Have you ever sat on a park bench to watch people go by? How wonderful it is to take time to notice their different walks, the clothes they wear, and the different languages they speak. Whether they have children or walk alone. There is so much diversity in our world and yet we often devalue our uniqueness and ignore our inner knowing in an effort to belong.
My personal journey has been a struggle to find what the “right way” is for my family and me. My choices have challenged my relationships as I choose a different way to my parents, even though they clearly did a great job – namely me! I find I constantly question what is the “right way” that will help my children feel most loved, nurtured and empowered and for me to feel at peace. Through my journey I have developed a fascination with other cultures. I enjoy the freedom of choice generated through a diversity of perspectives. This column is the first in a series of writings as I explore the cultural diversity of birth and parenting.
The prenatal practices of cultures throughout the world are varied and colourful and in many cases very different to those of mainstream Australia. In Australia, pregnancy and childbirth are rarely treated as sacred. This is particularly true as women work through their pregnancies and birth has become a technological affair, most commonly occurring in hospital. In many cultures however, women are revered and honoured when they are pregnant. For the Indians in Guatemala no one is to eat in front of a pregnant woman without offering her some food, even if the person does not know her. Where food is scarce they ensure the pregnant mother at least has enough to eat and sustain her baby. In Guatemala they believe it takes a whole village to raise a baby (hallelujah for that idea!). A young woman has a man elected as her “parent” and he is the first to know about her pregnancy. He then visits her and gives her little things everyday. In return she shares her challenges so she is supported in her journey toward birth and motherhood. The mother to be also takes baths using special herbs and she talks often to her unborn child about all that is happening around her.
As soon as she knows she is pregnant, a woman in Korea focuses only on good and positive things. She does not look at dead things, she eats only foods that are unblemished and not broken and she is kept from any family activities or information that may be negative. The belief that what the mother eats, thinks and feels, the baby eats, thinks and feels is so strong that she may not eat duck for fear that the baby will have webbed feet!
There is much superstition associated with pregnancy and many cultures base their practices around these beliefs and fears. Both the Navajo and Japanese believe it is best to avoid funerals and being around death to avoid the baby being taken or harmed by evil spirits. The Samoans also dust off a chair before a pregnant woman sits down to scare away any evil spirits that may harm the baby. A pregnant woman must never walk alone so evil spirits cannot come from behind to harm her baby. In Thailand no presents are given before the baby is born to keep away evil spirits.
Many cultures, including Vietnamese, the Pilipino and Hawaiians, do not allow the woman to wear a necklace as they believe the cord will be wrapped around the baby’s neck when it is born. The Samoans take things one step further with rings and belts also not being worn for this same reason. In the Philippines there is no running or jumping for fear the baby would be born with a cleft palate, no eating mangoes for fear of a hairy baby (mmmmm, my mother in law obviously had an abundant mango tree!) and no going out walking at night for fear of bringing bad luck to the baby.
One prenatal practice common to many cultures is a blessingway. While a baby shower is probably the most common celebration in Australia, a blessingway is being adopted by many Australian families as a spiritual celebration of the pregnant woman. The woman’s relatives and inner circle of friends attend the blessingway and bring handmade gifts. The thought behind the gifts is most important as they will be used by the mother during the birthing process to give her strength and encouragement. Songs, poetry, dance and prayer are used in the blessingway. Some mothers to be in Australia follow the Native American and African traditions; others take elements from it and make it their own.
The blessingway is a time to honour the woman and remind her of her connection to her community and to the Earth. Her body may be massaged and groomed with flowers, beads and shells, her feet may be bathed in essential oils, and dusted with blue corn meal to ground her spirit and ensure she is blessed with continued fertility. All this while being presented with gifts and blessing songs sung around her. There may also be a candle lighting ritual where each person may write an affirmation or words of wisdom to the mother. As the blessings are read, each woman lights a small lotus candle and places it into a shared bowl of water. After a while all the candles will join into one – a symbol of unity and oneness. Other practices also include forming a circle and tying all the women’s wrist together with wool. The wool is then cut and each woman is left with a wool bracelet to remind her of her friends coming birth and the support she will need.
Birthing practices also vary widely, however throughout the non-western world a vaginal birth is favoured. In many cultures it is realised that drugs hinder the birthing process and prevent bonding between mother and baby. Most cultures discourage the use of drugs in labour and have strong cultural practices that support a woman. During her labour and postpartum period she is both empowered and well cared for, an aspect that for many women is sadly lacking in our society.
In Andean, Aboriginal and Samoan culture, to name a few, an older woman is present at the birth and she has generally played a large role in helping the woman prepare for birth and motherhood by teaching her the cultures customs and taboos. These women are generally the mother or an older family member such as the Grandmother or Aunt, and their role is to nurture and sooth the mother in labour, encouraging her own ability to birth naturally. They understand it can be painful and even scary and they aim to help allay any fears the woman may have.
A traditional Aboriginal woman will often find a tree away from the camp. Birthing is women’s business and generally attended by an older woman (sometimes several) who have birthed or a midwife (although some aboriginal tribes do allow the husband to be present). They often make a small hole and line it with soft paper bark. To help bring the baby down they will swing up and down from a strong tree branch and it is also fairly common practice for the woman to break the waters by pinching the bag. When the baby is close the woman will generally squat over the paper bark. The cord is cut using a shell and the baby is dried and wrapped in the soft paper bark. The smoking ceremony performed on day two is the most important ceremony for a new baby and mother. It helps heal the mother and bring on her milk and to prevent another baby from coming too soon. It also helps the baby gain strength and the ashes are used to warm the baby. More about smoking the baby in the next issue!
In some traditional African cultures a common belief was to place an axe under a labouring mother’s bed to shorten a lengthy labour or dangerous birth and keep away evil spirits. Traditional births were performed with women supported by elder women who had birthed before. Only if there was a problem would another person be invited and this was usually the medicine man. Herbs were important for maintaining a healthy pregnancy as well as for fertility and even abortion.
In the Philippines, women commonly birth at home with a midwife. To ease the pain they are given a special drink of burned seeds of jackfruit and water and the woman is encouraged to walk to promote faster dilatation and an easier birth. The husband could be present but most do not want to share the birthing process. The umbilical cord is cut with sharpened, boiled bamboo stick.
In exploring the practices past and present from around the world, I found that some were wildly unusual, some were beautiful and peaceful and some were shared by many cultures despite the distance. My biggest discovery however, is that no one practice is “the right way” for every culture, let alone for every family within a culture.
Our culture is sadly lacking in reverence for birth and women often lack celebration and community support. In Australia we tend to have little ceremony or honouring of pregnancy, and birth most commonly takes place in a hospital with an obstetrician and a close family member or friend in attendance. We have little cultural past that guides the way, and many women exercise little control over the way we bring our babies into the world. However, while it is easy to lament the deficiencies in our society, unlike most women bound by the strong practices of their culture, we have the freedom to create our own experiences. The real beauty of our culture is that we have choices both in birth and in parenting.
At times we may feel overwhelmed by the diversity of advice and choose to walk a well trodden path of past practice rather than following our own “right way”. Fortunately however we do have access to information that supports us in reclaiming the magic of birth and adopting an approach that honours and respects this precious life journey.
Please note: Within many countries described above there are individual tribes or communities. The practices mentioned may only be used by a particular community within the country discussed.