Sometimes people ask us how we named our birth business Hero Birth Services. That’s a fair question since it isn’t exactly self-explanatory.
Hero is a name Marlee has been using for her entrepreneurial endeavors since the early 2000s. Before we were doulas, we had a couple Etsy shops - one was Hero Designs (Marlee's gorgeous and delicate handmade jewelry), and the other was Hero Vintage (beautiful and fun vintage clothing). We decided it made sense to continue using Hero as we began our birth work.
But after we took our first Birthing From Within training in 2016, our business name took on a whole new meaning as we were introduced to the concept of pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum time as a hero's journey.
If the phrase "hero's journey" doesn't ring a bell, think Harry Potter, Luke Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings... getting the picture?
Great stories and myths have followed this pattern for thousands of years (Odysseus, King Arthur, etc.). In fact, one of the oldest written stories we have, Inanna's Descent from ancient Sumer (now Iraq), beautifully illustrates the hero's journey (AND features a female protagonist, yay!).
We heard part of Inanna's story told at that Birthing From Within workshop, and it completely shifted our approach to birth work. Viewing pregnancy, birth, and postpartum through the lens of a hero's journey has helped us put the challenges and questions our clients face into perspective - and has given us some wisdom to help them along the way.
So how does the hero's journey relate to birth, and why does it matter?
There are so many parallels that can be drawn between embarking on a life-changing adventure away from home and welcoming a new baby.
The hero's journey is divided into three parts which parallel the path to parenthood:
Ordeal (labor and birth)
Returning home (postpartum adjustment)
Here is an image of the traditional steps in the hero's journey, beginning at the top of the circle and moving around clockwise:
Of course, each hero's journey might have its own variations on this pattern, skipping certain steps or doing things a bit out of order from the way the path is laid out here. But the overall map is a universal reflection of the ways humans have experienced rites of passage throughout history.
You can see that there are two worlds at play here: the ordinary world, and the so-called "special world." In many great stories, the special world refers to a far-off land (Mordor), a hidden world the protagonist didn't know about before (Hogwarts), or literally another planet (Alderaan). In talking about parenthood, that "special world" is usually more of a metaphor referring to the inner landscape of the journey toward birth.
Comparing birth as a hero’s journey, here are some ways to think about each phase:
Call to Adventure. As the protagonist is called away from their normal life, we might imagine the way many people feel an internal tug toward being ready to have a(nother) baby. For some, there may be a "refusal of the call" - not now, let's wait until our finances are in order. Or until our parents retire and can help us more. Or until our oldest is in preschool. Some people might have even more dramatic stories of "the call" if their journey involved an unexpected pregnancy.
Meeting the mentor in many mythic stories usually means finding strength, inspiration, or some kind of secret knowledge in an older, wiser, more experienced person or guide like Dumbledore, Yoda, or Gandalf. For those preparing for birth, that might look like putting together a team of people to support you along the way, like your care provider (OB or midwife), birth doula, childbirth educator, postpartum doula, lactation counselor, or trusted friends or family members who have walked this road before. The theme of seeking and receiving help is strong in these great stories. It's a great reminder that you don't have to be alone during pregnancy, birth, or parenting.
And sometimes, "meeting the mentor" can refer to meeting a part of yourself that has been laying dormant. Many parents feel a new sense of protectiveness, of earnestly trying to do their best to take care of their baby before they're even born. And sometimes that inner "parent" offers a reserve of strength and resilience for the journey.
Crossing the Threshold into the Special World can come at different times for different people. For some, it's the moment they realize they're in labor. For others, that threshold might lie in a medical appointment where they receive less than ideal news that changes the way their birth might look.
Crossing the threshold can be thought of as the point where someone can't go back to who they were before. They are now stepping into another world that will leave them changed. In the story of Inanna, there is a gatekeeper guarding the entrance to the underworld where Inanna has been called to travel. As she approaches the gate, he asks her, "Why have you come to this place from which no one returns unchanged?"
Tests, Allies, Enemies - challenges of the special world. These can be physical (contractions, back labor, or nausea during labor), and they can also be mental. Many parents find that the mental and emotional side of labor is equal to the physical aspect in terms of how challenging it can be, especially when things don't go the way they'd hoped.
And throughout these challenges, allies and enemies may be present. Allies might come in the form of an extremely kind nurse, a doula, or supportive care provider. And hopefully enemies are only in the mind (exhaustion, anxiety, feeling ready to give up), but there is always the chance that someone involved in the birth process might feel like an enemy in the moment.
Many people carry very strong memories of what others said and did during their labor. This idea of tests, allies, and enemies is a reminder that in the "special world" of birth, we don't always have control of the environment and people around us.
Approaching the Inmost Cave is the moment in great stories where the protagonist moves ever closer toward their goal. In many stories this marks a time of weakening resolve, a need to regroup, or a time to pause and strategize. In birth, this can happen at different times for everyone. In some cases it might be the moment where an induction is beginning and parents are adjusting to the change of plan and making preparations. For others, this might be arriving to the hospital in active labor.
The Ordeal is the moment of true change in a hero's journey. It's the time when an enemy must be faced, a Task (capital T) must be accomplished using lessons learned along the journey, ego must be set aside,... there can be so many ways an ordeal can take place. Often it involves a symbolic death. Some parents like to think about the moment of meeting their baby as the moment their old selves died, while their new parent selves were born.
Thinking about the road to parenthood, many people describe a moment late in labor as their darkest, most challenging, most transformative moment. For others, the ordeal may be the moment they realized a cesarean birth was the next best thing and felt themselves surrender to that in some way. Or maybe it was the point of feeling they didn't have enough strength to keep pushing their baby out, and they had to rely on others and muster all their courage to keep going.
Whatever the moment might be, its transformative nature will leave the protagonist changed forever.
Reward (Seizing the Sword) is the moment where the protagonist is able to take a breath after the ordeal. It may involve celebration, reflection, or starting to integrate new knowledge.
The hours, days, and weeks following birth can be viewed through this lens. Many parents find themselves reflecting on their birth and integrating that experience, perhaps asking questions, coming to new realizations, or discovering a deeper understanding of how that experience fits into the other stories of their lives.
The Road Back is the place between there and here, traveling back from the "special world" into the "ordinary world." Take a closer look at where this one falls on the map above - right in between worlds.
Many new parents find themselves in a sort of limbo. Not pregnant anymore, but not yet feeling grounded in their new role. The outside world might feel like it's too loud, too harsh, and moving too fast. It can weeks, months, or even years to cross from the "special world" where the ordeal of birth took place back into ordinary life. Self-compassion is key here as parents honor this part of the journey that our culture tends to gloss over.
Resurrection is a final test the hero must face as they reenter the ordinary world. According to screenwriter Christopher Vogler, "The Hero is reborn or transformed with the attributes of their Ordinary self in addition to the lessons and insights from the characters that they have met along the road." Many times in film, myths, and other stories, the final test is whether the protagonist can learn to give and receive love.
In the postpartum period, many new parents struggle with some of the greatest tests they've ever faced - sleep deprivation, feeling "touched out," breastfeeding struggles, health challenges, concerns about their baby's health or development, wondering whether they'll ever feel like themselves again... and so often there is guilt or shame attached to receiving loving help offered by friends, family, and members of their community.
Learning to become comfortable receiving the love shown by others while simultaneously experiencing one of the most transformative kinds of love - the love a parent has for their child - can feel like a death and resurrection in many ways.
Return with Elixir is the phase of the journey where the hero reintegrates with their “ordinary world,” but now carries something new (literally or metaphorically) - a lesson learned or a gift received along their journey.
For new parents, there is a physical treasure: a baby. But there are also many other nonphysical things that may have grown, developed, or been learned during their pregnancy, birth, and postpartum journey. These “elixirs” are part of the reason why new parents (heroes) don’t return from their journey of having a baby as the same person they were before they set out on the path.
(Of course, there is so much else we could talk about here. The hero’s journey is such a rich metaphor for pregnancy, birth, and beyond!)
One striking aspect of this map that we want to point out is that half of the journey takes place after the ordeal. The long period of returning to the “ordinary world” is not often honored in our culture.
On an episode of the Pregnancy, Birth, and Beyond podcast, Pam England (author of Birthing From Within, Labyrinth of Birth, and Ancient Map for Modern Birth) was interviewed about her perspective on birth as a hero’s journey. At one point during the interview she said:
“It takes time to integrate a powerful rite of passage.”
The newborn period isn’t just about the newborn. It’s also about the newborn parents. When parents are finding their footing in their new roles, especially after just going through the “ordeal” of the baby making their way into the world, there can be a flood of changes happening all at once. If we don’t take the time to recognize all the different aspects of becoming a parent that fall outside of the physical tasks of caring for a baby, we’re really neglecting the heroes themselves.
Sometimes in conversation with parents, there are moments when we offer the idea that a certain moment of their experience that they described may have felt like being “in the underworld.” Usually we are met with wide eyes and an emphatic “YES! That’s what it felt like!” Having permission to express an aspect of their experience that way can feel so liberating when constantly feeling like there’s an expectation that they enjoy every moment with their new baby. There is room for enjoyment and cherishing a new life, and there is also room for difficulty and growth and despair and excitement and regret and that hard-earned “elixir.”
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When we view birth as a hero’s journey, we can gain a much deeper understanding of the transformative experience of becoming parents.
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Moving away from black and white thinking about pregnancy, birth, and parenthood can be so healing. Rather than thinking of birth as good or bad, natural or medicated, easy or scary, this or that, we can instead begin to recognize it as a narrative, highlighting moments of the journey that taught us something about ourselves.
As doulas and childbirth educators, we often tell parents, “Our focus is on birth as a rite of passage rather than a series of medical events.” We recognize parents as the heroes of their own stories, widening the lens of the birth experience to help parents become more comfortable with the grey areas of their lives.