Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Look of Love: birth, mothers, babies and attachment

We humans are gifted with a prefrontal cortex, the site of our executive functioning. Our prefrontal cortex allows us to make choices, decide on different courses of action, rather than reflex, reactive behaviour.  Our prefrontal cortex enables us to evaluate different options and make a decision on what suits us best.

Sociologists contend that rather than being self determining agents with free will, we are culturally constructed, and our decision making is culturally driven and that we do not make decisions based on true free will, but based on what society has taught us is 'expected' and 'accepted' behaviour. Certainly, marketing psychology takes advantage of our tendency to buy on emotions and rationalise our purchases. We make our decisions based on emotionally based programming, we over ride our instincts and go with what is culturally predetermined as 'right'.  In the eyes of the law and culturally accepted social codes, such as avoiding fighting, stealing and self aggrandizement, that form of socially constructed behaviour is useful and makes for a safer and perhaps kinder society. However, there is a down side to over-riding innate instincts. 

Nowhere is the negative side of culturally driven behaviour more apparent than childbirth. Childbirth has been corrupted in our modern world.  In 1972, Doris Haire wrote a wonderful piece about the Cultural Warping of Childbirth, drawing attention to the way that the medicalisation of women's bodily processes at birth were causing harm. A more recent article by Estelle Cohen has drawn attention to "alarming continuing decline in the scores of high school students on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests or, "SAT's," a decline which had started with the 18-year-olds born in 1945 and thereafter. From 1963 to 1977, the score average on the verbal part of the SAT's fell 49 points. The mathematical scores declined 31 points. (1)" Estelle questions whether this decline in academic performance is linked to the way that obstetrics "manages" childbirth.

There are myriad intersecting and interconnecting influences on the personality, health, breastfeeding success, intelligence etc of any human being. However, the links between the way someone is born and their future health and wellbeing is becoming more understood. Epigenetics is one of the scientific arenas that are explaining the links. Many of the practices around the birth of a baby are pivotal and set the scene for the long term relationship of mother and baby. More and more attention is being paid to the mother baby interaction at birth, the role of being skin to skin for mother and baby on both the mother and the baby's future health.

Hospital practices have meant that entire generations of mothers and babies have been separated at birth. The consequences of that separation are only now starting to really be understood.

When my daughter was born, she was whizzed off to the resus trolley, cleaned up and wrapped, then shoved under my nose for about five seconds, then whisked off to the nursery.  I didn't see her until the next morning. About three hours after she was born, I found myself pacing the corridor of the hospital ward. I was surprised by my behaviour, but I recognise now that my body was looking for my baby, even though my conscious mind knew she was in the nursery. I did not think to question, to ask to see her; I fully accepted that she was in the nursery.


Lynne Reed, a Birth Keeper said in a recent interview that “We are the only animals on this planet where the mother will willingly give up her baby to someone else,” she says. “To me, that’s a huge indicator of how separated we are from our natural instincts, which would be so fierce to protect the baby.”

I certainly was separated from my natural instincts and days passed before I saw my daughter naked and we never had the skin to skin experience. I wonder if that is why I was so keen to go back to work and why putting her on the bottle was totally acceptable?  Research shows clearly that women who have skin to skin time at birth with their babies have all kinds of benefits and sequelae such as happier babies, self soothing babies, better breastfeeding experiences, less likely to leave their babies with others, babies smile earlier and more frequently. The list goes on and on.


A significant part of the experience seems to be the first eye to eye connection between mother and baby. Carla Hartley from Trust Birth has spoken about the smile a newborn gives her mother when she looks up at her as they connect skin to skin at birth. Carla describes that moment as 'precious' and 'sacred'. That eye to eye connection can be seen as a connection of spirits, a recognition of souls on this life journey.

For those who haven't had this connection, the gap can feel profound and deep. For example, in a Facebook conversation about this topic, Katherine Suszczewicz said " I was adopted. I hadn't realized until just now how my birth affected me today. It just occurred to me reading this that I have lived 45 years with a smothered urge to look my (birth) mother in the eye, something she didn't do when I was born. That feeling has been simmering and is quickly reaching a rolling boil. Just to look into each other's eyes, there's something there". When I asked Katharine if I could share her words she gave permission and said "whatever choices a momma makes, I think that first gaze is crucial....to begin life with the first air breath, a stare into your mother's eyes, and a feeling of love, security, to feel that someone is fiercely protecting you.....will carry you all your days on earth".

Leah Ann Sandretzky commented on Katharine's post and gave me permission to share her story. Leah said
"Katherine Suszczewicz: my heart goes out to you. ♥ my mother was and still is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic; she's looked me in the eyes many times and I have never seen that love. She says she loves me; and I know she does deep down . . . but her heart is gone from her selfishness. I was cared for by my grandparents most of my life; ...and to this day my soul longs for a Mother's love in my heart. I've taken that pain, that want, and turned it around to love my children 10x more than I think I can every day....in honor of the mother I never had. I don't know your story, your heart; but I hope that whether or not you have or will find that Mother's love in someone's eyes for you; you can go on loving like a Mother should. ♥ "

Another woman said "... the "look" I never received, I was adopted as well. My mother wasn't allowed to look, touch or hear me at birth due to the trauma of adoption on her. I was wisked away and the nurses kept me in the closet behind the nurses station so my mother or her family wasn't tempted to see me. The nurses spoiled me, I was told... and held me all the time but it just isn't the same. I hear the pain of the other women saying almost the same things. Way before reading this article I came to a conclusion during self reflection that I had a very hard time allowing anyone to get too close to me. I have attachment issues with everyone on this planet except for my children. Who I wouldn't let out of me sight when they were born. Thanks for posting this. I never put the two together about the "look" and bonding, I always assumed it was not being with my birth mom in general".
 
That look of love at birth is crucial for brain patterning and wiring a sense of self for the baby. Newborn babies are wired to look at faces and to prefer their mother's face to any other. That look of love triggers cascades of oxytocin in both mothers and babies, welding them together, spiritually, emotionally and physically. 
 
The implications for midwifery practice are clear. We are the guardians of the birth territory. We must facilitate the space so that mothers and babies can connect in this deep and profound way. The future of society and every individual's health and wellbeing depend upon us getting the beginning 'right' and providing an optimal environment, enabling a woman to respond to that innate voice and do what comes 'naturally' or rather, instinctively. 
 
 
 
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