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Sacred Rituals for Birth: Birth Beads

Parvati also taught us about the Birth Beads Ritual. This is the story I remember her sharing… 

A man came to Parvati’s door and presented her with a long string of beads. He was from Africa and he said these were beads from his tribe, a tribe that had gone extinct. He had been told Parvati was a midwife. Parvati asked, “what are they for?” He replied, “they are for when a woman goes, (he makes a loud grunt sound).” He handed them to Parvati and the birth beads as I know them were born into ritual. Parvati knew that the power of the beads lies in the story each bead represents, the story of a woman who has faced the birth portal, survived, and teaches others with her story. In the tribe, the beads would hang in the birth hut, to be held as the mother squatted in labor. They were beads from your mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, and neighbor. We, as women, draw strength from the women who have birthed before us…

Kate embraced this ritual and began our birth bead leather twine with her birth in August 1984 with Jacob. Kate’s bead was obsidian. She then asked me to be the second mother on this birth bead circle.   

Again, I was resistant. I wondered, how am I ever going to find this special bead? I went to bead shops and nothing drew my attention. I was fretting over this with a friend, Jill, with whom I would share astrology conversations. Jill shared that she might have a bead at her house that was given to her 16 years earlier. She would go home and look for it. Jill told me the bead had been given to her when she was visiting her sister in Guatemala. It was pressed into her hand by a Mayan Indian woman on the streets. The woman said to Jill, “you will know what to do with this.”

Jill hoped she could find it. And she did. Apparently, it was meant to be my birth bead. It was a beautiful, green, jade stone with a naturally formed hole in the center.  I held this bead, Jessica’s birth bead, throughout my labor and postpartum with her. It brought me what felt like magical strength. That this bead would find us both, Jessica and me, all the way from Guatemala, was indeed magic.

The bead for my second daughter, Danielle, was malachite and represented strength. Danielle happens to share Parvati’s birth date, June 1st, and moon sign, Leo. I passed the birth beads on to her as she entered into motherhood, so she could hold the same beads I held as I gave birth to her sister Jessica and then at her own birth. She now has four children and she has had the beads with her at the birth of all my grandchildren.

To share the stories of the birth beads, we each added a bead to leather twine, and also wrote our stories in the birth bead book, to be read by all the women who would come after us. I embraced this ritual. I have shared this with many of my pregnant clients and have started three different circles of beads and stories.  The birth bead book reminded me of all the birth stories I read in Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery before James’s birth. Those stories gave me the vision of natural childbirth that I carried with me through his labor and birth. 

I remember long ago, at a lecture I attended by Penny Armstrong, who said my generation were the daughters of the lost stories. Penny Armstrong was midwife to the Amish women in Lancaster, PA. Her two books, A Midwife’s Story and A Wise Birth are excellent reads for anyone involved with women and birth. 

The women of my mother’s generation did not talk about birth. The birth beads and the book of birth stories within our family will ensure that our stories are not lost. 

I have chosen to share two of the birth bead stories here, from the circle of mothers to whom I was honored to give pregnancy massage. The first one was dear to my heart because it involves fertility massage, pregnancy massage, labor massage, and postpartum massage. A full circle of my life’s work. I was also honored when David and Rosemary named their little girl Claire.  

Claire Elizabeth 
March 1994
By Rosemary
At 37 years old I have my first child, a beautiful baby girl. David, my husband, and I both wonder why we didn’t do this sooner. I think this is in part due to this being the right time for us to have had the wonderful birth experience that we did. I had had 2 ectopic pregnancies prior to this - perhaps the child spirit trying to get my attention. Both times I had been excited to be pregnant but perhaps not mentally ready - being busy with working on a Ph.D. The second ectopic pregnancy ruptured and resulted in the loss of a fallopian tube. At that time I was taking yoga class with Claire Miller. The surgery brought us closer together as she helped me recover physically through massage and emotionally through caring and talking. She opened me up to the spirituality of motherhood and the sacredness of birth. Her wisdom rang true to me, as if this was something I had always known but had somehow lost. David and I decided to consciously conceive a child. I believe our daughter was conceived in a small country hotel outside London, England (my home country) appropriately named “The Angel Inn.” My pregnancy went well although I was diagnosed as having gestational diabetes at about 30 weeks. Subsequent blood glucose levels never strayed from normal. At 37 weeks I developed pre-eclampsia and was put on bed rest. The midwives at Durham Women’s Clinic were concerned about continuing elevated blood pressure and presence of protein in my urine and were beginning to talk about induction. Fortunately, two hours after that appointment my water broke. Ten minutes after that Claire called to say she felt like she should come and see me and bring me the birth beads (this was two weeks before my due date, coincidence? I think not). Claire brought me the birth beads and tinctures (labor-ease and smooth birthing) and gave me a massage. Once I had the beads I kept them with me all night as I tried to sleep.  Contractions began at about 3am. Claire, Svea (my childbirth educator and labor assistant) David, and I all met at Durham Regional at about 7am. I was very lucky to have such knowledgeable people with me during labor especially since I was ready to push before the midwife, Elizabeth, arrived…Elizabeth checked me when she arrived and found I was fully dilated. Everything seemed to happen so fast but Claire kept the beads near me throughout labor. The beads provided reassurance that this unknown, labor, had been experienced by all these women before me and provided me the strength to know I could do it too. At 9:24am a beautiful healthy angel baby was born. My labor and delivery were a great experience and I am thankful to all who shared it with me. I am unable to fully express my gratitude to Claire for all she has done for me - being a mentor, friend, and provider of my comforts. In an effort to express our thanks we named our daughter after her. Now that the birth, the long awaited event, has taken place; it was such a powerful moment, I’m almost sorry it is over although the shining light of my daughter is a wonder. My birth bead is scrumshaw inscribed with a wolf. I have felt connected to the spirit of the wolf as long as I can remember. I hope that Claire grows to have the characteristics of this beautiful creature - intelligence, strength, and loyalty.

Another one of the favorite birth bead stories I will share here, is the story of a rock from the base of the Grand Canyon. Barb was a client receiving pregnancy massage throughout her pregnancy. We often find this is a talking time, about birth and babies, much like I had that time with Judy in my Pleasant Pregnancy story. Women in our culture may not always hear a positive or empowering story about birth. We often hear a story of fear and drama. Television and movies have had a field day with showing labor as a very wild ride, such as in Nine Months and Murphy Brown

As Barb and I traded stories during the massage, Barb decided she wanted to participate in the birth bead ritual. 

Here is herstory… 

Kenneth Zane
Birth bead: Double pointed red rock
From the bottom of the Grand Canyon 
By Barbara Wulff 
Zane’s father was born a Leo on a full moon.  
We expected Zane to do the same, but he came 5 days early and squeaked in as a Cancer.
I found his birth bead at the bottom of the Grand Canyon alongside Bright Angel Creek. I carried it home as a gift for his dad the month before Zane was conceived.
I held his birth bead in my hand until I was 7 cm dilated at which time I let go of everything - literally and figuratively! As I held onto the rocks I used a visualization of climbing out of the Grand Canyon. I imagined that with each contraction I rounded another bend in the canyon and had a new and spectacular view before me as the journey unfolded. I coordinated my breathing through the contractions just as I did while climbing out of the Canyon. I viewed my labor as a challenge and an adventure. I had prepared for it just as I had prepared for my canyon hike - mentally, physically, and spiritually.
I had expected Zane to be a girl-child since I had had two visits prior to conception from a daughter-spirit. Zane is a surprise and a delight. I still gaze at him and marvel over his perfect little body and sweet face.
We, as a family, offer this stone to be added to the birth beads and feel honored to have been a part of the circle of men, women, and babies who have held onto it before us and those who will hold onto it after us.

As I am writing this blog, which will someday be part of a book, I was struck that the two birth bead stories I chose had a reference to the wolf. At the time when I knew both amazing women who shared their stories here, I had not connected to Wolf, that was to come later in my journey...

Circles upon circles, we spiral along. 

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