Inspired by my wonderful new friend and midwife, Andrea, I'm reading "Spiritual Midwifery," by Ina May Gaskin.
One simple definition of spiritual midwifery is a way of assisting birth that involves the emotional as well as the physical state. The stories in the book illustrate how our individual births into the world set the emotional tone for our entire lives and how birth should be our initiation into the state of deep attunement with others that we call love.
Gaskin is part of a Tennessee community known as The Farm that practices honesty, true communication and emotional openness. Since the 1970s, community members have birthed at home whenever possible, aided by the Farm's midwives.
Farm women birth in their own beds, with their husbands close by. Only the midwife and any close friends the woman wants are present. She's encouraged to express herself and to do whatever she feels like.
"I believe that much if the reason why the women whose births we attended were able to get through labor without anesthesia or tranquilizers had to do with the `atmosphere we learned to create at birth. There is a sound physiological explanation for why some women experience more pain in labor than others. A woman who is the center of positive attention feeling grateful, amused, loved and appreciated, has a higher level of the class of neurohormones called endorphins. Endorphins actually block the perception of pain.
On the other hand, there are also adrenalin-like substances which may be secreted by the body during labor, especially when the woman is afraid, cold, angry, humiliated or experiencing any other disagreeable emotion. Adrenalin is part of the body's protective mechanism when it is presented with danger. … The mother is made ready to fight or to flee when adrenalin levels are high, not to have her baby."
Gaskin began her work in the 1970s, long before research by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, Sue Carter and others explored the role of oxytocin in bonding. Clearly, making the birthing mother the center of attention from those she knows and loves causes her brain to release powerful waves of oxytocin.
Oxytocin stimulates contractions, and it also ameliorates the fight-or-flight urges of the sympathetic nervous system. At the same time, in such an intimate birth setting, it reinforces the love and connection between mother, father, family and friends.
The baby comes out into this bath of love with oxytocin filling her own little bloodstream. As she's touched and held close, she takes her place in this web of connection.
"Touch is the most basic, the most non-conceptual form of communication that we have," Gaskin writes. She first experienced communication through touch with a Capuchin monkey she met. This monkey was kept by a man who clearly treated her with respect. She says,
"Her touch was incredibly alive and electric. There was so much concentrated feeliness in her hand that I felt this warm glow travel from her hand to mine, on up my arm, and then I felt a nice electric rush spread over my whole body. I had a flash of realization then that my hand wasn't made any different from hers. …"
Some people may think her statement is woo-woo, laughably new age or self-delusional. But what Gaskin describes is an oxytocin rush, bringing physical warmth, a sense of well-being and a feeling of connection with the other.
"I call this 'original touch' because it’s something everybody has as a brand-new baby, it's part of the kit. .. Many of us lose our 'original touch' as we interact with our fellow human beings in a fast or shallow manner."
We now know from neuroscience that we're born with the capacity, but not the ability to feel this. If we're lucky, the pulses of oxytocin at birth, as we're held and as we nurse stimulate the portions of our brain that will learn to release oxytocin on their own when we're loved.
I cried some, reading Gaskin's words, with grief. I still am struggling to come into my birthright of love.