An Open Letter from Suzanne Arms
Should we turn the care of our nation’s mothers and babies to the zookeepers? An American zoo is required to pay a hefty fee, follow stringent rules and show that it has the best possible environment for the privilege of being allowed to breed and raise a Chinese panda. That zoo cannot allow the baby Panda to be seen by the public until the baby has reached a certain age of maturity and had sufficient nurturing from mama panda. These standards are set by the Chinese government. The mother panda is equally and fiercely protective of her baby. That is her nature, just as it is the nature of human mothers to protect and nurture their babies.
How much attention, resources and care will the same U.S. city that houses a panda commit to meeting the full range of needs of the human babies born there? Panda mothers get special treatment, guaranteed by the Chinese government, because the thriving of baby pandas depends on the mama panda, supported and cared for by skilled zookeepers. How much attention, resources, care and commitment do we in the U.S. guarantee human mothers and their offspring?
Over the past 50 years we’ve seen huge changes in how we treat mothers and babies, yet nothing significant has changed!
In 1956, the vast majority of women were unconscious from drugs when they gave birth. That was standard, and those few women who fought to have “natural” childbirth seldom got it. The cesarean rate was less than 5%. Mothers and babies stayed in the hospital for a week; the babies were in the nursery and moms got to be with them an hour at a time to give them bottles.
Mothers were told by pediatricians that artificial formula was better and easier than breastmilk; so only a fraction of babies was breastfed at all. Infant day care by strangers, a phenomenon that came into existence during WWII, when women were needed in factories, was no longer in operation after the war. Moms were expected to stay home with their babies for the first year; they used quilted bottle proppers and playpens to free themselves and give them time to clean house and cook. At cocktail parties fathers bragged about how their little son or daughter was already eating meat (bottled baby food) by six weeks.
In 2006, the vast majority of women gave birth who gave birth still did so with narcotics and anesthesia, this time by choice. One out of three babies were “delivered” by major abdominal surgery: cesarean. The typical hospital stay was 12-24 hours. Women today are expected to return to work fulltime within just weeks of birth. There is still no national paid maternity leave policy. Pediatricians do tell mothers “breast is best”, but it can take up to three months to fully establish breastfeeding and few mothers have the time or support. When they have difficulties with breastfeeding and turn to their pediatrician, they are likely to be told to put the baby on formula.
Day care by strangers has become the norm, with special “sick day care” places to take the baby who is ill, so mom doesn’t have to miss work. Mothers are not expected to be with their babies fulltime during the first year but are supposed to juggle work, mothering, partnering and homemaking. Fathers and mothers brag to office-mates how early their baby son or daughter is going to day care to “get socialized”. What a baby learns when it has to share its daycare caretaker with three or more other babies is “There’s not enough for me”.
Today, a baby born in 33 other countries – including Cuba – has a better chance of surviving to his or her first birthday. Yet the U.S. , with our high-tech medicalized births, spends more money per baby than any country in the world and a greater percentage of our income on birth as well. Almost all women in the U.S. now get medical prenatal care.
Giving birth and being born in the U.S.A. shapes the lives of nearly 4 million women and 4 million babies every single year, plus the fathers and partners and siblings in their immediate family. The experiences they are having shape society.
We who care about pressing environmental and social issues need to be informed about what I believe to be the single most important, un-addressed , issue today: How we bring human beings into the world and how we treat their mothers.
The cat’s out of the bag about how risky this unregulated, profit-driven industry, is…and the woeful ignorance of not only us the public, but doctors and nurses who work in it, as well. I use the word ignorance because, why else would they continue to tell women that narcotics and anesthetics in labor have no effect on the baby, and that breastfeeding is just a personal choice… when there is decades of scientific evidence to the contrary? Why else would they lead women to believe that cesarean is a safe procedure for women to have, even when there is no medical reason, and ignore all the pile of evidence that vaginal birth has important lifelong benefits for both mothers and babies?
Why do so many educated women demand induction, epidurals and now “scheduled” cesareans without any labor?…It must be ignorance. The science is there telling us that anything other than natural childbirth, meaning the baby is full term and starts its own labor, is far better for mothers and babies and should be the gold standard for birth.
I’m reminded of Dicken’s opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities : “It was the best of time. It was the worst of times.” Utne Reader, in its March-April 07 issue, focused on birth and highlighted so many of the inequities and outright dangers of institutionalized birth. It didn’t give what may be the most telling statistic (besides our woeful stats on infant, neonatal and perinatal mortality): that 1 out of every 8 babies born in this country now arrives prematurely or has growth retardation (i.e. low birth weight). What’s more, these babies now come from all socio-economic classes, although they do occur more frequently among the poor, Hispanics and blacks.
Clearly chronic stress is an issue most childbearing women face . And so is the many environmental toxins that are now stored in women’s bodies! Just this morning my daughter, a doula, called to ask why I thought a middle class healthy woman she knows was having her third very premature baby. A few years back I would have wanted to know whether she smoked, her diet, her state of mind and level of stress. Today I found myself thinking first of what environmental toxins she’d been exposed to or ingested. After all, a study of newborns in Florida last year found 187 man-made chemicals in the cord blood of newborns, not one of which the human body is designed to know what to do with.
Yet, today, as bad as the state of birth is, we are fortunate. We have the option, as perhaps never before, to bring new human beings into this world consciously, understanding just how vulnerable – as well as resilient – babies and their mothers are. We have the research that proves the importance of doing this as well as new and safe ways for a man and woman to detoxify their bodies, as well as their thoughts, before they conceive a baby.
How little I knew when I first snuck into half a dozen major hospitals in the U.S. , in 1973, a college-educated middle class white girl, terrified of getting caught but driven by a passion to find out what was going on behind those closed doors of America ‘s labor units and newborn nurseries. I was horrified at what I witnessed – women lying in beds all alone, the verbal shaming by nurses and doctors, new parents who weren’t allowed even to hold their babies for twelve hours after birth because of hospital rules, which they didn’t know they could refuse. I brought a pad of paper, a pen, a tape recorder and a camera and recorded what I saw.
I was sure the country would want to know. That resulted in Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women and Childbirth. Barbara Walters interviewed me for the Today show was dismissive of what I had to say, but the book was an overnight success. In the next few years doctors screamed at me from escalators in hotels where conferences on birth were being held. In auditoriums where I spoke doctors and nurses stood up in outrage, including ones whose very research supported my claims that medicine was not following scientific evidence but fads.
In all my passion to make this society listen, I had no idea how naive I was about what birth really means, to babies as well as mothers. Thirty-four years later, I am continually astonished at how much I didn’t know, just fifteen years ago: about how the time from in our mother’s womb through birth and on to the first birthday literally shapes our brain and nervous system and that those experiences “hard-wired” you and me to trust – or fear – the world, other people, and ourselves.
I was stunned and disbelieving when, in the early nineties I heard clinicians and researchers at conferences talk about children remembering their birth, their life in their mother’s womb, and even conception. Cellular memory? I walked out of packed auditorium where cellular biologist Bruce Lipton was explaining the complex intelligence of cells.
Prenatal and perinatal psychology is a growing field today. There are entire research and clinical units on birth trauma in some British medical centers. It’s a fact: the experiences we have in the womb, at birth and in the first hours after, when our mind is ripe for the first impressions of our mother and life outside the womb, laid down physical traces in our nervous system and created patterns that made us either resilient, or vulnerable, to trauma and PTSD from later shocks, like abuse in childhood, rape or combat…
Now it is common knowledge among many researchers and clinicians that the thoughts and feelings a woman has before and during conception, in pregnancy, at birth and in the first hours with her baby outside the womb, literally shape her baby…shape the size of the baby’s ancient/reptilian hind brain, the part that governs survival, defense and aggression. Those experiences also shape her ability to mother, whether it’s with ease and joy, or difficulty and anxiety. And the relationship, the quality and depth of the bond she and her baby form lays down the pattern for all future relationships. Well, that information has helped me, and is helping many people come to terms with and heal the pattern of dysfunction in their relationships.
For decades scientists who study the female breast and breastfeeding have tried to get the word out that the process of suckling at the breast prevents problems in digestion and sleep, obesity and later disease, in both mother and the baby. Breastmilk is gold, a substance which not only builds immune systems but is able to rebuild an adult’s shattered immune system. Yet today it’s estimated are that 20 percent of babies are still being exclusively breastfed at two months of age. For every month a mother delays weaning her baby from breastmilk that baby is less and less likely to be obese when he or she enters school. Aren’t obesity, heart disease and diabetes in children a national scandal?
The artificial formula industry is gigantic and underwrites many medical conferences and hospital wings, and has lead the public to believe that, while “breastfeeding is best”, formula and bottle feeding is just as good. That’s double-talk, right? That ad campaign, combined with the lack of paid maternity leave, no support in the home for mothers and a public health campaign to keep parents from sleeping with their babies, has resulted in more and more American babies spending most of their waking hours in day care by strangers, coming home to exhausted parents, only to be fed second class food and spend the night alone. Is it any wonder how crazy, lonely, anxious, greedy, and depressed so many of us are?
Now, in just the last few years, we have mounting scientific evidence from cell biology, brain development, attachment research, proving what mystics and many tribes knew: each mother and baby is a whole system and what you do to one affects both of them. Literally women who bring children into the world shape the future by shaping their child’s body, mind and spirit.
Who would have thought, what some parents, growing numbers of clinicians and many adults now have experienced: remembering the details of experiences that happened to them at conception and in the womb, long before there were enough cells to form a brain that could remember.
If we want peace so much, if we really desire to heal the damage we’ve done to this our mother, earth, then we must have human beings who are thriving – not coping or surviving, wrapped in defensive aggression and greed, or hopelessness and self-destructive urges. We can’t wait for the “system” to respond and change. We must be the ones to break our longstanding fear of birth and help each other birth the next generation in a state of trust, not fear and rear children who are curious, compassionate, generous, creative and cooperative.
My conclusions are not new. Many philosophers and ancient societies have reached the same one. Simply put: Can there be any more important task than bringing a human being into this world? Today, with no tribe or village to support parents, can there be any more important task than being a mother of a baby during the primal period of that child’s development, from pre-conception to the first birthday?
Isn’t it time to rethink everything about birth? Let’s teach our children about bringing life into the world, rear boys to respect the feminine in themselves and to honor girls and women…give every pregnant woman and new mother all that they need – especially freedom from chronic stress – so they are confident, happy and playful mothers! Wouldn’t we have wanted that for ourselves? And, with more and more women entering pregnancy without a partner or being abandoned in pregnancy or leaving a dangerous partner, parenting a baby along, community support for single mothers must be a priority.
I say, let’s sound the bell for universal full pay maternity leave for at least 1 year, plus a second year at half pay (some European countries do this now). Studies have been done that show full, paid maternity leave will not cripple American industry or small business. We need paternity/partner leave for at least 6 months as well! (Again, it’s already being done in other countries). Extend maternity and paternity leave to adoptive parents too.
1. “A midwife for every mother”
2. Natural birth at home our model for normal birth
3. Doctors and hospitals only for those who need them
Let’s create sanctuaries for birth in all settings – home, hospital and neighborhood birth centers.
4. Let’s have a national campaign to stop training obstetricians and pay current ones who don’t believe in natural birth to shift careers, until we have 8 midwives for every doctor in birth, the way Holland does.
Back in 1999, one of our foremost neonatal pediatrician/neonatologists, Dr. Marshall Klaus, called for the closing of all well-baby nurseries in hospitals.
5. Close all hospital well-baby newborn nurseries . It’s time.
6. Let’s campaign to get our hospitals to turn all intensive care baby units into mother-baby units, with the baby and the mother in the same bed and cared for by the same nurse! I photographed a large hospital in Paris that does that!
7. Let’s make sure that everyone who has complications or trauma from birth (babies as well as mothers, fathers too) receives the attention and care they need to heal.
8. Give tax deductions for every month a woman continues to breastfeed and make it unlawful for formula companies to advertise or give products to mothers in hospitals. Now, there’s a public health policy worth supporting!
I can go further. Children benefit when their parents live in community and single mothers especially need community.
9. Let’s use the co-housing model , create subsidized cooperative living for the most stressed childbearing women in our society. They’re raising the kids who will be our hope for the future, right?
Of course our nation’s fathers need to be encouraged and inspired and supported to become the very best, engaged fathers they can.
10. We need both free parenting classes and support circles of wise elder dads and grandfathers nurturing and teaching new dads. What’s keeping from implementing any of this, except profit motives and a general sense of hopelessness?
11. It’s time to insist our country have national policy where every woman receives 3 months paid maternity leave prior to birth and six months full paid leave after birth, with another 6 months half-pay and their jobs guaranteed if they choose to return to work, starting half-time. Many other countries have been doing this for years and at least one, Sweden , gives fathers/partners some paid leave to be home with their baby as well!
Evidence abounds that every mother-baby is a whole biological system and that human babies are born physiologically quite immature (more like puppies than colts or calves) and need to be worn against the human breast or chest for most of every day, during the first months. Intimate human contact – heart to heart, eye to eye, voice, touch, movement, mindful thoughts and a sense of inner peace, is crucial to our sanity.
12. Let’s gift every new mother, every new father with a soft baby carrier to “wear” their baby.
13. Of course, we also need jobs and professions – not just work places –which are truly family-friendly . And, while we are setting about to make this nation safe for babies and their parents… let’s do something that will benefit everyone.
14. Let’s begin inspiring and pressuring our local, state and national government representatives to shift from a 40+ to a universal 32-hour work week. There have already been studies showing this is feasible. Think of all the gains!
I am happy to be alive at a time when there’s so much possibility and so many of us working to make a positive difference! Birthing The Future®, the not-for-profit organization I’m part of, is one of literally thousands of grassroots birth-related organizations around the world which are putting out new vision, creating practical models, and taking a stand for human ecology and consciousness in birth. We, for example, gather the finest ancient wisdom and modern science in support of mothers and babies as one biological system. Perhaps you’ll be excited enough to get involved with one of these groups!
Thanks for everything you’re already doing. Let the dialogue begin!
Birthing The Future®, www.BirthingTheFuture.org
Bayfield , Colorado
You can become a member of BTF if you want to participate in our projects!