How did I get myself into PPN Psychology, anyway?
At 58 I still did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up—I had an early career as a homemaker raising children, one in real estate, and another in counseling which included a contract with the Veterans Administration. In 2001 I was casting about for the next phase in what seemed to be a progression of interests that failed to keep my interest. Several years earlier I had attended a seminar presented by a mentor that I dearly loved. She was both a psychologist and a spiritual teacher who introduced me to ideas that seemed to revolutionize my life. In this particular presentation Dr. Dorothy Gates was addressing a subject that fascinated me—the power of our minds—when she made a statement that got my attention.
I remember sitting up straighter in my chair and leaning forward, as if I could hear better what she had just said. “Most of you are having difficulties because you were born in hospitals,” she told the audience. I immediately thought, I was born in a hospital and there’s nothing the matter with me! She made her pronouncement as if it were gospel truth. I waited for more, but she moved on and did not explain at all. I had come to expect that. Dr. Gates’ favorite answer to most questions anyone asked was, “You know.” I asked myself what on earth she meant. I really wanted to know.
I was driven to find out what Dr. Gates could possibly have intimated by suggesting that the circumstances surrounding your birth could have an impact on your life. But life went on—and then death. My beloved Dorothy made her transition a few years later. I was bereft, and I was still searching for an answer to the question she had raised in my mind.
In 2001, my husband Charles planned to retire from his second career. It didn’t make practical sense to let go of my VA counseling contract at that time, but that was the message I kept getting when I meditated and asked for inner guidance. I heard in my head, Let it go. What do you mean, let it go? I argued. We would be without significant earned income if I no longer contracted with the VA. I had another counselor working with me, and the job brought so many wonderful people into my office. Why on earth would I let that contract go? I asked over and over for six months, and the answer was always, Let it go.
As it turned out, I did. Listening to my own guidance was a huge act of faith, but I recommended my colleague for the position with the VA, and she bid on the contract. Much to our surprise, she did not get it! What we learned later was that the VA contracting officer had changed, and so did VA policy. They no longer wanted small minority-owned businesses in outlying areas; they wanted large firms in major cities that could subcontract to provide services in rural communities. I wouldn’t have gotten the contract even if I had gone through the mountain of paperwork required to submit a bid. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had spared myself that angst, and noted that my guidance—or intuition, if you prefer—was right on. Maybe Dr. Gates was right with her universal answer—in this case, I did know.
Having surrendered to my inner wisdom, I decided to let the universe show me what I was to do next. Charles and I agreed that, without jobs, we would like to do some things together that we had not had time for while working full time. I started cleaning the house and going through stuff that had accumulated over the years. In between the sorting and cleaning out—a great way to create space for something new in your life—I investigated our options. We made arrangements to travel and, since we were seminar junkies, registered for four seminars in 2001. We chose an Anna Wise program offered at the Esalen Institute on the California coast. It was all about brain-wave states and achieving an awakened mind. Then we chose an East Coast marriage seminar that focused on improving relationships.
What was of most interest to me was hearing Joseph Chilton Pearce speak. He had written a number of books about children and their optimum development. I had read, at Dr. Gates’s suggestion, Pearce’s book Evolution’s End. She had used this book as a resource when teaching about brain development, so I thought hearing this respected author could begin to answer my question about the impact of birth. I searched the Internet and finally found out that Pearce would be speaking at an Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) Congress in San Francisco later that year.
I also found out about a conference on science and consciousness to be held in Albuquerque. Charles and I drove there from our home in Southern Arizona. We looked over the extensive choices listed in the conference program and decided to attend two three-hour workshops offered by a newcomer, cell biologist Bruce Lipton. Dr. Lipton was so popular that he addressed standing-room-only crowds each day. He delivered fascinating information about cellular biology, including his research, which showed that the brain of a cell had been hiding in plain sight all the time—in the mem-brane! What we had always been taught—that the brain of a cell was in the nucleus—was wrong. The nucleus contains the cell’s gonads, so if it is removed the cell can continue to live in a Petri dish, but it would not be able to reproduce.
Dr. Lipton introduced the concept that the nature/nurture argument was over because individual cells read the environment by means of receptors on their membranes, and genes were expressed according to what was in their environment. Our genes did not biologically program us without the influence of the environment. We were profoundly impacted by how we were nurtured. Nature and nurture, with more emphasis on nurture! I was agog!
All this was exciting to find out but, at the end of the second lecture, Dr. Lipton said he’d like to share his real passion. He loved an organization called APPPAH. He said it was dedicated to educating people about the importance of the prenatal and perinatal period, pointing out that healthy development in the womb was essential to human well-being. Even what a mother thought was important to her child while it was growing in utero.
I was vibrating as I raced up to Dr. Lipton after he concluded his talk. I asked if he would be at the congress. “Yes,” he replied, “I’m on the board of directors, and I’ll be giving a pre-congress workshop with Joseph Chilton Pearce.” I could not believe my ears! I was already signed up to attend the APPPAH Congress in December. Dr. Lipton and Joseph Chilton Pearce would be presenting together during the very workshop I had already signed up for! The synchronicity was amazing to me. It seemed that my decision to find out more about birth and babies was being directed by a hand finer than my own.
In August of 2001, while I was eagerly anticipating the APPPAH Congress, I received a newsletter from that organization. Since I had registered for the congress, I was now on their mailing list. I scanned the content and discovered an advertisement for the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute (SBGI). This unique institute offered only two graduate degree programs—somatic psychology, and prenatal and perinatal (PPN) psychology. The ad spotlighted their adjunct faculty. Among the names of experts I’d have given anything to study with were Bruce Lipton and Joseph Chilton Pearce.
I immediately picked up the phone and called the SBGI office. I reached a nice secretary but, when I said I was interested in earning a PhD in their prenatal and perinatal psychology program, she got the president of the school to pick up the line. Marti Glenn, who has subsequently become a colleague and dear friend, fielded every question and countered every excuse I had for not starting school that year. I told her I thought I had missed the deadline for registration; she told me that if I got all the forms to her in a week, I could still make it in time. I told her school would probably start in September and I had plans to go to Florida then; she responded that classes would start the first of October. I told her I had booked a scuba diving trip to the Galapagos Islands for January 2002 and that I would miss Dr. Lipton’s class; she told me his class had been rescheduled for a different week in January. I told her I could not come to California for an interview because I’d be in Florida; she said, “They have phones in Florida.”
Needless to say, I was ready to enroll! I floated out of my office and found that my mother, Betty, had come in and was talking on the patio with Charles. I felt like I was walking about three inches off the floor. This could be the way I would find out the answer to the burning question about how hospital births could affect babies for a lifetime, and also fulfill a lifelong dream to earn a PhD. I reported my conversation to them starting with, “I think I have found the program I have been looking for.” After they listened to a bit of explaining, Charles said, “I’ve been expecting this. What about you, Betty? Would you help Susan if I cover the expenses of her travel to California for school?” I would never have dared to ask, and mother’s response surprised me.
I need to tell you that my parents had never contributed a nickel to my education up to this time; I’d always paid for my own classes or received a scholarship. But now I was fifty-eight, my father had passed on, and mother was left with a comfortable income.
So mom asked how much the tuition would be. I told her and, to my amazement, she said, “I can do that.” I was flabbergasted! Both my husband and my mother had agreed to help me. This was the answer to a prayer.
The next day I called three people to write letters of recommendation. All three were not only in their offices but answered their own phones! Each one agreed to send a letter. I arranged for transcripts, downloaded and filled out forms, wrote an autobiography and letter of intent, updated my resume, and did everything I was required to do. I had it all done in four days. I shipped it off to SBGI, and flew with Charles to Florida. On September 10, Dr. Glenn and I talked again. She had received all my information and, with this interview, I was accepted into the SBGI doctoral program.
The next day, the towers came down.
The Miami airport was closed, so Charles arranged to keep our rental car and turn it in at the rental-car office in Phoenix. We drove home from Florida in three days. When I told friends that I was flying to California to start classes on the first of October, they thought I was crazy. It wasn’t safe! But I never doubted that getting on that plane was the right thing to do. Ultimately, I completed three years of coursework by making thirty trips to Santa Barbara in thirty-six months. I spent two more years researching and writing my dissertation. I finally graduated in July 2006—at the age of sixty-two!
You might be wondering if I learned how hospital births contribute to difficulties that anyone might have in their adult lives, and I have to say, “Yes.” The answer is long and complex, and has proven to be the impetus for educating young students about the psychological aspects of childbearing, and for writing a book--The Renaissance of Birth. Learning about prenatal and perinatal psychology has led to a renaissance in my own life, and inspired me to write about the subject since I believe that it might influence young women and their partners to think about giving birth in a new way. For over a decade I have been hearing the call for a new paradigm in the world of childbearing. It’s possible, and probable, as it arises from a grass roots level—from the four million young women who have babies each year in this country. They are awakening to the awareness that they have the innate ability to give birth rather than acquiescing to having their babies delivered. I call that a Renaissance!
Attending SBGI was a joy. I so regret that this far-sighted institute no longer exists. The classes in Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology were stimulating and awakened me to the work of pioneers like Otto Rank, John Bowlby, and D. W. Winnecott. Their ideas have inspired many to recognize the prenatal period as the first and most important stage of development, one that should not be overlooked by therapists when considering the underlying causes for many, if not all, of the mental health disorders being experienced today.
Two colleagues and I, working on an independent study project at SBGI, produced a 21-minute DVD called Babies Know. This DVD emerged from the womb of a school dedicated to acknowledging fetal consciousness. SBGI provided an environment that welcomed the creation of an educational tool which related principles of PPN Psychology from the baby’s point-of-view. Babies Know has been traveling around the world for almost ten years, and is one of my proudest accomplishments.
Even before I graduated, I began introducing young adults attending Psychology 101 courses to PPN psyc concepts. The students were astounded at how many of the perceptions they have held about pregnancy and childbirth have been wrong! I have often asked basic questions to expose myths that prevail in this realm. As an example, I ask, when does pregnancy being? Most students say, “at conception,” and conception is thought of as the joining of the egg and the sperm. However, the medical establishment defines the beginning of pregnancy as implantation, because so many fertilized eggs never imbed in the uterine lining and are sloughed off during the mother’s next menstrual cycle. From the PPN perspective, conception is the moment pregnancy begins. This becomes more relevant as many young women use a birth control method like an IUD. These devices irritate the womb, so that the chances of a fertilized egg implanting are significantly reduced. However, if the woman has conceived, her hormones are changing and for eight to ten days, her body has been preparing for the zygote (now a bundle of cells called a blastocyst) to nestle into a uterus prepared to receive it. Young women can be pregnant—with all the accompanying hormonal changes—for up to two weeks, and never know it. Perhaps, symptoms like depression or anxiety are being experienced when the loss is registered on somatic and emotional levels, although not on a conscious mental one.
SBGI brought the development of the embryo to light in courses that included embryology and far more. Courses in Cosmology helped me think outside prevailing paradigms. With students of my own I could ask, How long does pregnancy last? The general consensus is nine months. It is so customary to think nine months that there is even a movie by that name. Women’s bodies are in tune with lunar cycles, from the onset of puberty to the culmination of menopause. We have 28-day cycles. Not coincidentally, an ideal pregnancy lasts 280 days—10 lunar months! In my book The Renaissance of Birth, I suggest that we stop using nine months as our default setting. If babies are truly conscious, which I and many others of both psychological and spiritual orientations believe, they are hearing and sensing in the womb that they are to remain in this protective, growth-promoting environment for only 36 or 37 weeks. The greatest cause of infant mortality in this country is premature birth, that is, births that occur before 37 weeks. If PPN birth educators are teaching that unborn babies are connected, indeed, in communication with their mothers, then a fetus is currently getting the message to leave the womb too early! Could the reduction of premature births be accomplished with a simple change in the way we think and talk about pregnancy?
Santa Barbara Graduate Institute opened my eyes to how much of society’s thinking about birth is erroneous. Systems have developed that are based on fear and motivators of power, control, and profit-making. At this point in my life, I have been writing and speaking with the intention to awaken young women and their partners to the wisdom of their bodies and Nature’s design for childbearing. I currently serve on half a dozen dissertation committees, helping students conduct their research and earn their doctorates through the school that succeeded SBGI. Unfortunately, this rather conventional institution has not been able to recognize the potential of either PPN Psychology or Somatic Psychology, so the programs are being eliminated. Supporting the new pioneers in this field has been an honor. Their research is providing the evidence that many need to convince them that our PPN theories are valid.
I am deeply grateful for the foundation that I received at SBGI in Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology. I continue to connect with faculty and students through organizations like APPPAH, and find that our voices are being heard. There is a renaissance occurring in the realm of childbirth. I am so pleased to be a part of it.