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in all its mess and glory
The ewe grows restless. She has borne the weight of her swelling belly all winter while the earth slept and she is heavy and tired, full and uncomfortable. Her belly and her back ache and she stretches and paces to find relief. She finds a quiet place, a safe place, for she is vulnerable now as her focus draws inwards to the burgeoning urgency of her body. The life within her hastens.
Birth is initiated and orchestrated by a complex chemical communication system between the unborn foetus and mother that we do not fully understand. Isn’t that something? For all our technological and medical advances, the intricate workings of birth remain a mystery. Birth, that portal between worlds when the veil is thin and spirits slip easily between them, still a miracle, beautiful and profound in all its mess and glory. There is a tendency in our human world to fear and whitewash birth; to sterilise, sanitise, control and strip birth of all its rawness and power. The ewe knows nothing of our human fears. She yields to her body’s cues and surrenders to the process.
Her breath quickens, coming shallow and soft, her gaze is distant, her awareness drops deeper into her body and she sinks to the earth and turns her nose skyward as the surging waves of her womb find rhythm.
Many moons ago when I was preparing for the birth of my son, my midwife gave me a three-page printout of “The Rhythmic Second Stage” by Sheila Kitzinger which describes the natural, wave-like rhythm of labour and the soft, light, rapid breathing pattern of a labouring ewe that “produced twins with a minimum of fuss and remarkable economy of effort” (in contrast to what she describes as vigorous, over-breathing often taught to women). Breathe like the sheep, my midwife taught me. Soften. Surrender.
The ewe has no one to teach her but her own instincts and the physiological symphony of her body, honed and perfected over millennia. The ewe’s body (and the woman’s—birth in all 4,000 species of placental mammals of which we are one follows the same basic, physiological process) is made for this in nature’s perfect, inimitable design. Her strong pelvic ligaments have softened and her pelvis, built wide and open to accommodate pregnancy and birth, relaxes and opens to allow the passage of her lamb pushed through by the expulsive, muscular force of her womb, all of it co-ordinated by an orchestra of hormonal interplay between lamb and ewe. But the ewe does not need to know the complexities of how her body works or what will come. The ewe lives fully in each moment, gives herself completely to the overwhelming power of each rising surge of intensity and rests in the gushing relief that follows.
She calls for her lamb. She has been here before, she remembers. The sea salty smells of blood and birth fluids awaken in her a primordial urge to nurture the fruit of her womb.
The technical term for birth is parturition, stemming from the Latin parere; to bring forth. It is the parture of infant from mother, the bringing forth of life from life, flesh from flesh.
A part of her goes, too, when she gives birth. A part of her is given to the life she grew within her and opened up and pushed into the world and she feels hollow, afterwards. Empty. And the only way she can fill that void and feel whole and full again is to keep her lamb close, feel and smell and taste and breathe her closeness, her life, her wholeness; to feed her lamb and bathe in the cascade of hormones that flood her system and heal her body as to nurture her lamb is to nurture her own fulfilment. That is the mothering drive. A force so strong that it bears the proliferation of all mammalian life, and in sheep, the cohesive bond that sustains the unity of the flock.
The ewe has a lamb; a mother is born.
Always a profoundly humbling thing to witness, precarious new life, so fragile and so precious, emerging. Perhaps because it reminds us of our own fragile mortality, or connects us to that primal core that burns deep within us all.
Some photos of a magnificent birth, a ewe becoming a mother in all her mess and glory, her rawness and power.