Reclaiming Birth as a Rite of Passage- Canberra Doula 

TRIGGER WARNING: This article describes sanitation, lifestyles, and even death occurring in the 17th-19th centuries. It outlines comparisons and differences to Australia's current maternity culture. Contents (history) outlined in this article may disturb some readers.

Society often views pregnancy and birth as a timeframe with an arbitrary number in which it is expected to end; if it continues much of society starts throwing fear, scare tactics, and "has baby arrived yet" questions towards that one divine being who has worked incredibly hard to grow a baby to be birthed on its indetermined birth date. Once that birth date arrives society often becomes dismissive of any feelings, instinct, inner power, and wisdom held, or choices made by that divine birthing being. Instead, society casts their votes in favor of making these divine beings feel like little children who should do as they are told, that their feelings don't matter, their choices don't matter, and ultimately THEY don't matter.  However, they do matter, YOU MATTER!


I am here to tell you that birth doesn't have to be like that. You do not have to relinquish your human rights including your right to bodily autonomy. You do not have to feel small or expect to be treated poorly. You should not have to accept that birth will be a crappy, painful, a horrible experience that you need to simply get through to have a healthy baby at the end of it. In fact, birth can be an incredibly empowering experience, positive, and humbling rite of passage into motherhood/parenthood and this then, in turn, benefits your baby.

For thousands of years babies have been born; anthropologist Judith Goldsmith found that if women were well-fed, had access to relatively clean water, nurtured and cared for there were actually no incidences of death across the full 500 tribal cultures that she studied. She even recounts how some tribal people felt that it was easy to give birth and that in many instances women have even slept during the final stages of birth as they appeared to not feel the level of pain that some describe in our first world industrialized cultures. In these 500 tribal cultures, there was little nausea during pregnancy, being active was common and variations of the normal such as fetal malpresentation were rare, as were other pregnancy-related complications and stillbirth. In fact, complications during pregnancy and birth were almost unheard of. In these tribal cultures birth was something normal, a simple event that just happened before carrying on with their days (Childbirth Wisdom: From the World's Oldest Societies). How hard is it to grasp onto that concept once we glance at our modern-day world full of birth interventions, difficulties, and fears that we have surrounding birth? How have we gone so terribly wrong?


To put it simply men, technology and lifestyle habits went wrong; from the 17th century, it became a common occurrence for doctors (back then predominately men) to enter the birth space. Often they did so with little knowledge of the physiological, psychological or spiritual processes of birth. In fact, it was these 'doctors' who actually increased death rates as a consequence of their arrogance entwined with ignorance over the process of birth, and not to be forgotten their refusal for many years to wash their hands between dealing with the sick or dead and caring for a birthing woman (childbirth fever also known as childbed fever or puerperal fever). Handwashing between patients was suggested by a Doctor known as Semmelweis in the 18th century after seeing a significant reduction in deaths from implementing this simple practice; this was long before it was accepted by the medical establishment. Sadly his suggestion received ridicule by his peers and his last days of his short life were spent in an insane asylum where he was believed to have been beaten to death by the Doctors and care providers at the institute. Deaths continued in high numbers for many years after Semmelweis made his simple but greatly ridiculed suggestion of handwashing before it was finally implemented in hospitals and childbirth deaths began to slowly decrease again. Through those years as deaths increased, as did the fear of birth and instead of running from death society ran straight towards it in the hopes that doctors would save them from dying in childbirth which was now very dangerous; when they walked away alive it solidified the concept that birth was dangerous and doctors were saviors.  Although, it is important to be aware that prior to society turning to Doctors and Hospitals, complications and death rates from birth were still high (not as high, but still high); even in situations where the birthing woman birthed in an unhindered environment alone or surrounded by those who mothered the mother (birth keepers - female loved ones, wise women/healers, doulas, and traditional midwives who provided better outcomes). In fact, throughout history, you may find a stark contrast between the normalcy, spirituality, and even simplicity of the births that occurred in tribal cultures to births that occurred in industrialized parts of the world where the same views were rarely held due to outcomes.



As we consider the high birth complication and death rates throughout history in the industrialized countries comparing them to anthropologist Judith Goldsmiths findings of the 500 tribal communities where outcomes and views of birth were far more positive we must look at the big picture to better understand.


Between the early 17th to early 19th-century living conditions were incredibly poor, children began work from as young as 7 with shifts lasting around 12 hours per day and women had few if any rights. Contraception was not something that was widely available until the 19th century (there were options available prior to this time; however, they were often either unreliable, inaccessible, or frowned upon) and women were often expected to be obedient shadows for males with no voice or right. As a natural consequence, in the 17th and 18th centuries women had children while often children themselves, on average they had between 7-10 children per family over the course of their life (not counting early losses/miscarriages) and sadly due to the high mortality rates  for many families only 5-6 of these children born would survive to be raised by their family. Poor families often had children further spaced out compared to wealthy families; this was due to poor women breastfeeding their own children (which can reduce the chance of ovulation under certain conditions) and wealthy women often had indigenous wet nurses (servants at the time as slavery was still prevalent). Unfortunately, this also contributed to the low rates of breastfeeding experienced by First Nations People here in Australia, African-American People, and other indigenous communities across the world where slavery and discrimination have caused intergenerational trauma. During this period of time homes were also incredibly small, often consisting of 1-2 bedrooms for families of 7-12 people who lived together in the confined space. In some countries, the governments struggled to accommodate population growth which meant large buildings, refineries, and breweries were divided into small dark rooms for families to live in - many had no access to running water or toilets. In fact; some areas required entire streets to share a single outhouse. This led to a build-up of human and animal waste with little ventilation, flies, rats, cockroaches, and disease. Sadly, in some of these buildings (I hate to call housing), it was estimated that 1 in every 5 babies born there died there as a result of the conditions; these houses/buildings gained the names as "infant slaughterhouses". Families often did not have access to clean water (including during pregnancy), they also often consumed nutrient-deficient diets and contaminated foods, and many areas did not have proper sewerage systems or sanitation or even waste management. Even the air and streets were polluted by factories in many areas. For those who chose to birth in hospitals, things weren't much better. As mentioned above there was no regard for washing hands between handling the sick or dead and handing birthing women which increased the maternal death rates; however, that was merely the tip of the iceberg. During the 18th century, many hospitals in some industrialized countries were so unsanitary, overcrowded and infested by rodents that nothing was safe from them. As if this wasn't enough to overcome many women wore corsets during this era, particularly for the wealthy who in the late 18th and 19th centuries wore these as visual signs of status and privilege.  Unfortunately, these corsets presented women with additional struggles as they often increased the risk of miscarriage, pregnancy and childbirth complications, lung and live issues, poor appetite, and headaches; furthermore, female children were encouraged to begin wearing these from as young as 9 years old.


So let's break it down:




  • Poor water Quality

  • Nutritionally Deficient Foods 

  • Contaminated Foods

  • Insufficient Food

  • Confined housing (7-12 people per 1-2 rooms)

  • Not enough water to stay clean

  • Rubbish Everywhere

  • Rodents, Cockroaches and other Pests everywhere

  • Poor ventilation and air quality

  • Natural Contraception through Breastfeeding (but it's not foolproof and will only work in certain conditions)

  • Possible Corset (although at this timeframe it was more common for the wealthy)

  • Working from as early as 7 years old


  • Better Water Quality

  • Better Nutrition (but still often lacking causing nutritional deficits)

  • Better Housing Conditions

  • No Natural Contraception through Breastfeeding (increased risk of more and closer pregnancies)

  • Corset use from as young as 9 years old (deformities, increased health risks, pregnancy risks, and birth risks)

  • Poor air quality due to factories

  • Possible Exposure to Unsanitary Streets or areas

As you can see both poor and wealthy women in our industrialized world during this era had a number of external factors that placed them at risk not just for illnesses but during pregnancy and birth too. It is not hard to come to the conclusion that it was our 'modern industrialized societies' that created these significant risks and dangers associated with childbirth back then; likewise, it is not hard to conclude that many of those risks that existed back then no longer exist today. However, fear of childbirth, of our safety, baby's safety and the urge to run to a medical establishment where we praise doctors for saving us from problems they created for us in the first place still remains. Back then it was handwashing and now it is birth interventions (Australia has one of the HIGHEST birth intervention and c-section rates in the developed world; the c-section rates alone are significantly higher than what is recommended by the World Health Organisations and we also have increasing birth trauma rates). 

So now we know what are we going to do about it? - To be continued in Part 2  CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


#birthrite #historyofbirth #canberradoula #fearofbirth #maternitychoices

 We hope you have found this post informative and make sure you let us know if there is a topic you would like us to cover in our blogs. If you are interested in learning more and finding out about our Doula Services make sure you get in touch for a FREE initial meet – we’d love to meet you.

~Blessings Lee your Canberra Doula 

Student Naturopath and Former Doula of 6 years providing information, knowledge & support on your to find your wild untamed super woman

©2020 by S.L.Reicheneder