Lessons From the Labyrinth: The Ancient Map for Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood

Labyrinth Birth Map

Just yesterday, I was reminded how long, arduous, and unpredictable the birth journey can be through a friend’s experiences. Regardless of hearing the (sometimes complex) birth stories of others, we often expect a direct route to a predictable outcome:

conception → pregnancy → labor → birth → postpartum period…

When there are unexpected events – with the first labor/birth or the fifth – clients often express the surprise or fear that this is not the way it (fill in the blank) should work. They feel that somehow something is wrong if their journey strays from the expected, like they have gotten off the “right” path.

But is that true? Who lays the path? What are the markers? What if instead of a linear model of conception through motherhood, like stops on a railroad line, we use a different map as the guide? What if we embrace one with more twists and turns, and instead of the straight line, we use the ancient symbol of the birth journey, the Labyrinth? Ahhh, all of the sudden our birth related experiences have room to be, just exactly as they are…

The Labyrinth as a Map for Birth and Motherhood

I was introduced to the labyrinth twenty-two years ago when my husband and I were engaged and going through pre-marital counseling with a wonderful psychotherapist in the outskirts of Durango, Colorado. As part of our work together, she took us to a beautiful labyrinth built out of stones on land overlooking the San Juan Mountains and surrounded by Ponderosa Pine trees. Quietly, barefoot, I stepped over the threshold of the labyrinth trusting her guidance to walk slowly with intention along the marked, windy path. Soon after, my husband did the same.

As we journeyed through this serpentine spiral, we passed each other, moving in opposite directions, then walking side by side on different parts of the labyrinth, yet always on the same path. We synched up when we arrived in the center – the heart of the labyrinth. On the return, my husband started first and I followed soon after, mimicking the walk we had just taken, circling in and out beside each other, then again in different directions and soon, both exiting.

Through two decades of marriage, the labyrinth has been a helpful metaphor for us, a reminder that the relationship and marriage journey are not a simple “walk in the park”, not always done hand in hand, and certainly not accomplished in a straight line.

When I was reintroduced to the symbol of the labyrinth as a “map” for birth in the book The Labyrinth of Birth: Creating a Map, Meditations and Rituals for Your Childbearing Year by Pam England, it felt intuitive and right.

The labyrinth has been a symbol for centuries, representing the journey of birth and motherhood and as the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Applying this symbol to this season of life refocused my perspective on the nonlinear journey of birth and motherhood. It also provided space for not only the physical components of birth, but for the emotional and spiritual aspects of the journey that must be navigated as well.

The Labyrinth of Birth

What is a labyrinth? The difference between a labyrinth and a maze is this – there is only one way in and out, just one entrance/exit. In this way you can never get lost, you are always on the path – your path. Traditionally, there are three parts to a labyrinth:

Pregnancy (preparation)

This happens before we step over the threshold of the labyrinth and may include conception preparation, conception and the reading, preparing and nesting that we go through readying for the birth and the baby.

Labor and birth (the ordeal)

This may start with water breaking, braxton hicks contractions, or heading to the hospital for a planned cesarean birth. The work of this phase is the journey to delivery. It may be 30 minutes or 48 hours with many unexpected turns, emotionally, spiritually and physically.

The Labyrinth of the Postpartum Journey (the return of the hero)

After the baby is born, we make the journey out of the labyrinth of birth. Modern medicine considers this a 6 week journey, traditionally; in our experience, navigating out of the labyrinth typically lasts 2-3 years.

Mobile Mama Labyrinth

Journey to the Center – The Ordeal

When there is a turn in the path of labor – and the thoughts “I can’t do this”, “this is too hard”, “nope, keeping this baby on the inside”, “I’m not capable”, “I’m scared”, (all typical feelings that arise when we face physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional challenges), the labyrinth may offer support. The labyrinth reminds us that we have not strayed from the path, we are still on it, and there is a way through. We can trust that the turns, though unexpected, are not wrong. We can rest assured that the twists are manageable as we come back to our breath, one moment at a time, one step at a time, walking the ancient hero’s journey…

Sometimes clients have a visual of the labyrinth with them during labor as both a reminder of the windy journey and as a quiet meditation to help them come back to their bodies during the journey.

The Center – The Baby

There is a natural pause when reaching the heart of the labyrinth, the center, when the baby is born. Catching our breath, in adoration both of our own ability to create and then birth this child in whatever form that took.

The Postpartum Return

Similar to our expectations around labor and birth, we expect (maybe unconsciously) that the postpartum return will be clear and direct like stops on the railroad line again…

Home with the infant → healing→ figure out sleep and feeding → enjoy maternity leave → figure out pumping and/or childcare → return to work → back to life as we know it 6-12 weeks later…

Exiting the Labyrinth

In our personal experiences and in working with hundreds of clients, the journey out of the labyrinth lasts a lot longer than the journey in. We consistently find that the postpartum return lasts two to three YEARS and is just as windy and unexpected with the transition to motherhood; changes in body, identity, and work expectations; relationships and family dynamics; spiritual understanding, finances, and self-care

And when we exit the labyrinth –- the season of intense motherhood – we are not the same person that entered months and years ago. The alchemy of the journey transforms us.

Using the labyrinth as the map of this season of life provides an understanding and a clear representation of the parts of the extended journey from conception through the postpartum return, years later.

Labyrinth as Birthmap

When we introduce this symbol to our clients as a birthmap, we draw it out together. Then with a non-dominant finger, on a non-dominant hand (for example, for me that would be my ring finger on my left hand), we trace the labyrinth from the entrance to the center and back out, three times.

Often clients express the following thoughts and impressions upon completion:

“I felt close to the center and then all of a sudden I was so far away.”
“I felt so far from the center and then all of a sudden – there.”
“As I was moving through the labyrinth, my breath slowed down, and deepened.”
“I felt disoriented when there was another turn in the labyrinth – am I headed in the right direction? “
“I felt relief getting to the center – finally.”
“I was surprised that all of a sudden I was at the center.”
“I was expecting a quick way out but in fact it is just as windy, with as many turns.”
“I was relieved to be out.”
“Traveling through the path feels comforting.”
“Even the second and third times felt surprising. I thought it would be easier or more known since I just traveled it.”

How to Draw a Labyrinth

Traveling Your Labyrinth

So now, at whatever stage you are in motherhood, take a moment to travel the labyrinth on this page. Or create your own labyrinth, using markers, crayons or even yarn. There may also be a life sized labyrinth in your community that you can walk.

Either way you travel the labyrinth, take out a sticky note and jot down this sound bite:

I’m on the path of my labyrinth.

Place the sticky note in a place where you will see it throughout the month as a gentle reminder that the twists and turns are navigable during this season of life.