A little boy in India went up to a guru who was sitting and looking at something in his hand. The little boy went up and looked at it. He didn’t quite understand what it was, so he asked the guru, "What is that?"
"It’s a cocoon," answered the guru, "Inside the cocoon is a butterfly. Soon the cocoon is going to split, and the butterfly will come out."
"Could I have it?" asked the little boy.
"Yes," said the guru, "but you must promise me that when the cocoon splits and the butterfly starts to come out and is beating it’s wings to get out of the cocoon, you won’t help it. It is important not to help the butterfly by breaking the cocoon apart. It must do it on it’s own."
The little boy promised, took the cocoon, and went home with it. He then sat and watched it. He saw it begin to vibrate and move and quiver, and finally the cocoon split in half. Inside was a beautiful damp butterfly, frantically beating its wings against the cocoon, trying to get out and not seeming to be able to do it. The little boy desperately wanted to help. Finally, he gave in, and pushed the two halves of the cocoon apart. The butterfly sprang out, but as soon as it got out, it fell to the ground and was dead. The little boy picked up the dead butterfly and in tears went back to the guru and showed it to him.
"Little boy," said the guru, "You pushed open the cocoon, didn’t you?"
"Yes," said the little boy, "I did."
The guru spoke to him gravely, "You don’t understand. You didn’t understand what you were doing. When the butterfly comes out of the cocoon, the only way he can strengthen its wings is by beating them against the cocoon. It beats against the cocoon so it’s muscles will grow strong. When you helped it, you prevented it from developing the muscles it would need to survive."
Birth, like the chrysalis, has a certain biological function that is necessary to ensure optimal health for both mother and child. When the natural process is circumvented, the consequences can often be dire. Researching into the myriad ways birth interventions cause unnecessary complications can attest to this. Birth has become so feared that women seek to numb themselves from the process and forego overcoming the unique challenges and reaping its physical and emotional rewards. Though the harm may be more subtle with human dyads, the impact that the birthing process has on a mother and child are far-reaching and are not given enough importance.
The recent fad of requesting cesareans without medical need (or even having c-sections done unnecessarily, disguised as medical need) is an obvious example of just how disconnected women have become with their own bodies; that somehow its natural processes must be skipped over entirely rather than embraced. This fear is also reflected by care providers and the media who emphasize that women’s bodies are flawed and incapable of fulfilling their biological function. The result of this fear is that birth as a process is disrupted, and so then also is the symbiotic relationship between woman and child often resulting in unhealthy emotional attachments and disconnected parenting choices.
Emotional Health is Essential
A woman’s perception about her manner of birth affects her psyche in profound ways. Contrary to popular belief, simply birthing a ‘healthy child’ does not ensure a happy initiation into motherhood. The manner in which infants are born deeply affects both parties but often these feelings are dismissed because we are told that a live baby is all that matters. However like all denied feelings, they have a way of cropping back up and wrecking emotional havoc. A woman’s emotional health will dictate how effectively she connects to her child and how she parents. No one can deny the importance of an emotionally stable mother. And yet a mother’s emotional needs are often belittled in the typical maternity care model and this has a severe impact on the family.
A woman’s initiation into motherhood impacts the way she is able to parent by affecting the important biological responses that ensure that she connects to her child emotionally. There are a slew of hormones that ensure healthy bonding and these are only initiated if the birth process is left unhindered. This is often referred to as the ‘birthing high’. How many mothers boast of this feeling? A lot less than there should be. Every birthing woman deserves to experience the elation of birthing their child into the world. It can be wondrous, empowering, and liberating. Can mothers and babies adapt if this process is interrupted? Absolutely! It just requires more energy to deal with the unique challenges this type of disruption can create.
When women experience an invasive birth, they are often left feeling powerless, overwhelmed, and scared. Their physical health is given priority and their emotional health is often ignored by their care providers. They then question themselves and their bodies and this doubt de-stabilizes them, leaving them open to damaging advice from others that are not in tune to both their children’s and their needs. A woman who loses faith in her body and its cues may lose faith in her intuition as well. As a new parent, this doubt can manifest in denying their need to respond to their infant’s cries promptly and instead seek to force unnatural behaviour based on cultural influences rather than biological need. Most mothers who hear a distressed infant seek to comfort them, denying this natural prompt is not healthy for either party. Though emotional disconnect is not limited to birth manner, as societal influences will also affect this, it can certainly incite it.
Recognizing Birth Trauma
A woman who subconsciously mourns her birth has unresolved feelings that can manifest in various ways. Most often it is noticed in a denial of the importance of the event, or by an attack of alternate birthing choices. Facing those repressed feelings is a process that requires reflection, insight, and forgiveness and is subject to the same steps that any type of mourning requires.
At first a mother may be in shock about the entire birthing process, overwhelmed emotionally and so disconnects from the event as a means of protecting herself. She may avoid talking about the birth and thinking about it, preferring to focus solely on caring for the infant as a means of distracting herself from facing the difficult emotions. She may be withdrawn and focused on the infant but not show any obvious signs of distress or even elation about becoming a mother. She may then move into a denial phase by claiming ‘a healthy baby is all that matters’, ‘it had to happen this way because x-y-z, or other such justifications (some interventions may have been necessary, others debatable but it is the need to justify by escalating their importance is the key here). If she is ready to look deeper into herself and be honest about her experience, she may feel guilty about not making the ‘right’ choice that could have made a difference in her experience. This can even move into feelings of anger about how she was treated by others, anger at herself for not making a different choice, and anger directed at anything related to the event. The feelings of sadness and anger can depress her for a period of time as she processes through her feelings and impressions. Eventually she can resign herself to letting go of the past while learning from it and hope then can manifest in a desire to seek more information and make different choices for future births.
I experienced firsthand the results of a medically assisted birth, with my initiation into motherhood being less than optimal. I suffered from PPD and PTSD and had trouble emotionally bonding with my son at first because our birth was disrupted with foreign chemicals and invasive procedures. We also had trouble establishing our nursing relationship but my choices to co-sleep, baby-wear, and seek lactation advice helped us re-connect like we should have initially. I feel cheated out of birthing the way my body was designed to do and the emotional and physical repercussions of that still affect me to this day. I have been blessed to have a supportive circle of friends and family that helped me slowly heal from what I had experienced, offering me insight as to how to prevent it for future births as well. I have since met other women with similar impressions about their birth and the hurt it causes runs deeper than most people are willing to admit.
How an Empowered Birth Transforms Us
Enduring the unique challenges that birthing a child creates can be empowering and transformative. When we have an empowering birth experience we are confident in our ability to make sound decisions in regards to our children and it strengthens our resolve in safekeeping this precious life. We discover just how powerful we are as women, carrying life and birthing it into the world. It is a triumph worthy of praise. We have reason to be proud of ourselves. The amazing hormonal cocktail that our body produces also allows us to bond with our infants seamlessly, attuning to their needs on an emotional and physiological level. It allows us the opportunity to open our hearts more fully and deepen our capacity for compassion by attuning ourselves to another’s needs completely. An infant’s needs are paramount and immediate, requiring us to delay our own gratifications to tend to theirs as they depend on us completely for physical survival and emotional health. When we embrace the concept that we are no longer simply an ‘I’ but a ‘we’, our ability to connect with others on an intimate level is also enhanced. When birth is embraced, so is motherhood and this positive initiation leads the way to embarking on a transformative parenting journey.
Ideas for Positive Change
In order to reclaim our birthing power we must first re-educate ourselves on the natural processes and dispel any myths that incite fear that prevent us from embracing it fully. We need to actively seek to change the maternity care system in our communities by voicing our needs and being firm in their importance.
This means we need to put pressure on our medical associations to provide funding for research in developing evidenced-based care rather than the ‘it has always been done like so’ attitude that currently prevails.
We must demand better maternity care in our hospitals by being firm that our needs must be respected and to encourage cooperation between various care providers. Continuity of care is important in developing a healthy patient-provider relationship.
Our medical teams must also be re-educated on normal birthing techniques or be willing to give over the reins to educated midwives and doulas to handle the majority of healthy pregnancies and births. This will leave them open to dealing with actual emergencies effectively and prevent them from causing complications because of over-involvement.
We must actively seek positive support people ourselves like midwives, doulas, and lactation consultants to be our advocates during our vulnerable labouring and early motherhood period. Funding for the professional development of such persons is a priority of our governments. Investing in women and their children can only benefit society as a whole.
We must foremost educate our youth about having an empowering birth and parenting experience by being open about the natural processes and their beauty, and willingly offering resources to finding information. They cannot exercise informed consent if they are not aware of their options. When birth is kept behind closed doors and left up to the media to impart imagery, we allow fear and misinformation to dominate. The growing trend of positive birth videos, personal posts, support groups, and forums are excellent ways to change cultural attitudes about birth.
Birth does not need to be traumatising, simply endured, or completely avoided if adequate support and healthy beliefs are passed on woman to woman. Women need to reclaim birth as a means to reclaiming their power and using it to transform not only themselves, but their children and our world.