June 2010


Bonding with your baby doesn’t have to be difficult, strained, confusing, or scary.  Instead, it can be primitive–and I mean that in the deepest, most physical, empowering, irresistible sense.

When a baby is born, he is still a primitive being.  He doesn’t have the ability to make rational choices about where he centers his love.  Meanwhile, his neurochemistry is making connections and setting baselines that can have lifelong effects, and the way he is treated at and following birth has direct effects on that neurochemistry.  In fact, we know that babies (and not just newborns, but older babies as well) who receive minimal touch from their mothers often fail to thrive.  We could speculate about why that is, but really, it’s irrelevant.  The point is that we cannot explain to a baby why she is alone in a mechanical warmer with goop in her eyes, with skin pricked painfully, instead of snuggling that skin against the only sense of security she has ever known.  So if we cannot calm her with reason, then the only way to give her the neurological support that she needs is never to remove her from the arms of her mother to begin with.  And just in case we ever doubted that in her mother’s arms is her rightful place, a baby in skin-to-skin contact after birth breathes better, has better temperature and heart rate regulation, and will usually find the breast on her own.

On the other side of this new relationship, the grown woman tends not to be so primitive; indeed, many of us think that our primitive side is something shameful.  But the primitive is a valuable part of the whole of being human, and when we suppress it instead of integrating it, we also suppress valuable resources and abilities.

Certainly the ability to override the physical is an amazing skill that allows a woman to overcome a traumatic birth to bond with her baby, or even to bond with an adopted baby.  But when we take it for granted that a mother will use her powers of reason to bond with her baby no matter how much we abuse their relationship, we ignore the way the emotional, physical, and spiritual sides of ourselves participate in the birth and bonding process.  Pregnancy and labor involve neurochemical and physical changes that make it easier for us to be mothers, and that emotional and hormonal dance does not end with labor.  This is why the sixth Lamaze Healthy Birth Care Practice is “Keep Mother and Baby Together–It’s Best for Mother, Baby, and Breastfeeding.”  If we are willing to let it do its part, the same primitive source of knowledge involved in conceiving and growing a baby provides valuable instincts and hormonal reactions for not only bonding with that baby, but also caring for him.

To put it another way, the fact that people can overcome losing a leg doesn’t justify removing legs for less than life-saving reasons.  Just because a mother can find ways to bond that are not the original primitive bonding that occurs in the first hours after birth, doesn’t mean that it is ethical to deprive her of that important and very physical part of being a mother, nor to deprive her of the advantages of having a baby who has been able to bond normally.  Whenever it is possible to preserve someone’s own leg, it is most humane to do so.  Whenever it is possible to keep mother and baby together–and this can actually have even more advantages with preemies and after a cesarean–that is the most humane course of action.  We no longer expect a woman to overcome a lack of physical attraction and hormonal chemistry to marry as her parents see fit, so why do we expect mothers to forgo a deeply physical attachment to their babies?  Those “primitive” bonds function at the deepest levels of our minds.  Let’s take full advantage of the opportunity to access those unconscious abilities!

©NZBA

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Is it any wonder women in our culture feel pushed, pulled, and bullied in all directions, no matter which way they turn?

We expect married people to have children; but not to do the things that create a family, like including children in their lives and making the adjustments that allow that inclusion to happen.  Instead, we expect them to bundle their children off to daycare, school, after-school care, and summer camp–and then we wonder how families get dysfunctional.

We expect women to walk on eggshells about pharmaceuticals, other harmful substances, food, stress, posture, and medical procedures throughout pregnancy; but we snark at them as “granola,” “foolishly optimistic,” or “spending too much time on the internet” if they question the use of narcotics, stimulants, the preservatives in those drugs, denial of food, hostile surroundings, lying on their backs, and unnecessary surgery for labor and birth.

We expect women to breastfeed; but not to do the things that go along with it, like nursing when the baby needs to eat even if that’s at a restaurant or on the bus or in the park, pumping at work, or taking an extended absence from work.

We expect women to be good mothers; but if they believe the best way to do that is to put their careers on hold, we say “Oh, so you’re just staying at home now?” as if motherhood isn’t really valuable work.

We expect women to have careers and be mothers at the same time; but when they go back to work, we expect them to be as temporally, mentally, and emotionally available to their work as they were before being responsible for the health and well-being of a brand new person.

The theme here is that parents are expected to tuck their parenthood away like some shameful or inconvenient condition.  I suspect this results from the instant-gratification-culture idea that we can make major life choices without making any correlated life adjustments.  Of course, that doesn’t work for parenthood any more than it does for marriage.  We can either treat parenthood as an inconvenience and spend our lives trying to escape from our choices, or we can treat it as an honor and live our lives learning to be our best at one of the most sacred trusts in the world.

We live in an amazing time, when we can quite reliably choose whether and when to have children.  I have a lot of respect for people who decide that children are not for them–that takes a lot of soul-searching, because it’s not the “expected” way of doing things.  I also have a lot of respect for people who consciously choose not only to have children, but to be parents.  That also is a soul-searching decision.  Adjustments have to be made, and those adjustments, sadly, aren’t the expected way of doing things either.

What can we do to fix these conflicted expectations?  Sweep our own doorsteps.  No culture exists as its own entity; each is made up of the individuals within it.  Each of us must take the time to make informed, careful decisions not based on anyone else’s expectations, take full responsibility for those decisions by following through with all the effort and personal growth needed, and be thereby secure enough in our own choices to respect the decisions and resulting life paths of others.  We will always have different points of view among us, and thank goodness for that.  But a little personal responsibility on all fronts goes a long way toward replacing conflict with perspective and respect.

So take a deep breath.  Your decisions are your own.  Anyone else’s expectations are their own burden of insecurity, not yours.