Since withdrawing from the world of body psychotherapy I've had two children, now aged two and four. In the course of this extraordinary process I've been amazed by how little attention is paid by health professionals and in the general culture, to the psychological aspects of pregnancy and birth; any emotional content tends to be described as 'hormonal' and essentially dismissed. In my training of biodynamic massage and body psychotherapy very little attention was given to pregnancy and birth from the mother's perspective: the child was the primary concern. Our culture paints pregnancy and birth in a rosy pink, giving women little scope to explore the complexity of the issues it presents and while many midwives are aware of the impact that psychological issues have on birth and attachments, their time with their patients is severely restricted.
Since starting to emerge from the intensity of post-natal life I have been thinking and writing about how pregnancy affects us in a holistic sense, especially the parallels between the physical opening and the psychic (in the sense of psychological, emotional and soul) opening and working with biodynamic massage to support pregnant women, providing a space for them to feel how it is to be pregnant and what that means. It's often a place of conflict and paradox in that the woman has to hold not only the physical weight of the baby, but also her feelings about mothering and her own birth and gestation etc. but does so in a 'soft' way that is peculiar to pregnancy.
Pregnancy is a process of opening, to a new life, a new love, a new role; new ordering of the relationships within the family. It is a physical opening too; as the baby takes up more space, its mothers body is forced to open while still containing the growing life. Ultimately the baby's descent through the pelvic cavity and out into the world through the vagina must be the most profound natural opening a woman can experience. This unique opening process continues into the post-natal period while the mother and baby bond and feed. The completion of the cycle will vary from woman to woman and can take place from nine months onwards.
I have been very struck by how my pregnant clients' soft tissue is different from the non-pregnant client, the common factor is in the comparative softness and openness of these womens' structures. The muscles seem more fluid, the tone responsive yet relaxed. And while the habitual holding patterns are still present in their bodies, the quality of the tension has changed.
When I make contact with my clients on an energetic level, the common factor is permeability; I feel it would be possible to go deep and make a connection way beyond what would typically be possible with a non-pregnant client. The boundary seems to have changed and this makes pregnant women more vulnerable to outside forces penetrating and touching her deeply as well as giving access to internal forces coming to her consciousness. Benig Mauger calls this 'psychic permeability' and links it to the progesterone influenced softening of ligaments in preparation for birth.
External forces coming towards a pregnant woman can be positive or negative but they are often felt more profoundly, for example the feeling of connection with other women who are mothers, or experiencing the love and support of her family in an especially intense and visceral way. An acquaintance reported “I suddenly realised my Mum had felt me kick inside her, just as I feel my baby kick now”. The woman's relationship with her mother will often emerge in a more urgent and vital form.
Women hoping for a low intervention birth can be especially vulnerable to the extreme caution of health professionals holding a medical model approach, it is very common for a thoughtless comment to lodge deeply. For example the baby being too big or too small, too little amniotic fluid, labour too hard etc. etc. This sets up doubts in the woman's mind that the labour will go smoothly, as well as patterns of tension which will inhibit oxytocin and can impede the progress of the birth.
This psychic permeability allows flow outwards too in that internal forces are also more available, for example dreams and fantasies. This can be a wonderful opportunity for healing if the woman chooses to engage with it, as the approaching birth of the child can support an emotional re-birth in the mother. Equally these forces can be regarded as feeling like a madness which must be defended against.
Common fears from my clients have been about squashing/suffocating the baby, feeling out of control/taken over, not daring to believe it's real, fearing for it's normality, fear of poisoning the baby and fears around being able to contain the baby within. Dreams often attempt to manage the fears prevalent in pregnancy and prepare a woman for her new role, and feature lost or forgotten babies, monster babies, swimming and diving: later in the pregnancy birthing dreams become especially vivid, bursting, vomiting, hidden parts exposed as she attempt to comprehend this profound opening.
Perhaps the most profound effect of this permeability is that it enables the mother to bond with the new baby in utero. This can be supported with touch, visualisations, breathing and meditation or through seeing the scan images. It is thought that bonding with the foetus can contribute to the likelihood of a natural birth and a firm bond after the birth. Normal ego boundaries are dissolved and mother and baby can remain merged well into the postnatal period.
Provided things have gone well for both mother and child at the birth, the bonding process started in utero can continue; sometimes it is love at first sight, sometimes a slow burn, the process is as individual as the mother and baby. After the incredible experience of giving birth, a woman's energetic boundaries are utterly blown open and this means that the new family need an environment of peace and safety in order to bond and re-gather in the following days. For the first few months and often much longer the mother and baby are effectively merged, essentially a single unit, separate from the world. The woman still very much both open to and containing for her baby, the psychic permeability continuing for a long period. We do not have a culture of protection for new mothers in our society, and there is a rush to shed weight and re-join the outside world as quickly as possible.
The paradox is that while a woman is required to contain her baby both as physical and relational weight, she does so from a place of progesterone influenced softness and openness which allows a great deal of flow. This wonderful and complex experience is undervalued in our culture and often the opportunity for enrichment is missed.
“One Friday in October I started falling love with everyone, and I stayed in love for two weeks, with everyone. This was awkward...I missed appointments, even with the people I loved, which was everyone, and so stayed at home and saw no one, my mind full of impossible thoughts.”
Anne Enright: Making Babies
Enright, Anne. Making Babies Stumbling into Motherhood. London: Vintage, 2004
Gordon, Yehudi. Birth and Beyond... London: Vermilion, 2002
Kitzinger, Shiela. The New Pregnancy and Childbirth (4th Edition). London: Dorling Kindersley, 2003
Mauger, Benig. Songs from the Womb. Cork: The Collins Press, 1998
Raphael-Leff, Joan. Psychological Processes of Childbearing. Bury St Edmunds UK: Chapmam Hall, 1991
Schwartz, Leni. Bonding before Birth. Boston USA: Sigo Press, 1991
Well Mother. Offers training for midwives, shiatsu and massage practitioners in maternity massage and support for parents through pregnancy and birth. wellmother.org