Pregnancy is a miraculous process. It is a time when a woman should make every effort to tune into her body and the baby with the support of her surroundings. A woman’s knowledge of pregnancy and giving birth is instinctual, and should be very empowering. The important point is to see yourself as a channel for a new spirit and to surrender yourself to all that the experience has to teach you.
Having a baby is rarely a rational decision that is made with intellect alone. The biological pull to have a child is sometimes very strong, and I have seen women have babies for many reasons. Some women long to have children even when they know that doing so may tax their emotional and physical resources in an unhealthy way. I have worked with women in their late thirties or earlier forties who became obsessed with having a child, partly so they could avoid deciding what to do with their lives for another few years. Many women want to have children in order to fulfill unmet needs of their own or to fill a void. Some women love being pregnant and giving birth because it is the only thing that is totally theirs in their family structure. Whatever a woman’s reason for giving birth, the lifeforce that wants to come through us as humans is undeniable.
Pregnancy has great consequences for both mother and baby. It is my wish that someday, all women will choose to conceive consciously and to live out their pregnancies wisely. Babies remember their lives. Prenatal and birth memories have great potential to affect the unborn child. I know many women who have told me that they knew their parents did not want them. When mothers are detached or not invested emotionally, babies sense this. On the other hand, babies are also remarkably resilient, and often thrive despite circumstances that are not ideal.
During my mother’s era, pregnant women were not expected to go outside their homes much or travel. Maternity clothes, which included that anathema, a maternity girdle, were ugly and did not enhance women’s body image. Many women lost their jobs if they became pregnant. And for women who didn’t lose their jobs, there was no formal pregnancy leave, even as late as the early 1980s. As the first physician in my former practice to have a pregnancy leave, I experienced some resentment from a few of my colleagues, who felt that pregnancy should not be treated the same as a broken leg because it was, after all, a chosen disability over which I had some control. We’ve certainly come a long way since then, but pretending that a pregnant woman is just like everyone else and has no special needs is shortsighted and puts her and her baby’s health at risk. Our culture can’t seem to find a happy medium.
An ever-increasing body of research is documenting the fact that prenatal influences set the stage of a child’s state of health for her entire life. A baby’s gene expression is powerfully shaped and guided starting in utero. In fact, Thomas Verny, M.D., D.Psych., a psychiatrist and psychologist who founded the Association for Pre- & Perinatal Psychology and Health, writes, “In fact, the great weight of the scientific evidence that has emerged over the last decade demands that we re-evaluate the mental and emotional abilities of unborn children. Awake or asleep, the studies show, they are constantly tuned in to their mother’s every action, thought, and feeling. From the moment of conception, the experience in the womb shapes the brain and lays the groundwork for personality, emotional temperament, and the power of higher thought.” Verny1 Studies have shown, for example, that suboptimal conditions in utero set the stage for adult diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Nathanielsz2 Therefore, pregnancy needs to be treated as a special (and crucial) time that requires a woman to make some arrangements for increased rest and care. Otherwise, she may experience increased fatigue, premature labor, and toxemia. Usdhew3 Studies have shown that women who aren’t supported or are highly stressed in their pregnancies have a higher incidence of adverse outcomes. And so do their babies!
The Collective Emergency Mindset
Pregnancy is a time when common sense all too often flies out the window, chased by a culture that is out of balance concerning birth. Nowhere is a woman’s connection or loss of connection to her inner guidance more evident than during pregnancy. Suddenly, her body is no longer her own. Her entire extended family feels that it is pregnant, and all of them give her advice about what to eat, what to wear, and what to do. I was amazed by how total strangers would approach me when I was pregnant, pat my belly, and offer suggestions. Friends seem to think it their duty to tell pregnant women the worst stories they can think of about cesarean sections, labor pain, and poor outcomes. (This is another example of our dominator culture—glorifying pain and destruction over the life-enhancing qualities potentially available through pregnancy and birth.) I felt blessed to be an obstetrician because I was spared hearing all these horror stories. (Perhaps people figured that I had been “socialized” by having already learned these horrible stories firsthand!) War stories about the rigors of birth are often passed down from generation to generation. Mothers not uncommonly tell their daughters that “now you’ll see how I suffered with you.”
At some very deep level, we are all awed by pregnant women and their power. But instead of emphasizing a woman’s awe-inspiring birth power, in classic patriarchal reversal our culture attends to the fear that that power brings up. Pregnant women are emotionally more porous and more in touch with their intuition than usual, and they are therefore more vulnerable. They pick up on all the collective societal fear of them. Media images of pregnant women suddenly falling to the ground during pregnancy and shrieking things like, “Oh, John, the baby!” reinforce in our psyches the notion that pregnancy is a time of great danger and unpredictability instead of a normal process. They falsely remind us that pregnancy, like our female body, is a disaster waiting to happen. In every hospital I’ve ever worked in, pregnant women who come into the emergency room are rushed to the labor and delivery floor as quickly as possible, even if they’ve come in for some other problem. In Boston, the ER crew once sent up a woman in midpregnancy who had a broken leg!
This emergency mindset is especially damaging to women who are having babies in their thirties or forties. Most, if not all, pregnant women over the age of thirty are taught by our culture that they are much more at risk for complications than if they were in their twenties. This perception of increased risk is not necessarily true and depends on the individual woman’s health. Women having their first babies after the age of thirty-five were once referred to as “elderly primigravidas.” Happily, that term has been dropped. Though the term “geriatric” obstetrics is still used occasionally, it should be eliminated, as it sets up all kinds of negativity. Whether or not a woman is more at risk in her thirties must be completely individualized. A forty-year-old in excellent health who has a planned pregnancy is apt to do much better than a twenty-five-year-old who smokes two packs and quaffs a gallon of Diet Coke per day. Too often the medical profession “hexes” women who become pregnant in their thirties and forties by lumping them into statistically high-risk categories that are not necessarily applicable. Older women who are pregnant, as well as infertility patients who become pregnant, have a much higher risk of a C-section.
In fact, age doesn’t predict anything when it comes to labor and birth. Chronological age (age in years) and biological age (age of one’s tissues) aren’t necessarily related. One of my friends had her first baby at forty-one. The first stage of her labor lasted only three hours—very short by any standard. And if her hips hadn’t been so narrow, she’d have delivered in a total of four hours. Healthy women who are well supported in labor usually do beautifully, regardless of age.
One of the nicest things about women having their first babies in their late thirties and early forties is that by then, these women have established themselves in the outside world of work and career. When they do have babies, they take the time to enjoy them. They already know what it’s like “out there.” They realize the limitations of the corporate world and are willing to put aside its “benefits” to reassess their lives through the lens of parenting. Many have had time to get in touch with their bodies over the years and are more comfortable with themselves than they were in their twenties. In my mind, such women are actually low risk.
Spiritual and Holistic Options
Women should savor and celebrate pregnancy, the gestating of the next generation, as the miracle that it is—a crucial time in their own and their child’s development. It’s a time when we can be in touch with our hara—our body center of creation—in the most direct and powerful way possible. Pregnancy is not an illness or a time for us to be treated with kid gloves. Still, it is a period when we need quiet reflective time to tune in to the baby and to rest. The hormone progesterone, released naturally during pregnancy, has calming and soothing effects. (It also relaxes and slows the bowel, which can lead to constipation in some women.) The body is doing a lot of inner work growing a baby. The tenor of the pregnancy itself contributes to the strength of a child’s constitution throughout the rest of his or her life. I’m amazed that this culture has been so unable to appreciate the fact that forty weeks of gestation is a very short amount of time in a woman’s life, relatively speaking. Yet it is a time that is crucial for the health of the next generation. Because our culture values women more highly during their childbearing years, and because women tend to take better care of themselves during pregnancy than at any other time, pregnancy is a fantastic opportunity for women to learn more about themselves and their own power. Since the baby is part of their own bodies, positive inner communication between the two translates into a deeper trust of themselves that continues even after birth.
Learn More — Additional Resources
- Mother-Daughter Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 4, “Pregnancy: Trusting the Process of Life”
- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Chapter 12, “Pregnancy and Birthing”
- Verny, T.R., Weintraub, P. 2002. Tomorrow’s Baby: The Art and Science of Parenting from Conception Through Infancy, Simon & Schuster, p. 29.
- Nathanielsz, P.W., 1999. Life in the Womb: The Origin of Health and Disease, Promethean Press.
- U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the National Center for Health Statistics, 1973. Wanted and Unwanted Births by Mothers 15–44 Years of Age: United States, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; Advance data from Vital and Health Statistics, no. 9 1977; National Institutes of Health, Institute of Child Health and Human Development, research reports 1992, available from NICHD Office of Research Reporting, building 31, room 2A312, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 01892; Muylder, M.D., et al., 1992. “A women’s attitude toward pregnancy: Can it predispose her to preterm labor?” Journal of Reproductive Medicine, vol. 37(4); Newton, R., Hunt, L., 1984. Psychosocial stress in pregnancy and its relationship to low birth weight, British Medical Journal, vol. 288:1191.