"How is the little creature (kryatura) in the belly of its mother? Let your mind imagine that the kryatura, being inside the belly of its mother, can be likened to a twig doubled in half. And some say like a walnut which lies inside a watery skin, with its two hands resting on its breasts, the elbows of its arms lying on its two knees, its two heels drawn up under its backside, its head also on its knees, the mouth closed, the umbilical cord open, since through this it eats what its mother eats and drinks what its mother drinks. And there is no discharge from its body, for otherwise it would kill its mother. And when it is born, what was closed is opened, and what was opened is closed, for if it were not thus it could not remain living for even one hour. And it has a burning candle near its head, and it sees from one corner of the world to the other, all the while being in the belly of its mother. And in all the life of that person it never enjoys better days than those."
(from ME'AM LO'EZ, a Sephardic Jewish commentary on Genesis, published in Istanbul in 1730 and reprinted as an epigraph to Barbara Duden's Disembodying Women, Harvard, 1993)
Sometime in early 1983 I learned that Tom Verny, a Toronto psychiatrist, was organizing the grandly named First International Congress on Pre and Peri-Natal Pyschology. Verny was the author of a book called The Secret Life of the Unborn Child published in 1981. It gained considerable attention and signaled the coming of age of a previously fairly marginal branch of psychology. The Congress was intended to consolidate this success by bringing together many of the scholars who had studied birth and prenatal existence as formative experiences. It was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and attended by midwives, obstetricians, childbirth educators, psychologists and psychoanalysts, as well as interested members of the public. Their perspectives were diverse, but they shared a conviction that how we are born matters. Many argued that the the upheaval of birth creates the very template within which consciousness and imagination form.
The last of my four children had been born at home earlier that year - a birth attended by midwives who were still practicing illegally in Ontario - and I was keenly interested in both the politics and the psychology of childbirth. Tom Verny liked the idea of having me report on the Congress for Ideas, so I set up a temporary studio in an office adjacent to the scene of most of the action and, in three manic days, managed to get almost all the Congress's main speakers on tape. The series was broadcast later that year. Times have changed a little - midwifery is no longer illegal in Ontario - but I think most of what is said here pertains to things that don't change...