Sunday, December 16, 2007
“The nicest mammary glands I ever saw belonged to an American Alpine goat at a county fair in upstate New York.” Sandra Steingraber
Human labor does not follow a one-way chain of command. “Determining what ultimately sets childbirth in motion is less like tracing a path up to the top of an avalanche-prone mountain than like searching for the headwaters of a swiftly flowing river. What one finds at the source is a nexus of interconnecting creeks and springs, each feeding the other.” (Having Faith, 180)
I’ve been reading a lot about childbirth lately. Not because I am having a baby but because I wanted to read Sandra Steingraber’s book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey into Motherhood. My nine-month-old niece and her irrepressible energy also prompt me to think, to want to know more. (See how that works - thanks, Banner :) Wanting more, learning more is to appreciate more. Steingraber is a good writer, and an honest, diligent appreciator of the value of knowledge in its many forms. She is also a lover of nature’s intricate and infinite expressions. She knows what she wants to know, asking questions that lead to others. Whatever happened to natural childbirth? What is her emerging desire for it all about? Interwoven with her research journey, and interesting historical facts that are sometimes incredible, are details of the baby herself, and the emergence of that new, charming life. The pictures she paints of the history of obstetrics, for example, shows how we create our “facts” and support them by our beliefs, which then influence our interpretations of other “facts.” Steingraber exults in finding a piece of her puzzle: “Trained to treat trauma and disease, physicians tend to see pain as a problem to be fixed and the refusal to accept analgesics as an exercise in masochism.” (165) There are many kinds of pain that are not pathological, she writes, pointing out that no one rushes to a marathon runner finishing a race with a needle full of narcotics. The focus is on the thrill of “victory,” not the relief of pain. Our focus must change to supporting life rather than disease.
I’m learning a lot reading this book – physical details in the history of childbirth, medical histories, most popular contaminants and where and why they show up as they do, and more personal details about one woman and her family. The history reminds me how our collective attitudes about “medicine” and “health” have been created and fostered. Individually, we are part of a collective, and it is individuals that initiate change in a collective. At the risk of seeming to choose the most glaring examples of the misguided "male-mind" control of life (whether in males or females), I’ll point to one Steingraber mentions. In 1920, Dr. Joseph DeLee, a noted gynecologist particularly disliked by “natural childbirth” advocates and midwives, printed a paper which led to the use of episiotomies as routine procedures rather than emergency measures. He wrote, “Labor is a decidedly pathological process.” Episiotomies could restore the vagina to its “virginal condition,” he argued, and medical students were once taught to call the final suture the “husband’s stitch.” I see in full measure how our collective minds have been mainly passive as women, aggressive as men, in creating and keeping this mindset of “male convenience” or male-mind preference in all things. Even childbirth! Labor is pathological! What??? There were male heroes along the way, who tirelessly campaigned for change, along with female heroes, but the examples are clear to me: until we acknowledge our internal equality as human beings, with the compassion of ethical values as our guide, we will still cater to this male mind focus in how we treat our bodies, how we live our lives.
To say there was life before medicine is not to dismiss its critical importance. I’m simply educating myself about the ways we have become dependent upon drugs and accepted their use and their advocacy as “normal” and necessary. In my own life, I can see how challenging it can be for a mind to change, and how ingrained our minds are in the habits of “what is.” While in the emergency room with my mother just after Thanksgiving, we were very dependent upon what help they could give her as she struggled for breath, and grateful for any relief. As I looked at monitors, listened to machines humming, watched fresh-faced nurses intent on their duties, I was alert to the energy of the hospital itself, and each nuance of change as people passed, as the clock ticked. Some nurses were completely engaged, lovingly attentive. Waiting for the nurse to solicit help, at one moment I knew all I could do was “love my mother” – we were doing the physical things we knew to do. I sent energy to her with my mind, and focused on her heart and lungs. I put my fingers on her chest. She opened her eyes, with a look both foreign and full of love. I felt the warmth of love between us, and this sense overcame all others - physical distractions of the monitors, bright lights, other sounds. Because I have studied Neural Depolarization, and work with the woman who created the technique and has used it all her life, I thought about the power of our nerves to create and sustain life, and all the communication that happens. I felt the power of the energy in the room, the flux of energy within my mother as she struggled to breathe, the inanimate presence of machinery. Yet I did not automatically think of helping ease the pressure my mother felt by removing the energy of the fluid buildup in her lungs and around her heart. My mind was influenced by the still-present belief in “we are in a hospital emergency room,” what do they do next.” These are normal thoughts, I know – this helps me to understand how we created and reinforce this pattern of submission and aggression, in this case in relationship to our health. Think! Our body as one whole organism, an Intelligent Design of energy and matter, is made to be efficient, to support itself, to celebrate life. Do our interventions and considerations always have this aim? We must learn to know how to choose them, to know them for what they are.
Steingraber’s study of the history of obstetrics in particular, as it relates to her own journey of the moment, prompts me to relate my own recent research about early physicians and scientists’ interest in the nervous system. Kathy Oddenino created NDP as her own technique of working directly with the nervous system, and her particular hero is John Newport Langley, British physiologist at the turn of the century who spent years studying the intricacies of the nerves and their function. He coined the term “autonomic.” His work was groundbreaking, and yet has he for all practical purposes languished in obscurity? Do medical students hear of Langley? I assume that students of neurology encounter Langley and his work along the way. Yet what importance is his work given? Without nerves, we have no life! And without nerves we would not know what pain is. At different forks in the road, opportunities to expand our collective knowledge in one area or another, why do we choose one over another? For centuries, Steingraber writes, medicine considered childbirth was more than happy to cede the whole business of childbirth to midwives and their sympathizers. Birth was controlled by women at home, and then came the Inquisition. As time passed, knowledge as science developed and it became more and more relegated to men only, and the patterns and divisions continued to expand. There are statues to man’s discovery of ether (1846) and the anesthesizing of pain. We are, it seems, more concerned with regulation, security, and profit than we are with health and education. We love education, but our education mostly supports the tradition, regulation, profit, and market rather than expanding our minds to more, the possibility of change and the validation of history beyond our most influential minds and textbooks of the moment. We must learn to love knowledge. To believe that “labor is pathological” is to believe that life and death themselves are pathological. What would Hippocrates say?
What sets disease and trauma in motion is much like what sets childbirth in motion - i.e., "what one finds at the source is a nexus of interconnecting creeks and springs, each feeding the other." And, I realize, what sets life and death in motion. The energy of growth and change, as energy and matter, is a constantly flowing river with the power of life and the beauty and force of nature. And we don’t just hold on for the ride. We Are the ride! With each thought, each choice, a seed is made and the complex of connections which create the life of that thought begins its motions and change. Yet within these causes and effects are specific actions and reactions that we can work with beginning with Nature (good food, air, and water). We are not simply people who “create” energy from coal, nuclear reactors, or even biodiesel – we are people because we are energy in matter. That changes everything.