Christi Taylor-Jones Psychotherapy Web Site

May 19, 2010

Birth trauma and the relationship with the mother

Excerpted from The Way of The Butterfly; Journey Through Death, Loss and Transformation

By Christi Taylor-Jones, MFT

Image from Frida Kahlo’s “Birth”

Posted  5/18/10

I awakened at 4 a.m. with a feeling of stark urgency. I rushed to my mother’s room to check her morphine drip. My younger sister and I had spent three days taking turns sitting at her bedside, afraid to leave her alone. We worried she might die alone or worse, that she’d suddenly wake up, realize her condition, and become aware of the pain that was now medically numbed by the morphine. We knew full well that she was beyond waking; she had entered a transitional coma. Nothing could bring her back to consciousness now, but the fear lingered.

When I entered her room, she lay coldly still on her bed, her face sunken at the cheeks. A small amount of liquid spilled from the side of her mouth. There was no heart beat or pulse. She looked weary, as if having battled to the very end. She was dead. My mother was dead. That realization suddently hit me. My mother, the woman who bore me, the woman in whose womb I almost died, the woman I’d fought with, the woman I’d turned to, the woman I’d sought approval from and raged at and laughed with, and cried to, the woman I loved and hated and yet so needed to be there for me, this woman, my mother, Barbara Eleanor Taylor, was dead. I collapsed to the floor and sobbed.

At 4:02 a.m. on August 17, my relationship with my personal mother, as I knew her, ended. I would stay connected to her memory, but over time she would merge in my consciousness with an image of the archetypal mother, someone beyond her individual human personality. She would become what she had been to me at birth, the eternal, universal Mother.

As we know, the Mother archetype gets constellated at birth, if not before. Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung defined archetypes as universal, pre-existant structures in the unconscious. While not experienced directly– because archetypes exist only in potential– they appear as images in personified form, often in dreams, myths and religious icons. Personifications of the Good Mother archetype include such figures as the Virgin Mary, or the Greek goddess Demeter, or any number of Earth Mother or fertility goddesses. The Mother archetype is also projected onto various animals like the mother bear or the lioness.

Archetypes, however, are imbued with both both positive and negative qualities. In her negative form the Mother archetype appears as a dragon or witch, like Baba Yaga in Russian fairytales, or the Greek goddess Hecate, ruler of the underworld and the crossroads in Greek mythology.

An archetypal projection is too big for any one woman to carry, and yet we project onto the personal mother aspects of either the positive, nurturing mother or the negative, witch mother. If our experience was primarily positive, we project the good mother onto her; if our experience was negative, we may project the negative or witch mother onto this woman who bore us. In such cases we experience only one side of the archetype. It often takes many years to integrate the two and to accept the duality of the woman we call Mother.

Our relationship with the Mother begins in the womb. Research on prenatal and perinatal development suggests that awareness and cellular memory, which precede cognitive memory, are already operating long before birth. Our ideas about ourselves and the world are being formulated even as we incubate inside our mother’s body.

Wendy Anne McCarty, professor of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology at Santa Barbara Insititute in California and the author of Welcoming Consciousness, claims that “During our gestation, birth and early infant stages, we learn intensely and are exquisitely sensitive to our environment and to relationships. Through our transcendent perspective, we have omni-awareness of our parents and others’ thoughts, feelings and intentions that arise from their conscious and subconscious minds. Through our human self, our experience is intricately related to our mother’s experience, the health of our womb and the physical/emotional journey at birth.”

Studies also suggest that ego development begins earlier than was once believed. It begins at conception. Our time in the womb and our actual birth experience are thus more significant than one would think. How we emerge from the womb, that is how we enter the world and how we are receive, directly affect our attitude toward life. It affects the way we perceive new undertakings―or beginnings, and it has special implications for traumatic entrances.

Jung noted that all births are traumatic, that the process itself is traumatizing and disorienting. Yet some births are notably more difficult than others, and some people are more vulnerable to its impact.

There is research to suggest that elements of the birth trauma get re-enacted each time we move into a new life pattern or new level of consciousness. Marion Woodman in The Pregnant Virgin claims that individuals with a normal birth seem to handle what she calls “Passovers” with courage and natural trust. If the birth was difficult, a person may “become extremely fearful, manifest symptoms of suffocating, (and) become claustrophobic (psychically and physically).” While those who were held back (at birth) may be very slow to move through change, and those born caesarian section may avoid confrontations. Furthermore, says Woodman, “If their mother was heavily drugged, they may come up to the point of passover with lots of energy, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, stop or move into a regression and wait for someone else to do something.” According to Woodman, this may be the point where addictions appear in an effort to avoid facing the reality of moving out into a challenging world.

Jung calls birth trauma a “famous obvious truism,” and Jungian analyst Edward Edinger suggests that early trauma may fracture the fragile ego-Self axis. Winnicott claims that the birth process is memorized and catalogued as it happens, and when there has been a physical trauma the premature mental response to the trauma creates an obstacle between mind and body. The encumbrance may affect the child’s relationship with its mother and with its relationship to the Self unless compensated by an unusually sensitive mother.

In an article published in the International Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Medicine, Jungian Analyst JoAnn Culbert-Koehn says events around one’s birth, or the days immediately following, leave a profound imprint and tend to be re-experienced at times of separation and transition. Culbert-Koehn was speaking as much from her research as her own experience. Having suffered a traumatic birth of her own, she knew its effects directly. In a paper she presented to the Society of Jungian Analysts of Southern California, Culbert-Koehn described her experience:

“During one very anxious period I tried to draw a picture of a baby being born and myself cutting the umbilical cord, as the moment of traumatic separation. This had actually been a fantasy around the birth of my first child. I became very frustrated as I drew. I ripped up a number of drawings as my hand moved spontaneously toward the baby’s head, not her belly. With a shock of recognition it occurred to me that I had been born with the cord around my neck. I had been a baby that barely made it out…I realized how much the anxiety related to my birth was reflected in my life. It manifested in my own experiences of giving birth, …… and in all my major experiences of separation.”

Culbert-Koehn notes that when the effects of one’s birth trauma are not experienced consciously, “they have a dark, pessimistic, agitating, stifling, debilitating and sometimes terrifying impact.”

I know of what she speaks. I too experienced a traumatic birth. I was delivered by emergency C-Section when the umbilical cord became wrapped around my neck. I was literally suffocating when doctors finally pulled me free. Though I escaped the grip of death, the death archetype had imprinted itself upon my psyche. From then on birth and death were fused together like Siamese twins.

The effects of my birth seemed woven into the very fabric of my life. I experienced the effects each time I moved forward in some way. The pull of death was always there, emerging with every attempt to bring something new to being. I experienced it with every exit and every entrance. It was as if something pulled me back and tried to stem the natural flow of life; to keep me small and insignificant and unborn.

Sometimes it manifested in outer events. Objects would break down, pets would die, financial resources would be snatched away or fail to materialize, relationships were aborted, marriages ended, careers hit dead ends, books and plays and projects were shelved or left to gather dust in drawers. Insurmountable obstacles seemingly appeared the moment before any new step could be taken into life. It felt as if I was always caught between the opposites, between moving forward and falling back into the abyss. I was unable to embrace a new attitude or potential opportunity without panicking and lapsing into an almost visceral sensation of impending doom. My immediate and automatic, unconscious thought was often, “I can’t. I can’t do it.”

Because my birth trauma was unconscious and unprocessed at the time of my mother’s death, I experienced its full affects when she died. It was as if I was still attached to the umbilical cord. Watching my mother die reconnected me with my original womb experience. I was gripped by the same suffocating terror, and literally could not breathe.

Years later, as the significance of the event was understood consciously and integrated, the umbilical cord was symbolically severed, and I was able to psychologically breathe on my own. But at times it still comes back to haunt me.

In my work with women who’ve experienced traumatic births or were born into psycholgical impoverished homes (which is its own trauma), I have noticed a certain anxiety about starting new endeavors or making life changes. Death , divorce and other losses are particularly difficult for these women. I am sure it’s the case for men as well.

One woman told of being born on the heels of several significant deaths in her family, including that of her mother’s mother. She thus entered a world of collective grieving. She had always fought depression, feeling that she was somehow a burden to others. When her own mother died, she felt enormous guilt, as if she should have died instead. By tracing her feelings back to her actual birth, we were able to help her reconnect with the abandoned infant that was her, and to separate her guilt and depression from that of her mother –and to finally release it.

In an Article in Connections, a newsletter for marriage and family therapists, Judith Fraser, herself a marriage and family therapist, retraced her tendency to get angry whenever she felt rushed in life to her experience being born by forcepts delivery. She describes her experience this way:

“I remember being born. I know some people might think that it isn’t possible, but I know first hand that it is. ‘Push,” the doctor said. “Push hard.” Mom, at eighteen years old and one of the last children of 12 kids did as she was told. ‘Push,” he said again. Momma screamed in pain. “The baby’s too slow,” the doctor said. “Let me get some forcepts around its head.’ I felt the cold metal clamp around my temples. ‘Not so fast,’ I muttered. ‘I don’t want to be rushed.’ Nobody heard me. The doctor continued to pull until I was inched into this world on someone else’s schedule. My first major obstacle was to overcome what the doctor thought of as something helpful. To this day I hate to be rushed. I struggle to take my time and do things in ways that seem right to me.”

Even if there is no physical trauma, a woman (or man) may enter an emotionally turbulent world that feels traumatic. She may have a mother who is over anxious or depressed; there may be spousal or child abuse or family fights. One woman tells of being born during the Vietnam War to a depressed mother whose husband was fighting overseas. Her mother was too despondent to care for her. Instead of bonding with her, the mother resented her. As a result, the woman never felt loved; she never felt that anyone was there for her, and she acted accordingly.

Another woman told me of being separated from a mother who became ill soon after giving birth. Unable to care for her infant child, the mother sent the baby to her own mother who lived far away. By the time the child was reunited with her mother, the bond was broken. The child was attached to her grandmother and could not be consoled when she was reunited with her mother. The reunifiation was experienced as another separation, this time from her grandmother.

Other women report feeling unwanted from birth. Maybe they were a caboose child or the kid who became a burden to a depressed or too intellectually active mother or a mother who wanted no part of motherhood and felt victimized by it. Such beginnings leave an indelible imprint in the psyche. The trauma experience activates the terrible mother archetype with which one must then struggle their entire lives.

Even when the mother is emotionally available and welcomes the child, there may be personality differences that create a chasm between them. According to Jung, we enter the world with a certain proclivity toward introversion or extraversion. We also develop a dominant personality style that favors either thinking or feeling on the one hand and sensation or intuition on the other. When the personality style of both mother and child is similar, there is a common understanding between them. However, when mother and child are polar opposites, there may be friction.

In the case cited above, the mother was an introverted sensation type; the child an extraverted intuitive type. The mother experienced her child as too energetic, too demanding of her time and energy, too curious and active. In short, the child was too much for her. She resented her child and felt devoured by her.

On the other hand, an extraverted mother may push and prod her more introverted child, wanting her to be more social, more outgoing, and more responsive. The mother in that case needs more active relating than the child is able to offer. Such children grow up feeling inadequate and disappointing to their parents and others. They feel there is something wrong with them.

These dynamics remain mostly unconscious to both parent and child. New mothers have difficulty admitting to negative or even ambivalent feelings toward their children, especially their infant child. They believe that as mothers they should be unconditionally loving. They should want to be with their child night and day. They should take readily to the task of motherhood and should not have angry, resentful or even fearful feelings toward their children. To admit such feelings triggers shame and fear. It is especially hard for women who themselves experienced rejection, disappointment or hostility from their mothers. They want to compensate for the harm done to them.

The irony is that the more a new mother denies such feelings and relegates them to the unconscious, the more likely it is that these feelings will be acted out. Only by holding them in consciousness and exploring their source can women come to terms with their unwanted feelings. In the process of integrating these parts of themselves they become more fully human and more accepting of their child’s humanity, not just their positive feelings but their darker and more frightening ones. The child of such a mother learns that mom is not perfect, nor are they and that it’s okay to be less than perfect. They are eventually able to integrate both the good and terrible mother archetype.

When my mother died I had not integrated the good and terrible mother, and I had not psychologically separated birth and death enough to re-integrate them in a healthy way. That was the task that was laid out for me upon my mother’s death. Her death became my psychological birth, and dealing with my birth was just the beginning.

Wendy Anne McCarty points out that, “Just having someone validate the (birth trauma) experience is healing.” Since many of her clients are young children, a life-long pattern of emotional difficulties is interrupted by early intervention. For others, this may not happen until later in life when they enter psychotherapy or some other avenue of healing is offered that enables them to re-experience the feelings consciously and thereby transform them.

For me, the death of my mother broke open the door to all my former demons and to life’s possibilities. It was the beginning of a long and arduous but powerfully transforming journey.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

/** Powered by WordPress **/