Birth – an existential Extinction Rebellion? Life for a woman born traumatically
by Áine Hutchinson
In the act of understanding we are confronted with a message, a phenomenon which addresses us, asking for our response.
(Cohn, 2005: 221)
My research explored how a woman born traumatically lives with that experience. I had nearly died while being born, and I grew from there with a deep respect for survival. Within an existential perspective, I sought an understanding of the impact, and the challenging patterns that may evolve. My thesis coincided with the conception of Extinction Rebellion, which bore a closer relationship than I appreciated until writing this article. The mother earth and humans seemed enmeshed, in an interdependent grappling for survival, echoing the ‘enwrapment’ of woman’s body as described by Adrienne Rich (1976). Where one delivers and the other is delivered:
That earliest enwrapment of one female body with another can sooner or later be denied or rejected, felt as choking possessiveness, as rejection, trap, or taboo; but it is, at the beginning, the whole world.
(Rich, 1976: 218)
My choice of an autoethnographic methodology allowed a self narrative where I could write my story, as well as the story of others who were born traumatically. I delved into my journals and incorporated a literature review with my own traumatic birth. My immersion within this process that autoethnography demands was integral in how I trusted in what emerged. Polanyi (1967) suggests: “we know more than we can tell” (1967: 4).
I view the womb as our first container, with the universe as our last, within which we each have a unique story of how we are born, live and die. There seemed a language between womb and woman, and also mother earth, to which I have been increasingly drawn as the climate crisis gains urgency.
The research question seemed an act of creation, kicking for my attention and trust, pregnant with unknown potential, incubating, where my writing grows into its own unique life. This phenomenon as an “object” of human experience (van Manen, 1990: 163), transpired to the “grasp of the very nature of the thing” (van Manen, 1990: 177). Moustakas’ (1990) six stages of heuristic inquiry seemed like pregnancy trimesters, first an engagement and immersion with my question, then incubation and illumination, finally a delivery of “explication, and culmination of the research in a creative synthesis” (Moustakas, 1990: 27). The autoethnographer is “first and foremost a communicator and a storyteller” according to Ellis and Bochner (2011:17). The wolf woman and the female archetype of whom psychotherapist Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, underpins storytelling: “She is the Life/Death/ Life force, she is the incubator. She encourages humans to remain multilingual, fluent in the languages of dreams, passion and poetry.” (Pinkola Estes, 1992: 11)
I felt the wolf words with which Estes opens her book: “Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species” (1992: 1). Those words inspire the woman’s story, and answers “the fairy tale knock at the door of the female psyche” (Pinkola Estes, 1992: 4). I found the extinct Irish wolf alive in metaphorical writing, nurturing the discovery of unknown parts of self. Writer, with woman and wolf, “reach intuitively into some parts of ourselves that is outside our notice — still unnamed — but there” (Penn, 2001: 45): “I have to go to the woods, and I have to meet the wolf, or else my life will never begin” Pinkola Estes, 1970: 327).
Delivery of symbiotic trauma
The pioneering work by Greenacre (1945) on the mother-foetus relationship, and their interrelated experience of stress, highlights the paradox of their embodied, and yet individual experience. Priddis, Schmied and Dahlen (2014) captures how each is journeying separately:
The transition from self to other — where other is an unknown and unfamiliar self — and the distortion of body boundaries that occurred in pregnancy, reaches a pinnacle during the birth process. At the moment of birth a woman experiences a physical and emotional opening of the self to the other, and the loss of the boundary of what is internal and external occurs as the baby and placenta are born.
(Priddis, Schmied & Dahlen, 2014: 19)
Birth, as the first individual direct and existential experience of the world (Silverman, 1979: 120), means feelings of chaos and confusion within birth trauma becoming the earliest human experience (Bion 1994). The existential developmental sequence within Stern’s (1985) model views the baby as having no awareness of difference between itself and the other, and hence an absence of a sense of differentiating. The womb as universe for the foetus, as seen by Heller and La Pierre (2012), is the first existence experience. The amniotic universe from conception to the onset of labour where drug abuse, violence or chronic stress is present, may render the womb as a toxic womb (Ward, 2014; Heller and LaPierre, 2012). The adult manifestation of such negative womb experience may include states of powerlessness, anger and paranoia, with self-esteem problems and boundary issues (Ward, 2014; Jackson, 1997; Grof, 1990). Clients strongly influenced by this subsequent stage of ‘expulsion from paradise’ where the cervix opens and birthing complications present, may face feelings of depression, inertia and hopelessness in adulthood.
During the months of completing my writing, I learned more of my birth and my mother’s experience. This affirmed a dual unity, as described by Margaret Mahler (1975) where baby and mother function as one, contains the dual transmission of trauma. The 2005 (Yehuda et al.) study of in utero babies, as their mothers experienced the World Trade Centre attack, illustrated this connection, and how newborns developed post-traumatic stress disorder. The Neuro Affective Relational Model (NARM), a somatically based approach developed by Heller and La Pierre (2012), uses the term “traumatic symbiosis” in how the baby may experience such trauma, with the womb becoming “a toxic, threatening place in which the foetus is trapped” (2012: 133).
Womb taboo: Meaning and memory
The therapeutic integration of birth trauma which Lahood (2007: 71) describes as “uncovering of the tabooed womb”, involves the biographical, perinatal and transpersonal realms of the human unconscious:
We must recognize that, however harsh our beginnings, as adults we can change our basic settings, reprogram our limbic imprint and transmute our suffering and helplessness during birth into the love and joy of being alive on this planet.
(Lahood, 2007: 71)
The child’s perspective on birth trauma, as explored by Klein (1955) and the projection of this trauma onto mother as the primary identification object, affirms the significance of the divergence in the experience of trauma for baby and mother, both holding that memory which remains as an energetic reaction within the body, as outlined by van der Kolk (2014). The lasting legacy of Breuer and Freud’s 1893 paper, is perhaps the role of psychotherapy in ending the “dumbfounding” impact of trauma: “by allowing its strangulated affect to find a way out through speech” (Van der Kolk 2014: 182). The telling of the trauma story is reiterated by van der Kolk: “the path out of it is paved with words, carefully assembled, piece by piece, until the whole story can be revealed” (2014: 232). My own storytelling path continues.
Dying to be born
The concept of being-in-the world, extrapolated by Binswanger (1946: 195), and evolved by Heidegger (1953), accentuates the worlds of existence in which a woman born traumatically may live. The existential perspective allows a rereading, and a rewriting, of a woman’s story, with “a fluid dialectic between story making and story breaking” (Adams, 2013: 49). The paradox of birth is that death of mother and/or child may occur, and in that “opening” (Briod, 1989: 19) to our existence and the “thrownness” in life (Heidegger, 1953) — comes existential birth. Our physical birth is described by R.D. Laing (1965) as being proceeded by: “A sense of being an entity with continuity in time and a location in space. In short, physical birth and biological aliveness are followed by the baby becoming existentially born real and alive” (Laing, 1965: 41).
I began to see a relationship between the current climate crisis and the interconnectedness of the web of life as I explored birth trauma. Women are born of woman, and may birth another woman, and are of a woman’s womb world. Rich (1976) captures this succinctly, when she says: “All human life on the planet is born of woman” (1976: 72).
Born into an existence
The existential perspective recognises the four worlds of existence into which we are born. Through this framework of the physical, social, personal and spiritual dimensions of human experience there is greater depth in the meaning of birth and trauma.
The physical dimension of “world around” termed as Umwelt (Binswanger, 1946: 195) is the biological world, wherein we first experience environment through conception and birth, within which exists the realm of agency, as described by van Deurzen and Arnold-Baker (2005: 27). “It is through my body that I understand other people, just as it is through my body I perceive things” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 168). The accessing of agency, choice and freedom which feminist and therapeutic approaches have championed, has responded to the female sense of disembodiment and the complex relationship with the body, where trauma may lie.
I echo the call made by Adrienne Rich for “a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body” (1996: 41). The “with world” of Mitwelt (May, 1983: 126), where with others we experience our own emotional relations, reflects our social dimension of existence. The foetus, as baby in utero, could be viewed as the first such social dimension, from which begins the existential search for self-knowledge.
The personal dimension, the “own world” of Eigenwelt (May, 1983: 126), the world of self, sees the creations of the dimensions of intimacy, identity and stability. The ‘native’ culture for each individual, in which we see the word ‘natal’ is birth-related, and is an integral part of the native narrative. I discovered in my own process and those of other women, the true story of “existence preceding essence” (Sartre, 1943: 68). As asserted by Ward (2014), the human encounter with birth trauma, anxiety and death is another opportunity for seeing ourselves, and in this ritual process, passing through a possible doorway into transpersonal consciousness (Grof, 1990, Lahood 2006).
The fourth spiritual dimension of existence, Uberwelt, as cultivated by van Deurzen (2005), is that of spiritual searching of ‘the overworld’. The spiritual discovery and meaning within birth underpins Kitzinger’s advocacy for gentler births as: “rich with meanings which have penetrated the whole of social life” (1978: 195). The ‘overworld’ of the unknown and making sense of my birth experience, crystallised a resonance within my trauma, the climate crisis and my life choice response.
The essence of birth trauma integration is a “dance between connection and disconnection” which is identified by Heller and LaPierre (2012: 234), where grieving allows reconnection to self, personal agency, trust and ultimately connection with others. There is inherently painful mourning in the gravitas of exploring how women live with birth trauma experience. The word ‘gravida’, used to describe pregnancy, and the word ‘gravitas’, share the same Latin word origin of heavy and burdensome. Similarly, I felt an emotional weight in the research I had embarked upon. When reflecting on the matriarchal line and birth trauma, epigenetics illuminates more for discovery. We come from the ovaries that were already in our grandmothers when our mothers were born, reiterating cellular consciousness and genetic expression of three generations ago (Farrant, 1988). The field of epigenetics and how trauma may trigger biomechanical messages, is recognised by van der Kolk, (2014: 152), and the impact manifested in adverse gene expression. This can be extrapolated further, asserting that limbic imprinting can lead a woman to give birth the way she herself was born (Lahood, 2006).
The ongoing healing from birth trauma requires an acknowledgement of Deep Ecology, which holds an understanding of the human role within the natural world’s web of interrelationships. The philosophy of the Deep Ecology movement asserts that there is an ecological self, a self which identifies with the environment (Naess, 1997). While the ecofeminist perception holds that there is a bond between the life-giving Mother Nature and the life-giving of women through birth (Simos, 2002), the antinatalistic and antithetical view for the future holds that global overpopulation may cause environmental extinction. Benatar (2006) challenges the intentional bringing of another human being into existence, suggesting that human extinction may be the preferable future (2006: 105).
Throughout this work, the elemental relationship between human trauma and the environment’s trauma became more apparent, accentuated with the rise of the Extinction Rebellion. The interconnectedness between trauma and birth emerged, asking if each birth brings us nearer to extinction.
The void and the possibility of nothingness are the indispensable counter- parts of this quest for the eternal. The contradictions that have to be faced on this dimension are related to the tension between purpose and absurdity, hope and despair.
(van Deurzen & Adams, 2011: 25)
My ecological sense of self has seen the birth of a new and painful question, presenting us with perhaps the ultimate existential crisis: how can both mother earth and the human species survive? Will we accept this question and its answer?
Áine Hutchinson is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist working privately in Cloughjordan Ecovillage, Tipperary and Limerick. Her MSc in Existential Psychotherapy and thesis on Birth Trauma embodied her particular intrigue with transgenerational trauma, birth and biosynthesis. Working with adults and couples, Áine can be contacted at email@example.com
Adams, M. (2013). Human development from an existential phenomenological perspective: Some thoughts and considerations. In Existential Analysis 24.1: January 2013.
Benatar, D. (2006). Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Oxford University Press: New York.
Binswanger (1946) in van Deurzen, E. and Arnold-Baker, C. (eds.) (2006) Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice. London: Palgrave- Macmillan. London.
Bion, W.R. (1994). Learning from experience. London: Jason Aronson.
Breuer, J. & Freud, S. (1893/2014). The physical mechanisms of hysterical phenomena. Cited in van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. London: Penguin Random House UK.
Briod, M. A phenomenological approach to child development. In R.S. Valle and S. Halling (eds). Existential – phenomenological perspectives in psychology (London: Plenum Press,1989).
Cohn, H.W. (2005). Interpretation: Explanation or understanding? In van Deurzen, E. & Arnold-Baker, C. (2005) Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice.
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. & Bochner, A.P. (2011) Autoethnography: An overview. Forum: Qualitative Social Research Volume 12, No. 1, Art. 10.
Farrant, G. (1988). Cellular consciousness and conception. In Pre and Perinatal Psychology News. Vol 2. Issue 2. Summer 1988.
Greenacre, P. (1945). The biological economy of birth. In: Trauma, growth and personality. London: Hogarth, 1953, pp. 25-30.
Grof, C. & Grof, S. (1990). The stormy search for the self. Los Angeles: J.P.Tarcher.
Heidegger, M. (1953). Being and time. Trans. J.Stambaugh (2010). New York: State University of New York Press.
Heller, L. & La Pierre, A. (2012). Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image and the capacity for relationship. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books: Berkeley.
Jackson, C. (1997). Holotropic breathwork: An experiential theoretical account. Journal of Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy. Inside Out: Issue 29: pp.10.
Kitzinger, S. (1978). Women as mothers. How they see themselves in different cultures. New York: Random House.
Klein, M. (1955). On identification. In: New directions in psycho-analysis. (pp. 176-235). London: Karnac.
Lahood, G. (2006). Transpersonal events in childbirth, birth-giving trauma and ritual healing. Irish Assocation of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, Inside Out, Issue 52, Summer 2007.
Laing, R.D. (1965). The divided self. London: Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mahler, M.S., Pine, F. & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.
May, R. (1983). The discovery of being: Writings in existential psychology. New York: W.W. Norton.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge & Kegan
Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic research: Design, methodology and applications. CA: Thousand Oaks, Sage.
Naess, A. (1997). Heidegger, postmodern theory and deep ecology. Journal of Ecosophy, Vol 14, No 4 (1997 University of Oslo. Retrieved from http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/ article/view/175/216.)
Penn, P. (2001). Chronic illness: Trauma, language and writing: breaking the silence. In Family Process 40, 1, pp.33-52.
Pinkola Estes, C. (1992). Women who run with the wolves: Contacting the power of the wild woman. London: Rider.
Polanyi, K. (1967). For a new west: Essays. 1919-1958. London: Polity Press.
Priddis, H., Schmied V. & Dahlen H. (2014). Women’s experiences following severe perineal trauma: a qualitative study. BMC Womens Health. Volume 14(1): pp.32-39.
Rich, A. (1967). Snapshots of a daughter-in-law. New York: W. W. Norton Company.
Sartre, J.P. (1943/2003). Being and nothingness: An essay in phenomenological ontology. Trans. Barnes, H.E. London: Routledge.
Silverman, P.R. (1979). Concluding thoughts. In Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Ed. D. Klass, P.R. Silverman and S.L. Nickman. Washington, D.C. Taylor and Francis.
Simos, M. (2002). Webs of power: Notes from the global uprising. Canada: New Society Publishers.
Stern, D. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
van Deurzen, E. & Arnold-Baker, C. (eds.) (2005). Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.
van Deurzen, E. & Adams, M. (2011) Skills in existential counselling & psychotherapy. London: Sage.
van der Kolk, B. (2014) The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. London: Penguin.
van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. New York: SUNY Series, the Philosophy of Education Paperback.
Ward, S. (2014). Fractals from the womb – A journey through pre-and perinatal psychotherapy. createspace.com publication.
Yehuda, R., Engel, S.M., Brand, S.R., Seckl, J., Marcus, S.M. & Berkowitz, G.S. (2005). Transgenerational effects of posttraumatic stress disorder in babies of mothers exposed to the World Trade Center attacks during pregnancy. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology Metabolism. Volume 90(7), pp.4115-8.