Copyright Dr Sarah Buckley 2020 This article may not be reposted or reproduced in any way without specific permission from the author. Contact Dr Sarah Buckley here.
First published in Living Now, Winter 2002, supplement Women Now and reprinted in Living Now in May 2009. An updated version is published in Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices (Sarah J Buckley, Celestial Arts, 2009)
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 procedure, with women and babies requiring technological protection from the natural process of their own bodies.
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 so many of us 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 depression, anxiety and even full post traumatic stress disorder following childbirth, and are told that they are ‘lucky to have healthy baby.’ Where new mothers are sent home from hospitals with their delicate bodies and vulnerable newborns, but little or no family or community support, and in some places, new mothers are expected to get ‘back to work’ at just 6 weeks postpartum. Where motherhood is both deified and denigrated, and all the tasks that comprise maternal care are not seen or counted, yet there is an epidemic of unspoken maternal guilt and a loud chorus of blame.
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 disrespect for mothers and babies, and 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.” 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 even higher levels in the first postpartum hour, creating loving, connected feelings between mother and baby. Endorphins, hormones of pleasure and transcendence, also peak at birth, as well as the fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine). 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 alert at first contact. Prolactin, the mothering hormone, helps us to surrender to our babies, giving us the most tender 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 by powerfully activating her brain rewards centres, providing ecstasy and fulfilment and 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 other mammalian species, switching 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 does not allow for 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. It is likely that 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 baby’s brain chemistry, which is being set even as we are born?
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. 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 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 require assistance to birth her baby with forceps or vacuum as a result.
Not only is oxytocin reduced in the labouring woman’s body with epidurals, it is also reduced in her brain, according to current understandings. This means that women who birth with epidural analgesia are likely to miss the pleasure and reward peaks, from birth to postpartum, when maximum oxytocin activity stimulates brain dopamine pathways. This stimulation imprints pleasure and reward in relation to newborn contact and care, and will continue to motivate and reward new mothers for the dedicated care that human babies–and all mammalian newborns–require.
Synthetic oxytocin (Syntocinon, Pitocin), which has been called the most abused drug in obstetrics, is also implicated. This drug is used for induction and for augmentation (or acceleration) of labour. Large numbers of women giving birth in developed countries receive large doses of this drug in labour for one of these reasons, although there is no evidence of benefit to mother or baby from speeding labour, beyond shortening the time by 2 hours
In addition, when a labouring woman has synthetic oxytocin administered by drip for induction or augmentation, her body’s uterine oxytocin receptors can 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 synthetic oxytocin becomes necessary to counter that risk.
Oxytocin is also the ‘cuddle hormone’ and is released in peaks during sexual activity and orgasm. This suggests that there may be more natural- and more pleasurable -ways to support labour progress. 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 fact, surrender is often seen as a weakness in our culture, where we are instead encouraged to be active and in control of our lives. This “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.
For modern women, difficulty with surrender may reflect a lack of confidence in our bodies. This is not surprising when our society is distrustful of the natural order in general, and women’s bodies in particular. In addition, a woman’s bodily experiences, including especially her sexual experiences, can impact her ability to trust and surrender in labour. A lack of trust can be 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 dangers.
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 carry genetically the birthing successes of all our foremothers and that we know already 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.” 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 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 assists us to mother with ease and pleasure.
Surrender in birth can bring us into even deeper levels, if we need to surrender to medical assistance or surgical birth. Having companions to support us on this path- a midwife, doula, or other wise women- will help us balance on this tightrope of surrender and trust, and to process our experiences into empowerment, victory and connection with our babies- our most profound teachers.
In surrendering to birth, we learn to be truly present to what is, and we can discover more about our role on the Earth. We are not the rulers or architects of creation. Life comes through us, with the most ease and grace, when we simply 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 this idea of a power imbalance and to assert our innate feminine authority in birthing.
We live in a culture that prizes, and puts its faith in, technology. We reward those, including 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 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 can 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 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 the traditional women’s path of inner, embodied connection, the path of our foremothers, we can both discover and reinforce an inalienable trust and power 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 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. 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 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 may be 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 passion, love, surrender, and power that we collectively generate as we birth our babies, however it unfolds.
And in healing birth, we are healing ourselves, our babies and the Earth.
Many people inspired this article. The late Jeannine Parvati Baker, who I was privileged to know personally as a friend and teacher, contributed some core ideas and phrases; “ecstatic birth”, ‘healing the Earth, healing birth’: ‘giving birth is women’s spiritual practice’ and ‘the wound reveals the cure’, which is the canon of her former Mystery school, Hygieia College. www.birthkeeper.com
Thanks also, for inspiration and ideas, to Leilah McCracken and her trailblazing website (now deleted) www.birthlove.com, to freind and mentor Michel Odent and deep gratitude for the gifts of my own children’s births.
This article also references my own research, presented in the chapter “Undisturbed Birth: Mother Nature’s Blueprint for Safety, Ease and Ecstasy” in my book, Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering and all other references will be found in that article.
For fuller scientific explanations and the most updated references, see my 2015 report Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing and related materials.
Maternal plasma levels of oxytocin during physiological childbirth Uvnas-Moberg et al 2019