For the baby, the world is a terrifying place. It is the vastness, the enormity of the whole experience of being born which so terrifies this little traveler. Blindly, madly, we assume that the newborn baby feels nothing.
In fact, he feels . . . everything.
Everything, totally, completely, utterly, and with a sensitivity we can't even begin to imagine.
Birth is a tempest, a tidal wave of sensations and he doesn't know what to make of them.
Sensations are felt more acutely, more strongly by the child, because they are all new, and because his skin is so fresh, so tender, while our blunted deadened senses have become indifferent.
The result of age, or maybe of habit.
Let's begin with sight.
A newborn baby cannot see.
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Or so we are told in books, and have come to believe. Otherwise, we could never shine a light straight into the eyes of a newborn baby as we do.
What if we were to lower the lights as the child is being born?
But why lower lights for someone who is blind?
Maybe it is time that we opened our eyes.
If we did, what might we see?
Just as the head emerges, while the body is still prisoner, the child opens his eyes wide. Only to close them again instantly, screaming, a look of indescribable suffering on his tiny face.
Are we trying to brand our children with the marks of suffering, of violence by blinding them as we do with dazzling lights? What goes on before a bullfight?
How is a furious charging bull produced, mad with pain and rage?
He is locked up in the pitch dark for a week then chased out into the blinding light of the arena. Of course he charges! He's got to kill!
Perhaps there lurks a murderer in the heart of every man as well. Is it surprising?
Do you imagine a newborn child is deaf? No more than he's blind.
By the time he arrives in this world he's been aware of sound for a long time. He already knows many sounds from the universe which is his mother's body: intestines rumbling, joints cracking, and that spellbinding rhythm, the heartbeat; even nobler, grander, the throbbing undercurrent, the swell, sometimes the storm that is "her" breath.
Then . . . "her" voice, unique in its quality, its mood, its accent, its inflections.
Out of all of which is woven, as it were, this child. From a great distance come the sounds of the outside world.
What a symphony!
But remember that all these sounds are muffled, filtered, cushioned by the waters.
So that once the child is out of the water, how the world roars!
Voices, cries, any small sounds in the room are like a thousand thunderclaps to the unhappy child!
It is only because we are unaware, or because we have forgotten how acute the sensitivity of a newborn baby is that we dare talk at the top of our voices or even, at times, shout out orders in a delivery room.
Where we should be as spontaneously and respectfully silent as we are in a forest or a church.
Now we begin to suspect what a calamity, what a disaster it can be to be born, to arrive suddenly into the midst of all this ignorance, all this unintentional cruelty.
What about the newborn baby's skin?
This timorous skin that quivers at the slightest touch, this skin that knows if what approaches is friend or foe and can start to tremble, this skin, raw as an open wound, which until this moment has known nothing but the caress of the friendly waves lapping it.
What is in store for it now? Roughness, insensitivity, the macabre deadness of surgical gloves, the coldness of aluminum surfaces, the towels, stiff with starch. So the newborn baby screams, and we laugh delightedly.
Once the scales begin to fall from our eyes and we become aware of the torture we've made of birth, something in us cannot but shout
"Stop! Just stop!"
Hell is no abstraction.
Not as a possibility in some other world at the end of our days, but here and now, right at the start.
Who would be surprised to learn that such visions of horror haunt us for the rest of our days?
Is that it then?
Is that the extent of the torture? No.
There is fire, which burns the skin, scalds the eyes, engulfs the whole being, as if this poor baby had to swallow this fire.
Think back to your first cigarette, or your first whiskey, and remember the tears it brought to your eyes, how your choking breath protested.
Such a memory might begin to help you understand how the baby feels drawing in his first gulp of air.
Of course the baby screams, his whole being struggling to expel this vicious fire, to fight bitterly this precious air, which is the very substance of life!
So it all begins with a "No!" to life itself.
If even that were the end of the suffering, the pain.
But it isn't.
No sooner is the child born, than we grasp his feet and dangle him upside down in mid-air!
To get a sense of the unbearable vertigo the child experiences, we must go back a bit, back to the womb.
In the womb the child's life unfolded like a play in two acts; two seasons, as different as summer from winter.
In the beginning, the "golden age."
The embryo, a tiny plant, budding, growing and one day becoming a fetus.
From vegetable to animal; movement appears, spreading from the little trunk outward, to the extremities. The little plant has learned to move its branches, the fetus is now enjoying his limbs. Heavenly freedom!
Yes, this is the golden age!
This little being is weightless; free of all shackles, all worries.
Carried weightless by the waters, he plays, he frolics, he gambols, light as a bird, flashing as quickly, as brilliantly as a fish.
In his limitless kingdom, in his boundless freedom, as if, passing through the immensity of time, he tries on all the robes, he tastes and enjoys all the forms which Life has dreamed up for Itself.
Alas, why must it be that everything must become its own opposite?
This is, unfortunately, the Law, to which all things must bow.
So it is that, dancing in tune to this Universal Breath, Night leads towards Day, Spring to Winter.
It is the inevitable law that turns the enchanted garden where the child once played so freely into a garden of shadows and sorrow.
During the first half of pregnancy the egg (that is to say the membranes which surround and contain the fetus, and the waters in which he swims) has been growing more quickly than the child.
But from now on the reverse becomes true: the fetus is now growing much bigger, becoming a little child.
The egg does the opposite. It has achieved its own perfection and hardly grows anymore.
Because he is growing so large, one day the child comes upon something solid — the walls of the uterus — and learns for the first time that his kingdom has boundaries.
Because he keeps on growing, the space around him becomes more and more confined.
His world seems to be closing in on him, gripping him in its clutches.
The former absolute monarch must now reckon with the law!
Careless freedom, golden hours!
My foolish youth!
Where have you gone?
Why have you left me?
The child, once his own master, now becomes a prisoner.
And what a prison.
Not only do the walls press in on him, squashing him from all sides, but the floor is coming up to meet him, even as the ceiling is descending slowly, relentlessly, forcing his neck to bend.
What is there for him to do but bow his head in submission, accept this abasement.
But one day he is rewarded for his humility.
To his surprise the grip is now an embrace.
The walls are suddenly alive, and the clutch has become a caress!
His fear is changing into pleasure!
Now he revels in the very sensations that first made him tremble.
When they come he quivers with pleasure, curves his back, bends his head and waits, but this time, with anticipation, with wonder.
What is happening? ...
What is the reason for all this?
The contractions of the final month of pregnancy, warming the uterus, preparing it for its new role.
But then one day ... the gentle waves lash into a storm ... and there is anger in this embrace!
It's grinding, crushing, instead of holding, cherishing!
The once pleasant game has become horrible.... It's not being caressed, it's being hunted.
I thought you loved me, but now you're squeezing me, killing me, pushing me down.
You want me to die, to launch myself into . . . this emptiness, this bottomless pit!
With all the strength he can muster, the child resists.
Not to leave, not to go, not to jump ... anything . . . but not this void.
He's fighting not to be cast out, not to be expelled, and of course he's going to lose.
His back stiffens, his head hunches down into his shoulders, his heart thumps as if it will break, the child is nothing but a mass of terror.
The walls are closing in on him like a wine press crushing grapes.
His prison has become a passageway, which is turning into a funnel.
As for his terror, which is limitless, it has turned into rage. Animated by rage, he's going to attack.
These walls are trying to kill me, they must give way! And these walls are . . . my mother!
My mother who carried me, who loved me!
Has she gone mad?
Or have I?
This monster won't let go.
My head, oh my poor head, this poor head which bears the brunt of all this misery.
It's going to explode.
The end is in sight.
It must mean death.
How can he know, this poor, unhappy child, that the darker the gloom, the obscurity, the closer he is to reaching the light, the very light of life!
It is then that everything seems to become chaos!
The walls have released me, the prison, the dungeon has vanished.
Has the entire universe exploded?
I am born ... and around me, the void.
Freedom, unbearable freedom.
Before, everything was crushing me, killing me, but at least I had shape, I had some form!
Prison, I cursed you!
Mother, oh my mother, where are you?
Without you, where am I?
If you are gone I no longer exist.
Come back, come back to me, Hold me! Crush me! So that I may be!
Fear always strikes from behind.
The enemy always attacks you from the rear.
The child is wild with anxiety for the simple reason that he is not being held anymore.
His back, which has been curled up for months, which the contractions have drawn taut as a bow, is suddenly released, like a bow having let fly its arrow. But what a shock!
To calm, reassure and pacify the terrified child, we must gather up his little body, hold it back from the void, save it from this unwanted liberty, which he cannot yet taste or enjoy, because it came all at once, and far too quickly.
We must help him the same way we regulate the air pressure for a deep sea diver who has surfaced too fast.
What fools we are!
Instead of gathering up the little body, we hang it by its feet, leaving it swinging in the void. As for the head, this poor head, which has borne the brunt of the catastrophe, we let it dangle, and give the poor child the sense that everything is whirling, spinning, that the universe holds nothing but unbearable vertigo.
Next, where do we put this martyr, this child who comes from the security, the warmth of the womb? We put him onto the freezing harshness of the scales!
Steel, hard and cold, cold as ice, cold which burns like fire.
A sadist couldn't do better.
The baby screams louder and louder.
Yet everyone else is in rapture.
"Listen! Listen to him cry!" they say, delighted at all the noise he's making.
Then he's off again.
Carried by his heels of course.
Another trip, more vertigo.
He's put somewhere on a table and we abandon him, but not for long.
Now for the drops.
It wasn't enough to stab his eyes with light directed right onto his face, now we've got something even worse in store for him.
Since we are the adults, we are the stronger, we decide...
Of course, we prevail.
We force the tender eyelids open, to apply a few drops of burning liquid...Drops.
Drops of fire, supposed to protect him from an infection long since eradicated. As if he knows what's coming, he struggles like one possessed, he squeezes his eyelids tightly together trying desperately to protect himself.
Then he's left on his own.
Adrift in this incomprehensible, insane, hostile world, which seems bent on destroying him.
Suddenly an amazing thing happens: at the limit of his tears, the limit of his breath, at the limit of his misery, the newborn finds a way to escape.
Not that his legs can take him anywhere, but he can flee to within himself.
Arms and legs clasped, curled up into a ball, almost as though he were a fetus again.
He has rejected his birth, and the world as well. He's back in paradise, willing prisoner in a symbolic womb.
But his precious moments of peace don't last long.
He must be elegant, reflect well on his mother!
So for her sake he is squeezed into those implements of torture we call clothes.
The glass has been drained to its dregs.
The worn-out, defeated child gives up.
He lets himself fall back into the arms of his only friend, his one refuge: sleep.
This torture, this slaughter of an innocent, this murder is what we have made of birth.
But how naive, how innocent to imagine no trace will remain; that one could emerge unscathed, unmarked, from such an experience.
The scars are everywhere: in our flesh, our bones, our backs, our nightmares, our madness, and all the insanity, the folly of this world — its tortures, its wars, its prisons.
Of what else do all our myths and legends cry, all our holy scriptures, if not of this tragic odyssey.
This article was excerpted from:
About the Author
FREDERICK LEBOYER, M.D., was born in France in 1918 and graduated from the University of Paris School of Medicine. He specialized in gynecology and obstetrics, becoming head consultant at the Paris Faculty of Medicine in the 1950s. His book ‘Birth Without Violence’ (first edition in 1975)revolutionized the vision of how we bring our children into the world. He lives in Switzerland.