Moms & Dads, Who is the Boss of You? The Force of Culture on Birth and Parenting Choices - Page 2

Author // Marcy Axness, PhD

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Moms & Dads, Who is the Boss of You? The Force of Culture on Birth and Parenting Choices
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Given the sheer volume of research contraindicating the lock-step devotion of American women—and their partners— to hospital interventions and protocols, the birth anthropologist Davis-Floyd wondered, “What might explain the standardization and technological elaboration of the American birthing process?” She came to recognize that there had to be something other than rational logic at work in the vast majority of Americans who trust and believe in the relatively higher degree of safety provided by a hospital birth, despite all contrary evidence. Her discoveries led to the landmark book Birth as an American Rite of Passage.

“In all societies, major life transitions such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death are times when cultures are particularly careful to display their core values and beliefs. Thus, these important transitions are so heavily ritualized that they are called rites of passage. Through these rites of passage, each society makes sure that the important life transitions of individuals can only occur in ways that actively perpetuate the core beliefs and values of their society. Could this explain the standardization of American birth? I believe the answer is yes.”

One characteristic of rite-of-passage rituals is that participants are in an altered state of mind, whether through music, drumming, dance, chanting, breathwork, meditation, mind-altering substances, or, as in the case of labor and birth, the potent bio-chemicals flowing through mother and baby—and even father. The altered state makes participants highly receptive to symbols, which are prominently featured during ritual and which are imprinted on the image-oriented right brain.

“Obstetric procedures are far more than medical routines: they are the rituals which initiate American mothers, fathers, and babies into the core value system of the technocracy” (the term for a society driven by an ideology of technological progress. In a technocracy, we constantly seek to “improve on” nature by altering and controlling it through technology.) “These procedures are profoundly symbolic, communicating messages concerning our culture’s deepest beliefs about the necessity for control of natural processes. They are a perfect expression of certain fundamentals of technocratic life:

  • The IV, for example, is the umbilical cord to the hospital, mirroring the fact that we are all umbilically linked to the technocracy, dependent on society and its institutions for our nurturance and our life.
  • The fact that the baby’s image on the ultrasound screen is often more real to the mother than its movement inside her reflects our cultural fixation on experience one-step removed on TV and computer screens.
  • The electronic fetal monitor wires the woman into the hospital’s computer system, bringing birth into the Information Age. Consider the visual and kinesthetic images that the laboring woman experiences—herself in bed, in a hospital gown, staring up at an IV pole, bag, and cord, staring down at a steel bed and huge belts encircling her waist and staring sideways at moving displays on a large machine. Her entire sensory field conveys one overwhelming message about our culture’s deepest values and beliefs: technology is supreme, and you are utterly dependent upon it.
  • The episiotomy, in which the quite sufficiently stretchy perineum is routinely cut with scissors to speed up delivery of the head, enacts and displays not only our cultural tendency toward impatience but also our extreme commitment to the straight line as a basic organizing principle of cultural life.
  • The technocracy asserts societal ownership of our babies via the ritual separation of newborns and mothers shortly after birth (yet another procedure that is overwhelmingly contraindicated by more than 50 years of research on attachment, trauma, and brain development.)
  • The plastic bassinet in which the newborn is placed metamorphoses into the crib, the playpen, the plastic carrier, and the television-set-as-babysitter—and a baby who bonds strongly to technology as she learns that comfort and entertainment come primarily from technological artifacts. That baby grows up to be the consummate consumer, and thus the technocracy perpetuates itself.”

Indeed, that baby grows up to be a parent who buys Baby Einstein videos (and the SUV with DVD screens implanted in the seats, by which to deliver them), despite all evidence suggesting that “baby TV” thwarts rather than enhances early development.

Yes, most of us have been baptized in technology. So, let us embrace the blessings of that 21st century brilliance, which was originally meant to bring freedom! Nothing has the power to control our moves once we can clearly name the players and the game. Let us be the bosses of ourselves, the masters of our own will. Our children will flourish in that freedom, and the healthy choices it allows us to make.

Pathways Issue 21 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #21.

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