Labour of Love

Recently a niece of mine gave birth and though it was a difficult pregnancy and birth she told me she would do it all over again.  She did say to the male anaesthetist following being given an epidural that ‘all women must fall immediately in love with you.’  Parenting is one of the most unselfish behaviours that I know.  It certainly is the case that adults cannot change how they were parented themselves, but they can change how they parent their children.  However, unless potential and actual parents reflect on how they were parented and in their own relationship with self continue the positives and correct the neglects experienced, it is likely they will repeat the parenting patterns they encountered.

Typically, parenting a child is considered to start after the birth of the child and there is no better writer than D.W. Winnicott to describe the physical and emotional holding that are essential to the wellbeing of the child.  Ideally, the infant is responded to in a way within which mother contains and responds to the infant’s inner environment through empathy and attunement to his feelings, needs, impulses.  She creates what Winnicott terms a protective holding field by the way she holds, carries, feeds, moves, gazes at, speaks to and responds to her baby.  Regrettably, Winnicott assigns a very limited role to the father in the creation of this holding relationship.  He gives fathers the responsibility of safeguarding the mother-infant relationship from outer relational or environmental dangers.  In the father’s safe holding, Winnicott suggests that the mother can rest in her own being-state and sense her natural interconnection to the infant’s unique being.

Inevitably, all infants will experience some threat to their wellbeing and all infants will undergo a shift from an open and undefended state to reactive and defensive manoeuvres.  In other words, when an infant encounters parental neglect or experiences a threat from his physical environment, the infant shifts from being to reacting.  What Winnicott did not consider was that critical shift can occur pre-natally.  Another psychologist, Frank

Lake did.  Lake showed that there is considerable evidence that socialisation begins at conception.  The foetus itself is a socialising agent for its parent(s).  They begin to adapt to the child by going to antenatal classes, preparing a cot and clothes and relating the events to relatives, friends and work colleagues.  But what is even more pertinent is how the mother’s state of health and social position can considerably affect the unborn child.  Activity in the womb increases during stressful periods in the mother’s life, particularly when the stressful events continue over a long period of time.  Research has shown that mothers who have undergone extended periods of chronic anxiety during late pregnancy are more likely to have babies who are highly active and intolerant of delays in feeding.  One researcher had mothers fill out a questionnaire designed to measure anxiety and then checked their medical records for any incidents of obstetric complications.  On several measures such as length of labour, use of forceps, distress and Apgar scores (which measure infants muscle tone, heart rate, respiratory effort) those mothers who scored highly on anxiety had more complications than those who had low scores.  Another researcher found that levels of psychological and social distress were higher in mothers of pre-term than full-term infants.  Mothers of pre-term babies were more likely to have experienced a major stressful life event such as marital separation, unemployment of male partner or the death of an immediate family member.  Eighty-four per cent of the very premature group had experienced one of the events during their pregnancy.  There is evidence, too, that the social support available to the mother is associated with obstetric complications.  The marital status of the mother appears to be another significant factor.  Although it is not possible to establish cause and effect here, the above studies call for the need for parenting to begin at conception and not nine months later.

Like myself, Lake believes that an individual being is there from the moment of conception.  This being self is independent of the events or content of his or her life, but it does rely on the physical and emotional holding described earlier so that the little individual does not have to go into hiding his or her true self, pre-natally or post-natally.  It would appear that the wellbeing of the mother is critical to the wellbeing of the child, both pre- and post-natally and male partners and other significant adults, including employers, have a responsibility to be actively supportive of the mother from the onset of pregnancy.  Pregnancy is not only an odyssey for the mother, but it is also one for the little yet-to-be-birthed individual and both travellers deserve and need all the love and support they can get.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of All About Children.