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 have unprecedented levels of
distress and depression. Where our babies, with their colic, reflux, and
'sleep problems', are also having their distress medically treated. Where,
depression and anxiety are among the largest burdens of disease worldwide,
according to the World Health Organisation, and where children as young as
4 are being diagnosed with these conditions. And where our young people,
at the prime of their lives, are choosing in large numbers to opt out,
with mind-altering drugs, or to opt out 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 our primal environment,
which is 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". My belief is that we are
suffering in birth from lack of passion, of love, of surrender and of a
misunderstanding of our own power, and 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 and excitement. These hormones- the
body's 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 levels in both
mother and baby, we could say that it 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, creating loving, altruistic feelings
between mother and baby. Endorphins, hormones of pleasure and
transcendence, also peak at birth, as do the fight-or-flight, or
excitement hormones adrenalin and nor-adrenaline, (epinephrine and
norepinephrine) which, as well as protecting the baby from lack of oxygen
in the final stages of birth, ensure that mother and baby are both
wide-eyed and alert 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 processes of birth (and sex) and enhance
efficiency, safety and ease for both mother and baby, and their crescendo
at birth is, in other species (all mammals share the same hormones) a
necessary pre-requisite in switching on instinctive mothering behaviours.
Furthermore, this hormonal cocktail rewards birthing mothers with the
experience of ecstasy and fulfilment, making us want to give birth again
Not that birthing passionately means birthing painlessly. 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 becomes just one part of the process, and
something that she can respond to instinctively with resources such as
breath, sound and movement.
The problem in our times is that the passion of birth is not
recognised, nor allowed for. Thus 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 firstly
give ourselves permission to birth passionately, and choose a birth
setting and birth attendants with this in mind. It is likely that our
birth in these circumstances will be easier, helping us to step into new
motherhood gently and gracefully.
Passion is, to my mind, an opposite, and an antidote, for despair and
depression. This is clear physiologically and hormonally. If we give
birth, and are born, in passion, how different would 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 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 seen and experienced the enormous
passion that can be unleashed at birth, and which 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
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. Here again, our
hormones are directing us toward optimal and ecstatic experiences, yet
this system is also 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 be still be
significantly lessened- and she is more likely to have her baby pulled out
with forceps, as a result.
The drug syntocinon, which has been called the most abused drug in
obstetrics, is also implicated. It is a synthetic form of the hormone
oxytocin, and is used for induction and for augmentation (or acceleration)
of labour; almost half of women giving birth in Australia at present
receive large doses of this drug in labour for one of these reasons.
When a labouring woman has syntocinon administered by drip, for
induction or augmentation, her body will detect high levels of this drug
in the bloodstream and her brain will respond by cutting down the release
of her own oxytocin. We know that women in this situation are vulnerable
to haemorrhage after birth because of this, and even more syntocinon
becomes necessary to counter that risk. However, we do not know the
psychological effects of giving birth without the peak levels of oxytocin
that nature prescribes for all mammals.
French surgeon and natural birth pioneer Michel Odent believes that
when a baby initiates his own birth, he may be training himself to secrete
his own hormone of love. Odent also notes our society's deficits in our
capacity to love self and others, and he traces these problems back to the
time around birth, and especially to interference with the oxytocin
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…" peaking and subsiding with each
wave. 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 fact,
surrender is seen as a weakness in our culture, where we are universally
encouraged to be active and in control of our lives. This very yang, or
masculine attitude, may serve us in some circumstances, but we cannot
birth our babies through sheer force of will, and 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 bodies. This is not suprising, 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 to rescue us from even the remotest
possibility of danger.
Along with this forgetting of the awesome but natural power of our
female bodies, we have also lost our birthing 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 carry genetically the
birthing successes of all our foremothers, and that we know already how to
As midwife and author Jeannine Parvati Baker reminds us, giving birth
is women's spiritual practice, requiring "purity in strength, flexibility,
health, concentration, surrender and faith." It is also 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 egoic notions of control. This level of surrender will
also serve us well in 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 in which nature ensures
optimal mothering, and enhanced survival, for our young.
In surrendering to birth, we also learn about our role on the earth: we
are not 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 by the birthing woman. However a deeper analysis is necessary, I
believe, because the time has come to dispel this 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 doctors, 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 'normal 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 can 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, other's 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 placenta is continual communication with our
bodies, transferring blood and nutrients and organising, via the placental
hormones, 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, and show 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 technological test, to inform us. Often, the
truth of our bodies will unfold gradually, allowing us the space to learn
and adapt at our own pace and giving us opportunities for reflection and
When we choose this traditional women's path, the path of all our
foremothers, we discover, and reinforce, an inalienable trust and power in
ourselves and our female bodies. This deep faith is the best preparation
possible for birth, and is also, to my mind, is the basis of true
responsibility- we are able to respond with our own truth. We also become
able to use the medical system, if we choose, without giving away our
Beyond this, when we tap into women's ways of knowing, we open channels
of communication with our babies, enhancing the psychic powers of
communication that 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: again, 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 birthed, in possession of our own power and our 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 our Selves, our babies and the
With thanks to Jeannine Parvati Baker for many core ideas and
phrases; ecstasy in birth, 'healing the earth, healing birth': 'giving
birth is women's spiritual practice' (from Prenatal Yoga and Natural
Childbirth, Silver Anniversary Edition, Freestone Publishing/North
Atlantic Books, 2000) and 'the wound reveals the cure', which is the canon
of her Mystery school, Hygieia College. (www.freestone.org) . Thanks also,
for inspiration and ideas, to Leilah McCracken ( www.birthlove.com ),
Michel Odent, Shivam Rachana and the International College of Spiritual
Sarah Buckley is a Brisbane-based GP, writer and mother of 4 home-born
She is a foundation member of the International College of
Spiritual Midwifery. Her writing is also available on the Birthlove
This article was most recently
published in Byron Child Issue 3, Sept 2002 www.byronchild.com.
For Details about Sarah's brilliant new book see http://www.sarahjbuckley.com/
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