Book Review: Our Babies, Ourselves How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent.
What is "natural" childbirth? What is "natural" parenting? Anthropology can help to answer these questions by exploring birth and parenting crossculturally and through time.
The fundamental puzzle of human behavior is sorting out actions prompted by "hardwired," biological drives from actions prompted by cultural influences. The "Nature-Nurture Debate" rages on as we unravel the genome, dig up bones and artifacts, and study modern human behavior.
Human childbirth was radically altered from the primate pattern when we started walking upright (bipedally) some four million years ago. We know from the hominid fossil record that the fetal journey through the pelvis was not always so snug. Like other frontward-leaning primates, our ancestors had long pelves, and their babies fit through rather easily.
With bipedalism, the human pelvis grew shorter and more compact and rigid. The cephalopelvic fit got tighter. Other primates are born sunnyside-up, and their mothers can pull them out themselves. But bipedal humans are typically born face down, and if their mothers were to catch them, they might get their little necks bent backward. With babies born facing down, early hominids had to assist one another to increase the chances of survival. That's probably where midwifery came from.
It is easy to see the connection between the evolution of human anatomy and the near-universal practice of assisted childbirth when you see the birth artwork collected by Janet Isaacs Ashford. Janet has collected artwork from around the world and through time, depicting over and over the ancient "classic pose" of an upright, autonomous mother assisted by a midwife in front and a helper behind. While there are minor variations, it is indeed remarkable to see how universal this pattern is.
InJoy's new video, The Timeless Way, has made excellent use of Janet's work and helps us to see what constitutes "natural" childbirth cross-culturally. Indeed, with our male attendants, supine postures, and dependency on institutions, our culture looks downright exotic by world standards. The Timeless Way also offers footage of modern women giving birth spontaneously in well-supported environments, and viewers report feeling more confident about giving birth having seen the connection between a planet full of successfully birthing women and their own bodies.
Meanwhile, back to the story of evolution.... As our ancestors' pelves were shrinking, they were growing bigger brains. How was a big brain supposed to fit through that small pelvis? You may have noticed that human infants are a lot less coordinated and a lot more dependent than the infants of other primates. That's because we're born with our brains much smaller in proportion to our body size. But we make up for lost time after we're born, with our brains growing three times as fast as the brains of other baby primates.
Since our brains mostly develop with the benefit of out-of-the-womb stimulation, we are capable of learning more than other primates. We also need tremendous amounts of care in order to thrive. Meredith Small's very readable new book, Our Babies, Ourselves, explores the ways in which infants' needs have evolved biologically, and how those needs might be met with varying success depending on cultural influences.
She discusses co-sleeping, breastfeeding, feeding "on demand," colic, crying, cuddling, scheduling, baby carrying, and playing, all from the perspective of the nature-nurture question. Parents reading this book will be delighted to find out that their daily struggles and joys are universal, and have their roots in the very essence of the species. They will discover that there are many more choices available to them than just those of their immediate cultural environment.
Research in childbirth anthropology and ethnopediatrics makes our job easier and more interesting. When our clients see themselves as part of a rich continuum of human reproduction, their ideas about what is "natural" and "healthy" can expand to include more options.
Vicki Elson, MA, CCE, ALACE Workshop Instructor: Empowering Women in the Childbearing Year
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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