Motherhood and Embodiment

“Loving, knowing, and respecting our bodies is a powerful and invincible act of rebellion in this society.” –Inga Muscio

As I’ve written before, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are incredibly embodied experiences—motherhood in general feels very much a molly37weeks 016physical commitment. Our relationship with our children begins in the body, it is through the maternal body that a baby learns to interpret and engage with the world, and to the maternal body a breastfeeding toddler returns for connection, sustenance, and renewal.

Why might birth be considered an ecofeminist issue though? Because mother’s body is our first habitat. We all entered the world through the body of a woman and that initial habitat has profound and long-lasting effects on us, whether we recognize them or not. Midwife Arisika Razak explains, “the maternal womb is their first environment. The cultural paradigm of birthing is the first institution that receives our children…Each of these elements—womb, birth culture, and family—has a profound effect upon the new human bring. Each deserves our best thinking and analysis. What would it be like if we envisioned a society in which positive, lifelong nurturing support—from old to young, and young to old—were the dominant theme of human interaction?” (p. 167).

What would it be like if we treated birthing women and their babies like they mattered?

Our first and deepest impulse is connection. Before Descartes could articulate his thoughts on philosophy, he reached out his hand for his mother. I have learned a lot about the fundamental truth of relatedness through my own experiences as a mother. Relationship is our first and deepest urge and is vital to survival. The infant’s first instinct is to connect with others. Before an infant can verbalize or mobilize, she reaches out to her mother. Mothering is a profoundly physical experience. The mother’s body is the baby’s “habitat” in pregnancy and for many months following birth. Through the mother’s body, the baby learns to interpret and to relate to the rest of the world and it is to the mother’s body that she returns for safety, nurturance, and peace. Birth and breastfeeding exist on a continuum, with mother’s chest becoming baby’s new “home” after having lived in her body for nine months. These thoroughly embodied experiences of the act of giving life and in creating someone else’s life and relationship to the world are profoundly meaningful experiences and the transition from internal connection to external connection, must be vigorously protected and deeply respected.

via Talk to Your Baby | Talk Birth and Breastfeeding as a Spiritual Practice

I have a particular interest in embodiment and my dissertation topic is related to a thealogy of embodiment (basically the Goddess and the body) and so my attention was caught by some great sections about birth, bodies, and family in the book The Art of Family:

AS WE MOVE THROUGH BODILY stages together, there are some special stages that are worth thinking of in advance. Pregnancy is one, of course, and babies. Nothing is more inescapably BODY than birth. For the mother, both through her pregnancy and the labor and delivery of the baby. In birth, the body gets to drive the soul for a change and one’s soul is on for the wild ride, whatever happens. What does she deliver, after all, but a body, this little lamblike creature packaged in a now wholly-other body? What does she deliver but a body—and what do she and Daddy count but a body’s toes, a body’s fingers? In these small ways we acknowledge our wholeness, our physical sacredness.

Gina Bria (2011-11-28). The Art of Family : Rituals, Imagination, and Everyday Spirituality (Kindle Locations 1693-1700). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

(Amazon affiliate link included)

And, I appreciate that Bria then moves into a consideration of how men experience pregnancy and birth…

YES, BIRTH IS THE BODY, and for women it is manifestly given. But one should note that the world over, there is a complementary effort by men to try to counterbalance the impressive power of women who have even the potential of birth, whether it is actualized or not. Men, too, have moments of making special use of their bodies. Men make quests, and perform feats of extraordinary effort, to put their bodies on the line in some attempt to match birth.

…For modern men, pregnancy means two things, not one integral, unfolding experience, as for women. First, they must cope with a partner undergoing tremendous physical change. In essence, they are no longer dealing with the same body. It’s a stressful experience, and many men fear they will never see their old partner again, quite literally. They listen to their wives agonize about weight gain and swollen ankles, and secretly grieve the loss, all the while maintaining a show of faith, for their wives, for themselves, that it will come to a happy ending. And on top of that, they must then forge a new relationship with the party responsible for this, someone they can neither see, nor touch, indeed, can hardly believe exists! Women at least get touched by their in-utero babies, even if it’s a swift kick from the inside. “Hey, it’s Daddy,’’ my husband said rather sheepishly into my belly one night. This seemed to me quite amusing, as if the baby needed an introduction to one half of his own genetic material. Then suddenly it struck me that I had never considered introducing myself to the baby, announcer like over an intercom—“This is your mother speaking’’—because I felt the bodily connection so inexorably. I knew I was well known to the baby, but my husband had no such advantage. He had to make connections in other physical ways, in this case using his voice. Making a family where men touch, speak, and care for children is a vital way to connect them to their own progeny; one way that many cultures, including our own, can often deny men. Perhaps you have been stopped in your tracks, as I have, over the recent spate of advertisements of bare-chested men holding tiny babies. Do advertisers, more than Freud, know what women want? Yes! We want to see our handsome men holding babies, snoozing with them, schmoozing with them in chest-to-chest communion. As Jane Austen asks, “What attaches us to life?’’ Anyone who lays on hands gets attached to life.

These thoughts really struck me in a profound way. During each of my own pregnancies, I remember marveling and feeling impressed, as well as a little sad, that my husband had to somehow forge this bond with a newcomer without the same benefit of the embodied, constant experience of pregnancy—pregnancy from the inside is different than pregnancy from the outside. I shared the author’s amusement in picturing how it would have been to “announce” my own presence to my babies. I’ve tried, but cannot fully imagine the process and psychological task involved with the paternal experience, of in a sense, “suddenly” having a baby to hold and care for and “instantly” love, though I’m sure I have the capacity within me somewhere (and, yes, I know that not all mothers feel an instant love either and may have the same sense of suddenness in their own lives—it was certainly true for me that the inner experience of a womb-dwelling baby was pretty different from the external experience of having a physically visible baby to tote around). As a pregnant woman though, the baby is basically inescapably present and part of me in an interconnected, interwoven, symbiosis of being. There is the transition at birth to an “outer” relationship, but that intense embodied interconnection continues immediately with the breastfeeding relationship. It is somewhat impressive or staggering to me almost, that men have to form their own connection born out of different “stuff” that the biology of gestation and lactation that weaves the motherbaby together.

Bria also addresses the loving of a baby’s body that isn’t going to survive:

WE ARE NEVER MORE CRUSHED than when there is trouble at birth. No sadness holds for us the power of an incomplete body, a broken body. We grieve and turn heart stricken at this time like no other. In moments like these we can only comfort ourselves, with love, that love would allow us to care for this child when many would not be able to do so. We hope to find ourselves the kind of people who could, in such circumstances, make a life for a whole person, with an incomplete body. When our son was born with a leaking heart, an old-fashioned “blue baby,’’ and destined to die without surgical repair, we learned quickly that all we could give him, all he could receive as a newborn, was the small, inconsequential daily care of the body, gentle changing, warm nursings, our breath upon his face. Perhaps, we thought, it would be all he would ever get. In that season of attention, we really learned the significance of loving a body. A body, however small, records every trace of touch; it is never unconscious; unlike the mind, a body is never without sensing, even in sleep. A body will always remember.

I liked the description of a body always remembering. We do carry deep, physical memories of our pregnancies, births, and babies. I find the physicality actually comes back most clearly in dreams for me, when I can again feel with a sharp potency the sensation of a baby’s body slipping swiftly from my own body. I also like reading research that indicates that mother’s body carries fetal cells within her forever. I like thinking that physical evidence of the embodied, relational experience of pregnancy remains written into my very cellular structure (well, and on my bones and skin too, I suppose!). I found this a comfort after my little Noah’s birth, thinking that in a very real way, I would truly always remain a “little bit pregnant” with him and that perhaps some of his unique genetic material lives on in my body.

After birth, we continue to relate to our babies on a very physical, body-oriented level. There is nothing like a baby to bring things back to the body, to use your body and their own in a complete, intensive, totalness.

BABIES’ BODIES AND CHILDREN’S BODIES   LIKE PLAY, LOOKING AT THE body of an infant returns us to childhood. Babies’ bodies are a special form of being human, and they elicit in us essential, elemental emotions. They infect us with longing for the integration, the wholeness, they have. As new parents, we experience again all the helpless and exuberant feelings of children, the unfeigned marveling over everything manifested by a baby, a physical miracle. We cannot contain our awe, expressing it to everyone within earshot. New parents on the street can always be identified by their aura of vulnerability; they’ve shed the social cloth that keeps us all appropriately attired to go about our work. Instead, just like the baby, they are naked to everything good. They blink and look around, bemused, tired, and delighted. You will notice they always smile at you at the crosswalk—it is a secret, initiated smile. They assume you either know what they are smiling about or wish that you did. What is it they know? Their babies made them once again aware of the pleasures of physical delight. To care for an infant is a test of our humanness, a trial by fire and love.

What is good about caring for infants is that they never let us forget how essential the body is. They snuffle, bawl, and demand attendance. “Feed me, change me, hold me,’’ for an eternity of right-nows. And when they sleep, it’s as if they have cast themselves on a thin but safe shelf of floating wholeness, complete integration. They show us what we once were, without guile, delightedly in love with our own body. When infants turn into toddlers, the body is still in front, still demanding, but in a bigger world. Now protection from bodily harm becomes a concern of everyday physical life together. We aren’t as impressed by the bodily transmogrification that takes place in front of us, because we’ve learned to live with it happening every day, day to day. It’s impossible for the same miracle to impress us the same way over and over again. Thus begins the very fading away of the lesson we most need from our children—that there is intense pleasure in the active human body. Right under our noses they play. They play and play and we watch and nod as if this itself isn’t a further miracle. What do infants do when they get control of themselves, but move, explore, experience exhilarated delight in their bodies and what they can do. Their essence is to enjoy themselves as bodies, all over…Through physical life with our children, through care of them and play with them, the hands-on of it, we again acquire our innocent selves, a delight in each other and the world around us. We discover all over the potentialities of the senses. This is the heart of being with young children.

Gina Bria (2011-11-28). The Art of Family : Rituals, Imagination, and Everyday Spirituality (Kindle Locations 1729-1760). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

As they age, this physical, body-based relationality and experiences may wane, and yet still holds important value:

As our children age we must struggle to keep this alive for ourselves, for them, in one form or another, as the world begins its intrusion into our family lives. This may be as simple as pointing out that a flower is beautiful, that rain smells divine, that a hand held feels warm and comfortingly sweet, that nothing satisfies like cool water. Once children hit the walking stage and beyond, we spend more time explaining compared with the time we spent holding. Yet there are still many miniature ways of communicating with one’s body. Its active use—a nod, a wink, a hug—are all fleeting acts of committing one’s body, however momentarily, to another. Looks, touches, squeezes, physical smiles, a physical vocabulary—aren’t they what children long for? Indeed, isn’t that exactly what we thrill to in a romance—those little signals that you belong to each other—and isn’t that what we end up complaining of missing when our marriages seem stale? It isn’t just for romance that these things work, though it is there that we most seem to notice them. All of family life can capitalize on a richer life with each other’s bodies.

And, bringing it back to birth and the care of birthing bodies, I really liked this image via Facebook:


3 thoughts on “Motherhood and Embodiment

  1. Pingback: Talk Books: The Art of Family | Talk Birth

  2. Pingback: Tuesday Tidbits: Wild Woman | Talk Birth

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