I recently read the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N Aron, Ph.D. In the chapter called Medics, Medication, and Highly Sensitive People, the author states:
“Keep in mind, too, that it is common to feel an attachment to anyone you have been with during an arousing experience, especially if it was a truly painful or emotionally significant ordeal. In the medical realm you hear these sorts of extra feelings when people describe their surgeon or women talk about the person who delivered their child, which is perfectly normal. The solution is simply to know why it happens and compensate for it appropriately.”
In the chapter about relationships, she talks about studies that were done that showed people are far more likely to fall in love under stressful circumstances. She applied this phenomenon to attachment in all relationships, not just romantic relationships. Later when I read the above statement in the medical chapter, so many things started to make sense to me.
Why do women love their maternity care provider, even when they may have done unnecessary procedures on them and not allowed them to make their own choices? Why do many providers use scare tactics? Why do women hold so adamantly to the belief that their provider “saved their life” or “saved their baby” or “was a great doctor” or “really took good care of me”, even when evidence to the contrary is right in front of them? Why do they fail to make important connections, such as that their c-section may have been one of the many unnecessary ones, or that there may not have been a true evidence based need for their induction? Why is childbirth treated like a major emergency with so much fear and anxiety around it? Why aren’t all women who give birth in this system severely traumatized from it, and instead defend and adore their doctors? The answer is simple: the culture of fear that surrounds childbirth actually endears women to their doctors. It cements the relationship between women, their doctors, and the hospitals their doctors practice at. It ensures that the women will keep coming back, and will recommend their providers to all their friends as they speak about them in glowing heroic terms. It is quite brilliant really, providers and hospitals have found the key to running a very successful business, and it has nothing to do with allowing women to make their own choices. They simply have to give the illusion prenatally that the woman can make her own choices for her birth, and then make sure that the actual experience of birth is one filled with fear, anxiety, and of course a healthy baby, and then the narcissistic provider will come out looking like roses to the woman who must endure the “horrors of childbirth”.
Of course, I am not really giving the doctors the benefit of the doubt here. They likely don’t know on a conscious level what they are really doing. They have been trained to act this way, by people who were also trained to act this way, and it is reinforced for them every time a woman profusely thanks her doctor for a job well done, and every time a woman tells her birth horror story where the good doctor makes an appearance as the hero who delivers her baby to her despite all the dangers that presented at the last minute. Both the woman and the doctor seem ignorant of the psychological effects that framing every average birth as a medical emergency creates.
In the statement above, the author states: “it is common to feel an attachment to anyone you have been with during an arousing experience, especially if it was a truly painful or emotionally significant ordeal.” This describes childbirth perfectly. The word “arousing” here is referring to sensory levels. That can mean physically, emotionally, sexually, or any other assault to the senses, good or bad, that can be had. We know childbirth can be described as “arousing” in many ways. It is also inherently “painful” and “emotionally significant”. Even when women use drugs, there is still some level of pain before she took them, and depending on what type of drugs she took, she may still experience pain while she is taking them. So really, all births fit this criteria. Births in a hospital, or at home, or in a birth center all have these same basic elements. It seems women are wired to form an attachment to the people who were with her and helped her through the event. This could be her partner, her doula, her midwife, her doctor, her nurse, or her friend or relative. I think this type of attachment likely had an evolutionary purpose at one time. It would be ideal to attach to an older, wiser woman who assisted with the delivery of babies who would have been there to care for the mom postpartum, and to slowly help her to bond and form an attachment to the baby. This wise woman would then help the mother learn to breastfeed and care for her new infant, while slowly pulling back her own attentions from the situation. This is what we have in homebirth midwives today. How would our ancestors have fared if a man had shown up in the tribe to deliver a baby, and then disappeared immediately afterward? The woman would be left adoring him, yet not having help from him to form an attachment to her infant. Never learning how to breastfeed or other infant care skills. What would have become of humanity? What is becoming of humanity?
Midwives and doulas seem to understand this phenomenon. Doulas usually visit a woman once or twice postpartum and are available if she needs to talk or has questions about the baby, breastfeeding, or the birth. Midwives start seeing a woman more and more as the birth approaches, and then once the baby is born, they start to taper off again, seeing her less and less until she is no longer needed at all. This is a much more natural and appropriate response to caring for a woman during such a pivotal transition in her life. What happens when women see doctors or CNM’s in hospitals though? They are likely seeing a practice, not a specific provider. They will likely not give birth with the same doctor or CNM they saw prenatally. They may never see the same doctor or CNM again after they give birth, or perhaps just once at the six week checkup. How does this affect women emotionally, or in her relationship with her baby, when instead of having a slow winding away from her provider, there is just an abrupt ending to the relationship? Does this interfere with breastfeeding, or affect feelings of trauma related to the birth, or feelings of depression related to her new role as mother? It is ingrained in our psyche to attach to these people who help us through such a major event in our life. How will the people we choose handle this responsibility? Are we choosing someone who will corrupt our experience and force an unnatural attachment to them by creating more anxiety around the experience? Are we choosing someone who will be there for us days, weeks, and months later to answer our questions about the baby or to offer us emotional support? Will the person we choose even be available for the birth, and will we ever see them again afterward?
Now I realize why other women feel the way they do about their provider. I did not attach to my provider, I was instead extremely traumatized by her actions. I still wonder why some women are traumatized, and others fall in love with their providers, given the same set of circumstances. I wonder if it is actually more natural, and thus common, to attach to a provider even when (or perhaps especially when) that provider creates an atmosphere of fear. It makes sense then why so few of us are speaking up about the system and the way women are treated. It makes sense that women are extremely loyal to their providers, even when many aspects of their births were disappointing or upsetting to them. It makes sense that many women are reluctant to accept that there is anything wrong with maternity care. It makes sense why the maternity care system is so hard to change and is met with so much resistance from every side.
What can birth activists do to help women form healthy attachments during this transitional time in her life? It may be tempting to try to convince all women to have a homebirth with a midwife since we know that they are probably the best option for healthy attachments and a healthy weaning away as well, however, if a woman has already formed a strong attachment to a certain provider, it may be more realistic to recommend having a doula. A doula will be there prenatally, for the birth, and postpartum, and therefore can provide much of the physical and emotional support that new moms need and deserve. Some moms may hire a doula, yet keep her same provider that she has formed an attachment to, and others may find that a doula is a stepping stone to having a homebirth the next time. One day I hope that maternity care shifts to being centered around the mother again, and not around the provider and his schedule or routine.