Magpie Speak: Withmates

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When I was in my mid-twenties I went to graduate school for theology. I didn’t really plan on going to seminary. But my husband was going, and then there was this voice in the middle of the night, and one coincidence after another until I had received seven of what my vocabulary at the time would have called “signs” – and well, I ended up in graduate school. On our first day of class, a venerable, respected professor took one look at Paul and I and said, “He thinks he’s going to be the one using this degree, but really you are the scholar.” And indeed, he was right. Here I am, teaching and learning about spirituality with you. And there Paul is, at Microsoft, making the moola that keeps the Family Mee-Chapman together. Who knew? (Dr. James Houston and the Universe, that’s who.)

The point is, I went to seminary for non-traditional reasons. I had to tell people repeatedly, that I was not there to become a pastor. I really didn’t know why I was at seminary, other than that I’d been lead there.  In the end, not able to see other options I did become a pastor. The role fit me rather badly. Thankfully, along the way in seminary, I had adopted this peculiar word. That word ended up becoming my salvation. It helped me wriggle out of that bad fit, and into the role of Soulcare Specialist. (Mmmm….much better.) What was that word?  “Withmate.”

I stumbled upon “withmate” somewhere mid-seminary when I was assigned Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction  by Margaret Guenther. It was to become one of those books that changed my life. In it she talks about becoming a “midwife to the soul.”  Now, this was before I gave birth. For which I am grateful. Otherwise my scary birth experiences would have made this metaphor much too trigger-happy for me to get cozy with it. But at the pre-pregnancy time, the idea of “soul midwifery” honed right into my subconscious and made itself at home.

Margret Guenther writes, “The literal meaning of the word [midwife] is “with-woman,” that is, the person who is with the one who is giving birth.” When you expand the metaphor of “giving birth” to include giving birth to a new passion, a calling, your even your own baby soul–then the whole thing resonates with possibilities.

The challenge with the term “midwife” is that it is so gender specific in name, though not in meaning.  Being someone who likes to play with words, it occurred to me that “withmate” would be a good gender-inclusive solution. So I started using the term. I’ve used it for so long now that I forget people don’t have it in their everyday vocabulary! So to help us all get on the same page of the Soulcare Dictionary, here—loosely paragraphed from Holy Listening—is the definition of a withmate.

(WWWD?) What Would a Withmate Do?

A Withmate:  

  • Is present to another in a time of vulnerability, working in areas that are deep and intimate, in a relationship of trust and mutual respect.
  • Does not fear that his/her professionalism will be threatened by a degree of intimacy with those who have come for help.
  • Is willing to be called by his/her given name, and calls the person giving birth by name.
  • Does things with, not to the person giving birth.
  • Is also a teacher in the best sense of the word, in that she helps with birthgiver towards ever greater self-knowledge.
  • Invites question and takes time to answer them.
  • Sees the event she is assisting at as a natural, normative event.  Does not see things as sickness or pathology — but is knowledgeable enough to seek help when these are present.
  • Sees clearly what the birth giver cannot see.
  • Notices times of transition and realizes that – even though painful – they are a sign of breakthrough and progress.  
  • Encourages another when they feel out of control or that they have failed. Redefines progress, success, and failure in more functional terms.
  • Tells you when to push and when to hold back, when to breathe deeply and when to do something shallow.
  • Knows when to confront — confront meaning literally “to face another” – in order to move forward.
  • Rejoices in the arrival of that which was working to get itself born.

This “job description” for being a withmate saved me from the uncomfortable patriarchal model I had been working in. A model in which the “leader” of the group has all the knowledge and passes it down through the ranks. Instead, it places me into a teaching-learning partnership—into a collaborative effort. It lets me work in a way in which things emerge organically, out of a supportive community. It’s a place where experience is honored, and where presence is valued.

In the circles where I live and work and have my being, I hear the same three longings on endless aching repeated.  

  • A desire to get unstuck so that dreams, passions, and visions can get themselves born.
  • A desire to not feel alone in that journey.
  • A desire to be known and valued for your personal brand of wisdom.

I believe that being withmates to one another can move us into places where we complete all of these desires. I believe it’s an answer to a complex and essential question. I believe it’s one way something good finally gets born.

I hope that Magpie Speak has been a good jumping off point for your soulful journey. I’ve really enjoyed preparing these thoughts for you, and reading your comments on the Magpie Speak webpages. Speaking of which, before we go, would you chime in just once more? We’d love to hear your thoughts on withmates. Thank you for being here.

Go on an imaginary journey where you are following a leader. Now go on a journey where you are traveling beside a withmate. What’s different?

-Who has been a good traveling companion for you? What did s/he do that made them a good withmate?

-Looking for a withmate? Who can you be a withmate to? (Pay it forward and watch the Universe meet your needs as well.)  


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenna/The Word Cellar June 22, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Withmates is one of my favorite “new” words. Ever since hearing Rachelle use it, I’ve adopted it into my vocabulary. And I sometimes forget it’s not standard in everyone else’s world, too! My best friends and my husband are my withmates, each in their own unique way. I’d be lost and lonely without them. They’ve taught me to be more present in my relationships and to look for ways to be a withmate to others. I love how this type of relationship isn’t about leader-follower, and how it levels the power structure. Sometimes I have to remind myself to not fall into old habits of thinking about authority, both in terms of wanting to be a follower and wanting to be a leader. I’d much rather be *with* people than ahead of or behind them!

Ashley Jennings July 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Rachelle, this post resonated with me more than anything i have ever read of yours–which is saying a lot. This speaks to me on so many levels. I struggle with being a “withmate” and present consistantly, maybe my journey will take me the higher places in that area, so that I can be a dependable withmate for my friends and family.
Thank you for sharing.

Tabitha the KnittingJourneyman August 11, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Oh my gosh–can we all just say here is the Universe clobbering me upside the head in order to get my attention? Don’t worry–it takes a big stick to get through my thick skull at times…
Withmate is so perfect–and so perfectly describes where I want to be and what I want to do with myself…and everything, this whole description, it all fits together so very well…
not to mention, I am rather pleased that I am not the only one who enters into training to learn things because I need to, but without ever having any intention of doing that particular job…like attending seminary but not becoming a priest…
THANK YOU so much for this…it is just what I needed at exactly the moment I was most open to it and most needed it…

Monica September 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm

I second Ashley in that this post resonated for me a great dea,l though the word I have used for many years to describe a “withmate” has been “Wise Woman”, since I usually find myself surrounded by many wise women in many areas that given me ‘unconditional guidance, wisdom and support in time of need’. Your own description of a “withmate” has described ALL that my own Wise Woman has done for me over the years. I have written about my own Wise Woman at my blog and a story that came out of creating a doll to honor her – I hope you have a chance to stop and read the posts =-)

Thank you for speaking to those of us who appreciate learning for it’s own sake – I dearly love to learn about many things, very few of them truly relate-able to each other, but the world is such a big place and there is so much in it to learn about that I can’t help myself! I definitely subscribe to the Autodidact School of Life ;)

Thanks for a great e-course! there is much that has gotten my brain swimming with possibilities!

Jennifer December 17, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I so related to your statement about going to seminary but not to be a pastor. That is EXACTLY how I felt when I went to grad school for a degree in counseling, but I knew I didn’t want to be a counselor. So many people looked at me funny, told me I was crazy, told me I wouldn’t find a job. But I knew this was where I was supposed to be, the next step, and I knew the right job was out there (it was. I’m in it right now.). And so did a Career Counselor who was a withmate and helped me explore options. She stayed open, listened to my skills and interests, and made suggestions that I could then explore on my own. She was realistic with me – “there is no perfect job, no one right choice, no magic wand.” But she was also encouraging. “Don’t quit! Keep going. Finish. You can do it.” I don’t know if she realizes how helpful she was.

Leah April 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm

I had never heard the term “withmate” before, now I feel as if I’d known about this word forever. It is so right. I am very thankful for my husband, who is my very supportive withmate. I hope to find more as I continue on my own journey of “getting unstuck and following my dreams”. Thank you so much Rachelle for your soul-satisfying words. I always feel more courageous and more free after reading them.

Rachelle April 8, 2011 at 2:06 pm

It’s so lovely to hear these stories of withmates you have found, and the withmates you would like to be. Thank you for sharing them with me!

Much Warmth,


Kate April 13, 2011 at 5:43 am

I love this word. I feel like it sums up a way of doing things that I’ve been looking for for a while. For a long time, I’ve been feeling a call to do… well, something which doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ve been put off by the old ‘experts/students’ paradigm. And I’ve been writing, just for myself, about the possibility of throwing out the old paradigm, and working with a new one, which I’ve been thinking of as ‘shared learning’. So I was so excited to arrive here and find you talking about ‘teaching-learning’ and ‘withmates’. It’s *perfect*. I’m so excited to be here.

I’ve had a wonderful withmate recently. At the start of the year, I had a breakdown-breakthrough, and I’m very blessed to have had a friend of mine withmating me through it. He’s been beside me the whole way, making sure I was never alone, listening, supporting, offering hugs, but never trying to tell me how to do things, or to take over and do everything for me. It’s been a wonderful proof of how there are better ways to help than trying to ‘fix’ things.