ultimate doorway. A mother crosses through countless thresholds and doorways during the childbearing year. Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife, explains that “Birth is the movement of the physical and the spiritual through the threshold” and the mother herself is the doorway through which the energy of birth and new life flow. She is the ceremonial space, the sacred ground, in which new life comes to be and is brought forth (Gonzales 2012, 63).
The term threshold has several meanings that are particularly relevant to the childbearing year.
From the moment you get that positive result, you know that you’ve entered a radically different state of affairs. Pregnancy is a time of rapid changes, each one a point of no return: the moment you say “yes” to this visitor in your womb; the moment you realize you can’t do everything you could before; the moment your pregnancy becomes obvious to others; the moment you begin seeing the world through baby’s eyes; the moment you realize you are a mother. Labor itself is an even more rapid and intense series of beginnings, departures, and transitions: the first contraction; the moment contractions “get real”; the moment you can’t do this anymore but you do anyway; the moment you enter “Laborland”; the first moment you see your baby and so many moments after that. At each of these thresholds, you may feel fear, resistance, or doubt (as well as excitement, trust, and love). It’s not easy to let go of what was before and step into a new, unknown reality. This is the work of pregnancy.
A threshold is a boundary that is intentionally crossed in answer to a Call. What does it take to voluntarily leave behind the comforts of the known world and go to an unknown place that will change you forever? Mythology and literature provide us with many examples of women crossing the threshold into the Underworld - a place where everything you have known is turned upside down: where the parts of yourself that you have rejected live, your identity is challenged, and power is reversed. Inanna crossed the threshold a proud warrior answering the call to adventure. Psyche crossed it reluctantly, only after receiving encouragement and mentoring from an Ally. Alice was led by her curiosity and imagination into the rabbit hole. Sometimes this descent into the Underworld feels like an abduction, as with Persephone, although that’s just one interpretation of the story.
Patrisia Gonzales (2012, 62), in drawing parallels between childbirth and Native ceremonies, describes both as “entering into an unknown dimension that is largely not controllable by human intervention.” This transition - from the belief that we can control outcomes if only we make all the right choices, to an acceptance of our powerlessness before the mystery of birth (and life) - is a difficult one, much like stepping into an abyss. It’s a necessary transition though. It might happen during labor, signalling a deeper descent into Laborland, or well after the birth, opening the door to self-forgiveness.
In many tales, doorways are guarded by gatekeepers. In order to pass through, you must pass a test, or answer a question, or give something up. The journey of labor is a succession of guarded doorways. In the story of Inanna’s Descent, the gatekeeper stops Inanna at each of seven gates demanding, “Who are you?” The gatekeeper’s name is Neti, which means “Not This, Not This.” He then illustrates his point by taking from Inanna, at each gate, something that she holds dear, something that defines who she thinks she is in the world (England, 2002). While Inanna’s journey represents the stripping away of ego, we should consider that for very young or disempowered women, the journey through the underworld of birth can be an opportunity for ego-strengthening, as in the myth of Psyche. In either case, these locked gates can feel like frustrating obstacles that get in our way and slow our progress. But they also ensure that we do not move onto the next phase of the journey until we are ready. The locked gate gives us time to find answers within - answers that will guide us through the next unknown dimension.
While the work of pregnancy and birth is in one sense a series of doorways to be passed through, the entire process takes place in a liminal space - with one foot on either side of a great doorway. Gerry Maguire Thompson(2015, April 30) opens his article on thresholds with a verse that captures one aspect of labor:
This is a time that is not a time
In a place that is not a place
On a day that is not a day
Between the worlds,
Labor exists on both sides of the doorway between two worlds. It is the doorway where “two lives are held on a thread between life and death.” (doña Filo in Gonzales 2012, 44) It is the doorway between maidenhood (dependence or independence) and motherhood (responsibility or sacrifice) - a process through which the former self dissolves in preparation for the emergence of the new mother. And, in my experience, it is a doorway between the physical and nonphysical, potentially allowing access to unlimited support and knowledge.
Is it possible to move through pregnancy and labor without consciously crossing any or many of these thresholds and gates? Probably. I know that I have entered cathedrals and walked amongst sacred ruins without knowing the power of those places. Yes, it is possible on a conscious level, but the soul knows. When we don’t acknowledge or fail to engage with the psychic transitions of the childbearing year, we have to continually work to keep them buried in the underworld, as the soul continually strives to bring them to light. “Narrowness and rigidity tend to grow where initiation would create conscious growth and flexibility. Yet events that had initiatory qualities continue to live in the psyche. To initiate means to begin, and what the soul begins waits to be continued and completed throughout life.” (Meade 2006, 139)
Knowing ahead of time that you are on a path of many thresholds and gates can help you make sense of your experience, giving you a story that is both personal and universal in which to place the events of your birth. Without such a container, the intensity, uncertainty, and vulnerability of the process can easily result in feelings of trauma and confusion rather than a sense of growth and rebirth. During pregnancy, there are many things you can do to build your awareness and tolerance of threshold-crossings and transitions. I invite you to build upon these ideas and create your own. The Feast Day of St. Brigid/Imbolc is a perfect time to start.
Make a point to be conscious of transitional times of day (dawn/dusk).
Throughout your day, ask yourself: Which threshold am I about to cross? (from one role or
activity to another). What do you need to let go of to make this transition?
When moving from room to room in your house, pause at the doorway and become aware that
you are moving from one space to another, and the purpose of each space.
Draw a map of your life, including doorways to represent the thresholds and gates you have
Draw yourself passing through a doorway of labor. Draw yourself as the doorway of life.
Notice the pause between in-breath and out-breath. Notice the ease with which it changes
direction and purpose.
Notice when you are stuck at a locked gate in your life. What is needed to pass through? What
is on the other side?
Imagine what things might be taken from you at each gate of labor. Who are you without these
things? (England, 2002)
Become familiar with stories with characters that cross thresholds into an unknown world, such
as Inanna’s Descent, Psyche and Cupid, Demeter and Persephone. What other stories
can you find?
Visualize yourself as the doorway through which new life flows, practice treating yourself and
your body as sacred ground.
England, Pam. 2002. Initiation & Return: A Journal to accompany the storytelling of Inanna’s
Descent. Albuquerque: Birthing From Within Books.
Gonzales, Patrisia. 2012. Red Medicine. 62, 63. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
Meade, Michael. 2006: The Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul. 139. Seattle:
Thompson, Gerry Maguire. (2015, April 30). The Ancient Celtic Concept of Thresholds in Time
and Place. Retrieved from
Valters Paintner, Christine (2016, January 31). Feast of St Brigid + Free Mini-Retreat ~ A love
note from your online abbess. Retrieved from
Christy is a doula and Birthing From Within childbirth mentor committed to strengthening families and communities through storytelling/storylistening, meaningful celebration, mindfulness, and reflective work.