The lasting impact of birth.


Birth. It’s a moment really - preceded by long hours of preparation- and its impact is profound. The threshold between womb and world is packed with neurological connections, perhaps the most plentiful a human will ever experience.

At birth the infant can see, hear, smell and respond to touch. Almost immediately after birth the newborn’s brain begins to form trillions of connections and pathways between the neurons. These connections, pathways are vital as they enable the infant to see, hear, smell, learn and reason in a more developed way.

By the moment of birth, the large majority of neurons are appropriately located within an immature brain that has begun to appear and function like its mature counterpart.

So what wonder that the impact of that first impression, which causes multitudes of neurons to jump to attention, has a lasting memory.

I have spent some time consciously working with some of those memories. Before I started pre and perinatal work, I didn’t even realize they were memories. I experienced them as big feelings, without much story attached, but with great predictability as to their occurrence. For example, I frequently panicked hugely if I couldn’t find my way somewhere; being startled totally enraged me; when emotionally overwhelmed my strategy was to collapse and wait for someone to come pick me up...

When I started to learn that particular experience of my C-Section birth was a possible impetus for some of these pervasive feelings, it was such a relief. There was an actual source for my discomfort. It wasn’t that I was just a weirdo. “Shock” which is the phrase used to describe the experiences that lead to trauma response was also a liberating concept. Yes indeed, being airlifted out of the womb could be seen as shocking. Being buffeted by Pitocin, being pulled out with forceps, leaving your birth mother...all experiences that could trigger a shock response, and when not directly addressed in a timely manner, can sometimes lead to a trauma response which, when re experienced 40 years later, has you screaming angrily at a child who has jumped out from a doorway and said “BOO!”

I took care of a 10 year old today who did that. I went out of the house for a few minutes and he craftily and quietly hid so that when I returned he could jump out of his hiding place and scream/scare me. He LOVES to do this. It gives him a huge laugh. And even though I am authentically VERY startled each time this has occurred (which is, of course, part of what makes scaring me so much damn fun!) I also laugh. Because the awful panic that was the background hum to my life has subsided and because the vulnerability that would have been triggered by fear, and the anger that protected that vulnerability is no longer my first "go to" response.

For me there has been great power in consciously acknowledging the influence of my birth events. It has left me open to experience the discomfort of original feelings while also seeing them in context. To achieve this perspective, I needed to allow myself to feel the shocking events in a safer context, individual therapies or groups within which I could tolerate my original fears ( trauma). These fears which when I was little felt like they threatened my survival, in a safer container, turn out to be feelings that I could tolerate. My fears relaxed, allowing me to migrate to my more adult self, and then offer healing compassion to my younger... youngest self.

When you are not yet a grown up, when you are very very young, it is up to the adults around you to help to open to your own truth by witnessing your grief, your fear, your vulnerability, and not try to fix it or make it stop. But, rather, to name it for you, to empathize and be the safe container for all that raw feeling. Then background becomes foreground, and clarity begets courage and self-knowledge and ultimately self-love.

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