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

Author // Marcy Axness, PhD

By Marcy Axness, PhD (with contributions from Robbie Davis-Floyd, PhD)

Few things get me as riled up as people or companies that parlay the fragile hopes of well-meaning parents into a fat bottom line. Take, oh, for example, the Baby Einstein juggernaut— which, if you’ve been paying attention, was roundly disavowed by researchers who put so fine a point on it as to declare, “Parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.” My contempt knows no bounds for an enterprise that leverages parents’ insecurities and fears (Will my child have what it takes to succeed in this ever more complicated world??) into a frantic market for baby-improvement “infotainment” that flies in the face of everything science knows about what infants and young children need for healthy development. But let’s not get sidetracked into a discussion of why “the more time a baby spends watching Baby Einstein the less like Einstein that child is likely to become.”

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What I want to explore here is a more encompassing issue: The status-quo of today’s culture—media, medicine, education— exerts tremendous pressure on well-meaning parents to make choices that simply aren’t good for kids. This is where some knowledge can be a very empowering thing! The more we know about where our decision-making “blind spots” are, the more we can free ourselves from the prevailing fear-based group-think, and become capable of making positive choices that are in the true best interests of ourselves and our children.

Let’s begin where it begins—how we ourselves are born, how we birth our children, and how we perceive the choices involved. Robbie Davis-Floyd, a cultural anthropologist specializing in birth, discovered something both subtle and powerful at work in our attitudes about the safety of non-medicalized births.

“I long ago gave up talking to women about giving birth at home. The idea that only hospitals and their technology can make birth safe so permeates this culture that there is simply no point in trying to convince anyone otherwise, even though it is completely untrue and there is plenty of scientific evidence out there to prove it.”

One of the pieces of evidence to which she refers is this classic: Back in 1974, two certified nurse-midwives were put in charge of all normal births in a small county hospital in California for 3 years in an experimental pilot program. During that time, the rates of obstetrical intervention (like C-sections) fell dramatically, the incidence of prematurity dropped by almost half, and the rate of neonatal deaths dropped from 23.9 per thousand to 10.3 per thousand—less than half of what it had been before the midwives arrived. At the end of the 3 years, fearing the competition, the local obstetricians fired the midwives and resumed charge of all births in this hospital. Within a few months, the rates returned to their former high levels.

A huge body of research suggests that routine interventions and procedures such as electronic fetal monitors, IVs, episiotomies, and pain relievers don’t lead to better outcomes and are indeed counterproductive in most normal births. For all of our technological prowess, the U.S. newborn and maternal health statistics are bleak. We come in 41st among industrialized nations in maternal mortality, and got a “D” on our prematurity report card from March of Dimes. Regarding the myriad unintended effects of birth interventions, researchers are currently exploring Pitocin induction and epidural anesthesia as possible factors in the complex causal tapestry involved in autism. Although the origins of this exponentially growing disorder remain a mystery, an important clue is that science has identified certain zones of “malfunctioning circuitry” in the brains of autistic people, including in the area that normally processes faces. Why is this? The developmental stages occurring during and after birth are a window of rapid reorganization of brain development, mediated by many hormones, most notably oxytocin, the so-called “hormone of love.” Several studies have found that autistic children show abnormalities in their oxytocin system.

Critical early circuitry-wiring of the orbito-frontal cortex—our social-emotional “success center”—occurs just after birth, when a complex hormonal cocktail orchestrates intricate exchanges between the mother and her newborn child, all organized around their face-to-face engagement with one another! In spite of much scientific data attesting to the neurobiological havoc that ensues for a newborn separated from its mother after birth, hospital protocols typically disturb the first hours of life, and too many newborns end up receiving a “faulty imprint” (I connect with things, not faces), which can prevent healthy synaptic formation in such social brain areas as that which processes faces—and indeed, human rapport.

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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