Dissertation Abstract–Forceps and Candles: Cultural Myths in American Childbirth

I finished my dissertation last fall and successfully defended it earning my doctorate in December. I thought it might be nice to include my dissertation abstract here for those interested in the topic I spent the last several years researching and writing. Enjoy.

Forceps and Candles:
Cultural Myths in American Childbirth

Current birthing practices in the United States focus on the outcome and location of birth: surgical or vaginal, medicated or un-medicated, hospital or home. Little focus is placed on the multivalent experience of body, mind, spirit and psyche. After an unwanted birth by cesarean, well-meaning nurses and friends often say, “Be happy! Your baby is healthy.” Comments like this emphasize outcome, ignoring or sidelining the emotional confusion often present at the birth of a desired baby through an unwanted surgery. Similarly, radical natural birth proponents often see failure to birth at home or without drugs as the fault of the mother, as if what matters most is the fulfillment of the natural birth image. The loss of a dearly-held ideal can traumatize a birthing woman. Focus on outcome ignores the importance of the transformations that go beyond the physical expulsion of a baby from a woman’s body.

Childbirth practices in the U.S. exist within a set of cultural myths including the desire for control, logo-centric thought, reverence for the masculine, denial of death, vilification of pain, veneration of technology, and adherence to innocence. Woven deeply into the tapestry of American values, these cultural myths shape both mainstream and alternative childbirth practices in contemporary society. Cast within this cultural context, childbirth practices in America today fail to successfully initiate women into motherhood.

To look at giving birth through the lenses of myth, initiation, ritual and archetypal psychology is to illuminate childbirth as a meaning-making, life-altering, identity-changing event in the life of a birthing woman, regardless of the path the birth takes. To view birth as an initiatory process is to understand and value the unpredictability and uncontrollability of even the best-laid plans. Fear of this “not-knowing” aspect of birthing is central to the preparation for birth as a rite of passage, rather than the nemesis that both medical and natural birth professionals believe it to be. Birth as an initiatory journey embraces challenges and ordeals along the way as part of the path every birthing woman will travel.

About Dr. Britta Bushnell

is a writer, teacher, storyteller, and mentor who blends her eclectic training, years of experience, and areas of study into a unique offering for individuals, couples, professionals, and groups. Britta is currently deep at work writing her forthcoming book, Transformed by Birth: Illuminating cultural ideals to enhance the experience of childbirth.


  1. Melissa on May 2, 2021 at 10:46 am

    I read your book as a lifeline when I had my first child during this pandemic last year. It was astounding and continues to inspire me. I am now writing a chapter on motherhood and bio politics and am curious if you have your full dissertation also available to read. I am well far along in the current chapter I am writing but I may continue to pursue this trajectory for my own PhD. I would love to know more of your work.

  2. Dr. Britta Bushnell on September 19, 2022 at 11:05 am

    my blog is not currently active and so it has been months since your comment. I’m so glad you found value in Transformed by Birth. If you are interested in my dissertation, feel free to email me through the contact link on my website. Wishing you lots of luck with your own doctoral journey. It can be a challenging process for sure!