Thimble as a Symbol

by Pam England

One reason we tell our stories is to find hidden meaning or to create meaning. Turning a troubling incident or miscommunication over and over in their mind trying to make sense of it, a storyteller can continue to see it narrowly, myopically, even entrenching it in first impressions. Mere repetition of a story without self-reflection or an interactive process does not necessarily deepen self-knowing. In mindless repetition, parts get left out, minimized, or explained away with cause and effect theories, gradually compacting a potentially momentous story into a superficial one that could fit in a thimble, a “thimble-sized story.” But there is more to understanding the symbol of the thimble in our birth story work.

Extraordinary life experiences—such as carrying and bringing a new life into the world, a brush with death, and encountering the Beloved—are slowly realized, revealing ever-unfolding deeper meaning. Living a hallowed and harrowing heroic journey transcends all plans and protections until the human is cracked open. Mythic stories never fit in a thimble.

Immediately after birth, casual story sharing and inquiries about what happened can feel like pricks of a needle into a tender place; the initiate is still in the liminal (in-between what was and what’s next) place. Additionally, there is the priority of newborn care. So, in the same way a thimble “caps” a fingertip to protect it, many parents may tell a brief social- or medical version (Third and Fifth Story Gates) of their experience but not be in the mindset for a reflective process. It is too soon. It is right to protect the storyteller’s heart by putting a “story thimble” over their still amorphous, unformed story. As a result, it may be weeks, months, or even years before the storyteller is ready to continue her journey home through the Story Gates.

Gazing upon our infants and children, their unflawed innocence and infinite potential awaken in us the untenable desire to be perfect, protective guardians to create a picture-perfect, nurturing environment. This timeless desire is reflected in centuries-old folklore. When Sleeping Beauty is a newborn, she is cursed to enter a deep sleep if ever pricked by a spindle. Her father bans spindles and the spinning of all fibers from their home to prevent this from happening. Although Sleeping Beauty knows of the warning, because of her father’s strict protection, she grows into a child who has never seen a spinning spindle. One day in the village, she sees an older woman working a spinning spindle, and her naivety and curiosity eclipse the warning. Sleeping Beauty takes the spindle and pricks her finger; she falls into a deep sleep with her wounding.

A thimble is a symbol of protection from the pain of being pricked or poked by any intrusion. For example, a thimble is worn as a cap over the fingertip when doing needlework. There are symbolic thimbles in birth work, too: birth plans are one example. Another, like Sleeping Beauty’s father, are teachings that try to protect uninitiated mothers from worry and fear by concealing realities that might prick their trust bubbles, such as not saying the word “pain” or not talking about what to expect during an induction or cesarean birth. 

The thimble also represents transgression which is necessary for personal development. Many folktales and birth stories present a transgression narrative. Transgression means doing something that goes against the law or social norms and, I would say, breaking personal or moral agreements we made with ourselves. When we were about seven years old, Toltec author and teacher Miguel Ruiz envisions our agreements and assumptions being “written” in our Book of Rules. Every child needs to belong to survive and therefore adopts the values, beliefs, and behaviors of the adults, teaching them how to be a “good” human, e.g., one that will be accepted, loved, belong, and safe. We carry our Book of Rules through life. We apply general Rules to every situation and relationship, including what we think we should and should not want, do, or feel in childbirth. 

We explore a forbidden area in our life or relationships during our heroic journeys.

And, this brings us to consider the motif of “doing the one forbidden thing,” a theme found in folktales, heroic journey myths, and birth stories. A forbidden thing is represented by a symbolic object, such as the apple, a key, or eating food in the underworld. There can also be a forbidden act.2

Doing the forbidden thing, including doing something you have never planned or dared to do (because until this moment, you followed the Rules or expectations), becomes the catalyst for a necessary, impending, some would say, a fated change of direction or change of heart; a rebirth. We probably don’t or didn’t consciously “agree” to do the forbidden thing—because we placed a restraining order on it. However, on some level, when we are ready to change, the situation or circumstances get set up for us, get us in a corner, and the only way out is to do what we never imagined doing. To the degree our thimble holds our Rules for an area in our lives, we live small.  We have to commit a transgression to break out of the spell cast by Rules that bind us to limited behavior and beliefs.

Notice the one thing storyteller is planning to avoid, not to partake of, or not to do, no matter what. But, because of the necessity for transformation, curiosity always overcomes fear, and initiates cannot resist doing the one forbidden thing.

Every kid, every reader of this blog has done it—so you know what follows: Chaos! with an aftermath that outweighs their worst imagined consequence. The shock of the unexpected annuls our self-image, humbles our grandiosity (takes away anticipated “bragging rights”), and collapses a belief or a complex belief system. What was always true is no longer valid—so comes the search for what is true. The tremendous shock or terror after stepping woefully too trusting and unprepared into the Unknown can cause sudden psychic death.

  • The bride of Bluebeard was given permission to open any door in the palace, but one; she could not resist opening the little forbidden door.
  •  Inanna could not resist sitting on the throne of Ereshkigal.
  • Psyche just had to do the forbidden thing and take a peak to see the face of her Beloved Eros.

* Recall your one forbidden thing before or during your childbearing year, and what circumstances made you do it

* Consider what parents on a heroic journey might describe as their “one forbidden thing”, what do you imagine they would say?

In addition to the transgressions we do to ourselves, my friend, Elizabeth, pointed out another kind of necessary transgression: the one that is done against us—or for us. Snow White was not forewarned to not take a bite out of the apple; the apple was not a known forbidden thing. The queen in disguise had knowledge of the poisoned apple and intention commit a transgression against Snow White. With one bite of the apple, Snow White falls into a deep sleep, an “interruption in time.”1

This theme is found in birth in our culture stories. When “those in the know” about side effects, cascading, other treatments, and so on but fail to give more than a thimbleful of knowledge to a trusting, unknowing mother-obstetric patient and the patient consents, taking a “bite out of the apple.” It maybe an unintentional transgression, perhaps with a positive intention of protecting the patient, however if it wounds the storyteller physically and psychologically, her story may become “frozen in time.” In postpartum shock and depression, women are untouchable, encased in a symbolic glass coffin during an indefinite incubation. 

During the postpartum Return, withdrawal, lethargy, and depression can be reframed and utilized as a time for reflection. Finally, the unconscious does much integrative work (while the storyteller is unaware, “asleep in the glass coffin”). Soul-searching work requires so much energy; none is left for storytelling or taking action.3 The time will come for a conscious transformative transition.

In her thought-provoking article (see below), Maria Casado Villanuera observes that to break the spell in certain forbidden rooms and issues—the intrusion of another voice or character is necessary. In fairytales it is often Love in the character of a prince or the act of a kiss. It comes through transgressions. And in birth story transformation work, it might be an attuned birth story mentor or Magician.

An afterthought: Our watching and wise inner Gatekeeper does not goad us to do the one forbidden thing or thrust us across thresholds or into forbidden rooms. Instead, self-love (not necessarily the rational mind) waits until our Love Warrior is active and on duty to speak and act on our behalf. The alternative is to mindlessly abandon your inner-Child, sending this part of you to rush in where angels fear to tread. The tasks of the heroic journey, childbirth, negotiating the hospital culture, and making decisions are meant to be taken up by an Adult, ideally one who is in their Love Warrior and prepared to meet this ordeal or “battle.” 


Maria Casado Villanuera (Spring 2017). “A reluctant and awakening transgression and the Sleeping Beauty motif in D.H. Lawrence: ‘The Thimble.’”
2.  John Bucher (Sept. 2020).  One Forbidden Thing.
3.  Maria Casado Villanuera.
*Gratitude to Elizabeth Christine for insights that developed this blog.

All rights reserved. Copyright Pam England/Birth Story Medicine Aug 2022. No reproduction without written permission.

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