We call them Hiawatha eyes—eyes that light the wigwam, the dimly lit bedroom of a farmhouse, the space under a tree, a hut or a comfortable spot by the sea. In more recent times, these eyes light up the room in a modern home or birth house or rural hospital where there is consciousness of the enduring nature and delicate sensitivity of the newly born. Those eyes, oh, those eyes. Many poets call them the windows of the soul. These eyes speak with well-being, connection, curiosity, wonder, alertness and integration. These eyes know the path of instinct, the ancient way of a thousand eyes. These eyes carry the intelligence of millions of years of eyes before them—eyes that search for other eyes.
How do we protect the moment of birth in relation to gazing, in relation to the undisturbed, uninterrupted search of newborn eyes for maternal eyes?
There is a sacredness and long-lasting physical, psychological and spiritual eventuality to newborn gazing. By spiritual, I mean the will or spirit of the human creature. How do we protect the moment of birth in relation to gazing, in relation to the undisturbed, uninterrupted search of newborn eyes for maternal eyes? How can we increase our awareness and thereby commitment to how that locked gaze changes everything for the relational and social development that comes after it?
“If your mama didn’t, and you didn’t see anyone do it, when you grow up, you don’t know how” (Duren 2014). This anthropological quote is in regard to social behavior. The reverse is known as muscle knowledge. We are so raised with doing something that we don’t know how or when we learned it. We think everyone can or does or should do it that way because we always have. The undisturbed mother and newborn may reach for one another’s eyes by way of instinct, but a person attending them is acting according to this quoted behavioral preset. We do as we have seen at birth or been taught or in response to our own core instincts, the most powerful of which is fear.
The experts in birth are mothers. During the first hours, days, weeks and even months following birth, mothers can’t take their eyes off of their babies. This is often true even following traumatic births and true if baby is awake or asleep. Add a wakeful, watchful, intent gazing baby and you have two creatures that are lost in a world where no one else is welcome. Undisturbed respect for these time-sensitive developmental states in both new mothers and the newly born protects them as holistic creatures: physical (dynamic anatomy), psychological (positive sense of self), emotional (initial experience of happiness), social (how to relate to another human being) and spiritual (blending the instinct and impulse of biology with the will to be, belong and become).
Michel Odent recounts an ongoing study through Harvard in his book Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens that relates to internal and social development (2014). The study follows the capacity of empathy and notes that humans are becoming less empathetic. Odent believes this decreasing capacity to care what happens to others begins at birth. I believe birth is the beginning for everything that follows, including whether instinct is intact or injured. With an injured instinct, the experience of health, ease, happiness, wholeness and relationship both with self and other is fractured. It is fractured on a deep down-in-the-bones, cellular level. Not just the mind, the heart, the soul or will, but fractured beyond what we know as time and space. It is fractured in relation to evolution. When something as primal as birth is disturbed, we disturb the instinct of a species. Such disturbance is more than disrespectful. It is dangerous.
There are not, nor have there ever been, confirming studies to support taking babies from their mothers at birth to suction, cut their cord, listen to their heart, observe them breathing, weigh them, measure them, treat their eyes, give them a vitamin K shot or even to place them skin to skin or be so near that one breathes upon them. To be within a three-foot halo, as I call it, is to distract the searching eyes from finding one another. To invade that biological sacred space is to intervene in the preservation of a species.
Endangered mammals are protected from such unnecessary disturbances. Captive and disturbed wild female mammals begin to show signs of withdrawal, depression, infertility, difficulty birthing, indifference to their young and/or aggression (Estés 1992). Homo sapiens have become an endangered species, birthing primarily in captivity. Female humans also deserve to be undisturbed in birth. Ultimate species survival may depend upon the capacity of birth attendants to grasp the critical developmental sequence of birth and undisturbed, uninterrupted gazing. We can see how the taking away of the moment of birth has resulted in reducing an otherwise fierce protector of her young into a passive observer. Instinct is injured and with instinct injury comes wounded mothering in the forms of difficulty breastfeeding, difficulty bonding, self-doubt, depression, reliance on external authorities, ambivalent feelings toward the young and worse.
I saw Mike a year after his son was born at home. I congratulated him on his beautiful growing family. He responded, “Oh yes! They locked eyes at birth and I haven’t seen either one of them since!” This is an example of an intact instinct. That newborn gaze is powerful and it affects a lifetime of mothering. It affects the next generation, and it affects the sustainability of a species. It is the beginning of everything else. Nothing contributes more successfully to long-term breastfeeding and fierce bonding than the uninterrupted gaze of a mother with her newly born.
The newborn gaze is of supreme importance if a mother and baby have been separated and therefore denied the sacred moment of initial bonding together. The baby will cycle in and out of alert wake states the first few weeks of life. These moments are rich in an altered state of consciousness gaze. It is biologically designed and crucial for bonding and initial imprinting. For the mother, it imprints her with desire to meet the child’s survival needs. The little baby is imprinting and encoding his new environment onto an open mind and neurological system. This imprinting will last the rest of their lives and shape relationships that will be born far into the future.
These moments can be lifesaving for mothers and babies who have gone through surgeries at birth or any unnatural separation. I would even say these moments are critical in order to establish a sense of belonging, bonding, breastfeeding, belief in oneself as a knowing mother of their child and to establish happiness that balances the fatigue and overwhelming responsibilities of mothering. The newborn has survival needs for food, warmth and human contact which are changing moment by moment and are dependent upon primal attachment. If you find a mother staring off into space while her newborn baby’s eyes are wide open searching for hers, you are witnessing a mother in trouble. Both of them will begin to show signs of not thriving. They are showing signs of not thriving.
Help any mother have the quiet uninterrupted time she needs to gaze into her newborn’s eyes who are gazing into hers. Do not disturb them. Simply encourage the contact, and the biology of connection will work a miracle that nature calls primaland others call the intelligence of love. For a mother, it is in the newborn gaze.
Author’s note: “Hiawatha eyes” refers to “The Song of Hiawatha,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Duren, Dana. 2014. Personal communication.
Odent, Michel. 2014. Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens. London: Pinter and Martin.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. 1992. Women Who Run with the Wolves. New York: Ballantine.