Stories and Practices Celebrating Childbirth From Around the World
My biggest preoccupation for the past eight or so months has been my pregnancy.
I have been surreptitiously indoctrinated into an entire world I was not privy to before: I am officially being welcomed into the Mum Club.
People with kids are curious about whether it’s a boy or a girl (it’s a surprise), or if it’s kicking yet (it has been for a while now – I would be worried if it wasn’t), and how far to go (basically three weeks left to the proverbial ‘due date’ as I write this).
The endless discovery of this brave new baby world, and its reconfiguration of priorities, has seen the landscape beneath my feet slipping and shifting.
Consumerism’s nasty bombardment of baby products has me pressured left, right and centre. Every corner of the internet has all kinds of Pampers and Fisher-Price companies flashing their wares, bragging about how safe, how comfortable, how ergonomic this or that unnecessary item is.
As I have grown larger and rounder, developing my own orbit, there are a few things that have kept me grounded, saving me from the eternal chaos of baby mayhem.
1. Prenatal Yoga – but this is not a post about yoga today.
2. Cooking – the ultimate meditation that nourishes me and my baby.
3. Stories from other cultures, and how they give birth and raise their babies.
Learning from other cultures has always featured heavily in my transient TCK life. Different traditions have always fascinated me to the point where I have a Bachelor's degree specialising in Oceanic Art. (Which involved thorough anthropological rigour to comprehend and appreciate the enduring depth of said artwork).
There’s an endearing documentary known as Babies (2010), directed by Thomas Balmès that I have strategically played on repeat in the background of my evenings. It follows four wee newborn babies from Namibia, Mongolia, San Francisco and Tokyo.
There is also a Netflix docuseries of the same name that I have not bothered watching.
What I like about the 2010 documentary movie is that there is no talking or anyone telling me what to think. Only observing and drawing your own conclusions.
I decided to kick it old school and read some books about motherhood across the world.
One of the most unusual finds, at an old charity warehouse, is a book published by Virago in collaboration with the Body Shop called Mamatoto, a Celebration of Birth.
Here, please enjoy some of my favourite stories / facts / comparisons I have gleaned from this glorious treasure, offering insights at various stages of childbirth, prenatal to postnatal.
The Dogon people of Mali, Western Africa believe in the power of words to make babies.
To impregnate a woman, a man must gently whisper the ancient stories of the ancestors into her ear before making love. These words enter her ears, pass through her throat and liver before spiralling around her womb where they form the celestial germ of water that can receive a man’s seed.
Conception is truly one of the most romanticised of all human marvels. The mystery of it has captured the imagination of our forebears since the dawn of time. People throughout history have conjured up answers that express the miracle we feel when we realise we have created a baby.
The Dogon people are certainly one of the most poetic about this act.
There is a saying amongst the Mixtecan Indians of Mexico that states “Children come as the rain”.
When you live so closely with the land and survival depends on seeds germinating in the rain-soaked earth, fertility takes on a special meaning.
Having children is not only a natural part of life, as the sowing and reaping of crops, but is regarded as equally crucial too.
As the Mixtecan people say: without water, the crops would die; and without children, life in the community could not continue.
The fertility of the earth is often associated with the fruitfulness of women’s bodies to bear babies. It is forever being made in the rites practiced by people who live by cultivating.
In our own culture, we even hold on to the last vestige of such a rite by throwing confetti at weddings. Once, it was rice that was showered over the bride and groom with the intention that the grains’ fertility would transfer to whomever it touched.
Moon of the fifth month casts its shadow
The secret life stirs within me
O my darling, I can hear your heartbeats.
- Indian birth song
Waterbirths are increasingly popular in the West. I too, plan on having a water baby. There is something atavistic about arising from a type of primordial soup, combined with the caress of waves over one’s body that make it so appealing to me.
During pregnancy, the act of bathing has also been an appealing one. Hot baths and showers loosen my muscles and engage my pregnancy-heightened sense of smell in the most positive way. I find the aromas of handmade soaps and potions divine. But most importantly, I get the uninterrupted opportunity to stare at, talk to and stroke my egg belly, offering some serious quality time with the wriggler.
One of the first things a Haitian woman does when she knows she’s pregnant is go to one of the elder women in the family, who will give her special herbs for three magically protective baths to be taken in the next three days.
If she has had a previous miscarriage, the vodun priestess gives her another special medicine for bathing her stomach and vagina, as a precaution against the werewolves that are said to eat children in the womb.
In the highlands of New Guinea, a Gahuku woman gives birth by the riverside where she can watch the dark green waters lapping up against the banks, whilst other women bathe her back and shoulders with cloths dipped in the river.
The birthplace is another hot topic amongst Western mothers. Hospitals are falling out of favour for their clinical, hurried procedures and buzzing bright lights.
Many women I know have chosen homebirths where they feel most comfortable. I have opted for a midwife-led centre.
It is recommended by hypnobirthing extraordinaires, and all the midwives I’ve met, that one’s birthing bag should not only consist of necessities but also items that will make the space feel homely.
Feeling in control and relaxed within both the body and environment is emphasized. I’m bringing some electric tealights and an aromatic mist that I typically use for yoga classes, and my little sketchbook for starters. I hope to clear and cleanse the space by bringing a little magick into the air.
A woman in Bang Chan, Thailand does much the same. She strings holy thread around the house from which she hangs cloths inscribed with magical letters and drawings.
The Tanala of Madagascar prepare and protect the house by stuffing every nook and cranny with rags and newspapers so no evil spirits may enter.
A Mansi woman in Siberia goes to a birthing hut for labour and delivery. She takes along her most beautiful kerchief to hang for the mythological woman who sends children.
The Maori of New Zealand visit a whare kohanga or ‘nest house’ where only certain attendants are admitted. It is isolated and tapu, away from the well-being of the household.
A Mbuti mother of Zaire walks out into the forest in search of the most sweet-smelling vine she can find with which to make a cloth to wrap her baby. She cuts it, beats the bark with an elephant tusk until it’s luxuriously soft and paints swirling patterns on it with the juice of gardenia fruit. She will most likely give birth in ‘mother forest’, whenever and wherever the time is right.
Wherever you may be, my little grandmothers, please help today a suffering woman!
- Ainu birthing chant
Hypnobirthing is a misleading name. It aims to offer the right birth for the individual, where they will hopefully be hitting the highest of oxytocin levels in a way that feels comfortable and empowered.
For me, this is keeping birth as natural as possible. Hypnobirthing recommends a variety of tools from breathing sequences and relaxation techniques such as visualisation.
Around the world, these tools are traditionally employed.
Zulu women practice, as I have, special breathing exercises during pregnancy. As labour grows intense, she concentrates on breathing alternately through her mouth and nose.
Low, dim light evokes a womblike space, helping us forget the distractions of the outside world and focus on the worlds within our bodies.
As the Mayan woman’s labour grows in intensity, the friendly conversation that kept her relaxed in the early stages wanes, allowing her to enter her own peaceful, inner space.
Hypnobirthing visualisations often guide us through an opening flower, creating the mental pictures of the process happening in our body.
A woman in India also harmonises this way, watching a lotus flower. As its petals unfold, she can imagine her cervix opening with each contraction, or surge as it’s known in hypnobirthing.
Many hospitals now allow speakers in the birth room to play music.
Amongst the Navaho Indians, it is traditional to play music as a way of helping women tune into the rhythm of the surges.
Our memories, our moods are affected by different scents. Aromatherapy has the power to link us deep into our instinctual selves and has been used to soothe or invigorate women during labour for generations.
It was only three hundred years ago when English midwives would use the sweet-smelling oil of lilies for massage in labour. Fragrance and touch lull you into relaxation whilst the oil, rubbed into the skin, enters the bloodstream, working on the organs and muscles.
The healing power of heat has also been traditionally employed in various cultures. During a long and tiring labour, a Jamaican midwife wraps the mother’s belly in hot towels before massaging her all over with oil to stimulate circulation. If back pain poses a problem, she pulls a strip of cotton from side to side across the woman’s back for the warmth of friction.
Ainu of Japan use warm chips of elder to ease back pains. I’m going to use a fluffy hot-water bottle.
New babies are not completely at home in this world.
The Ibo of Nigeria believe they are still so much a part of the womb that they remain in contact with unborn spirit children.
Western evolutionary theory sees the newborn slightly differently.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, it is believed that hominid babies developed in the womb for twelve months. As the human brain and head size enlarged, and the woman’s pelvis tipped to allow her to walk upright, it became easier to give birth at nine months, when babies’ heads could still fit through the pelvic bones.
So, instead, the human baby must finish gestation outside the womb.
Indian women intuitively stay secluded with their babies in a dark, warm hut because they believe that their infants aren’t ready for the bewildering lights and harsh noises of the outside world.
Western medicine tends to place more emphasis on the health of the pregnant woman than on the woman who has just given birth.
If not given the proper opportunity to recover, those first few weeks after birth can be debilitating on the body. Almost every system in the body is readapting to not being pregnant.
Strains on the muscles and tissues aside, the uterus has to shrink back to its original size, nutrients are being channelled into milk, hormones are finding a new balance, hair and skin begin to change as they did in pregnancy, the list goes on.
Neglecting the body’s needs during this time can see the mother suffer in ways that are both physical and psychological.
Up until the 1970s, the common Western explanation for a baby crying was that it simply demanded its parents’ attention, and that picking it up would encourage it to cry more.
It is their survival language. When the baby’s need is answered, it quickly grows to understand it is safe in the world. Mothers who listen to their babies are quickly able to distinguish different cries for different needs.
We have now come to believe, as the Yanomamo Indians of Brazil say, a child is born with a will that is completely innocent and ignorant.
They also say that when child cries, the soul can easily escape, and the child can die. This would leave its soul to wander endlessly in the jungle. Therefore, the baby must be soothed immediately without question.
The Mansi people of Siberia believe that a baby cries at night because the soul of a dead person entering its body has disturbed it. This happens to all babies. They perform a ritual to find out whose soul has entered the baby. Once they have discovered the answer, the baby will soon stop crying.
A Chagga lullaby demonstrates that a baby crying could alert predators –
Do not cry, my child!
What are you crying for?
If you wail, the leopard will devour mother.
Mother Roasting is common around the world. Most cultures recognise the restoration a mother needs after birth for her to give back to her family. We now note a “fourth trimester” where mothers are given the opportunity to heal, bond with baby and seal her personal story of birth.
In Malaysia, the Pantang or exclusion period lasts about forty days. The mother’s belly is massaged and bound almost every day to allow the organs and bones to return to their original places. It is thought she enters a cold period after birth. So, her body is warmed by a stone or metal ball heated in fire, then wrapped in cloth and rolled along her skin. She will also exclusively eat heating foods that are believed to warm her up from inside.
After weeks of intense emotional and physical closeness, women return to the world with their infants, and to the routine of work and community life.
Many cultures recognise this as yet another transition around which ceremonies and celebrations take place.
Traditionally in Malaysia, the mother’s ‘roasting bed’ is dismantled and forked stick is rubbed amongst the ashes and tossed out the window, taking the dangers of the postnatal period out of the house.
In the language of the Kafirs of Afghanistan, ‘to name’ literally translates ‘to pour into’.
My partner and I are finding the naming process particularly difficult. It does feel like the right name needs to be ‘found’ or ‘gifted’. We seem to believe that there will be a name plucked out of the atmosphere that will naturally settle into the baby. We have tried reading the names off gravestones, from the rolling credits at the end of movies and flipping through poetry books. None of it seems to be the way to do this.
The Dayak of Borneo offer the baby a bundle of reeds with names inscribed on them and wait to see which one it touches. Hereby, the baby chooses its own name.
The hunter-gatherer !Kung people only have thirty-five names for each sex. They tend to name their children after a grandfather, an aunt or some other close relative, believing this creates a special bond.
By contrast, Dusin babies in North Borneo are not formally named until they are five years old. This is when they believe that a child’s character begins to form. Until then, they are given nicknames based on peculiarities or habits such as ‘holding on tightly’ or ‘belly sticking out’.
Who lives in you and quickens to life like last year’s melon seeds?
Are you your father’s father,
Or his brother
Or yet another?
Whose spirit is that that is in you, little warrior?
- Didinga naming song, East Africa
Who will this baby grow up to be? What fire resides inside of them? What do I hope for the future?
The Chinese speak of two kinds of cycles which mirror each other.
First, there is the seasonal cycle where autumn leaves fall and new green leaves replace them, much like the menstrual life. Then there comes the generational cycle of seed to fruit to seed. In becoming parents, we become a part of, and responsible to the continuous thread of time.
Notes & Recommendations
Mamatoto: A Celebration of Birth by Barbara Aria and V. Carroll Dunham
Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About Raising Children by Dr. Michaeleen Doucleff
Motherhood: Facing and Finding Yourself by Lisa Marchiano
Hypnobirthing: Practical Ways to Make Your Birth Better by Siobhan Miller
Stronger: The Honest Guide to Healing and Rebuilding after Pregnancy and Birth by Megan Vickers
The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou, Amely Greeven & Marisa Belger
Shamanic Wisdom for Pregnancy and Parenthood: Practices to Embrace the Transformative Power of Becoming a Parent by Anna Cariad-Barrett
Orgasmic Birth: The Best-Kept Secret (2008 documentary film) directed by Debra Pascali-Bonaro
Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child by Dr. Ross Greene
Raising Multiracial Children: Tools for Nurturing Identity in a Racialized World by Farzana Nayani