As I write this, an epic gathering is coalescing. From points around the globe, renowned midwives, physicians, doulas, childbirth educators, lactation consultants, human development educators, myriad cultural and human rights leaders, environmental activists, medical ethicists and a neonatologist will come together next week in Northern California with a single unified intention.
We will assemble at the BirthKeeper Summit to discuss and promote our most precious birthright: being born healthy and loved into a flourishing and just world, which honors women and protects the life-giving relationships of MotherBaby & MotherEarth.
The BirthKeeper movement understands the relationship between the health of the environment and the health of future generations of life. “Healing birth is healing our Earth.” It also understands the necessity of supporting the primal period of human life — from before conception to a child’s first birthday, including birth –as a human rights issue.
At BirthKeeper Summit, The Personal is Political
This famous feminist rallying anthem is powerfully relevant to this gathering’s roots and to its reasons.
Roots — The late midwife, yogini and sacred feminine educator Jeannine Parvati Baker coined the term “birthkeeper,” and a portion of the Summit’s proceeds is earmarked for training new midwives in JPB’s honor. I knew Jeannine. Here is a note I sent to her family after her passing in 2005:
All I can say is that this earth (along with her population of birthing humans) has lost one of her fiercest lioness protectresses. My introduction to her was as a young woman, intuitively guided to buy Hygeiea: A Woman’s Herbal… and how often I giggled at the image she invited me to enter — of a flowing woman on her period, squatting in the garden to return her power to the earth. It may have taken me a few years for those seeds Jeannine sowed to take root — over 20!! — but sure enough, once we moved to our next home, and my inner gardener emerged for the first time in my life, and I became a lover of antique and English roses… what became the most special fertilizer?? Yep… thanks to Jeannine. (No, I never did actually deliver it directly via squatting… but how many women, unless persuaded by someone as powerful as Jeannine, would soak their cotton tampons in a pitcher of water, then actually wring them by hand of all the juicy redness to return it to the soil…??!!)
She was an original, a spitfire goddess who spoke with a flaming, clear-eyed voice, who reinvented language so it expressed what the soul (and the planet) needed, and who challenged, challenged, challenged. APPPAH (Assn. for Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology and Health) brought us together, and over the years we plotted, we collaborated, we chatted, we huddled. We commiserated over husbands, lovers… we disagreed with loving respect over tough issues like abortion. All of us are now orphans in some small and huge way, with the loss of Mother Jeannine. I can only imagine her up there (why do we think of it as “up there”… when it’s more likely a dimension we cannot even begin to fathom, more like indownoutweavethroughaboveenterpermeation...), free of her body which just couldn’t contain her anymore — like Tinkerbell with a scepter and an attitude!
Rock on, Jeannine. We are all your body now.
Reason — Indeed, we are all Jeannine’s body now, carrying on her vision — a vision shared by many wise ones: a grassroots social call for a paradigm shift bringing a MotherBaby focus of care and compassion to life and birth systems. And that includes the ways that pregnancy, birth and postpartum influence lifelong wellbeing — both for the individual and for our global family.
That very issue will guide the Friday evening plenary panel, whose question is What kind of humans are we growing? I’ll be on that panel along with Michel Odent, a few of whose ideas proved controversial in my prior post on possible connections between oxytocin system disruption and such conditions as autism.
I’ll Be Your Embassadress: What’s Your Question?
Think of me as your representative at this Summit. Do you have a challenge, a question, a rant? Post it in Comments and I will voice it at this gathering.
I’ll Be Your Proctor: What’s Your Guess?
My solo presentation, Birthing the Next Generation of Peacemakers, spotlights ways in which pregnancy, birth & postpartum are “Nature’s Head Start Program,” instructing baby what kind of world to prepare for: to express optimal growth in a loving world, or to prepare to defend in a hostile world. I’ll be going over practical ways we can harmonize with Nature’s plan at these three stages for hardwiring our children with the brain circuitry for such essential peacemaker capacities as self-regulation, imagination, trust and empathy.
After pointing out the rather simple mammalian requirements for a straightforward physiological birth (i.e., a greatly diminished likelihood of stalled labor — so unhelpfully termed “failure to progress”), I will be asking the audience, What are some things even the most supportive birth attendant or partner might do to inadvertently disrupt a laboring mother’s optimal neurochemistry and slow down labor?
Would you care to take a guess?
Monday (Summit Minus 3 Days)
I see on Facebook that there will be an award given by renowned midwife (and past CNN Hero of the Year) Robin Lim: Jeannine Parvati Memorial Rising Star BirthKeeper Award. The recipient is a person whose life and work exemplifies the values and principals of the BirthKeeper Movement, and of the life of Jeannine Parvati. The BirthKeeper Movement recognizes that this work is hard and demands great personal sacrifice.
Spoiler Alert: The same FB post included the recipient. (I guess there will be no accountant carrying a locked briefcase with the winner’s name!) Gena Kirby has been chosen this year to receive the honor. (So cool — Gena was just with me on a webinar a couple weeks ago, sharing some really powerful experiences of raw, real motherhood.) Congrats, Gena.
Do you have a Gena story, impression or sentiment you’d like to share? Place in “Comments” and I’ll pass it on when I see her!!
*** Note: It would be impossible for even the most diligent attendee to partake of every session a conference has to offer, because each breakout session offers 9-12 different concurrent choices. Also, I have learned over the years that I need to pace my attendance at conferences that are all about birth (or, in the 1990s & 2000s, adoption) because the material can be very “activating” — stir up one’s own trauma, losses, grief related to the topic.
So, as L.J. points out below in Comments, I’m merely highlighting some notable facets of a multi-hued, ultra-rich gathering! ***
Thursday (Summit Opening Evening)
The Living Legend panel got the BirthKeeper Summit off to an inspiring beginning. Raven Lang gave stirring witness to the history of the midwifery movement in the modern era, and also raised what I perceive as a key issue: the harm that is done to many women (usually with their consent) through ART (assisted reproductive technologies). She recalled one patient whose kidneys had shut down from the onslaught of hormones.
She cautioned women to be wary of perceiving things as good for them when they may not be. She informed a stunned audience (me included — STUNNED!) that savvy tech corporations (among them one whose initial/nickname may be FB) — ostensibly wanting to benefit from the most fruitful years of their workers’ lives — offer their female employees’ two free cycles of ovulatory stimulation and egg freezing as one of their “benefits” of employment.
Hearing Judy Lewis speak of the personal experiences that led her to become a central member of the Boston Women’s Collective (who wrote the landmark Our Bodies, Ourselves) was like seeing, well, a true legend take human shape before me. (Our Bodies, Ourselves was a beacon of light for me as a twenty-something coming to terms with all things female and reproductive.) What an image Judy conjured, in her oh-so-Bostononian accent — women gathering at all stages of pregnancy and new motherhood, in groups for support, not led or facilitated, but simply… organically emergent. She also gave a very helpful definition of feminism: “Another word for self-respect.” And, medicalization (as in, “medicalization of birth”): “when the primary decisions are made through he lens of risk.”
Marilyn Milos has for years to me been the embodiment of a humble servant who has devoted her tireless service to the protection of baby boys. And to the prevention of what she calls “regret parents” — those who realize too late that they wish they’d known more about circumcision before they allowed it to be done to their sons. Marilyn always touches me deeply, just to hear her speak. She has a playful sense of humor, thank goodness. (Can you imagine not having a sense of humor when your life’s passion is protecting unsuspecting newborn foreskins??!)
Marilyn tells the story about the nursing program she was trying to get into; she applied time after time. While her third application was pending, she received a call from the hospital asking her to do an in-service training about circumcision for the nurses whose training program she was trying to enter as a student!! That hospital sent Marilyn packing when she got it into her head that “informed consent” (by parents to allow doctors to perform circumcision on their sons) should mean that parents actually know what the procedure entails, completely. As Marilyn puts it, “They didn’t let me cut into their cutting business.”
That inspired her to make the film Informed Consent, and in 1985 she founded NOCIRC. Marilyn has compassionately and lovingly provided information, support and guidance to hundreds of thousands of parents over these past thirty years. And, the circumcision rate is dropping.
Suzanne Arms, whose landmark 70’s book Immaculate Deception was one of the earliest clarion calls to birth reform, spoke with the dynamism, humor, pathos and white-hot brilliance that has made her the rock-star of the movement (at least in my eyes!). Truly, I didn’t take one note because I was just so transfixed. I fell in love with Suzanne all over again.
The panel closed with Phyllis Klaus‘ poignant recollections of her husband, Dr. Marshall Klaus, who (with Phyllis and John Kennell) put the concept of “bonding” on the map with their book of that very title. As Marshall looked on, beaming, from his wheelchair in the front of the audience, Phyllis pointed out that his keynote had always been, “Be kind to the mother.”
She shared the story of a pivotal moment, when a mother and baby were reunited (after the 3-day postnatal separation that was normal hospital protocol) ready to leave the hospital to go home, but the mother was having some feeding issues. Marshall suggested that he quietly observe. So he sat unobtrusively yet supportively in a rocking chair to one side while the mother held her baby and tried giving him the bottle. Marshall noticed something odd: this young mother would put the nipple into her baby’s mouth, then pull it out. Put it in, take it back out. And then she said, “Are you my baby? Are you alive?”
Witnessing the profound sense of disconnection this mother had from her baby, Marshall had an epiphany moment, asking himself, What are we doing when we separate a mother from her baby? This went on to guide his future work, which has shaped how you and I have given birth!
Phyllis told another story, too — my favorite of the evening: Marshall and his colleagues decided to study the effects of early initiation of breastfeeding, and to do so, they needed the consent of mothers prior to them giving birth. They hired Wendy, a bilingual assistant whose only job was to obtain mothers’ consent to participate in the study. The timing was such that she typically discussed this with mothers who were in early labor.
Turns out, these women ended up birthing so easily, so quickly… and their milk came in so efficiently as to be literally squirting out of their breasts… that Marshall went to Wendy to ask, “What exactly went on when you went to get their consent??” Wendy admitted that because the women seemed distressed, fearful or in pain, she stayed with them for awhile. For some, she rubbed their backs if they asked. Or, just held their hand. Just stayed with them. Was kind to them.
Marshall and his colleagues immediately changed the focus of their study. They decided to research the effect of uninterrupted emotional and physical presence of a caring woman on labor and birth outcomes.
And thus, the modern doula movement was born.
The evening’s keynote talk was given by midwife Robin Lim, founder of Yayasan Bumi Sehat, a family of clinics in Indonesia providing pregnancy, birthing and healthcare to those in need. Her role in lowering Indonesian maternal and infant mortality rates through her dedication to serving at-risk mothers earned her CNN’s “Hero of the Year” award in 2011.
Robin focused on innovations and sustainable birth models that she and her team have used not just in their Indonesia clinics, but in their emergency relief efforts following such natural disasters as the Indian Ocean quake / tsunami in 2004, and the earthquake devastation in Yogyakarta in 2006, Padang in 2008 and Haiti in 2010. Ibu Robin (“Mother Robin”) spoke about such simple yet life-saving practices as burning rather than cutting the umbilical cord (to prevent infection), and innovative tools like solar suitcases for lighting much of their work.
The poignancy and power of Robin’s story took on an extra measure of immediacy in light of the fact that her she and her team were preparing to leave for Nepal on May 6. Not only do they provide direct care to displaced, traumatized women, they help train and support local midwives whereby the community may continue to benefit from evidence-based, sustainable prenatal and birth practices. It is estimated that 126,000 pregnant women have been affected by the 7.8 Nepal quake, and, as Robin points out, “There are always pregnant women, and babies needing to be born, no matter what the conditions.” She and her sister midwives will be there to help.
Gena Kirby Accepts the “Rising Star” Award
When you get a panel of living legends together, the schedule is bound to… well… elasticize. It’s one thing to ask panelists to take only 3 – 7 minutes for their comments, and it’s a whole other thing for them to do so. And truthfully, I think most of us in the audience were glad to sit longer, rapt at the tales they told!
But when you’re just a few days shy of your first birthday, living legends of midwifery aren’t of much interest. Going home and sleeping next to mama is pretty much all you want. Gena Kirby’s son Jack is an amazingly go-with-the-flow trouper, and had the award presentation happened when originally planned he — and his mama, surely — would have sailed smoothly through the evening.
But then again, there was something perfectly apropos about Gena juggling Jack as she stepped up to receive the award from Jeannine Parvati’s daughter Loi Baker. It was eerily reminiscent of Jeannine herself speaking at at early APPPAH conference, babe in arms! There was a palpable undercurrent of rush to the whole thing, which was unfortunate: Lo Kat’s comments were cut short and Gena (and the work she does) wasn’t introduced to this audience, some of whom — particularly the older attendees — aren’t familiar with her contributions of MotherBaby advocacy. [Upon reflection, it occurs to me, as a helpful takeaway, that unpleasant things can happen in all realms of life when time pressure comes into play. This is certainly true during childbirth… and also in daily parenting: basic kindnesses and presence can fall away when that damned clock is ticking!]
All that said, Gena’s acceptance was gracious and poignant. Not just her speech but her whole being, as she balanced authentic emotion, understandable exhaustion, and clear intention to share her feelings about receiving the award. I think Jeannine would be proud of that kind of grace under pressure.
Friday ~ Afternoon Keynote & Panel
The two morning plenary panels featured BirthKeepers’ perspectives on serving diverse communities and exploring ways to communicate across differences. Having wrestled with a temperamental WiFi connection till 3am to post the last installment, I chose to sleep in and skip the morning sessions — a tough decision that ultimately went the way of self-care.
I arrived mid-day in time for a keynote talk by indigenous midwife Katsi Cook, who embodies a breadth and scope of experience that is rare in one single person. She seems equally at home with heady academics as she is with the most primal, semiotic realm of human experience. Some notes I took:
- The Mohawk word closest to “BirthKeeper” translates into “one who repairs time and space.”
- Be mindful of engrained beliefs that aren’t your own.
- The importance of threshold experiences — those moments when we feel at the edge of the abyss and feel, “I can’t do this.” (Birth is, of course, one such experience.)
- Identity is an essential grounding of wellbeing.
Next unfolded the panel MotherBaby and MotherEarth ~ Intimate Ecology. I took few notes, since I was enthralled and fully wrapped up! A few highlights:
Stacy Malkan is a media strategist for environmental campaigns, and author of the award-winning book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. She is also featured in the upcoming film (produced by Sean Penn), The Human Experiment. She spun us around in our seats with the stark declaration, “Babies are being born into the world pre-polluted” — referring to research that has found more than 200 chemicals in newborn cord blood.
“I’m not worried, I’m mad,” Malkan declared. She emphasized that we needn’t feel helpless in the face of the seemingly insurmountable challenge of getting toxins out of our environment. She says that change DOES happen, and it begins with “the power of knowledge, and the power of ‘NO’.”
To illustrate, she shared the jaw-dropping tale of how Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Shampoo used to contain carcinogens. (Yes, you read that right.) Well, more specifically, just the version sold in the United States. The formula sold in Europe and elsewhere was clean. Evidently there was a quiet, small action by dedicated, vocal advocates threatening to “out” Johnson & Johnson — which led to them cleaning up the U.S. version of their baby shampoo.
Suzette Johnson, who works in the areas of organizational change and social justice cited a line by Alice Walker, which touched me deeply and served as my personal keynote theme for the remainder of the Summit: “Anything you love enough can be healed.”
Susan Highsmith, longtime colleague of mine in the birth psychology field, focused on the power of prenatal and birth imprints. In her 60s, she disclosed that she “is still unwinding the effects of the twilight sleep anesthesia my mother was given when I was born.” She observes that the prevailing system of birth capitalizes on our fears, and leverages it with language. And one of the most powerful, pervasive bit of language attached to pregnancy and birth is the phrase “nine months.”
Susan makes a radical (and I think brilliant) proposition: she suggests that “nine months” is a masculine way of marking time, not to mention that it actually shortens the normal gestation period, which is 280 days — 40 weeks, i.e., closer to 9 1/2 months. Recognizing the power of a woman’s thoughts, beliefs and perceptions to affect her baby, might a woman’s fixation on “nine months” (rather than “nine-plus-or-even-ten months”) be instructing a baby to come earlier than he or she might have? Might this be a facet of our country’s prematurity issue? (I realize it sounds a bit unfathomable, but the notion is in keeping with a body of pre- and perinatal psychology / psychoneuroimmunology literature.)
Friday Afternoon Breakouts
Then I was faced with choosing which afternoon plenary panels to attend.
It can be an agonizing decision! When presented with the option of experiencing an intimate gathering (typically just 10-20 attendees) with Robin Lim, Marilyn Milos, Jeanne Ohm or Michel Odent — to name just four out of ELEVEN amazing choices — what the heck do you do??
I attended Michel Odent’s session, entitled “The effects of fetal stress deprivation in the perinatal period: Lessons from pre-labor C-sections.” The notion of stress deprivation as an issue was intriguing to me, who so often discusses the negative effects of stress itself — that is, not being deprived of it — during the prenatal and perinatal stages of life!
The bottom-line takeaways from Dr. Odent’s session are:
a) the stress hormones which naturally accompany the labor process contribute in significant ways to a baby’s healthy development;
b) a growing body of research is finding correlations between pre-labor / non-labor C-sections and a variety of developmental costs in babies;
c) it’s important for researchers (and all of us) to distinguish between kinds of C-sections (non- or pre-labor, in-labor non-emergency; emergency), rather than lumping them all together when considering their effects
c) if there’s such a thing as an “ideal C-section,” it would be a non-emergency C-section performed after a period of labor.
The research details Dr. Odent shared to support these conclusions deserve a post of their own one of these days, which I intend to do.
Friday Evening Keynote & Panel
Childbirth & The Evolution of Homo Sapiens — The period surrounding birth is a phase of modern life that has been dramatically altered in recent decades, and emerging scientific disciplines have shown that this short period is critical in the formation of human beings. Michel Odent suggests these are two good reasons we should ask questions about the ways babies are born and the consequences this may have for our human species. Along with some points from his afternoon C-section session, Dr. Odent touched on the relationship of birthing practices to our evolutionary adaptations over time. For example, the increase in C-sections may be allowing for increasing skull size.
My confession: I was preoccupied with trying to bring some cohesiveness to the comments I would be making a few minutes later on the panel, so wasn’t as present as I could have been for Michel’s talk. Additionally, I didn’t quite think it through — that I had committed to bringing you a substantive picture of the conference proceedings — or would have asked someone in the audience to take good notes on Dr. Odent and the other panelists. I didn’t, so I have next to nothing!
What kind of humans are we growing? was the guiding question of the panel. A related, excellent question was raised by moderator Suzanne Arms, “How are we designing society?” My sister panelists Betty Idarius and Katsi Cook spoke to the questions from their perspectives, and the overarching theme of my own comments was simply, When we who we truly are, how vast we are, then we’ll naturally ask ourselves, How are we inviting and receiving our incoming citizens?
I brought up the current legal battle between actress Sophia Vergara and her ex-fiancé, over the two frozen embryos they created in 2013. He is suing to prevent her from destroying them, while she (currently planning a wedding to someone else) has “no desire to have children with her ex,” and plans to leave them frozen indefinitely. When we recognize the sentient intelligence of even single living cells, and certainly a collection of cells that is the viable beginning of a human, we may see fewer such difficult situations.
I invited us to always keep in mind that a baby, from the earliest moments of embryonic life, is developing itself in response to the question, What kind of world am I coming into, Mommy, through your eyes?
Saturday Morning Breakouts
I had my own breakout session in the morning, Birthing the Next Generation of Peacemakers. There was good attendance, so people must have been interested in the workshop description:
>> Pregnancy, birth & postpartum are “Nature’s Head Start Program”: environmental cues from Mom’s physical, mental and emotional life tell baby what kind of world to prepare for, and development unfolds accordingly—with the fetal brain predisposed toward expressing optimal growth in a loving world, or defensiveness in a hostile world. From her 7-step / 7-principle Parenting for Peace model, Dr. Axness will spotlight common mis-steps at each of these stages and explain their impact on the baby’s social brain. Focus will be on practical ways that we can harmonize with Nature’s plan at these three critical stages for hardwiring our children with the brain circuitry for such essential peacemaker capacities as self-regulation, self-reflection, imagination, trust and empathy.
The win-win is that a child wired in this vibrantly healthy way is a joy to parent, and as an adult has the heart to embrace and exemplify peace, the mind to innovate solutions to social and ecological challenges, and the will to enact them. To be successful in a changing world. <<
And now — drumroll please! — I will reveal some answers to the question I posed way up top. I asked about ways in which even the most conscious, progressive folks attending birth can impede the smoothly unfolding process of labor, and here are a few ubiquitous ones:
- Technology (checking that Facebook feed!)
All of these stimulate the neocortex and bring adrenaline (an antagonist of oxytocin) into the system. Also, oxytocin, the hormone so critically involved in smooth laboring, is the shy hormone. It doesn’t want to be observed. (It’s also a key hormone in sexual activity.) Michel Odent points out that we need the same things for a smooth, efficient birth as we do to fall asleep. What could be more simple?! **Even the most supportive, loving coaching can “awaken” the neocortex, the higher-thinking facet of the brain, which we want to be allowed to “fall asleep” as much as possible during labor. Imagine that you’re falling asleep, and you’re in that in-between place… and then your loving partner croons to you, “You’re doing a really good job falling asleep, sweetheart, just keep closing your eyes… how are you feeling?” Very loving, very well-intentioned. Does not help you fall asleep — and instead, just the opposite!
Because I had to check out of my hotel room by 1:00, and then feed my starving body, I missed the panel on social justice issues. And because this blog post has turned into what feels like an endless rabbit hole I fell down, I may return later to add in a few thoughts on the last session I attended, which was Jack Travis discussing his experience and theory of MPAS (Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome).
For now, again please keep in mind that this has been merely a slice of experience from the BirthKeeper Summit — just a single toenail of the proverbial group description of an elephant!
Top image by greendoula, through a Creative Commons license