Response to Newsweek Spring 1997

To: the editor and staff of Newsweek Magazine,

From: Suzanne Arms

One Woman’s Response to The Spring 1997 Special Newsweek Issue, “Your Child“.

The following four paragraphs are personal story, from my family. Before I comment on what is missing from this highly promoted and popular issue of Newsweek magazine, I would like to create a context for my comments. I hope that you will then understand that what I have to say is not about blaming the health care profession. Rather, it is to shed light on the tragic plight of millions of American mothers and babies as a result of contemporary orthodox birthing practices, and the need to inform ourselves and put an end to the culture of fear, mistrust and deception and trauma that is The American Way of Birth. We cannot begin to heal a misguided profit-driven system of health care as long as we remain in denial or ignorance.

[The following personal story was written April 19, 1997, after reading that issue]

“Today is my 53rd birthday. It is also the anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Brian, the only son of two New Jersey school teachers, was a brilliant geophysicist who, at the age of 28, ingested cyanide to put an end to his suffering. It was the eve of his talk at a National Science Foundation conference 35 years ago but the effects live on in his extended family system today. It’s not the results of his suicide that concern me here but the causes. For I am certain that the roots of Brian’s pain began with his experiences during birth. Certainly a pattern of abuse that existed in our family contributed to the problems that plagued my brother as he grew. Being taunted and shamed by our mentally ill, macho father and not protected by our mother, only perpetuated a pattern of fear, self-doubt and mistrust of others that began long before.

Brian was born in the standard way in 1938. His mother, a bright, educated woman, was completely unconscious during most of her labor from the cocktail of narcotics and amnesiac drugs called “twilight sleep” that was administered routinely. She was unable to participate in the birth of her baby, who received the drugs given to her through the blood they shared via his umbilical cord. Brian was born so jittery and hyper-reactive to the slightest touch that the doctor remarked upon it. “He’s overly sensitive”, my mother was told, “hyper-kinetic”. His mother went on, according to the standard of the day, to follow her doctor’s dictate to bottle feed her firstborn, because, as he told her, “Your nipples are too small. Anyway, you’re not a cow”. She also followed the standard advice to put Brian in a crib in his own room after every 4-hour feeding, so he would be undisturbed. She told me near the end of her life how bad she felt that she had not listened to her own “gut” feeling. For my brother had what is still euphemistically known as “colic” and cried a great deal much of every day for months. And our mother was instructed not to pick him up between feeds, except to bathe him, change his diaper, and give him a walk in the pram. All this was in order that Brian not be “spoiled”.

“I’d hear him screaming when he woke up. But it wasn’t time for the next feeding. So I would stand outside the closed door to his room and cry along with him.” What sense did my brother make of his abandonment by his mother? The pattern his nervous system learned followed the trauma of a birth where his mother was not there for him and he was pulled from her with forceps, suffering from the drugs given to her. (Berry Brazelton was one of the first pediatricians to observe that babies in hospital wellbaby nurseries in the late 1960 were not sleeping but suffering from the toxic effects of drugs in their bodies). He believed that no one was ever going to be there for him. And his profound lack of trust in the maternal of course led him to a wife who could not nurture. That, combined with the sense of shame from his father, combined with his innate drive and mental genius, created a scientist plagued with low self esteem and self-criticism. A man very much alone and never good enough. He told me, when he learned I was in therapy for my depressions, “I’m surprised at you, Suzanne. If a person can’t handle his own problems, he should be dead.” And on another occasion, “If a scientist hasn’t made a contribution to his field by the age of 27, he’ll never make it. He might as well be dead.”

My birth and first months is a different story, also replete with unacknowledged early trauma and subsequent abuse and non-protection. My sister’s too. I wish our stories were uncommon in this country. But they’re not. We need only to look around us, at the extent of loneliness, depression, addictions, violence and despair so many children and adult are acting out. Child suicides are just the tip of the iceberg. There is another deeper Newsweek special edition to be written. You are the only news magazine or newspaper I regularly read. I hope you’ll take up the challenge. I can help by providing the contacts, the people who would make this complex issue understandable to your readers.

Will you?

Thank you! I am just one voice among many who have, for the past 25 years, struggled to help Americans (including ourselves) to wake up from our drugged, benumbed state of denial and feel the importance of our early life. Only then will we understand what our hyper-stimulated, anxious pace, and our drive to fill the hole inside us with things we can buy, is doing to us – especially our young.

I am one of more than 100 million Americans born to 4 generations of women who, from 1915 to 1975 were unconscious for childbirth. We were also separated from our mothers for hours or days after birth, placed in the hospital nursery and cared for by strangers. We were offered only the paltry substitute of a bottle, artificial teat and formula for what we really needed – the warm, soft, fragrant, breast of our mother, and the security of her soft arms.

I can attest to how difficult it is to reconnect with our bodies after such alienating and traumatic beginnings. How hard it is to trust the process of our own bodies and babies to conduct birth without outside management and intervention. How difficult to trust, to form and maintain intimacy with others. And how much we are out of sync with the natural pace and rhythm of nature and our own bodies.

As a photojournalist who has observed and documented hundreds of births and mother-baby care on four continents (and listened to countless women’s stories from around the world), I can attest to the fact that, although much is different, nothing has significantly changed.

  • 1 out of every 4 American women gives birth by cesarean surgery and wrongly believes cesarean is routinely safe for mothers and babies

  • 80% of American women choose to be numb for birth and have been led to believe that epidural anesthesia is better than natural childbirth, and safe

  • only 20% of American babies are fully breastfed by 6 weeks of age

  • the typical American mother goes back to work just 3 – 6 weeks after giving birth, long before bonding is fully established, believing what experts have
    told her, that the 10 hours a day she is apart from her baby is necessary and does no long-term harm to either of them

American women are suffering from our medical system that has undermined our instincts and diminished our sense of competence and natural ability to birth normally and care for our own babies. Our nation does not value normal, natural childbirth and doctors are not trained in a model of normalcy. The model for normalcy is home birth attended by skilled midwives (nursing is not a pre-requisite for competent midwifery). Medical schools stopped training physicians in home birth decades ago, and their own organization refuses to “allow” them to attend home birth, even as an observer. The world Health Organization knows how irrational this is. As does the nation of Holland, that today has 30% home birth, and 6 midwives for every 1 obstetrician. We continue to train 6 obstetricians and neonatal specialists for every 1 midwife, and most women continue to wrongly believe that midwifery is second class care.

In fact, and this has been scientifically proven, a woman’s own abode is where women behave naturally and spontaneously, as long as they feel secure in their own environment. Only 1% of American births take place at home and medical associations and legislators have done everything in their power to see that midwives do not have authority in childbirth. The current system of “managed care” pits midwives against doctors in those hospitals where midwives have been able to gain privileges. But that’s another part of the story.

Are you aware that you have just published a subversive document, radical in the true sense of the word (radical meaning “pertaining to the roots”, getting back to what is real). If Americans read this with their heart, and not just their intellect, we will have to make fundamental changes in how we approach birth and mothers and babies. We will find ourselves changing our values, values that have allowed us to be led by “the market” and “the bottom line” to spend the best part of our day and the majority of our attention and energy working apart from our children and other loved ones. We will come face to face with the isolation and sense of loneliness that dominates our lives. And we might then insist, no, demand, that we not be forced to choose between creative work, earning a living, and our families.

Now, I ask you, go further. Do a similar edition on birth – both what it is to be born and what it is to give birth. Because that is where the story begins, during the prenatal time, in labor, when the baby emerges into this new world, and in the hours and weeks following. That is the time of critical adjustment both the mother’s and baby’s body, psyche and spirit must make. That is where lifelong patterns of trust or alienation are bred.

A mother and baby’s union does not end when the umbilical cord is severed. Until we see the two of them (and I am by no means ignoring the huge importance of fathers in saying this) as the symbiotic pair they are and need to be for the next 9-12 months, we will continue to devalue women and babies alike.

It takes a minimum of 9-12 months for a human infant to reach the state of physical maturity that a newborn calf or foal attain within just hours of being born: the ability to stand up and follow the food source (mother) and flee from danger.

Truly, the first year after birth is meant to be an extended gestation for babies. And breastfeeding and “wearing” babies most of the time, and sleeping with them, not only nourishes babies but is designed to nourish and calm mothers too. Our babies need the almost constant close body contact, warmth, and stimulation of being physical next to our heart. Breast feeding provides as much benefit as breast milk.

I propose a toast to the incredible innate strength and resilience of babies and women. They have managed to survive in the worst circumstances. Now let’s see what we would be like given the best circumstances. Let’s remember what most of us have forgotten (i.e. suppressed). Life is really about close personal relationship as much as it is about fascinating exploration of our ever-exciting minds.

Yes, fascinating scientifically-proved information about the awesome human organism, especially our nervous system and brain, excited our intellect. But it doesn’t nourish our heart the way stories and pictures do. Now, can we allow our heart to open to what Newsweek has placed before us in its full issue on babies? What will likely come first, if we do this, is a sense of deep sadness, perhaps rage, at what we missed at our own beginnings and have most likely continued with our children. Dare we face this? If so we might find ourselves able to understand and have compassion for the extent of violence in this nation. The problem is ours. So is the solution. Will we take up the challenge?

Suzanne Arms
author, Immaculate Deception II: Myth, Magic & Birth
556 Willow Drive
Bayfield, CO 81122
suzanneResponse to Newsweek Spring 1997