Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Pregnancy as a Rite of Passage: Liminality, Rituals & Communitas

Academic journal article Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health

Pregnancy as a Rite of Passage: Liminality, Rituals & Communitas

Article excerpt

Abstract: Pregnancy, a major life transition, significantly impacts aspects of a woman's physical, psychological and social self. Theoretical perspectives of pregnancy are compared in terms of their utility. Using the theoretical frameworks of anthropologists van Gennep and Turner pregnancy is viewed as liminal, a space between social structures. Passage through pregnancy to parenthood is explored in its social context as a rite of passage. Viewing pregnancy and birth as a liminal phase provides a valuable framework for understanding normative and non-normative pregnancy experiences. Case studies are presented, with application and analysis illustrating the experience of liminality, and its inherent rituals and communitas.

Key Words: Pregnancy, rite of passage, liminality, rituals, communitas, personhood, case studies

While searching for theories of pregnancy that could help guide and explain "being pregnant" the notion of rites of passage and its inherent liminal phase were explored. Anthropologists, van Gennep and Turner, wrote seminal works during the twentieth century identifying contexts and ceremonies surrounding major life events, such as pregnancy. Ceremonies or rites of passage have assisted pregnant women through all variations of the childbearing process in every culture. These were not new thoughts but we discovered that they invoked paradigm- shifting insights. Viewing pregnancy and birth through the lens of liminality, with its inherent rituals, provides a valuable framework for understanding normative and nonnormative pregnancy experiences. Most particularly, the idea of liminality opens many doors into understanding pregnancy as it exists within a societal context. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the perspective of pregnancy as a rite of passage with a transformative liminal experience. Through case applications, we explore the usefulness of this theoretical framework for clinicians and scholars.


Pregnancy, commonly defined as the state, condition, or quality of having a fetus growing within a female body (Thomas, 1993) limits the concept of pregnancy to a physiological state. However, pregnancy is often underrated as to its broader, psychological, social and human significance. Pregnancy is a condition that transforms a woman into a mother. Pregnancy is experienced as a life-changing event. There are few well-defined societal, medical or emotional constructs in place that acknowledge all the aspects of this important life event. Medical professionals focus primarily on the biological and physiological aspects of pregnancy with a specific focus on standards of normal adaptation, growth and development at each stage of gestation (Cunningham, Leveno, Bloom, Hauth, Gilstrap & Wenstrom, 2005). Pregnancy in western cultures is often viewed through this medical lens (Davis-Floyd, 1992). Viewing pregnancy as simply a physiological state is inadequate when trying to understand the woman's experience of pregnancy. This narrow view ignores the enormous impact pregnancy has on a woman's self concept, her relationships with spouse and family, the way the pregnancy and subsequent birth changes her role in society and all of the accommodations she must make to be pregnant and prepare for motherhood. Responses to her that only focus on her pregnant body and growing fetus diminish her personhood. A broader view of pregnancy acknowledging pregnancy as a major life event that encompasses significant physical, psychological, and social accommodations during gestation, birth and post partum is needed. Theories of pregnancy will be summarized and critically analyzed for their utility in guiding the care of pregnant women with this in mind.

Pregnancy Theorists

Pregnancy as a psychological state has been examined by a number of theorists. Deutsch (1945), a student of Freud, was the first to describe the psychology of women and pregnancy. She concluded that only a portion of the difficulties surrounding the transition to motherhood could by explained physiologically. …

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