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Feminism vs. Oxytocin

In the 1970s, another woman and I ran a house-painting business. This was a time when women mostly did traditional jobs, and a female in the trades caused, at best, surprise. We were feminists, which meant, to us, speaking up for and acting out an end to constraints on society's ideas of what women should do.

I loved the physicality of painting and the satisfaction of seeing my work so tangible in the world. I loved the authority of running a job and the visible flouting of conventions. We hired smart women and men and trained them to approach the work with intelligence and craft.

Then, we hired Sycamore Starsister. She too was a feminist, more political than us, who welcomed the opportunity to work for women. But in the first 30 days, we had a problem. It became apparent that Sycamore was just no good when she had her period. There was a week every month when she could get little done; it seemed like it was an effort for her to even move around. I still remember her pale, sweaty face as she hauled her paint bucket up the ladder.

We were a shoestring operation. We paid people well, and we needed them to get paint onto wood. We had to ask Sycamore to stay home when she had her period.

Feminist struggle ensued. Sycamore said we were sexist; we said we were being practical. But my partner and I were as disturbed as Sycamore. How did our experience of her menstrual symptoms gibe with our claims that women could do anything men could do?

Thirty years later, we're still struggling.

Feminists are protesting that Louann Brizendine's best-selling book, "The Female Brain," reinforces sexist stereotypes.

One of the harshest critics is Linda Hirshman, author of "Get to Work," a book that challenges women to stay in the workforce to help break the glass ceiling. She writes in her blog,

"… [T]errible methodology and hostility to women's aspirations combine to create an apparently unlimited market for books that punish ambitious women. … In "The Female Brain," Brizendine, a San Francisco Bay area psychiatrist, who runs a clinic she started to help women who think their mental problems are caused by their hormones, describes the life cycle of a contemporary American educated, neurotic, urban, privileged professional in a culture in which science is just another option, as if she had discovered Lucy, the mother of all mankind. Behavior familiar to many of us only from the wonderful bad Heather literature is presented as hard-"wired" ( the abuse of the term "wired" has already attracted the fury of the neuroscientist, Caltechgirl, not usually known for her liberal opinions, on her blog) into the female brain.

Brizendine's description of the hard-"wired" cervix and brain-softening, uncontrollable urge to mate with one's newborn baby, which makes wholesale desertion of the work place is as irresistible as the law of gravity, is the closest thing to soft porn I've seen emerging from the San Francisco Medical Center in a long time.

There seem to be questions about whether Brizendine's often categorical statements ablut xex differences are supported by the scientific literature she cites. Linguist Mark Liberman, after complaining about Brizendine's reinforcing sex stereotypes, debunked her claim that women talk more than men and use more words.

But "The Female Brain" is so successful because it feels true.

While Brizendine may exaggerate, the differences in the way oxytocin is expressed in the male and female bodies are well-documented, as are the differences in behavior caused by oxytocin's interaction with estrogen and androgen, the female and male sex hormones.

I too hate to think that our female hormones make us less able to compete in the workplace and more eager to nest. Where does that those of us who employ Sycamore Silversister and her progesterone-benighted sisters? 

Acknowledging the differences in neurochemistry gives us permission to stop struggling over some stuff.

I became fascinated by neurochemistry because it explained and validated my personal experience. It allows me to accept that men are different from me, to stop demanding that they be more like me, and to stop being angry when they’re not. It lets me feel okay that I care if the bed gets made, even if Mike doesn’t. I don’t have to wonder whether I'm frivolous for wanting a cozy house.

Nevertheless, acknowledging neurochemical differences does leave us feminists -- I still consider myself one -- in an uncomfortable place.

I don’t think the answer is to bash Brizendine as a tool of the patriarchy. We women are stuck being the ones who produce the next generation of humans. (Although many of us are now free to choose not to.) Somehow, we women have to learn to embrace our psychoneuroendocrinology, as we learn to express it in ways that allow not only ourselves but also that next generation to grow healthy and whole.


Yoga may soothe depression, anxiety

Amy Weintraub, author of "Yoga and Depression," gives workshops showing how the breathing and exercises of yoga can help restore the body's natural biochemical balance, writes Juanita Westaby in the Grand Rapids Press. Weintrab doesn't claim yoga can replace medication, only that it can manage mood.

Yoga may soothe depression, anxiety.

For some people, medication may be the only way they can get up and roll out that yoga mat," Weintraub said. But eventually yoga -- combined with good breathing technique and a skillful teacher -- will raise the "feel-good" hormones of oxytocin and prolactin and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.

See also, "Yoga Increases Oxytocin Levels."


Falling in Love with the Baby

A mother's feeling of deep love and connection with the newborn doesn’t always happen immediately. In 1978, 97 mothers in the UK were asked, "When did you first feel love for your baby?" More than half felt the love during pregnancy or at birth: 41 percent during pregnancy and 24 percent at birth. Another 27 percent felt love during the first week, and 8 percent felt it later than that.

In a 1980 study of first-time mothers, 40 percent said their predominant emotional reaction when first holding their babies was one of indifference. Indifferent mothers were more likely to have had their membranes ruptured artificially, painful labor or taken a dose of Demerol.

These studies are discussed in Bondings: The Beginnings of Parent-Infant Attachment, by Marshall Klaus and John Kennell. The authors don’t say whether the women in these studies had hospital births, but, given the era, it's very likely.

In a hospital birth, plenty of things can disrupt the intense pulses of oxytocin that both stimulate the uterine contraction that birth the baby and create an oceanic feeling of calm and love after the birth. The medical ambiance of the hospital, bustling nurses and doctors, and the pressure to get it over with can cause the laboring woman's body to hold back. Anesthesia, epidurals and the use of pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, to speed labor, can interfere with the natural welling of oxytocin -- and with the initial bonding.

It would be interesting to see a study that compared women who had natural home births with those who had induced births to see when they fell in love with their babies.Falling in Love with the Baby

A mother's feeling of deep love and connection with the newborn doesn’t always happen immediately. In 1978, 97 mothers in the UK were asked, "When did you first feel love for your baby?" More than half felt the love during pregnancy or at birth: 41 percent during pregnancy and 24 percent at birth. Another 27 percent felt love during the first week, and 8 percent felt it later than that.

In a 1980 study of first-time mothers, 40 percent said their predominant emotional reaction when first holding their babies was one of indifference. Indifferent mothers were more likely to have had their membranes ruptured artificially, painful labor or taken a dose of Demerol.

These studies are discussed in Bonding: The Beginnings of Parent-Infant Attachment, by Marshall Klaus and John Kennell. The authors don’t say whether the women in these studies had hospital births, but, given the era, it's very likely.*

In a hospital birth, plenty of things can disrupt the intense pulses of oxytocin that both stimulate the uterine contraction that birth the baby and create an oceanic feeling of calm and love after the birth. The medical ambiance of the hospital, bustling nurses and doctors, and the pressure to get it over with can cause the laboring woman's body to hold back. Anesthesia, epidurals and the use of pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, to speed labor, can interfere with the natural welling of oxytocin -- and with the initial bonding.

It would be interesting to see a study that compared women who had natural home births with those who had induced births to see when they fell in love with their babies.

*My copy of Bonding is from 1983; there's a 2000 edition that may reference more recent studies.


C-Sections Are Bad for Babies

Induced births, forceps and vacuum delivery and cesarean section can interfere with the primal bonding experience between mother and child, and set a tone of panic in the first minutes of life.

If the birth experience is so important, how did we ever screw it up so badly? Advances in medicine have made childbirth safer, but they've also changed pregnancy from a natural process into a disease, critics say.

A January 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an increase in infant mortality, from 6.8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2001 to 7.0 in 2002, the first increase in the infant mortality rate since 1958. CDC analysts attributed the increase to a rise in the birth of extremely small babies, those weighing less than 1 pound, 10.5 ounces or 750 grams at birth. The majority of these tiny babies die during their first year of life.

Although multiple births are on the rise, in part due to the use of fertility treatments, the CDC said this didn't account for the increase infant deaths. The agency did peg part of the trend to changes in the medical management of pregnancy, specifically cesarean delivery.

In 2002, 57 percent of very low-birthweight infants were delivered by cesarean, up 3 percent from 2001. Improvements in fetal imaging and diagnosis and more intensive monitoring of at-risk pregnancies may have resulted in an increased likelihood that a cesarean delivery will take place -- and a low-birthweight baby would be born, a baby that stands much less chance at life after birth.

The use of induction also doubled from 1990 to 2000, increasing to 14 percent of all U.S. births. This could contribute to the increase in infant deaths, because the due date is just a guesstimate; a significant number of past-due babies turn out to be slightly premature. Preemies have higher rates of death and disability than those born at term.

By 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, the percentage of cesareans had increased to 29.1 percent, up 8.4 percent from 1996.

By comparison, in 2000, of more than 2,200 births, only 1.4 percent of births at The Farm were cesarean. Less than 0.05 percent of births required forceps or vacuum extraction.

Cesarean delivery also puts babies at risk. A 2006 study of 5.7 million low-risk births found that the mortality rate for babies delivered via cesarean was 1.77 deaths per 1,000 live births, while the rate for vaginal delivery was 0.62 deaths per 1,000.

Mortality in cesarean deliveries has consistently been about 1½ times that of vaginal delivery, but it had been assumed that the difference was due to the higher risk profile of mothers who undergo the operation.

This study, according to the authors, is the first to examine the risk of cesarean delivery among low-risk mothers who have no known medical reason for the operation.

C-sections also short-circuit the  natural flow of oxytocin from mother to child. Instead of being born with a bloodstream buzzing with the hormone of love and connection, the baby comes into the world awash with nauseating and disorienting anesthesia. If the baby was pulled out by forceps or vacuum extraction, his body's first experience is pain and terror.

Related stories:
Birth as We Never Imagined It
Our Birthright of Love


So Shy! So Little Oxytocin

Lower levels of oxytocin may make people shy, according to Lawsun Wilsun, a professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Cinncinnati. He mentions unnamed studies showing that the brains of normal people who were given oxytocin were less fearful when threatening people came around.

Of course, shyness goes along with difficulty in bonding, another effect of a thwarted oxytocin response.

Wilsun  writes in the Cinncinnati Enquirer,

These studies raise the possibility that people with social phobia or paranoia lack sufficient oxytocin to develop trust. Soon we may have new treatments that regulate and restore oxytocin.


Birth Camp by the Sea

This story by Tatyana Sargunas, a midwife in Russia's Conscious Birth movement, describes what it's like to give birth at the "birth camp" on the shore of the Black Sea. Since 1982,  couples have traveled to the birth camp  in order to provide their newborns with an ecstatic primal experience.

Sargunas works with Elena Tonetti Vladimirova, director of the film "Birth as We Know It." A baby's brain continues to develop for several months after birth, and Sargunas and Vladimirova believe that the first moments of life set the emotional tone for the rest of life.

Sargunas writes,

Peoples say that couples are choosing to give birth in the sea to shock society. Nothing could be further from the truth. These couples are motivated by faith and by an unyielding desire to fulfill a dream. They are brought to this choice not by rational thought, but by what they perceive to be the inner will of their child. Perhaps this story will clarify things.

See also "Birth as We Never Imagined It"

Tag: <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/%22conscious+birth%22" rel="tag">"conscious birth"</a>


Birth as we never imagined it


5 minutes old
Originally uploaded by meghobson.

Last night my wonderful new midwife friend, Andrea, invited me to watch "Birth as We Know It."

The film shows 11 women giving birth naturally and peacefully in water -- in hot tubs, bathtubs, special tanks and in the Black  Sea, where Elena Tonetti-Vladimirova operated a birth camp in the 1980s.

The babies float out and remain suspended in the water as they make their first movements. It's eerie to watch the babies look up through the water, seeing the world for the first time. In a minute, they're placed onto the mother's stomach and cradled in her arms. The babies are left attached to the placenta until it's no longer pulsating and the baby is breathing and feeding on its own.

Some of the women give birth with just one other person; others with two or three. One woman invites her two other children, maybe four and six years old, into the tank with her, to kiss her and the newborn.

Vladimirova believes that the birth experience becomes the template for our whole lives. In the film, she says of a baby from the birth camp, "The sense of belonging, of being welcomed into the community with so much love and appreciation is the imprint that will stay with her the rest of her life. Everything she feels, smells and sees will imprint as a profound celebration of life."

This is not just woo-woo. The infant brain is not fully developed at birth; it's shaped to a great extent by experiences in the first few months of life. For example, the oxytocin response -- when the hypothalamus releases pulses of calming oxytocin during times of physical and emotional infancy -- develops according to its interaction with its mother.

The physical and emotional warm bath these babies enjoy, is the first lesson about the world and the Other.

Since 1982, Vladimirova has taught women how to prepare their bodies and minds for natural childbirth. Like Ina May Gaskin, she believes that emotional or sexual trauma, as well as unresolved fears and conflicts with others, can stall labor or create complications.

She writes,

The whole thing started from the idea of giving birth in the water, and developed later into a full, beautiful and intensive program of preparation during pregnancy, which starts even before the conception. It contains a variety of purification techniques and meditations for both partners. In nine months they gain enough self-confidence to deliver their baby at home by themselves, or maybe inviting a friend to help with the baby afterwards. This would be a decision of very mature souls, who are able to take full responsibility.

See also this post by Amos Clifford describing a rebirthing session led by Vladimirova.


Love and Money

Marketplace has an interview with John Cassidy, who wrote a recent New Yorker article on experiments with oxytocin and trust.

Peter Sokol-Hessner, a grad student at New York University’s Center for Brain Imaging, is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Sokol-Hessner is studying "loss aversion," the rather irrational impulse most of us have to short-term economic loss, even when it would benefit us in the long term.

Cassidy writes,

... imagine that you and a stranger are sitting on a park bench, when an economist approaches and offers both of you ten dollars. He asks the stranger to suggest how the ten dollars should be divided, and he gives you the right to approve or reject the division. If you accept the stranger’s proposal, the money will be divided between you accordingly; if you refuse it, neither of you gets anything.

How would you react to this situation, which economists refer to as an “ultimatum game,” because one player effectively gives the other an ultimatum? Game theorists say that you should accept any positive offer you receive, even one as low as a dollar, or you will end up with nothing. But most people reject offers of less than three dollars, and some turn down anything less than five dollars.

Eventually, he relates this work to Ernst Fehr's studies of how inhaling oxytocin changed trust game players' economic decisions at the University of Zurich.

In the ultimatum game situation, inhaling oxytocin likely would cause more people to accept any positive offer. Such experiments are probably on  Sokol-Hessner's short list.

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