Healthy Birth, Healthy Earth!1
New research from Neurobiologist Darcia Narvaez - Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality2 - reveals that birthing and infant-rearing practices that we regard as normal may be a root cause of mental-health illness in later life, contributing to reactions of destructive violence and aggression. The emphasis on competition in our culture contrasts with the cooperation that infuses and predominates in the natural world, and with 99.9% of human social history. In leaving that collaboration behind, we may have also left behind child-rearing practices that maintained healthy humans who respected each other and the planet.
The institution of the nuclear family or monogamy is comparatively recent. For most of human existence, people lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers (SBHG) with very different culture and values. Studies of contemporary SBHGs, quoted in the book, show generosity, sharing, egalitarianism, living cooperatively and strikingly little aggression. Sharing child care means that babies are in constant contact with carers, their needs met almost instantaneously. Not that we need to turn the clock back and live as small-band hunter-gatherers, but perhaps we can learn from them.
Generally not much attention has been paid to the experience for the baby at or immediately after birth. As a rule we have little access to memories of our birth or infancy till we reach the age of about 2. Our early personal experience is lost in the mists of time. But intuitive attempts by psychoanalysts to connect with those early experiences are now supported by evidence from neurobiology. Those first minutes, hours or weeks of life are crucial in determining our later capacity to cope with loss or trauma. If we are not given the care we need, it can affect our neurobiological development, particularly the vagus nerve, which is central to proper functioning. Darcia Narvaez cites seven conditions for a satisfactory birth and infancy, which if fostered in our own culture could increase mental health and decrease aggressive tendencies and polarity thinking stemming from lack of connection to self, other, and nature.
a) soothing perinatal experiences; b) responsiveness to the needs of the infant and prevention of distress; c) extensive touch and physical presence; d) extensive infant-initiated breastfeeding; e) a community of warm, responsive caregivers; f) a positive climate and social support; and g) creative free play with companions of multiple ages.
How many of us received the loving warmth with skin contact that could help us feel safe in those first few hours? Quite probably many of us were left as babies to cry ourselves to sleep, and consequently we may tend to discount the screams of young babies as "exercising their lungs", to hide the discomfort it arouses. It is not hard to imagine what that must have felt like, the stress that it caused to both mother and baby.
In the clinical treatment of children and adults, psychoanalytic theory posits an early experience of 'falling apart', the 'nameless dread', terror of the unknown that occurs at a time when the helpless infant has little resources to cope with experiences of being left alone in a world that does not respond to its cries. These experiences may initially be suppressed, using splitting as a way to hold on to the good and separate out bad experiences as the infant tries to protect itself. This 'schizoid mechanism' is described in Melanie Klein's Envy and Gratitude3, as a necessary polarisation, helpful in maintaining good internal figures, until the infant is ready to see good and bad as co-existing in one relationship (the depressive position op cit.) Early trauma or stress can delay this natural urge towards integration of the whole, until later life, when these feelings may begin to break through into consciousness as anxiety or manic-depressive episodes. At any rate, there comes a time later in life when it seems we have to reintegrate these expelled parts of ourselves, reclaim lost pieces, welcoming back those characteristics we would rather see in other people than in ourselves. This seems also to be the nature of the maturational need of humanity at this time.
For me in my 50s after a relationship breakup, I became trapped in a deep dark hole with no way out, which lasted for about 6 months, before I was able to face the unwanted feelings and reclaim them as mine, becoming in the process a richer, more whole person. Fortunately my sister allowed me to sit in her garden while this process worked itself out. Not many have such support. The key to unlocking that causal chain, described by Alice Miller -The Truth Will Set You Free4- is to get in touch with those feelings that were stored in mind and body at the time when we had then no resources to deal with them.
The resistance to depressive feelings, aided by a whole range of pharmaceuticals recommended by the medical profession, can delay the recovery of early feelings of helpless terror and rage, which instead get played out towards the 'other', re-enacting the polarisation, previously useful, which now sees strangers as enemies with whom it is impossible to communicate, justifying the need for bigger and more powerful bombs to keep us safe.
In order to heal our world we need to heal our own infancy, and rediscover the connections to our most basic needs for comfort and security, organising our communities in ways that provide the support that mothers and families need, to relax and be with their young child during the time when foundations for adult life are being constructed in body and brain. Welcoming newborns into the world requires a collaborative society, which shares childcare and supports early experiences in a harmonious environment.
2- Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality, evolution, culture, and wisdom. Darcia Narvaez 2014
3- Envy and Gratitude. Melanie Klein. 1957 click here
4- The Truth Will Set You Free. Alice Miller 2001 .alice-miller.com/en/the-truth-will-set-you-free/