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I huddled in the corner clutching the warming blankets, feeling out of place, frightened and curious. My sister Marcy, a home-birth midwife in New Mexico, had invited me to attend a birth. What exactly was she up to?

At one point, the mother-to-be lay on her side on the bed, her legs propped against Marcy's body, pushing so hard Marcy had to brace herself. Marcy said to her, "Push through your pain. Your baby's on the other side of that pain."

And the amazing young woman did.

I was astounded. Her labor was difficult and beautiful, sweaty and miraculous. I'd witnessed a form of faith I desperately needed and suspected our whole culture needs. Because don't we all need to push through some pain if we want to become more alive? Don't we all need people to remind us that, as one midwife said, "It's work. It hurts a lot. And you can do it"?

So I immersed myself in research about natural birth, which has been marginalized, especially in the United States. I learned that our terror about birth is matched only by our wretched maternal and infant mortality rates. As a culture, we've lost the knowledge that significant beginnings happen through rather than in spite of hardship. We've lost the skills to facilitate both literal and metaphorical births.

Midwives trust women's bodies. Despite how uncontrollable birth is, despite the dangers, despite the more predictable outcomes of medicated or surgical birth, women's bodies are wise in ways we rarely recognize. The more I watched midwives work, the more I saw how much our world denies (and desperately needs) midwives' spiritual awareness. How do we both push and let go? How do we integrate intuition and knowledge? How do we tend both body and spirit?

"Surrender to your life-giving power," one midwife told her clients - a difficult but rich paradox. Another told me, "Accepting natural childbirth is fundamental to a culture's ability to love women. If we loved women, we'd trust our bodies." Our capacity for love is connected to this elemental process of coming alive.

I'm a bisexual adoptive mom who has never given birth. But after spending 12 years researching and writing my novel, "Hannah, Delivered" - after imagining myself into a midwife's heart and head - I now carry around the mysterious process of birth like a map for all arenas of my life. I'm tremendously grateful to the women who preserve this knowledge despite great odds. Our psyches and souls are hungry for it.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is a Minneapolis author and writing instructor. www.spiritualmemoir.com and www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com

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