Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How "primal health" theories nearly ruined me for motherhood

Touching my son through the window of the incubator
Many years ago, when pregnant with my second son, my main interests centered around childbirth and, specifically, the area of study known as "primal health."

Primal health deals with the time from conception until birth and through the first year of life, and uncovers corollaries between things such as birth trauma, separation, prenatal exposure to medication, circumcision, etc. and possible effects in later life such as drug addiction, suicidal tendencies, and so on. While the books I've read by him have focused on more behavioral and psychological health outcomes, Michel Odent, an acknowledged pioneer of this area of study, writes at the website of his Primal Health Research Databank,
We need this database because it is difficult to identify – among thousands of scientific and medical journals - studies that belong to this new framework: they are unrelated according to the current classifications. For example it would take a long time to find out that a pregnancy disease such as pre-eclampsia has been studied in relation to health conditions as diverse as prostate cancer, breast cancer, hypertension, asthma, allergic rhinitis, diabetes type 1, body size, age at menarche, behavior disorder, schizophrenia, mental retardation and cerebral palsy.
During this particularly pregnancy, my husband and I met with midwives and planned a very natural experience, hoping to give birth at home with minimal intervention.

Right in the middle of reading Michel Odent's The Scientification of Love, I woke up at 7 in the morning, actively in labor at 35 weeks gestation. It was too early to give birth with my midwives at home according to their regulations, and I headed to the hospital where my now 11 year old son was born quickly at a healthy 6 pounds 9 ounces (not bad for a preemie) but dangerously ill.

Eventually, through blood work and other exams, it was determined that he had contracted haemophilus influenzae and had a rather small chance of staying alive.

I remember his little gray body coming out of me, and the seeming yards of umbilical cord draped around him. Pulmonary hypertension prevented him from breathing, and he spent five days on ventilation in the NICU before we were ever able to hold him.

I remember in particular this one wonderful nurse who took very protective care of him, and her stoic statement at long last: "He is crying appropriately." They encouraged me to pump my milk and all he ever received was breastmilk from the very beginning, sent into his stomach via a nasogastric tube. This was a huge blessing, as breastfeeding was very important to us.

Against all odds, he survived, and even thrived. He left the NICU after a mere 11 days, while the original estimation was: "7 to 13 weeks, if he lives."

He had some residual effects from the ventilation, and crawled in a very clumsy fashion, with some bizarre body movements. By one year, however, all that had gotten worked out and he is now healthy and happy.

But here's what happened. In spite of all these miracles, these blessings, I truly believed that his life was essentially doomed, and so was our attachment, due to all the effects of these 'traumas' from his earliest days.

Our family with Dr. Komatsu, MD, neonatologist who was NOT the devil

I offer that word 'trauma' gingerly. Never mind the fact that he had, against all odds, survived and came home healthy. Many parents are not so fortunate. Never mind that he was breastfeeding like a champ and had his eyesight and fine motor skills intact. Damn that book by Odent. I feel like I lost a couple of years trapped in this notion that what had actually blessed my son would eventually lead to his utter dysfunctionality. Neither did I appreciate that we had had the means to transport and take him to the hospital where he survived and thrived, as opposed to not having that option. Had we stayed home, he would be dead, most likely, an outcome which occurs for a great many babies and their families in other places in this world.

I struggled to feel attached to him. I remember going home for the first time after his birth without him, because he had to stay behind in the hospital. There is definitely a challenge to feel a part of things in the NICU when all the nurses and doctors are doing so much of the care and taking such a protective stance. Looking back, I feel they included me as much as they possibly could, given his situation. Yet I responded in a heightened way out of exhaustion and stress as though we had no power at all.

Here's the thing. As much as I had respected the work of Michel Odent and felt certain there must be a negative impact on an infant from all the interventions that occurred postnatally for my son, in no way did it help us to have a healthy relationship. In fact, this type of science establishes a philosophy that we human beings are simply subject to the forces around us, those over which we truly have no control (who can control the way that they are born?), and that our destiny is predetermined.

In its worst manifestations, people have argued with me that it would be far better for a human person to have never been born--to have been aborted--rather than to be placed in a home with adoptive parents and live after the trauma of separation from the biological parents. All this, even though every adopted person I know is happy to be alive and that most suicidal people are not adopted.

What a crock.

The truth is, we can choose to love. We have free will. We can parent consciously and sacrifice ourselves for our children in a healthy way, even if they--gasp--had their umbilical cord cut five minutes sooner than we may have wished, or five days. We can remind our children, frequently, that they are in control of themselves and their behavior and do not have to be subject to the whims of their biology. (How much of a struggle this has become in the face of a culture which equates us to the sum total of our biological urges.)

I remember one woman telling me she had absolutely no way to bond with her infant emotionally because she (the mother) was so traumatized by the fact that the umbilical cord was artificially severed. She had been planning what is called a "lotus birth" in which the placenta is permitted to detach without intervention. At some point, that information was lost in the shuffle and the midwife cut the cord. It was as though, in her mind, the relationship between the mother and infant was stunted, unable to occur.

This is insanity. If this is a problem, it is because we have the problem. I am not trying to bash people who want these types of things, even though I now see the practices as strange and cumbersome. Hey, I used to be as crunchy as they come, and I beg your forgiveness for being far less sensitive now about all this stuff. But I am suggesting that we not idolize these practices as though our child's entire future and well-being, as well as our own, depend solely on them.

A friend recently sent me a worthwhile and impactful book recently entitled Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple, a physician who has concluded that the pathologies of what he calls the "underclass" are created by a worldview which has "liberated" us from all sense of personal responsibility and self-determination. I recommend reading it. It is very clarifying.

Mostly, I recommend that we rid ourselves of these notions that we are powerless and victimized by our cesarean sections, circumcisions, and whatever else we believe has led to our current situations. A correlation does not equal causation. Naturally, striving for better options, more evidence-based practice, etc. is appropriate in any culture. But acting as though our entire emotional health must be dependent on what happens during a single window is simply unhealthy and disempowering. What a terrible disappointment and sense of futile responsibility when, in spite of our best efforts and the tenets of "primal health," the cherished son or daughter we have has still managed to make some bad decisions or experience emotional pain. How shall I propose this son or daughter change, if his or her every action has been predetermined by the scalp electrode for the 5 minutes near the end of his birth or the decrease of 15 minutes of second stage labor that occurred because of an episiotomy?

And what does all this have to do with the devout life, the proposed purpose of this blog? I would suggest that we should truly embrace our free will as creatures, created by a loving Father, 

"For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control...

He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time begin,

but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."

2 Timothy 1:7, 9-10

Healing can occur in an instant. Suffering can lead to great triumph and accomplishment, a great intimacy with our Creator, Who suffered with us. "So if a son frees you, then you will be truly free," says the Lord (John 8:36). We have a God Who is personal, Who knows us, Who cares for us. And if our choices lead to a bad outcome, there is forgiveness. Reach out of the mud and take His Hand.

We are not just amalgams of energy hopelessly at the butt-end of whatever wavelength happened to come our way.


Judith said...

This is a beautiful article. I'm reposting! Such an important point, that we are more than the sum of our individual experiences. And that often what we view as traumatic and damaging (i.e., suffering) is not nearly as devastating as we imagine. I thank God you discovered your own instincts as a mother!

MFilce said...

yes, beautiful job, as usual. This is a piece from which we will all take a slightly different message and focus. I believe that God's gift of intellect and judgment is one we have a responsibility to nurture, hone and employ responsibly and to His glory. This piece reminds us that part of what makes up Faith is our responsibility to avoid falling victim to sophistry and mental laziness while deluding ourselves that we are making righteous decisions. There's nature, and there's definitely nurture-- but nurture involves so much more that is the ongoing work of parents, community, and Christ in our lives; to focus so much on isolated "primal" events and to accord them so much power is to deny the responsibility and gift of parenting, to deny the power of prayer and the Holy Spirit at work. As a corollary, the allure of Primal Health is that one can focus on doing certain things early on and then feel accomplished at having done so, perhaps even subconsciously abdicating greater responsibilities that arise later in the child's life.