By Tracy G. Cassels

We seem to be caught in a vicious cycle in our society these days and it’s starting to become more and more apparent.  We are a society obsessed with “advancement” and “progress” and by and large we have created some incredible things because of our dedication to pushing boundaries of what we know and can do.  Just the other day I came across this meme, which was widely lauded and shared:


The problem with this is that it only fits when we know there is progress that needs to be made.  But sadly in many areas, we push progress for the sake of progress without stopping to ask if it’s even necessary.  And when we do see it as necessary, we have to ask what got us here.  This is particularly salient when we look at birth and parenting.  For example, we know we need to progress beyond 70% c-section rates at hospitals, but yet it was this deviation from the norm that led to this practice to begin with.  Let’s look a little deeper…

For much of human history, birth was an event which carried with it high risks.  Although many women birthed safely with the guidance and support of others around them, if something went too wrong, there was often little that could be done to save either mother or baby.  (Survival of the fittest, right?)  In our quest to progress beyond seeing birth as an event that could mean the death of women and children, we developed the means to save lives.  This in itself is laudable.  We have saved millions of lives over the years thanks to this progress.  But, and yes there’s a “but”, in this quest we lost sight of what was working, and thereby creating danger where there was none and complications for millions of other women.

Our reliance on the medicalized model of birth means we’re seeing more women die in childbirth than we did 30 years ago[1].  We’re not near the levels of death in countries where they have lack of any medical assistance or clean water or myriad other things we take for granted (though I would be very curious to see our rates compared to a simple hunter-gatherer tribe who did not have to contend with polluted water or lack of nutrition, for example, and where women were active all day which tends to lead to healthier labours, but that’s a topic for another day).  And herein lies the problem… our reliance on “progress” and all things associated with “progress” (e.g., the medicalized birth) is sending us backwards.

So what are we doing now that we’re going backwards?  Luckily there is a movement to get back to natural birth, but an even bigger movement is happening towards even greater medicalization of birth.  There are hospitals with 70% c-section rates[2].  Seven out of 10 women enter their doors and have their baby surgically removed from them and for most of them it is not necessary.  I don’t know if this is convenience or an attempt to control what is inherently out of a doctor’s control, but I do know that this will not stop the regression of progress we seem to be in and will probably make it even worse.

We can also see the same problems in parenting more generally.  Again, for much of human history, parenting sided with the physiological needs of the infant.  The infant was kept close, breastfed on demand, slept with his or her parents, and was responded to when in distress.  But we “progressed” to an industrialized nation and parents were deemed more important to the workforce than their home.  Researchers and doctors decided that children shouldn’t be touched.  Parents were told that infants should sleep alone.  Formula came along and with it parents were even more “free” to leave their children and go help corporations make money.  And what did this get us?

Children with attachment issues.  Children suffering depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in higher rates than we’ve seen[3].  Greater instances of myriad health problems associated with formula use that cost society in terms of money and lives[4].  So what do we do?  Here we are with problems of poverty, childhood mental health issues, inequality in the workforce for parents (especially mothers), and our “progress” attitude has us confounding this even more.  Children don’t sleep well in their own crib in their own room?  Leave them to cry-it-out, flooding their brain with cortisol.  Children fussy because they aren’t getting enough touch?  Develop more gadgets that occupy them so they don’t think about the fact that they need touch.  Children with mental disorders?  Medicate them all, not just the ones who truly need it.  We may not know what the long-term effects are of this, but it’ll work at the moment.  That’s our definition of “progress”.

I’m not trying to say that our progress is all bad.  In fact, in many ways our progress has allowed so many wonderful things to proliferate.  With progress we have saved millions of women’s and baby’s lives, and we see this in how dangerous birth remains in certain areas of the world.  With progress we do have men and women who have more opportunities and choices than previous generations.   With progress we can share more of the world with our children, both past and present.  With progress we’ve seen the advancement of women’s rights (although a recent piece in The Nation shows us that women’s wages and earnings have never been truly equal).

But the idea that progress is always good or better than the past is where we must change.  If we ignore our past or treat it as all horrible, we will never achieve all that we are capable of.  Progress does not always equate with being an improvement, and if a system isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing.  And when it comes to our children, who rarely have a voice, we must be certain that we are not making things worse.  Our inability to stick with the norm when it works in favour of progress because it’s new means we are incapable of blending the best of both worlds.  In birth, other countries have found this happy medium (like the Netherlands) resulting in consistently having some of the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates worldwide[1].  In parenting, countries like Sweden embrace historic and evolutionary parenting methods in greater numbers and see far fewer problems with children than we have in the West[5] (though there are other factors that would influence this as well, parenting is likely just one piece of the puzzle).

To deviate from the norm for the sake of progress is progress in the sense of moving forward.  But it is not always progress in the sense of moving towards something better.  If we want to leave our children a better world, we have to find ways to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.  And in some cases, like birth and parenting, we may be best moving backwards to move towards something better.

[Image Credit: Unknown]

[3] Ingersol RE, Previts SB.  Prevalence of childhood disorders.  In ER Welfel & RE Ingersol (Eds.) The Mental Health Desk Reference: A Practice-Based Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Professional Ethics (pp. 155-161).  New York, NY (2001): John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[4] Bartick M, Reinhold A. The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis. Pediatrics 2010; 125: 1048-56.

[5] Welles-Nystrom B.  Co-sleeping as a window into Swedish culture: considerations of gender and health care. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Science 2005; 19: 354-360.