Birthing the Future

BY  Melissa Walker

Holistic Parenting: Welcome, Suzanne! It’s such a pleasure to spend an afternoon with you and pick your brain about important topics such as, Birthing the Future!

Melissa Walker: Thanks, Kathryn, it’s great to be here. Pick away!

HP: Let’s start with the difficult questions… Do you think our collective fear of birth is the greatest inhibitor of natural birth? If it’s true what Grantly Dick-Read said about the Fear-Tension-Pain Syndrome, is this why women in our society experience birth to be so excruciating? How do we heal fear of childbirth?

MV: I think the biggest problem in birth is two-fold. One is fear, the pathological level of fear that modern people are trained to have for their own births. That is quite distinct from what I would call a normal, healthy fear of the unknown which in other cultures, particularly in traditional and tribal cultures, is balanced by a healthy sense of understanding that comes from witnessing birth as being part of life. In these cultures, birth and death are part of life. From a young age, you’d be wandering in and out of a birth hut, hearing stories around the campfire, stories of the strength of women… When you add a healthy fear of the unknown to knowledge (direct knowledge and wisdom passed on from elders) you create an equation, and what you have is awe, respect, and trust. These don’t inhibit birth in any way.

The other problem is the intentional control and domination of birth by doctors and medical organizations that has thrived by keeping women ignorant. The language that they use, everything that goes into the making of this relationship is top down and authoritarian, whether the doctor is a man or a woman (most OBs are now women), still the training is patriarchal. The language that the woman receives from the very first exam, where statements such as this are made: well, your pelvis is a little small, there’s a possibility you won’t be able to have a vaginal birth… They’re talking about the Cesarian the woman should expect. Also, when a woman questions too much, most doctors have this ‘tender spot,’ which comes from their own medical education, which is shame-based, and they come away with a sense of arrogance in protecting their own ignorance. We’ve all heard the question, “Which one of us went to med school, Mary?” Almost every doctor has that point after which they stop being collaborative and they start feeling territorial, needing to pull back and show who’s in charge.

So I think it’s both of those: the territory of birth is being owned by professionals. In that context, (plus the fear) women don’t believe they have any direct knowing, or that their authority on their own bodies. And it’s not just about birth: we’re not raised to know what’s going on in our body. When I gave birth at the age of 27, I was a college grad with honors, and I thought that my baby’s umbilical cord was attached to the inside of my navel!

HP: So how do we break the cycle of fear, violence, and trauma that is perpetuated by societal norms and our parents’ choices? We inevitably bring all this to our own births…

MV: What we bring is ignorance, passivity, and fear. On top of this, we bring the attitude of a consumer: I wanna buy my way into an easy birth, like a commodity, I don’t want to have to work for it. I don’t think about it as a life changing event that requires preparation. In the Harris Poll in NY, only 20% of women thought childbirth education was necessary to have a good birth. This next generation of young expectant moms are even more distanced from their bodies than my generation was. Many women today want to get information quickly, not necessarily deeply.

We have to make birth a conversational issue, where people naturally talk about it in social settings. We need to talk about death, and rights of passage, and sexuality.

It’s hip to do what you want to do. Self authority, and owning our experiences as our own can be important, but if you don’t have any knowledge to go with it, and you haven’t got any values, and if you don’t base your values on following natural, biological processes (such as birth) as being a good thing, being connected to the earth as being a good thing, being connected to our bodies as being a good thing, then you can go anywhere with being hip. “I’m groovy cause I’m me.”

Making birth an object of conversation means women need to start talking about their births, and stop feeling guilty that they may be embarrassing a woman who had a terrible birth. The language we use needs to be empathic “I’m sorry that happened to you, but if you like I’ll share my experience with you just so that you know, an empowering birth is possible. It may cause you to rethink what happened to you, even if it causes you great sadness and anger. I want you to know that it wasn’t fair what was inflicted on you.” Or, “what happened to you wasn’t your fault, because you had a really unusual set of circumstances. It’s still no good reason not to know what potential options you had.” If we don’t know what birth can be, then we can’t strive for it, and we can’t strive to heal our birth experience that fell short, and traumatized both the mother and the baby. One of the most damaging things about our culture is when we start normalizing what’s abnormal. Then we talk about what’s truly normal as abnormal and unusual. This is not a result of women’s ignorance, but of the domination of birth from outside authorities, i.e., medicine. This is the difference between medicine and midwifery. Midwifery is a healing art: sitting WITH women, walking WITH women on their journey, not exerting power over women.

So the more we talk about birth, the more women with great experiences talk about birth, getting midwives, doulas talking about the wonderful, normal births they’ve attended. They should talk about the difference between the horrific things that they see, stories that should not be shared with adolescent and pre-pregnant women, these stories should only be shared with mature women. Midwives and doulas need to talk about the tremendous difference between an extraordinary, normal birth and what is perpetrated on most women that leaves them feeling raped and that it was their fault; that what was done hurt themselves and their baby, but they need to just get on with their lives and get over it. Doulas are witnesses.

HP: Do you think that birth trauma is behind many neuroses and problems people face today? How does this manifest itself in your experience?

MV: Yeah, I would say birth trauma is, sadly, endemic. Most of the problems we see in society that are related to health, physical, psychological, and social health, are really attachment disorders and trauma at their root.

The domino effect in birth is well documented: intervention calls for more intervention. It’s hard to stop once you’ve started interfering with birth. Interrupting the mother’s hormones disrupts the mother-baby bond. As elegant as epidurals might seem, they can have serious risks and side effects, the main one being that it leads to cesarian. The anaesthesia itself alters the baby’s brain development… We are only beginning to study the ways in which what we do to women in labor effect children’s behavior, bonding, sleeping, digestion, immune system and learning. Did you know that not one of the drugs commonly used in birth across the world has ever been studied to see it’s long term impact on the brain development of the child. Or on the child’s bonding capacity. We know that when a woman has disrupted bonding because of  a cesarian birth she is much more likely to be more removed and distant from her baby, OR to be overly anxious and hovering over this child. The primal period is the stage of most rapid development, where we’re laying down patterns for life.

Women who are in the breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and intactivist movement need to start talking about the whole picture, viewing pregnancy and birth holistically, like Michel Odent and Ashley Montagu talk about the primal period: before conception through the first year of life. The mother-baby unit is one biological system during the primal period. When a woman (like most women today are pressured to do) has a fairly artificial birth, following a high stressed pregnancy, a lot of separation from her baby after birth, goes back to work too soon, when is encouraged not to sleep alongside your baby and respond to her cues, all this ruptures the biological system of the mother-baby unit. This system is meant to evolve into the baby toddling off into the bigger world, looking back at the mother and father and feeling secure to venture off into the unknown, which is very compelling around the age of one, but constantly referencing to the stable figure. Instead, what we have is the opposite: the parents leaving, thus stretching that band of connection almost to breaking point. The child must learn to replace this bond with objects such as the pacifier. Day-care workers don’t know this child, and there is never one person taking care of baby, there’s a rotating team. This can only create insecure or ambivalent attachment, and a big range of attachment disorders.

HP: Holistic Parenting magazine is an advocate for children’s wellness. What are the most crucial changes in current birth and parenting practices you’d like to recommend to our readers?

MV: I’d like to talk a little about baby boys, specifically: we know that from conception, baby boys are more vulnerable to trauma than baby girls. It affects their behavior much more significantly–girls have more resilience, innately. Why? Not because we’re better, but because we’re designed to carry on the human species and therefore we have an innate resiliency.

Boys experience trauma differently, it lasts longer and goes deeper than in girls. This is why more boys die in miscarriage, in intensive care units, boys born to drug addicts, born prematurely, and yet it’s common for mothers to comfort them less. Our society loves the idea of autonomy and competitiveness. Unfortunately with our birth practices–and following birth, the practice of circumcision–what we’re building into our boys is deep insecurity, aggression, and depression. We need to take a good look at how we treat our baby boys, because they are turning into the men who are emotionally stunted, fathers who leave within the first three years of their own child’s birth. They leave physically, or they distance themselves emotionally. Or they throw themselves into an addiction, whether it’s work-a-holism, or pornography, or drugs, or alcohol. Men are leaving their families in droves. I don’t think it’s only because of the innate vulnerability in men, and the unnamed, unhealed birth trauma that’s shaped our baby boys, but also because we place too much burden on men in the form of the nuclear family as our prized institution.

Children were not meant to be raised in nuclear families. The children we are raising are insecurely attached, have poor trust in themselves and everyone else in the world. One recent study shows that only 19% of young people today feel and trust that people are basically good. This is why these young people often form shallow relationships. These people haven’t experienced on cue, full-term breastfeeding, touch, and the consistent presence, affection, and responsiveness of a parent during their infancy.

HP: How do you envision the future of our species, in relation to birth and parenting practices?

MV: I’m looking at raising a different kind of human being; I’d like to live in a world where violence isn’t the everyday occurrence, and where war isn’t the expected form of international relations, where people can behave kindly, with generosity. A world where we see ourselves as part of the world’s ecosystem, not as dominators of the earth. I think it’s possible within just one generation, but we have to get our values right. What kind of human beings do we want to raise? In order to do this we have to look at the evidence, into our heart, listen to our gut and our intuition. What makes people so lonely and isolated and depressed? It’s because they didn’t get their needs met at the beginning of life. How are we going to meet the needs of children, which means meeting the needs of the mother-baby pair. This means meeting the needs of women biologically: women who have a peaceful, relaxed pregnancy tend to have an easier birth, breastfeed longer, co-sleep, carry their baby in slings, and have this wonderful connection. By hanging out in nature with our babies we are down regulating the high stress level of our society. The pace of the human infant is the pace of the human soul. It’s very healing to be around a happy baby. When we comfort a child, we are also comforting our inner child who has perhaps never experienced enough comforting.

I’m not asking that women sacrifice who they are, I’m asking that society make it easy to fulfil the biological imperatives of the primal period: conception, gestation, birth, bonding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and enjoying our babies! This runs completely counter to a consumer society. When I’m feeling anxious, I want to reward myself with something. When I’m feeling good, I want to buy something. It just so happens, with my old 1960s “hippie anti-establishment” values, I’ll reward myself with a used book or a second hand piece of clothing, but I’m still doing it, I’m still being a consumer. The goal of our society is to create humans with an insatiable need for things, new experiences, hyper-stimulation, which we get not just from drugs, but from internet, cell phones, etc. All these are supposedly filling a hole that will only be filled by relationships: to our soul, to the earth, to our babies and children, to flowers and wild things… With relationships and connection comes an authentic life.

If you have just one generation of well-conceived, well-carried in the womb, well-birthed, well-nurtured babies, mothers and fathers who were at ease in their parenting and derived great joy in their parenting role, this generation would drive a political agenda for high educational standards, living wage where people didn’t have to work more than 24 hours a week, earning enough to feed, house, and clothe themselves, while being free to relax, spend time with their family, time in nature the rest of their week.

The prevalent idea in today’s society (and our educational system is proof of this) is that people are naturally lazy and uncooperative, and need to be pressured into working and contributing to the community–well, this is simply not the case! My observation of human beings, including babies, is that they have a natural sense of empathy, they want to participate, to express themselves, to be creative. My sense is we need to nurture people, not frighten them. I think we can do it. All it takes is a minority of people who are willing to take a different path.

HP: So are you hopeful that relationships can be repaired? Is it still possible to find connection after trauma?

MV: Of course! We have a natural instinct for healing. Our body knows how to heal, the psyche knows how to heal. As wounded and as deprived as we may have been at the beginning of life, our soul is still intact. It’s a matter of giving people the language to express their pain and their yearning. There are all kinds of ways to heal attachment disorders, broken bonds, whatever ails us. Most of the healing that happens today involves a combination of body, mind, and spirit (the mind being the emotions as well as the intellect). Because the wounds have to do with deprivation of contact, communication and connection, the healing has to include that too. The healing is touch based, experience based: With infant trauma, we’re looking at everything from gentle chiropractic, to homeopathy, to infant massage, to co-sleeping and baby-wearing and breastfeeding. When older kids and adults need healing, we’re looking at time in nature, herbs, healing food, eye contact, etc. Anyone can heal, it just takes so much longer if you wait until you’re an adult. Even a whole family can heal together.

I didn’t have a chance to heal as a child, and the healing path I walk as an adult has been threefold: a healing path for the birth trauma and separation I experienced in my own birth, an awakening into my own consciousness, and becoming an activist for positive change. My own healing path hasn’t ended. When you sit with unresolved trauma for too long, it takes longer, that’s the nature of things. But it’s certainly possible.

HP: It takes courage.

MV: Yes, courage and also being observant and mindful of not leaving out those who were most hurt: often times the person most hurt is the first child. Having a great birth with our second child might help indirectly, but our first child might still be carrying trauma. Until we name it, we can’t address it. I am firmly of the mind that we have to start telling the truth, to ourselves and to each other. That’s how we’re going to lessen the fear, as well as the hold that organized medicine has over us. And we’re going to start reclaiming our bodies and our children. We need a lot of people who have resiliency, and health, and optimism to engage in repairing the trauma that human beings have caused the planet. The way I see it, anyone who cares deeply about birth and children and mothers, fathers and families HAS to care about climate change and life on this planet, has to care about weaning ourselves off of our addiction to fossil fuels (!) We have to become active the community in creating sustainable ways of living.

HP: Tell us about your projects, about Birthing the Future.

MV: I am an artist and dancer and love to create beautiful things to inspire, inform, and transform people’s thinking so that we make more conscious, wiser choices.

To that end, Birthing the Future, which consists of myself and some volunteers, work hard to get the information in the right hands to shake things up and wake people up! Our films will inspire and inform people about the primal period. This is my joy, and I always work collaboratively with other people, on art, films, and international round tables whose focus is on the beginning of life, on the mother-baby bond which shapes life. Everything that’s biologically sound, makes less waste, is less expensive, uses less non-renewable resources and creates deeper connection to life and greater joy. So, aren’t we lucky? We’re working in a field where we have everything on our side if we can just get through the issues of fear, control, trauma, and passivity. Everyone reading this knows somebody who is pregnant and alone, or being battered, who doesn’t speak English well, or doesn’t have enough food. We need to get out of our individualistic lifestyle. We are obliged to be our brother and our sister’s keeper.

HP: Thank you so much for spending time with Holistic Parenting magazine this afternoon! It’s been heartwarming and inspiring to talk with you.

MV: Thanks honey. I’m so delighted with what you’re doing. Holistic Parenting magazine is such an important project. May it grow and share inspiration with many!