Nature, nurture, a combination of the two, perhaps spiced with a pinch (or more) of lifestyle? The debate about what makes us the persons we are today, has generated numerous possible answers over time. Recently, a new ingredient has been proposed by some: the possibility that we have been shaped at least partly by our experiences before and during birth. Some of the external factors influencing fetal development – e.g. drug and alcohol consumption by the mother – are well known. Others are newer.
A recent TIME Magazine article adds for example the mother’s “state of mind” and describes the “provocative contention” that all these external factors provide the unborn child with information that may shape both its physical and mental traits. Processes like these, the article suggests, might be triggered by something called “epigenetic modification, in which environmental influences affect the behavior of genes without altering DNA” (please bear in mind however the exact definition of what constitutes epigenetics still seems to be subject of debate, even among scientists themselves).
Something similar is put forward by Anna Verwaal. Last weekend, this eloquent international speaker and lecturer gave a series of workshops with the compelling title "From Womb to World", in the beautiful entourage of the sixteenth century castle of Alden Biesen (Bilzen, Belgium). In the workshop I attended, she discussed how conception, pregnancy and birth can impact not only our lives, but also how we pass on life to the next generation.
Let me first introduce you to Anna Verwaal. Her record is intriguing. It evolves from a career as a Maternal Child Health Nurse and Certified Lactation Educator to that of a Birth Photographer, Birth Consultant and Midwifery & Doula Instructor. Since 1990, she has been based in the United States and traveling the world to raise awareness among those involved in childbirth and education of her vision on how imprints from even before conception can impact lives and how each human being might have developed patterns that still affect them.
Verwaal's premise is that understanding the roots of one’s imprints, one’s birth story and that of one’s family, can be helpful in dealing with unresolved issues in life (on a physical, emotional, mental, relational and maybe even a spiritual level). In 2013, Anna Verwaal gave her first TEDx-talk, which might give you a better idea about what her work is all about.
When entering the workshop we received a questionnaire. Just going through the questions was a mind-opener since it made each of us realise that there are quite a few blank spots in what we actually know about our conception, our life in the womb and our own birth. Just think for a moment. What do you know about your birth? Let me give you just some questions to go along with your ponderings...
Was your conception a surprise, an accident, an act of violence, planned or unplanned, wished for and wanted, or were you maybe even adopted?
What emotions did your parents have about your coming into their life?
Where you hoped to be a girl or a boy? Did you already have siblings?
Were you part of a twin pregnancy in which one of the twins vanished, or was your conception preceded by a stillbirth, a loss, an abortion or another trauma?
Under what conditions were you conceived?
Did your parents drink or smoke, use drugs or medication, and what was their diet?
Were your parents exposed to stressful events, trauma's, conflcits or certain particular environmental conditions?
Where were you born? At home or in the hospital? Pre-, term- or postterm?
Who was present and how did the delivery go?
Did you breath spontaneously and right away or did we need stimulation?
Where was your father during your birth and what was his role?
Were you separated from our mothers or kept skin-to-skin?
Did your mother breastfeed you and for how long?
How was your mother’s and your post-partum period? Were there any medical interventions performed?
It is often said that in order to be able to understand the present, it is necessary to know the past. If, in analogy, the claim that what we have experienced in our earliest stages of development affects who we are today holds true, it is remarkable that many of these questions are likely to remain unanswered.
If birth imprints are indeed that influential as suggested, it might urge for a new awareness in both pregnant women and those accompanying them through pregnancy and birth (like the partner, family, midwife and the doula) on the importance of their actions and inactions. I would not be surprised to hear in the near future a call for change of our current birth culture and the place we give to our birth story.
The growing attention for epigenetics and cellular memory also shows in "In Utero". This recent documentary movie by American director Kathleen Gyllenhaal is currently being broadcast in different theatres in The Netherlands. In an interview with Michael Parker the filmmakers explain epigenetics and discuss the impact of "unconscious" memories. Watch the interview and the trailer here:
Many questions in the fields of epigenetics, pre- and perinatal psychology and pre- and perinatal health are still unexplored and claims need further investigation. Nevertheless, the growing body of literature does provide food for thought for anyone involved in ensuring that children have a healthy and happy entrance into this world.
If you feel for sharing and exploring your own birthstory or processing your own labour and childbirth experience, feel free to contact me. I am a registered Midwife and hold trust and confidentiality principles high.
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