October 23, 2009

Motherhood may be good for the body

An article in the newspaper the other day, “Is motherhood a boon for the body?” presents a radically different view from contemporary ideas about women’s bodies and reproduction.
“There is an increasing body of evidence that the biological changes of pregnancy may improve both physical and mental performance,” the article states, noting that a growing list of sportswomen have excelled in competitions not long after having a baby. Research suggests that pregnancy may improve both physical and mental performance.
What makes this view so radically different? Biomedicine has historically ignored the amazing gifts of the human body: the immune system, the linkages between emotional and physical health as well as concepts of a life force (recognized as chi, ki, and prana in Eastern traditions and ‘vital force’ in homeopathy). Western medicine has also ignored the specific powers of the female as a life bearing and nurturing body, rather viewing these capacities as potential problems. So many women, thanks to their encounters with their doctors, have come to view the very things that make them female as a liability. Gynaecology and obstetrical textbooks are full of what can go wrong with little elaboration of what is normal and healthy. Thanks to the self-fulfilling prophecies of their doctors and popular media, women from New Delhi to New York experience menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum and menopause as problematic, to be viewed with fear and trepidation. Real medical conditions do exist, and then thank God for doctors, surgeons and pharmaceuticals.
The problem is that women are completely losing touch with their bodies. Consider the “Caesarean epidemic.” In Delhi hopsitals, 60% of all births occur through Caesarean section. Clearly women and doctors just don’t think they can do it “naturally” anymore. Even the rather conventional World Health Organization has stated that the C-section rate, which is major abdominal surgery, should never be more than 10-15%.
So what a breath of fresh air that we now we have experts coming to a different conclusion—women’s bodies are doing something right! And it has taken research on elite sportswomen, and their successes in a traditionally male-dominated field, to show us that women, all women and especially those physically active, are compensated by Mother Nature for their birth work.
Having a baby is not simply carrying a load about for nine months and enduring pain to push it out. Women have the potential for enhanced capacities, physical and mental, postpartum. While the exact mechanisms at work are still being investigated, it is known that most organs of the mother’s body work harder to support the pregnancy and blood volume increases dramatically. At the time of birth, hormones loosen the hips and increase flexibility. But most surprisingly, the hormone fluctuations during birth and breastfeeding appear to increase the size of cells in some areas of the brain.
This is great stuff, ladies. No longer do we have to think of ourselves as fat and befuddled postpartum. This is not to say that one should hop up and run to the gym a week after birthing. We can turn instead to traditional cultures to look at the time frames they observed. In India (and also in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic texts) the period of ‘confinement’ was 40 days to allow the body to heal and return to pre-partum form. During that time, women were only responsible for the care of the newborn and themselves. They were relieved of domestic, social, sexual and familial duties—they were secluded and protected from the outside obligations.
Indian civilization has other contributions to how the female body, motherhood and reproduction are viewed. Eve, in the Old Testament of the Bible—the foundational text of the Semitic religions—is cursed to bring for children in pain and suffering for having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. But in Indian thought and imagery, the yoni—the place from which the infant emerges—is a divine passage. The word yoni, first mentioned in the Vedas, is drawn from yog, meaning ‘to join’, the same root as in yoga and yogini. The birth process is likened to the creation of the universe. The name of the birth goddess Shosti Ma, still invoked by traditional midwives in Eastern India, is the same as the Hindi shristi—creation. The birthing woman is akin to the cosmic creatrix—the Devi, Shakti. Of course all this is buried in history, iconography, myth and ritual performance. But this view of female reproductive power and the goddess often continues to give strength to poor rural childbearing women and their caretakers, traditional midwives.
I once met such a midwife and healer and she told me that postpartum women could be healed of many previous ailments she may have suffered because her body was in flux, full of the energy of life. Maybe this is the old-fashioned correlate of “motherhood is a boon for the female body.”
Janet Chawla

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