Birth, she is dying
This primal and unspeakably powerful initiation, the only road to motherhood for our ancestors, has been stripped of her dignity and purpose in our times. Birth has become a dangerous medical disease to be treated with escalating levels, and types, of technological interventions.
What is worse perhaps is that the ecstasy of Birth – her capacity to take us outside (ec) our usual state (stasis) – has been forgotten, and we are entering the sacred domain of motherhood post-operatively, even post-traumatically, rather than transformationally.
These deviations from the natural order, whose lore is genetically encoded in our bodies, have enormous repercussions.
We live in a society where new mothers experience unprecedented levels of distress and depression, and where our babies also show significant signs of stress, through colic, reflux, and sleep problems. We live in a society where depression and anxiety are among the largest burdens of disease worldwide, according to the World Health Organization; where children as young as four are being diagnosed with these conditions; and where young people, at the prime of their lives, are choosing in large numbers to opt out of reality, with mind-altering drugs, or to opt out of life permanently through suicide.
More than this, we have set ourselves as a species on the road to self-destruction through our despoiling of our collective mother, the Earth. The havoc that we wreak through waste and greed has many parallels with our treatment of mothers and babies and of our primal environment – our mother’s womb.
And just as we have pitted ourselves against the Earth, forgetting that we are interdependent, so too have we begun to pit the rights of the baby against the rights of the mother; imagining a separation, a competition, that does not and cannot exist.
The wounds of Birth and of the Earth are severe but, as the Goddess Hygieia tells us, “The wound reveals the cure”.1 My belief is that we are suffering in birth from lack of passion, of love, of surrender, and from a misunderstanding of our own power, and I believe that these qualities can provide us with a way of healing birth and, at the same time, healing the Earth.
We all began our lives in a passionate act. Our human bodies crave the intensity and pleasure that sex brings and many cultures have recognised the capacity for healing that is inherent in the sexual act. Why is sex so powerful? As well as giving us the potential to create new life – the ultimate power – sex involves peak experiences, and peak hormone levels, of love, pleasure, excitement, and tenderness. These hormones (our bodies’ chemical messengers) and their actions are exactly the same as those of birth.
In other words – giving birth is, inherently and hormonally, a passionate and sexual act. From the perspective of hormone activity in both mother and baby, we could say that birth is the most passionate experience that we will ever have.
Oxytocin, the hormone of love, builds up during labour, reaching peak levels at the moment of birth and creating loving, altruistic feelings between mother and baby. Endorphins, hormones of pleasure and transcendence, also peak at birth, as well as the fight-or-flight hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline and noradrenaline). These fight-or-flight hormones protect the baby from lack of oxygen in the final stages of birth and ensure that mother and baby are both wide-eyed and excited at first contact. Prolactin, the mothering hormone, helps us to surrender to our babies, giving us the tenderest of maternal feelings as our reward.
But these passionate hormones are not just feel-good add-ons. They actually orchestrate the physical processes of birth (and sexual activity) and enhance safety, ease and pleasure for both mother and baby. This hormonal cocktail also rewards birthing mothers with the experience of ecstasy and fulfilment, making us want to give birth again and again. All mammals share virtually the same hormonal crescendo at birth, and this is a necessary pre-requisite for mothering in most species, and switches on instinctive maternal behaviour.
Birthing passionately does not necessarily mean birthing painlessly (although this may happen for some women). Giving birth is a huge event, emotionally and physically, and will make demands on the body equivalent to, for example, running a marathon. But when a woman feels confident in her body, well supported, and able to express herself without inhibition, the pain that she may feel can become bearable and just one part of the process. She can then respond instinctively with her own resources, including her most basic and accessible tools: breath, sound, and movement.
The problem in our times is that the passion of birth is neither recognised nor accommodated. Birth has become a dispassionate medical event, usually occurring in a setting that discourages emotional expression. If we are to reclaim our birthing passion, we must give ourselves permission to birth passionately and we must choose our birth setting and birth attendants with this in mind. Birth in these circumstances will be more straightforward, with enhanced hormonal flow and less need for interventions, helping us to step into new motherhood with confidence and grace.
Passion, to my mind, is an opposite and an antidote for despair and depression, and an antidote for both conditions. This is clear physiologically and hormonally. If we give birth, and are born, in passion, how different will our primal emotional imprint be? And what about our brain chemistry, which is being set even as we are born? Some studies have linked exposure to drugs and medical procedures at birth with an increased risk of drug addiction, suicide and anti-social behaviour in later life, and other commentators have suggested that contemporary problems such as learning disorders and ADHD may also be linked to drugs and interventions at birth.
As a birthing mother I have both witnessed and experienced the enormous passion that can be unleashed at birth, and that can fuel both passionate motherhood and a lifetime’s work on behalf of mothers, babies and the Earth, and I ask: “Can we afford, as a species, to be born – and to give birth – dispassionately?”
Passion and love are as powerful a combination at birth as they are in sexual activity. And in birth, as in sex, we release oxytocin, the hormone of love, in huge quantities from deep inside our brain. Here again, our hormones are directing us toward optimal and ecstatic experiences, yet this system is also extremely vulnerable to interference.
For example, a labouring woman’s production of oxytocin is drastically reduced by the use of epidural pain relief – this is the reason why epidurals prolong labour. And even when an epidural has worn off, her oxytocin peak, which causes the powerful final contractions that are designed to birth her baby quickly and easily, will still be significantly lessened and she is more likely to have her baby pulled out with forceps as a result.
The drug Syntocinon (Pitocin), which has been called the most abused drug in obstetrics, is also implicated. A synthetic form of the hormone oxytocin, it is used for induction and for augmentation (or acceleration) of labour. The majority of women who labour and give birth in Australia (and the US) receive large doses of this drug in labour for one of these reasons.
When a labouring woman has Syntocinon administered IV for many hours, her body’s oxytocin receptors will lose their sensitivity and ability to respond to this hormone. We know that women in this situation are vulnerable to haemorrhage after birth, and even more Syntocinon becomes necessary to counter that risk.
We do not know, however, what the long-term consequences of interference with the oxytocin system may be for mothers and babies, and for their ongoing relationship. Animal models suggest that hormonal interference close to birth may produce life-long deviations in hormones and behaviour.
I had a very powerful experience of oxytocin as the hormone of love while labouring with my fourth baby, Maia Rose. As the waves of labour strengthened I found myself looking into the eyes of my beloved, telling him “I love you, I love you, I love you…” as each wave of labour washed over me. This ecstatic experience has created more love in my heart, in our relationship, and in our family, and has taught me, in a very physical way, that giving birth is also making love.
Surrender is not a popular virtue in the West. In fact, surrender is often seen as a weakness in our culture we are instead encouraged to be active and in control of our lives. This very yang, masculine attitude may serve us in some circumstances but we cannot birth our babies through sheer force of will. We need to learn the more subtle – yet equally powerful – path of surrender.
I sense that, for modern women, difficulty with surrender can reflect a lack of confidence in our female bodies. This is not surprising when our society is distrustful of the natural order in general and women’s bodies in particular. This view is further reinforced by the obstetric model, with its long lists of all that can possibly go wrong with our birthing bodies, and its myriad of technological fixes, designed to rescue us from these exaggerated dangers.
Surrender can be particularly problematic for women who have experienced some form of violation or abuse in the past, especially sexual abuse. Women with this history need particularly sensitive and supportive care in labour and birth, so that they can feel safe enough to surrender.
Along with this forgetting of the awesome but natural power of our female bodies, we have also lost our birthing patrons: the goddesses and saints who have, for millennia, guided women through this transition, where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. Today this guidance is available to us, when and if we need it, in the living form of a midwife: a woman who has pledged to be with (mid) women (wyfe) in birth. A good midwife can remind us by her presence that we genetically carry the birthing successes of all our foremothers and that we already know how to give birth.
As midwife and author, the late Jeannine Parvati Baker reminds us, giving birth is women’s spiritual practice, requiring “… purity in strength, flexibility, health, concentration, surrender and faith”.1 It has also been said that to be consciously present at birth is equivalent to seven years of meditation. When we birth consciously, putting our great rational mind on hold and allowing our instinctive nature to dominate, we can access the wisdom that all spiritual traditions teach: that the ego is our servant, not our mistress, and that our path to ecstasy and enlightenment involves surrendering our egoistic notions of control. This level of surrender will also serve us well through our many years of motherhood.
When we surrender conscious control, we also allow our deeper innate rhythms to surface: this can be a profound experience for a birthing woman. In allowing her labour to go at its own pace, without hurry or interference, a woman learns to trust her own, and her baby’s, natural rhythms. Such trust is another gift; another way that Mother Nature ensures optimal mothering and maximum survival for our young.
In surrendering to birth, we also learn about our role on the earth: we are neither the rulers nor the architects of creation. Life comes through us, simply and gracefully, when we allow it.
It is easy to say that our problems in birth stem from the excessive power of the medical system and its agents, and a lack of power for the birthing woman. However, a deeper analysis is necessary, I believe, because the time has come to dispel the idea of a power imbalance and to assert our innate authority in birthing.
We live in a culture that prizes, and puts its faith in, technology. We reward those, such as physicians, who are masters of technology and indeed we are fortunate to have their skills available to us when we need them. And even though we may want less technology in birth, we are witnessing more and more litigation against obstetricians, almost all of which blames them for not using enough technology.
Along with technology, we also prize information. In pregnancy and birth, becoming informed is equated with being responsible, both of which are strongly encouraged culturally; yet there is also a price to pay. We may have all of the information in the world, but we cannot predict our experiences in birth. And we diminish our own authority in birthing and in mothering – we disempower ourselves – when we put more faith in information from the outside (tests, scans, others’ opinions) than our own internal knowing of our bodies and our babies.
The truth is that our babies are constantly informing us of their needs and desires, and how we can best care for them. This is a physiological reality – the baby’s placenta is in constant communication with our bodies, transferring blood and nutrients and generating the placental hormones that organise our bodies and our psyches for the optimal and specific mothering that this baby requires. In the same way, our cravings, yearnings, dreams, and inclinations in pregnancy can be communications from our babies, showing us the deeper ways of knowing that are richer and more true, even if less numerical or detailed, than information from the outside, such as medical tests.
In fact from the very beginning, when we first suspect that we are creating new life in our womb, we can use this ancient system and allow our bodies, rather than a pregnancy test, to inform us. Often the truth will unfold gradually, allowing us the space to learn and adapt at our own pace, and giving us opportunities for reflection and dreaming.
When we choose this traditional women’s path, the path of all our foremothers, we can both discover and reinforce an inalienable trust in ourselves and in our female bodies. This deep faith is the best preparation possible for birth and is also, to my mind, the basis of true responsibility; we are able to respond with our own truth. We can also use the medical system, if we choose, without giving away our power.
Beyond this, when we tap into women’s ways of knowing we can open channels of communication with our babies, enhancing the psychic powers of communication that Mother Nature intends for mothers of all species. Mothering can become a meditation, a deep mindfulness that is satisfying spiritually as well as physically and emotionally. I believe that this is nature’s intent and a possibility for all of us.
How would it be to live in a society where we are all, through giving birth or being born, in possession of our own power and our own deep knowing? Where science and technology are our tools, rather than our masters? How differently would we treat our babies? How differently would we treat each other? How differently would we treat the Earth?
Birth is dying, but, like cells in her body, we each have the power to enliven her and to resurrect her in all her glory. What is needed, I believe, is the collective passion, love, surrender, and power that we pour into the ether as we birth our babies.
And in healing Birth, we are healing ourselves, our babies and the Earth.
[A previous version of this article was published in Living Now, Winter 2002, supplement Women Now. This updated version published in Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices (Celestial Arts, US 2009), available from www.sarahjbuckley.com and wherever books are sold.]
- Baker JP. Hygieia College Mystery School
- Baker JP. Prenatal Yoga and Natural Childbirth. 3rd ed. Berkeley CA: North Atlantic Books; 2001.
Dr Sarah J Buckley is a GP, author of Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering and currently full-time mother to her four children, all born at home.
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