerful moments of passage has not.
The fundamental physical, emotional, and spiritual craving to be with women at life’s major rites of passage runs incredibly deep within us. It is also something denied to us by the patriarchal structures of most major religious systems, but over the last sixty years or so, we’ve worked hard at taking that back.
Some of that reclamation has happened by creating more formal roles and structures around this need, as is the case with Birth/Death Doulas. Some has happened much more organically over the years — women’s spirituality groups redefining sacred rites of passage in small groups meeting in each other’s living rooms, online communities of mothers organized via chatboards or listservs, book clubs or crafting groups that just naturally veered into being with women through challenging passages in their lives or their mothers’/daughters’ lives.
The consciousness raising circles of the 1970s were part of reclaiming our deep need to be with women. Today’s Red Tent Movement is a part of this desire, as well. Women facilitating or priestessing at mother/baby blessings, menarche rituals, & croning ceremonies are re-establishing the sacred importance of rites to mark these passages, among others not necessarily tied to menstruation — such as marriages or divorces, cancer diagnosis/treatment, deaths of a loved one, relocations & promotions, addiction/assault/abuse recovery, etc. We are reclaiming the need for ritual with women as an important part of our spiritual well-being. This is important work. It is also work that spills out into other arenas beyond the personal.
More and more activist organizations organized by and for women are gaining significant ground. I look to the Women’s March and to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense as two extremely current examples. I also look to the advances MADD made in curbing drunk driving in this country when they were first founded. Women standing with women stand in their power and do not back down.
To be with women, to seek to connect with each other across differences that might otherwise divide, to recognize the profoundly powerful nature of our connection with each other, to support each other in times of crisis, celebration, or transition, to seek out these opportunities, to cultivate them — this is a vital feminist spiritual practice we should all be honored to work to reclaim in our surrounding communities.
In what ways do you or could you engage being with women as a feminist spiritual practice in your communities? In what way could you use this spiritual practice to build community and to link different communities together?
And in whatever ways you may need to be with women, my prayer is that we are there for you when you call.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon. She is also a current resident of Heartwood Cohousing in Colorado & a homeschooling mother of three. Kate hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, priestesses labyrinth rituals, and facilitates workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2017, she will present at the SOA’s annual online conference, AvaCon, & at the second annual Ninefold Festival in Ithaca, NY this autumn. Kate is a contributing writer at One World Herbal Community and is also published in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.