Interview with Leslie Stager RN, LMT on birth as a rite of passage

Today, I introduce you to Leslie Stager, a teacher, healer, and visionary for the childbearing year.  She brings us an empowering framework for understanding the transformative process of becoming mother.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I describe myself as both Bohemian––a creative woman living outside conventional norms––and a Birthkeeper, who respects the wisdom of the body, spirit, and instinctual nature during pregnancy and birth.

In 1985, after finishing nursing school, I embarked on a Rite of Passage—walking across a desert valley for 7 days and nights alone, carrying only water, a tarp and a sleeping bag. I returned with a mantra for my life-work: “Earth, Birth, Death”.

My life has been guided by that mantra for 30 years. In my ‘Earth’ 20’s I lived in the woods, and guided women’s wilderness quests and earth-camps based on the Rites of Passage model.

In my 30’s I focused on the “Birth” time, as a labor and delivery nurse, doula, and childbirth educator. Birth was not always happy and not everyone survived, but I got to witness what a rite of passage it truly is for women to undergo this journey. I decided to become a pregnancy massage specialist, bringing nurturing touch into the birth wards.

In my 40’s the Death focus arose. I midwifed and massaged many through another kind of surrender and transition as a hospice nurse/massage therapist. During this time I also co-produced the MotherTouch Films about touch during birth, and wrote a textbook: Nurturing Massage for Pregnancy: A Practical Guide to Bodywork for the Perinatal Cycle.

Now in my 50’s, I see how my early training in Rites of Passage has remained a helpful framework for understanding life’s transitions, and nurturing touch has been the physical grounding cord through it all. Touch between mothers and babies is a natural response that ensures bonding, stabilization and integration for both. Touch helps a baby to fully inhabit its new body, and ensures strong immunity, optimal brain development, and a sense of belonging. Nurturing touch to the mother can relieve pain, energize her, and can be a start for healing and recovery from birth challenges or trauma she may have experienced.

How do you serve postpartum women?

Classes: I am a massage instructor, teaching massage therapists, pregnant couples, and birth professionals touch skills to support women in the childbearing year. I also train midwives in pelvic floor assessment and treatments that can help release pre-or postnatal pelvic pain or help baby position more optimally.

Rites of Passage Guide: I am currently developing a BirthKeeper Training, (including an optional wilderness rite of passage), for doulas to become Birth Integration Specialists who may address mother’s birth distress with more confidence.

Bodywork Practice: In Nevada City, California I have a private practice focused on pregnancy-birth-mothering, women’s health, and infant cranial sacral therapy. Along with general relaxation massage, I offer Holistic Pelvic Care™  and other techniques to support healing pelvic discomfort, energetic disconnect, and birth trauma as well as many physical complaints commonly experienced after childbirth.

Can you explain Rites of Passage Model as a pathway for preventing or healing birth distress?

A Rite of Passage is a journey that transforms someone from one life stage into another. Think of how a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. Conception to motherhood is also a metamorphosis, and a natural rite of passage. Pregnancy, birth and motherhood profoundly impact every aspect of a woman’s life––physical, emotional, spiritual, as well as in her work and primary relationships. By recognizing birth for its transformative power, we gain insight into ways we might support women during this rite.

A rite of passage generally involves three stages: Separation, the Liminal State, and Reincorporation. Most myths and adventure stories are about a rite of passage where a hero/heroine sets off on a quest to find some sort of a metaphorical ‘holy grail’. First she must undergo intensive Preparation so her mind and body are ready for the Separation from her ordinary world. The heroine must have a clear intention before she steps over a threshold into the unknown where she enters non-ordinary reality, the liminal state. Here she must grapple with monsters and confront and vanquish her fears. There are challenges: her life may be risked, her inner strength will be tested. How she copes with her difficulties will be an indicator of personal strengths that will serve her in the future.

Hopefully she returns safely with the desired ‘grail’ in hand, stronger and wiser, though possibly scarred from her journey. Her community celebrates her return, recognizing that she has been transformed by her challenges and respecting her new status as a wisdom-holder. Through a council of elders, or some other ritual of return, the heroine’s power will be sealed into her, and her new position will be established in the community. Now the most difficult work begins: to live in the world again, offering her skills to help her people. This is the Re-Incorporation time––the most critical and often most dangerous period, a necessary time that helps the heroine return from the Liminal state. If not completed, she may feel lost, invisible, depressed, trapped between worlds.

During pregnancy, as soon as a woman recognizes and accepts that she is pregnant, she is metaphorically standing at the threshold of the Rite of Passage of Motherhood. Preparations need to be made mentally and spiritually, not just to face labor, but for Motherhood and all that that really entails. The quality of this Preparation will have an affect on the experience of mothering after birth.

The physical changes of pregnancy usher her into the Liminal state—her body and awareness are changing, the boundaries of who she was and who she is becoming grow blurred. Labor and birth are the pinnacles of this state where ordinary reality and rational thinking fade and instinctual nature becomes primary. The laboring woman is without a doubt in an altered state! This is a very sensitive time; whatever occurs, how she is treated, and however a woman frames it, can impact her emotional and physical wellbeing for the rest of her life.

After the baby is born, the mother needs help to Re-Incorporate or Re-Embody her new self. Her community needs to take care of her …feed her, massage her and baby, tend to the extraneous so she can rest and focus on baby. She may feel the potency of what she has just undergone, and recognize that she has changed, but likely does not realize exactly how yet. This is true for anyone returning from a quest––they must see their new self reflected back by their community so that they can fully embody their new role in their society. We are not isolated individuals––we exist entwined in relationship with others who help give us our identity. We need our people to help us know who we are to them!

In America, the baby usually gets lots of acknowledgement and welcome from a community. It is normal to be excited about babies! However, the mother must also be recognized for her efforts. Her job has only just begun and her wellbeing is critical. Yet she is often left home alone within weeks of birth in a stressful “postpartum abandonment”. Without a clear support system to help her manage day to day needs, and to acknowledge her transformation in some clear way, she may feel caught between the liminal state and daily reality. Uncertain of her new role, a woman may try to be who she was before birth. But that woman is gone forever! Trying to navigate back to life as it was before often leads to being drained, exhausted, and overwhelmed, and may be a sign that the Preparation and Reincorporation processes for the Rite of Mothering may not have been completed.

There are critical ingredients for any successful rite of passage, including the following:

1. Conscious Preparation: The more one prepares for an outcome (Motherhood), the better able she is to cope with and glean the most from the experience. These are important questions for a mother and her support team to consider before and during birth: Who are my allies? Who is in my circle that I can really count on? What are my strengths and gifts in the world? What are my common pitfalls and what’s usually the best way to get out of them? What helps me stay grounded when I’m afraid? Do I have clear intent for making this journey? Who am I now and who do I aspire to become? What am I letting go of to become a mother?

Every adult woman has already developed strengths and tools that she uses to confront difficult situations, but she may never have recognized them as gifts. Highlighting these personal strengths will be useful during labor or postpartum.

2. Supportive community: Studies show that women with a lot of social support––family or friends or spiritual group––have less depression and greater satisfaction with their birth experience. Cultivating a safe network ahead of time that will offer support during her Reincorporation time, will make a mother’s life easier. In an ideal world, every woman would have wise helpers who know how to prepare for birth, transmit survival tools, and help her interpret and integrate from her journey on the return.

3. Physical Reincorporation: A new mother’s body has changed irrevocably after an arduous Rite of Passage. Rest, nourishing foods, and touch are vital tools for recovery. Touch has the power to communicate love and respect, while offering pain relief, confidence, and support. In many cultures, a new mother receives massage daily, is fed nourishing foods, and has all necessary chores tended to for at least the first month to first year postpartum; she then can focus on rebuilding her core energy and feeding and nurturing baby.

4. Counsel of Elders- The Birth Story: The presence of wisdom-keepers who can hear the birth story and focus on the heroic aspects––the ways she called on her sources of strength, noting who showed up as an ally, where the successes lay––cannot be underestimated. Carol Christ says it well: “…. without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious.” (Christ & Spretnak, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality)

What is your advice for all mothers?

Preparation during pregnancy is the bedrock upon which the postpartum time relies. Rather than focus entirely on birth preparations, bring focus to what’s going to happen afterward. Birth will end, but mothering never will! At the very least plan ahead for helpers to bring food, do some household chores, and give mother and father time to rest without disturbance for the first month postpartum.

For postpartum women now—the importance of rest, nourishment, nurturing touch and pelvic rebalancing cannot be overstressed. For some, a Reincorporation Ritual or Birth Story time, if desired, may be useful for renewal and integration. If you think your birth was not like a heroine’s journey, consider the challenges you have faced: relationship dynamics, financial stresses, body aches and pains, work or home adjustments, navigating medical systems, inadequate support, abuse memories, not to mention, oh yeah…creating a human being from the power of your own body! These are big stressors; some are metaphorical “monsters”. They demand lots of energy and require you to stay alert to navigate your survival.

A Rite of Passage model may help some enter motherhood with more grace, self- awareness, and sense of empowerment. Postpartum support should be normalized. We have hospice teams for the dying; why not mothering teams for new mothers? Being ‘super-mom’ is not healthy or normal, but for many may seem like the only way possible to survive. With enough BirthKeepers and Doulas dreaming of a future where ALL post-birth women are offered a circle of support if they wish it, perhaps someday it will become the new normal!

Leslie travels offering continuing education for massage therapists and birth professionals. To learn more about her work visit www.TouchForBirth.com and if you are in Nevada City you can schedule an appointment here: http://lesliestager.massagetherapy.com.  She can be contacted by email at Leslie@touchforbirth.com.
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