Birth, sexuality and crowds

My mother was 30 when I was born in 1971. For years she has studied natural childbirth and perinatal health. Although I have no children, I’m also interested in health and biology, and we often discuss childbirth. But the live-birth videos and graphic photography that captivate my mother disturb me. I am neither squeamish nor prudish, yet I avoid these images. I always think, "This is not for my eyes." Why? Michel Odent observed that birth must be private because it is sexual. The reptilian brain, not the neo-cortex, must be in control. Odent’s advice: Start with a warm, softly-lit room; allow the mother to relax by protecting her privacy and assuring her security; and usually a smooth labor directed by the natural flow of hormones will follow. Mary, after all, left human company to give birth to Jesus with the animals in a warm, dark stable.

My mother explained that labor, birth, and breastfeeding are sexual events. She meant sexual in the physiological sense — sexual hormones are involved. But she also meant it in a broader sense — there is sexual chemistry between mother and baby, and the feelings of love and arousal, are similar, even identical, to those one experiences during sex. This fact of biological life was not a conventional view, and at first I didn’t get it.

Years went by. Then, suddenly, I understood my aversion to birthing videos. If birth is sexual, then it should be private, and I don’t want to be an observer. Sexual chemistry is a communication between persons. In the sexual event called birth, the parties are mother and baby, and both need privacy. Health workers attending the birth can offer the necessary expertise, but any other presence, I now think, is not only gratuitous, but could also disturb the delicate chemistry between mother and baby.

Each woman must decide whether the baby’s father or siblings are outsiders, and I would respect any woman’s choice. But the debate about fathers attending birth often circles around the man’s perspective. The argument in favor: He wants to be "part of it.' The argument against: His sexual relationship with the mother may be adversely affected. But the effect of his presence on mother and baby is surely the most important question.

Now I see the contemporary chorus attending the birth — and the photo and video displays before and after — as too much. When the baby’s image has been shared with dozens before it is born, do parents lose a certain private knowledge, a sense of mystery? When the video camera is rolling, can the mother let her rational brain go? How does witnessing birth affect young children?

Equally important, is the baby expecting a crowd? The African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. But does the village need to be on hand as the baby crosses the literal threshold into air-breathing society?

(Disclaimer: This is not an argument for limiting breastfeeding in public, despite its sexual dimension. Assuming the mother is respectful of the presence of others, the baby’s need for optimal nutrition trumps any privacy concern.)

Gentle reader, if you take the long view on perinatal health, you may wish to know: I was my mother’s third child, 9 lbs., 3oz., and lucky to be born at home. My mother’s general practitioner was Italian, in her 70s and vigorous with still-red hair. The house was quiet and calm during labor, with Dr. Catalano arriving just as I did. She rubbed me with olive oil, which may be why I love the sun, fish, tomatoes and wine. My father was there, along with my 8-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother. There were no cameras. It was a happy beginning.

Was it a happy ending? My parents’ marriage thrived, and my sister and brother recalled my birthday without anxiety. As for me, I have no memories of being jolted by gawking faces. But then my mother read Adele Davis and ate a lot of protein, and I opted to be two weeks "late," so maybe I was really in charge.

So it must be that if mother and baby are relaxed and healthy, and the welcoming party is loving and respectful, no long-term harm can come of it. But in time, we may look back on the circus atmosphere as a period of excess.

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