Trinidadian-born Laila Sultan-Khan Valere has been a prominent counselling psychologist, diplomat, conference leader and educator. Being a mother, however, has afforded her her most prized legacy. When she became pregnant at 45, after having experienced menopause, she set out to prove a belief she had always held–that childbirth is a beautiful, divine gift which is meant to be natural and painless. She seeks to pass on her revelations to other women in her recent book, The Birthing Goddess–Reclaiming the Legacy of Natural, Pain-free Childbirth.
"I’m 83 and very proud of it. I'm also proud of this book. While I'm here I must have something to contribute. God has me here because He wants me to contribute. I want to pass this on to other women. If I could do it, other women can do it," she told Guardian Media from her Florida home.
Thirty-seven years ago, Valere and her husband, Mike, sat blankly in a doctor’s office in Florida. They were shell-shocked after being told that Valere, 45 and already into early menopause, was two-and-a-half-months pregnant.
Her first three children–Marcus, Emile and Angelique–were already in their early teens, so conceiving 13 years after her youngest child while completing her Master’s degree was furthest from her mind.
For years, she had longed for a second daughter–a fourth child, but had given up trying after having suffered a miscarriage. She had focused her energy on nurturing her first three children and on pursuing her Masters in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She had even completed a few courses towards her doctorate.
Faced with the prospect of a "miracle" pregnancy, however, Valere decided to sacrifice her academic dream of completing her PhD to have her daughter.
Initially, her decision to have the high-risk pregnancy caused tension in her marriage. Still, Valere was adamant that the pregnancy was a chance to "get it right," to experience the birthing process in the worry-free, painless way God intended.
"I had always felt it should be pain-free. I had always felt that if God made us as women and graced us with the ability to conceive and co-create, then birthing had to be a natural beautiful, normal, healthy function," she revealed.
She had her first three children at nursing homes in Trinidad. Despite having attended childbirth education classes, those birthing experiences had been quite agonising; with her first labour at age 26 having lasted at least 12 hours.
"It wears you out. I'm sure many women wonder whether God intended us to have all that pain," she said.
Her fourth time around, "taking things one day at a time" became the mantra of the once-again expectant mother. She found herself often singing the old gospel song and developed a heavy reliance on God for direction. Gradually, Valere built her confidence and embarked on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual journey which involved intense research, a disciplined regime of physical and mental exercises, good nutrition and prayer. As her pregnancy progressed, she deepened her relationship with God, cultivating great mental strength, determination and willpower.
Capitalising on the resources at her university, she read books by famous obstetrician, Dr Grantly Dick-Read, who felt that women encountered pain during labour because of fear and lack of physical and mental preparation. She also read books by alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, among others. Using hypnotherapy (guided relaxation and intense concentration to resolve issues like anxiety and stress) and meditation, Valere trained her birthing muscles and focused her mind to replace fears with positive emotions so she could feel God’s presence during the birth.
Once they learnt through an amniocentesis test (uses amniotic fluid from the sac around the foetus to test for abnormalities like Down syndrome) that the baby was normal, her husband supported the pregnancy.
When you flow with God it works out
Valere felt that her self-training worked as her fourth child, Athena, came safely and painlessly.
"I thank God so much. Oh my Gosh! It was the most beautiful, natural birthing experience. It was beautiful! I was in control; not the doctor, not the nurse."
She said she had to insist on giving birth naturally, with no epidural. When it was time to deliver her baby, she, her husband and a nurse were present in the room. She kept her focus on her mental and breathing exercises and when the nurse was ready to call the doctor, Valere asked her to delay doing so.
She ended up pushing out the baby amidst mental and soft verbal urgings to the unborn child to calmly follow the birth canal and come out into the world. The entire process from the start of the contractions lasted about six hours, she recalled.
"The nurse was only there to guide me and catch her (the baby)," Valere laughed.
"I was aware of what was happening and I felt like it was an Olympic win; like I had won a gold medal. I was able to validate what I believed in; the truth about natural birthing. I realised the reason that I had had so much pain before was because I was programmed to believe that birthing was painful.
"It makes you realise that if you are in the flow with God energy, everything works out. You have no fears."
Valere, who became a psychologist because she saw a need to help others deal with their emotions without harming themselves or others, said it was normal for women to experience feelings of joy, fear, anxiety and concern about whether they can take care of a baby’s needs at different times during their pregnancy.
Most women suffer a difficult or painful labour, though, because that is what they are taught to expect. It becomes a "self-fulfilling prophesy," according to the mental health expert.
Through her book, Valere aims to quash the belief that in order to give birth, a woman must feel pain and distress which sometimes traumatises the baby as it travels through the birth canal. She draws on her wide-ranging experiences and observations over her multiple professions and lays out methods like quantum touch breathing (to help energy follow thoughts), progressive relaxation and imaging and creative visualisation (to boost mental powers, discipline and confidence) in simple steps while recounting her final pregnancy.
While her teachings are primarily geared towards women, she said that men too can train their minds and spirits to benefit if they apply her concepts.
Describing the unconscious mind as the "engine room," Valere explained that the intentions one wishes to fulfil must be first addressed in the subconscious before they can materialise in the conscious mind. She added, "As long as women have no underlying medical issues it can work for them. A lot of women have births that are pain-free and without fear. Some are in the rice fields and they are squatting all the time. Their birthing muscles are strengthened and they go through life without the fearfulness that we in the Western world build up."
Valere pointed out that there were numerous other material on hypnobirthing, the new trend in labour and childbirth, as it promotes pain management. She, however, felt that her approach was more holistic and gave a detailed female perspective.
The second of six children, Valere grew up in San Fernando and credits her parents, Amral and Zanimoon Sultan-Khan for fostering her love for community service and her desire to enter psychology. She and her family originally migrated to Florida around 1983 and returned to T&T after having Athena and began an illustrious career in psychology and as a diplomat. A founding member and first ever president of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP), Valere lobbied tirelessly for the establishment of a National Psychological Trauma Centre and still hopes one will materialise. At present she lives with her husband and close to her children and grandchildren in Florida where she works as a volunteer, teaching English as a second language.
Athena now holds a PhD in Conflict Resolution and Peace Negotiation. She has fulfilled Valere’s own long lost dream of earning a doctorate. She always laughs as she is teased by others as the baby with whom Valere "got it right," her mother said.
Psychologist and former top diplomat, Laila Sultan-Khan Valere insists that women were ordained to have a positive, pleasant, pain-free experience while giving birth. She delves deeper into her belief in an interview with GILLIAN CALISTE.
Mrs Sultan-Khan Valere was the first President of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP) and served as High Commissioner to Barbados (1987-1990) and later to Canada (1990-1992). She was recognised by the Canada Diplomat Magazine as being one of their top ten diplomats while she served there.
What qualities do you believe propelled you to become one of T&T’s most prominent psychologists and later, diplomat?
I was fortunate to have been brought up by parents who were very community-oriented. They were very involved in community life in San Fernando; in giving and sharing. Volunteerism was a part of life in our family. My parents always encouraged us to share what we have. If ever there was a saint, I think my mother was it. She taught me to forgive and to love people.
Being a diplomat was another challenge, but an exciting one because it had to do with building relationships, and being a psychologist, I knew how to be sensitive and empathetic. With my training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) which teaches how to understand people and their behaviour, I was able to be sensitive and know how to negotiate for a win-win outcome.
In your book, The Birthing Goddess–Reclaiming the Legacy of Natural Pain-free Childbirth, you describe having pain-free labour as women reclaiming their divine legacy. Can you elaborate on this?
We as women have been given special powers and abilities and one of them is to co-create life. We do it as a co-creator; together with our God. Our Divine Creator has given us that power. We are goddesses– spiritual beings in a physical body–and we were meant to experience childbirth as beautiful and positive.
In the Western world, women are trained to have babies in the horizontal position, whereas in African societies, for instance, they use a vertical method. Which do you prefer?
That (horizontal birthing position) is terrible. For whose convenience? It was never for my convenience…for the birthing woman’s convenience. And I asked that question: why should my legs be in stirrups? I have been to several natural birthing centres (in the US) to promote my book and I am very encouraged by how well it has been received. They encourage women to do the water birth or the vertical position.
Having come from a spiritual background, how do you reconcile Christian teachings of the Bible that women are meant to have painful childbirth as a result of Eve’s sin with your belief that women are meant to have painless childbirth?
Dr Grantley Dick-Reid, the renowned obstetrician in his book, Childbirth Without Fear, produces compelling proof of inaccurate translations of the Hebrew words "itstsabon" and "etzev" initially used to describe childbirth. These words that meant ‘toil’ and ‘hard work’ were translated as "pain" in the Authorised Version of the Bible. That effectively put the stamp on childbirth as a painful tribulation that women must endure. Yes, we do hard work to give birth to a baby, but that definitely does not mean it should be painful.
Regarding your NLP technique of hypnotherapy where you use guided hypnosis to treat anxiety and other issues, what would you say to skeptics?
Hypnosis is a natural phenomenon. We all are hypnotised at some time and we don’t realise what hypnotises us. We’re looking at a movie or listening to music and we go into a different conscious state. We move easily from the Beta (waking consciousness) to the Alpha (deep relaxed state). We all do it to ourselves very often, so it’s not abnormal. What I would say is that it works very effectively and it is a comfortable experience.
What about positive attitudes or habits with respect to childbirth that we in the Caribbean practise? What are some of our good habits as you see them?
Long ago the midwives used to deliver the babies. We accepted midwives and what we have now called doulas; people who help you through the process. I think that was a good thing that we relied more on midwives and home births rather than looked upon the situation as a medical one where you need to be hospitalised. There was less burden on the health system.
I know there is an organisation in Trinidad that does natural births now and I am happy about that.