Pam England, notes from “Catching a Child” by Zoia Vylka Ravna (2019)
Rituals of Matrescence prepare and honor the “birth of the mother.” The term matrescence was coined in 1973 by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael to describe the experience of realizing oneself as a mother; the transformative biological, spiritual, and cultural process of becoming a mother and transitioning into motherhood.
The Russian Tundra Nenets are reindeer people living in the tundra. During winter they live in the forest, in summer, they migrate to the coast of the Polar Ocean. Their word for childbirth translated into English means “catching a child.” We have much to contemplate and learn from a culture that cherishes the entwined inner and social preparation of woman during her matrescence. In her enthralling article, “Catching a Child,” Zoia Vylka Ravna describes personal and culturally supportive customs during childbirth preparation, birth, and the postnatal care of mothers and babies.
For a Nenets woman, her matrescence begins immediately after her wedding. Her new married status requires her to live with her new husband’s family and to begin focusing and preparing exclusively on her role as a mother-to-be. When she becomes pregnant, the people will say, “Naceky’ jad” ma tanja,” which means, “there are traces of a child here.”
Nomadic reindeer people do not always have access to medical technology; they rely on traditional knowledge accumulated over centuries. Now the mother-to-be must follow rules and taboos of prohibition created by the women to protect themselves “from bad things.” Her preparation is not her solo-responsibility. She will receive support from community helpers which include the future father, children from the community, and special tasks for the girls and women—as birth care is the domain of women, and men may not participate. These helpers will make the baby’s cradle and clothes, collect objects for spiritual cleansing, and gather and dry medicinal plants, herbs, mushrooms, berries, lichen, and organs of animals and birds used during pregnancy and postpartum.
One task is particularly work-intensive: the gathering and drying of Sphagnum mosses. The baby will need a lot of dried moss to serve as sustainable, organic diapers. (The moss also serves as the postpartum mother’s maternity pads.) The highly absorbent Sphagnum moss holds 16-25 times its dried weight in water, and it has anti-oxidative and anti-bacterial properties. The women and girls gather the moss; the next generation is learn where to find the different varieties and how to dry and store it.
The traditional birth place of the Tundra Nenet women is in the privacy of a special tent made of reindeer skin; a woman will move into this tent before labor. (As they are nomadic people, some may give birth on transport sledges.) An older woman, whose role as a midwife is called sju’ nebja, which means “mother of the umbilical cord,” attends women in labor; she must be a “spiritually pure woman who can longer have children.”
The mother-to-be is prepared to be self-reliant in labor, even though she knows “four women helpers” will be present to care for her and the “new human being.” Two helpers are visible, and two are invisible sacred beings. One of the invisible sacred helpers is called ja nebja, which translates to “the mother of the earth,” and the other is tu hada, “protector of the fire.” The two visible helpers include a little doll called Mâd Puhuča (owner of the tent) and a “real person,” the midwife. It is customary for a Nanet woman not to complain about pain, shout, scream, or ask for help. She labors on her knees, facing the wall of the tent. When the child is coming, she should turn so that she and her child are facing the fire, which symbolizes life itself. After her baby is born, she will sit up on her knees, face the fire with her back straight, and turn her baby to face the fire.
Ravna’s article included a visual-story of a Nanet woman who wore a winter coat made of reindeer skins when went into labor unexpectedly and had to made traditional preparations on her own. She prepared a bowl of boiled water and a bowl of medicinal mushrooms. Then she tied a rope to the two poles inside the tent so she could grasp it with both hands when she squatted. The birth went well. Afterward, she put some of the moss she had picked and dried underneath her to absorb her lochia. According to their wisdom, after giving birth she sat up, on her knees, to help “everything to flow down through her.” The “mother of the umbilical cord” encouraged her to take a few steps; by walking, the uterus contracts and reduces the risk of blood clotting.
After giving birth to her first child, the “newly-born mother” receives a new name in recognition of her new status in the community, and to aid in her new self-identity.
Emily Holyoak (2020, March). What is “Matrescence”? Blog: Here and Now Motherhood. Retrieved from:
Zoia Vylka Ravna (2019) “Catching a Child”: giving birth under nomadic conditions. The methods of pre- and postnatal care of the Nenets mothers and babies, International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 78:1, DOI: 10.1080/22423982.2019.1586275