“Over the years I have developed a picture of what a human being living humanely is like. She is a person who understand, values and develops her body, finding it beautiful and useful; a person who is real and is willing to take risks, to be creative, to manifest competence, to change when the situation calls for it, and to find ways to accommodate to what is new and different, keeping that part of the old that is still useful and discarding what is not.”- Virginia Satir
What does it mean to be human? A complex question indeed. I invite you to close your eyes, and take a few moments to consider what it is that defines ‘human’ to you- emotionally, physiologically, spiritually.
Have you got some kind of concept in your mind? What is your picture of being human?
Birth, as in all biological processes, is inherently ‘human’. When talking of the long term effects of birth, I have often heard in both my professional and personal life, the phrase “Oh well, it’s just one day.”
I would disagree with this sentiment. It is just one day (or a couple of hours, or a few days or more depending on your unique labour), but it is one of tremendous significance.
Firstly, it is an event that has a deep and enduring effect on your psyche- it is one of those times you are likely to emotionally return to regularly, such as a first day of school, a wedding day, an experience of travel.
Secondly, there is much evidence to show that the experience of the birth has formative effect on the baby (not to mention the mother). Here I would like to explore just a few angles of how birth can mould our own sense of experience of being human.
Connection to Self
Noted cultural anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd examines the link between birth which is highly medicalised and intervened with (‘technocratic’ birth), and our disempowerment as humans.
Davis-Floyd sees birth as a ritual that, through repetition and symbolism, becomes a part of a culture. Within our Western culture, where the majority of births occur in hospital, and rates of intervention are high, we are creating a ritual in which mother and baby are disconnected from their bodies and their human power as a whole.
Says Davis-Floyd: “The demise of the midwife and the rise of the male-attended, mechanically manipulated birth followed close on the heels of the wide cultural acceptance of the metaphor of the body-as-machine in the West, and the accompanying acceptance of the metaphor of the female body as a defective machine.”[i]
This has not only personal meanings and effects, but grows to create cultural patterns- in this case, a culture less connected to it’s inherent humanity, and more reliant and connected to technology and that which lies outside us:
“Through these procedures the natural process of birth is deconstructed into identifiable segments, then reconstructed as a mechanical process. Birth is thereby made to appear as though it confirms, instead of challenges, the technocratic model of reality upon which our society is based.”[ii]
Connection to others
On a physiological level, the way we interact with birth can effect the flow of hormones that are intergral in mother-child bonding. Oxytocin is our body’s hormone of bonding and the physiological basis of mother and child falling in love. When synthetic versions of this hormone are used to start or speed up labour, natural oxytocin is blocked, and unfortunately, the mother-baby bond is in danger as synthetic oxytocin does not have the same love-inducing effects.
Revolutionary obstetrician Michel Odent states : “It can be claimed that one of the greatest peaks of love hormone secretion a woman can have in her life is just after childbirth if the birth happens without intervention with hormone substitutes. It also seems that the fetus releases oxytocin which could contribute to the onset of labor, and this may shape the baby’s own ability to release the love hormone.”[iii]
Connection to Nature and the Whole
Humanity, of course, does not happen in a vacuum. Our personal selves are part of the context of humanity as a whole, and wider than that, part of the intricately woven web of life that is life on this planet.
Does a medicalised birth effect our connection to the world around us- the natural world which is our ultimate context?
Paul Shepard, an eco-pscyhologist, states: “…damage to the fetus and neonate in hospital birth, through the anxieties of the distraught mother; …anaesthetics; pre-medication; the overwhelming sensory shock of bright lights, noisy surroundings and rough handling…and separation of the infant from the mother- all corrosing the psychogenic roots of a satisfactory life in a meaningful world.”[iv]
Medicalised birth interrupts the process of nature, and in that our inherent connection and feeling as ‘part of’ the natural world. And of course, in many cases, medical intervention in birth is warranted as life saving. However, my point is this: we need to be conscious of the full potential effects of this medical interference, so that we can make an informed choice about intervention, and can be better prepared to counter any negative effects once mother and baby are through the birth experience.
These brief points are a somewhat eclectic and incomplete exploration of how birth can affect our sense of being human, and how we manifest our humanity.
My view is that birth, in its significance and depth, creates us either towards a higher definition of humanity, or blocks our ability to manifest that human experience in some way. This happens in both the baby and the mother, as well as influencing the experience of humanity for those surrounding the birth.
Think back now to the concept of humanity you contemplated at the start of this post- in what ways can you see birth and coming into a sense of being human being linked?
[i] Robbie Davis-Floyd: The Technocratic Model of Birth. In Susan Tower Hollis, Linda Pershing, and M. Jane Young (eds) (1993) Feminist Theory in the Study of Folklore Champaign: University of Illinois Press
[iv] Paul Shepard: Nature and Madness In Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner (1995) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind Berkeley: Sierra Club Books