Birth, Love and Death
by Nick Owen

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 61, Spring 2002.]

It is a well-known fact that the template for a child's psychological development is laid down in earliest infancy. But did you ever consider that the experience of being born sets up the most fundamental predispositions and life reaction patterns we have? Our journey from the unborn world, inside our mothers, out into the big wide world of normal reality is the biggest transition we will ever make. What happens then, and how we react to those events, will stay with us for life, if we are not helped to undo the patterning. Furthermore, it is now possible for adults, children and even babies to get therapeutic help with that patterning.

These curious facts are most fully documented by that great researcher of human experience, the psychiatrist Dr. Stanislav Grof. Yet surprisingly, he did not start by exploring parenting and birth issues, which is the subject of this article, but rather peoples' experiences of dying. What he found was that we tend to imagine the processes of dying in terms of experiences that happened to us at our births. The imprinting lasts for a lifetime!

Another great psychologist, Dr. Arthur Mindell, explains that we can be either the heroines or the victims of our life dramas. If we can learn to flow with our experience rather than resist and suffer from it, then fear turns into excitement, pain turns into intensity. This approach to psychology and therapy is called Process-Oriented Psychology. I have developed what I call process-oriented birthing using Mindell's principles. Learning process-oriented birthing methods enables a woman to surf down the contractions, identifying with them rather than remaining within the normal rigid western ego, which experiences them as an overwhelming threat. When the woman can do this she can actually enjoy the flow of these intense experiences. Process work methods are also very helpful in building creative and transformative relationships with other inevitable challenges that come along to disturb our lives. Birth can be an intense, alive, erotic experience both for mother and baby.

But the kind of negative birth experience that is portrayed to us all in every sort of media from the medical to the melodramatic reinforces a set of expectations of victimhood and suffering for the mother. Pushed into this mindset by mainstream Western culture, the woman is likely to turn to the National Health Service as her saviour and rescuer. Furthermore, behind the scenes, the mother's own experiences of being born and going through this stage herself give shape to her expectations of having a baby. The worse her own birth-experience, the greater her fear of giving birth. Research by Professor Zichella, et al. at a large maternity hospital in Rome showed that women are likely to have easier births when they have first learned about their own birth stories. A woman's rational ideals may tell her to have a homebirth but the medicalisation of birth in this country has reached the point where in counties such as Oxfordshire it is all but impossible to choose a professionally assisted homebirth, because there is no midwifery service available outside hospital. Thousands of new midwives are needed, but the government has preferred to spend its money on hi-tech medicine and new hospitals. The pull of a woman's own past and the cultural pull of the medical mind-set drag her toward the hospital and away from her own natural capacity.

The offer "We can anaesthetize your pain" from the medical system is very seductive to the woman who is afraid of pain. Man or woman—who of us is not afraid of pain? But this attitude, that life is painful and pain can be blocked out, is all part of a deadening of life experience in general, an encouragement not to live an erotic and embodied life. Rather than being helped to develop an intuitive feeling of the life inside you through touch, movement, song, speech and feeling, you are exposed to mechanical ultrasound, which will frighten and disturb your baby, but will give you the two-dimensional visual reality of a photograph. The dominance of disembodied tele-visuality in our culture is such that the ultrasound picture often gives more sense of the baby as a living being than does the inner experience.

The crushing in of space that the baby feels is mirrored by the mother when she is squashed into a car and rushed off to hospital in a state of fear and anxiety. Baby is stuck in the womb. Mum and dad get stuck in the traffic. Having to relocate at this crucial time is disorienting and increases a sense of vulnerability. An erotic birth experience is very hard to reach for in a hospital setting under these circumstances. Pure, clean, aseptic or antiseptic brightness, whiteness, sharp corners and harsh smells are fundamental to what hospitals are about. The dominant theme and mindset of a hospital is the avoidance of death, not the creation of life.

On the other hand, the vibrant colours, sweet smells and tastes, softness, roundness and the relative calmness and darkness of a real home are what Eros enjoys. Home is about familiarity, not strangeness or novelty. The process of having to change setting raises the stress levels enormously. But the mother is conditioned by mainstream society to be more fearful about giving birth at home.

If the mother is happy and positive about giving birth naturally at home then the birth is likely to happen easily and successfully. Naturally born babies also tend to be born at night, when the world and mother are calm and relaxed, not when doctors and nurses are readily available to run through their day routines.

Some may be surprised to hear that women can experience birth as profoundly erotic. Erotic birth is the antithesis of medicalised birth. In her book Unassisted Childbirth, Laura Shanley writes, "In these pages I hope you will discover not only a new way of birthing, but a new way of being. If we can free ourselves from fear, shame, and guilt, pregnancy and birth become emotionally, spiritually and even sexually fulfilling experiences." We now know that the emotional states of the mother are communicated to the baby through the cord. If mother is anxious about the birth the baby will catch that anxiety. Sometimes people will need really skilled technical assistance and the loving support of an experienced midwife or doula (a doula is a trained birth assistant but not a nurse as such). In our culture a split in consciousness between mind and body, which philosophers call Cartesian Dualism, has led to the ego being cut off from the biological processes of our bodily being. To support a woman in being fully open to the deep eroticism of birth, a life-partner, or very close friend with training as a doula, might be more helpful than a normal midwifery service.

The end of the second stage comes with the full opening of the cervix. There is light at the end of the tunnel! This stage is the actual journey out of the womb and down the birth canal, the woman's vagina, and out into the new world. In the positive scenario it is an erotic baby who swims or crawls its way down the birth canal with the firm but gentle support of the mother's body. Frustration and blockages are normal and may feel hellish to mum and/or babe, but successful movement down the tunnel and out into the world can be orgasmic and heavenly for both. The babycentre.com Web site talks about this stage as transcendental, often involving an out-of-body experience. Grof calls this the matrix of heaven and hell. The pressures on the baby are so intense that the head is molded into quite a different shape, though if the traumatizing of the baby is not too bad the head will slowly return to a normal shape.

The experience here is the major template of all later empowerment and accomplishment in life. It also patterns failure, defeat and despair. It can be the precursor of permanent hostility to the environment, nature and the feminine. Interventions to extract the baby, whether forceps, caesarian or ventouse, lead both to a tendency to withdraw from the prospect of change and life opportunities, and an expectation of having to be rescued. Professor Vivette Glover has been researching perinatal stress levels formed in response to different kinds of birth experience. Her biochemical research shows that much higher levels of stress hormone response are set up in babies who have had a forceps delivery.

Major events later in life put us back in touch with birth. In terms of spiritual experiences, that wondrous light at the end of a tunnel, which so many people report when coming out of near-death experiences, may really be a recapitulation of the ordeal of birth, which had its own bright new world at the end of that first awesome tunnel.

Grof talks about this stage as a death/rebirth experience. The truth is that only a very few babies are "blue" and need bringing back from the dead. But psychologically, the pain may be so intense that it has to be blocked out as permanently as possible, so it is as if we had died and been reborn.

At this stage the baby completes the journey into the world and begins to connect with that world. The ends of the spectrum for this stage can bring brutalizing violence, abandonment, even murder, at one extreme, and blissful uninterrupted bonding with an ecstatic and fulfilled mother on the other. It used to be normal medical practise to hang a baby by its feet and bang it on the back till it screamed. A loud cry was seen as a good sign. Thank heavens for Frederick Leboyer and his pioneering work, Birth Without Violence.

A person may react to an emotional or physical abandonment at birth, either by repeating the experience compulsively in major life relationships, or by avoiding all deep personal intimacy so as never to have to approach that abandonment feeling again. Yet hospitals still routinely separated mothers and babies for considerable amounts of time after birth.

At the other end of the spectrum the most pleasurable way of birth is undoubtedly under water. The baby swims down under the water and comes to the surface on its own initiative. Trust it. Trust nature. The baby will spontaneously seek out the mother's nipple and feed when placed on the abdomen. There is no need to cut the cord till it has spontaneously stopped pulsing. This first reception into the outer world sets a template for our level of security in our outer environment.

Dr. William Emerson, a pre-eminent American researcher into birth psychology, states that the degree of psychological trauma in birth is inversely proportional to the degree of medical intervention. Medical intervention is sometimes necessary to save life. That is not in question. However, the more we intervene to try to take over from what is natural the more the baby is traumatized. Emerson and others have identified a whole range of potential trauma points, both physical and psychological, in the birth process and the characteristic symptomatology that will follow from these trauma points in the life of the child and adult. These traumas can be therapeutically remedied. We do not have to stay stuck all our lives with the imprints of our births! However, that is the subject of another article. A very significant proportion of the clients who have come to me for psychotherapy over the last 20 years have been either premature, and therefore incubated and cut off from human support, or separated from their mother at birth for a period of time. Mothers and babies need to feel safe and secure and held to be at home in the world. Medical control tends to break into this vital process and interfere with it.

We now have far more understanding of birth both for mother and baby than we have ever had. But we can use that knowledge wisely or unwisely. The hi-tech approach favoured in America is actually increasing perinatal mortality. In Holland next May we have an International Congress on Embryology and Therapy, which hopes to set an agenda for improving our way of birth in Europe. (Please see CONGRESS2002.COM for more information.) In England, organizations such as OPPERA (the Oxford Prenatal and Perinatal Education Research and Awareness Trust) and PIPPIN (Parents in Partnership, Parent-Infant Network) also have an important contribution to make.

There are two major areas in which parents should concentrate on educating themselves. First and foremost there is preparation for parenting. Relationships with the unborn baby can be built up both for mother and father before the birth and a continuity of relatedness established into postnatal life. In the future I hope that all prenatal education for parenting will include understanding of the birth and perinatal matrices as real emotional experiences for baby. The best introduction to this is Nikki Bradford's book The Miraculous World of Your Unborn Baby.

The second area is treatment for the effects of birth patterning. Many people have already experienced cranio-sacral therapy for birth problems and know how useful it can be. This form of therapy is called Birth Re-Facilitation. It works with emotional patterns as well as somatic structures. The child's unconscious world is full of birth material. Enid Blyton's immense success as a children's writer may have had something to do with the fact that her stories are full of tunnels, dungeons, caves and other narrow places that the children must struggle through to overcome their problems. Changing birth schemas is a very liberating thing for children. They want to work on their material over and over again till they have mastery of it. It is the parents who sometimes find it difficult and emotionally demanding if they have not learned about their own patterning before helping their children.

The unborn baby is truly a sentient and intelligent human being who has much to go through at birth. We owe it to future generations to change how we tackle birth experiences in order to make birth an easier transition, a gateway to a fuller life, not a narrow and traumatized one.

Nick Owen is a psychotherapist and director of the Oxford School of Psychotherapy and Counseling. He has 20 years of experience working with birth material. He also works for The Oxford Prenatal and Perinatal Education Research and Awareness Trust.


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