Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Hospital Birth Routines as Rituals: Society's Messages to American Women

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Hospital Birth Routines as Rituals: Society's Messages to American Women

Article excerpt

In the United States today, there is a great deal of controversy centering around the routine use of "standard procedures for normal birth" in hospitals across the country. Increasing consumer pressure is demanding the modification or total elimination of many of these procedures. Response to this pressure in the obstetrical community has been, by and large, to throw some of these procedures out the window (such as the routine use of scopolamine and the barring of fathers from labor and delivery rooms) while increasing the use of others (efm, episiotomy). A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine even considers the advantages of routine delivery of all babies by Cesarean section.1 What is really happening in American hospital birth? What fresh perspective might enable us to look at these hospital routines in a new way and to understand their place in the wider society, as well as their meaning to the individuals involved with them? The objectives of this article are to:

1. Apply an anthropological perspective to hospital birth routines which enables us to understand them as rituals, and thus to analyze the symbolic messages they convey to birthing women and hospital staff;

2. Decode these rituals, otherwise known as "standard procedures for normal birth", to see exactly what messages are conveyed through each procedure;

3. Isolate the core values and central beliefs of American society, and illuminate their relationship to hospital birth rituals;

4. Identify techniques and strategies which childbirth educators and medical personnel can offer to the pregnant mother to both set her up for a positive reception of the messages conveyed by her birth experience, and to help her, after the birth, to reinterpret any negative messages she may have received in newly selfstrengthening ways.

Birth Rituals and American Core Values

What is ritual? A ritual is a patterned, repetitive, symbolic enactment of a cultural belief; its purpose is to effect some type of transformation. Ritual works by sending messages to those who perform and those who receive or observe it. These messages are presented in the form of symbols. A symbol is an object, idea or action that is loaded with cultural meaning. Symbols are received by the right hemisphere of the brain and interpreted wholistically; in other words, a symbol's message will be felt through the body or the emotions, not analyzed by the brain's left hemisphere like straightforward verbal messages. The practical result of this characteristic of symbols is that they are often received by individuals on unconscious levels; thus their impact may only be dimly felt at the moment of reception, yet precisely because it is not analyzed and interpreted, its ultimate effect on the recipient may be extremely powerful. Another important characteristic of symbols is their multivocality-that is, one symbol can speak with many voices, carry more than one message (e.g. a gun can simultaneously connote death, violence, crime, hunting, killing, war, the male phallus, etc.).

Two characteristics of ritual important for a consideration of its role in hospital birth are the redundancy and the gradual intensification of the messages it sends. In other words, for maximum effectiveness, a ritual will concentrate on sending one basic set of messages which it will repeat over and over again in different forms, in a gradually increasing crescendo. So effective is ritual in achieving individual transformation that it has been used across cultures and throughout human history to fulfill man's profoundest psychological and social needs.

Rites of passage. A rite of passage is a series of rituals designed to conduct an individual (or group of individuals) from one social state or status to another, thereby transforming the individual both in his/her own eyes and in society's. The role of ritual in rites of passage is threefold:

1. to give man a sense of control over natural processes that may be beyond his control, by making it appear that these natural transformations (e. …

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