“One Form of Socially Sanctioned Infant Torture: Maternal Deprivation”

(An excerpt from “The Continuum Concept” by Jean Liedloff)

The following is excerpted from “The Continuum Concept”, written in 1976 by Jean Liedloff. In this astoundingly eye-opening book, the agony that is visited upon newborn infants via the postpartum separation of child from mother in modern maternity wards is elucidated in this insightful and disturbing passage which describes a baby’s first few days of life outside the womb, as it is typically experienced. By way of contrast, this account is preceded in the book by a description of what a naturally-raised human baby experiences after birth and in the following hours and days, replete with all the fulfilled expectations that have arisen from millions of years of evolution and primordial experience. Deprivation of a mother’s closeness during the crucial newborn stage of life that Ms. Liedloff calls the “in-arms phase” is only part of what the civilized world inflicts on infants as a result of our erroneous ideologies and beliefs about health, disease, morality and psychology.

Speaking of a newborn baby, Ms. Liedloff writes: “Every nerve ending under his newly exposed skin craves the expected embrace (of his mother); all his being, the character of all he is, leads to his being held in arms. For millions of years newborn babies have been held close to their mothers from the moment of birth. Some babies of the last few hundred generations may have been deprived of this all-important experience but that has not lessened each new baby’s expectation that HE will be in his rightful place (in his mother’s arms). When our antecedents went about on all fours and had fur to cling to, it was the babies who kept the mother-child bond from interruption. Their survival depended upon it. As we became hairless and stood up on our hind legs, freeing the mother’s hands, it became incumbent upon her to keep them together. That she has recently, in some places in the world, taken her responsibility to maintain their contact to be a matter of option does not alter in the least the powerful urgency of the baby’s need to be held”.

With consideration to the above-described pressing urgency with which a newborn infant expects and needs to be in uninterrupted physical contact with his mother, Ms. Liedloff offers the following description of his first few hours and days:

“A she-wolf true to the wolf continuum would be a more accurate mother to a human baby at the newborn stage than the baby’s biological mother in a bed one foot away. The wolf mother would be tangible; the human one could as well be on Mars.

In the maternity wards of Western civilization there is little chance of consolation from wolves. The newborn infant, with his skin crying out for the ancient touch of smooth, warmth-radiating, living flesh, is wrapped in dry, lifeless cloth. He is put in a box where he is left, no matter how he weeps, in a limbo that is utterly motionless (for the first time in all his body’s experience, during the eons of its evolution or during its eternity of bliss in the womb). The only sounds he can hear are the wails of other victims of the same ineffable agony. The sound can mean nothing tohim. He cries and cries; his lungs, new to air, are strained with the desperation in his heart. No one comes. Trusting in the rightness of life, as by nature he must, he does the only act he can, which is to cry on. Eventually, a timeless lifetime later, he falls asleep exhausted.

He awakes in a mindless terror of the silence, the motionlessness. He screams. He is afire from head to foot with want, with desire, with intolerable impatience. He gasps for breath and screams until his head is filled and throbbing with the sound. He screams until his chest aches, until his throat is sore. He can bear the pain no more and his sobs weaken and subside. He listens. He opens and closes his fists. He rolls his head from side to side. Nothing helps. It is unbearable. He begins to cry again, but it is too much for his strained throat; he soon stops. He stiffens his desire-racked body and there is a shadow of relief. He waves his hands and kicks his feet. He stops, able to suffer, unable to think, unable to hope. He listens. Then he falls asleep.

When he awakens he wets his diaper and is distracted from his torment by the event. But the pleasant feeling of wetting and the warm, damp, flowing sensation around this lower body are quickly gone. The warmth is now immobile and turning cold and clammy. He kicks his legs. Stiffens his body. Sobs. Desperate with longing, his lifeless surroundings wet and uncomfortable, he screams through his misery until it is stilled by lonely sleep.

Suddenly he is lifted; his expectations come forward for what is to be his. The wet diaper is taken away. Relief. Living hands touch his skin. His feet are lifted and a new, bone-dry, lifeless cloth is folded around his loins. In an instant it is as though the hands had never been there, not the wet diaper. There is no conscious memory, no inkling of hope. He is in unbearable emptiness, timeless, motionless, silent, wanting, wanting. His continuum tries its emergency measures, but they are all meant for bridging short lapses in correct treatment or for summoning relief from someone, it is assumed, who will want to provide it. His continuum has no solution for this extremity. The situation is beyond its vast experience. The infant, after breathing air for only a few hours, has already reached a point of disorientation from his nature beyond the saving powers of the mighty continuum. His tenure in the womb was the last he is ever likely to know of the uninterrupted state of well-being in which it is his innate expectation that he will spend his lifetime. His nature is predicated upon the assumption that his mother is behaving suitably and that their motivations and consequent actions will naturally serve one another

Someone comes and lifts him deliciously through the air. He is in life. He is carried a bit too gingerly for his taste, but there is motion. Then he is in his place. All the agony he has undergone is nonexistent. He rests in the enfolding arms, and though his skin is sending no message of relief from the cloth, no news of live flesh on his flesh, his hands and mouth are reporting normal. The positive pleasure of life, which is continuum normal, is almost complete. The taste and texture of the breast are there, the warm milk is flowing into his eager mouth, there is a heartbeat, which should have been his link, his reassurance of the continuity from the womb, there is movement perceptible to his dim vision. The sound of the voice is right, too. There is only the cloth and the smell (his mother uses cologne) that leaves something missing. He sucks and, when he feels full and rosy, doses off.

When he awakens, he is in hell. No memory, no hope, no thought can bring the comfort of his visit to his mother into this bleak purgatory. Hours pass and days and nights. He screams, tires, sleeps. He wakes and wets his diaper. By now there is no pleasure in this act. No sooner is the pleasure of relief prompted by his innards than it is replaced, as is the hot, acid urine touches his by-now chafed body, by a searing crescendo of pain. He screams. His exhausted lungs must scream to override the fiery stinging. He screams until the pain and screaming use him up before he falls asleep.

At his not unusual hospital the busy nurses change all diapers on schedule, whether they are dry, wet, or long wet, and send the infants home chafed raw, to be healed by someone who has time for such things. By the time he is taken to his mother’s home (surely is cannot be called his) he is well versed in the character of life. On a preconscious plane that will qualify all his further impressions, as it is qualified by them, he knows life to be unspeakably lonely, unresponsive to his signals, and full of pain.

But he has not given up. His vital forces will try forever to reinstate their balances, as long as there is life.

Home is essentially indistinguishable from the maternity ward except for the chafing. The infant’s waking hours are passed in yearning, wanting, and interminable waiting for rightness to replace the silent void. For a few minutes a day, his longing is suspended and his terrible skin-crawling need to be touched, to be held and moved about, is relieved. His mother is one who, after much thought, has decided to allow him access to her breast. She loves him with a tenderness she has never known before. At first, it is hard for her to put him down after his feeding, especially because he cries so desperately when she does. But she is convinced that she must, for her mother has told her (and she must know) that if she gives in to him now he will be spoiled and cause trouble later. She wants to do everything right; she feels for a moment that the little life she holds in her arms is more important than anything else on earth.

She sighs, and puts him gently in his crib, which is decorated with yellow ducklings and matches his whole room. She has worked hard to furnish it with fluffy curtains, a rug in the shape of a giant panda, white dresser, bathinette and changing table equipped with powder, oil, soap, shampoo, and a hairbrush, all made and packed in colors especially for babies. There are pictures on the wall of baby animals dressed as people. The chest of drawers is full of little undershirts, slumbersuits, bootees, caps, mittens, and diapers. There is a toy wooly lamb stood at a beguiling angle on top, and a vase of flowers – which have been cut off from their roots, for his mother also “loves” flowers.

She straightens baby’s undershirt and covers him with an embroidered sheet and a blanket bearing his initials. She notes them with satisfaction. Nothing has been spared in perfecting the baby’s room, though she and her young husband cannot yet afford all the furniture they have planned for the rest of the house. She bends to kiss the infant’s silky cheek and moves toward the door as the first agonized shriek shakes his body.

Softly, she closes the door. She has declared war upon him. Her will must prevail over his. Through the door she hears what sounds like someone being tortured. Her continuum (instinct) recognizes it as such. Nature does not make clear signals that someone is being tortured unless it is the case. IT IS PRECISELY AS SERIOUS AS IT SOUNDS.

She hesitates, her heart pulled toward him, but resists and goes on her way. He has just been changed and fed. She is sure he does not REALLY need anything, therefore, and she lets him weep until he is exhausted…”