Dissertation Title:

Forceps and Candles: Cultural Myths in American Childbirth


Britta Jane Bushnell

Date, Time & Place:

December 6, 2015 at 2:00 pm
Lecture Hall, Lambert Road campus


Current birthing practices in the United States focus on the outcome and location of birth: surgical or vaginal, medicated or un-medicated, hospital or home. Little focus is placed on the multivalent experience of body, mind, spirit and psyche. After an unwanted birth by cesarean, well-meaning nurses and friends often say, “Be happy! Your baby is healthy.” Comments like this emphasize outcome, ignoring or sidelining the emotional confusion often present at the birth of a desired baby through an unwanted surgery. Similarly, radical natural birth proponents often see failure to birth at home or without drugs as the fault of the mother, as if what matters most is the fulfillment of the natural birth image. The loss of a dearly-held ideal can traumatize a birthing woman. Focus on outcome ignores the importance of the transformations that go beyond the physical expulsion of a baby from a woman’s body.

Childbirth practices in the U.S. exist within a set of cultural myths including the desire for control, logo-centric thought, reverence for the masculine, denial of death, vilification of pain, veneration of technology, and adherence to innocence. Woven deeply into the tapestry of American values, these cultural myths shape both mainstream and alternative childbirth practices in contemporary society. Cast within this cultural context, childbirth practices in America today fail to successfully initiate women into motherhood.
To look at giving birth through the lenses of myth, initiation, ritual and archetypal psychology is to illuminate childbirth as a meaning-making, life-altering, identity-changing event in the life of a birthing woman, regardless of the path the birth takes. To view birth as an initiatory process is to understand and value the unpredictability and uncontrollability of even the best-laid plans. Fear of this “not-knowing” aspect of birthing is central to the preparation for birth as a rite of passage, rather than the nemesis that both medical and natural birth professionals believe it to be. Birth as an initiatory journey embraces challenges and ordeals along the way as part of the path every birthing woman will travel.



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Thank you for your kind consideration

  • Program/Track/Year: Mythological Studies, Track G, 2009
  • Chair: Dr. Christine Downing
  • Reader: Dr. Jacqueline Feather
  • External Reader: Dr. Ronald Grimes
  • Keywords: Childbirth, Myth, Control, Pain, Innocence, Initiation, Rite Of Passage, Birth, Mothers