As I found out researching a previous post (#3), not all birthing experiences around the world are that enviable.
However if I had to give birth somewhere outside of the Western world, from what I’ve read so far, a rural Malaysian village might be my choice. The traditional Malaysian midwives (called bidans) seem to take such gentle and nourishing care of the women they look after. Just the sort of ‘natural birth’ that we romanticise.
The bidan gives expert care during pregnancy and labour, but what really strikes me as so lovely is the postnatal care that the mother receives in the weeks after she has given birth.
While some of the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth around the world that I read about make me cry in sympathy, this moves me in a different way. It makes me lament my own experience, I yearn for this in retrospect, and I can feel how much my postnatal self would have benefited from this type of postnatal care.
The bidan visits a new mother daily after she has given birth for a month or two (sometimes 44 days precisely - the time after birth that a Muslim woman is meant to keep to various postnatal restrictions), and each time she massages the mother’s stomach with her own home-made coconut oil and wraps a long cloth around her stomach. This binding is believed to return the internal organs to their correct size and place, and help the woman to regain her figure.
The first massage immediately after birth is symbolic, with onions, garlic and fire ash included in the binding. After this, the binding is taken off every day when the mother has a bath, and put back on again after the bidan’s massage (no onion, garlic or ash subsequently). They even wear the binding in bed.
A woman called Jacqueline Vincent-Priya spent time with some bidans in Malaysia watching their work and technique. She vouches for the effectiveness, one of the women who had given birth a month previously and had been massaged and bound since, “had a beautiful flat stomach and there was no sign that it had ever been distended with pregnancy”. I wish I could say the same of my own stomach!
She met with midwives from various different cultures in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and they all told a similar story. Some used a heated metal ball for the massage, others did it for less days after birth, but they all gave regular, physical, hands-on care to the new mother and bound their stomachs.
Two things strike me about this postnatal experience.
Firstly, I don’t know why, but it surprises me that regaining shape is thought important. I slightly associate the idea of a postnatal girdle with the 1950s and outdated concepts of restraining underwear. In our culture today there is an idea that only the vainest of celebrities are that bothered about regaining their pre-pregnancy shape (and do it through starvation and personal trainers rather than binding), while the rest of us accept that we’ll just be a bit misshapen for a while after birth, possibly forever...
Secondly, how wonderful to be looked after in that way after giving birth. Not the binding or the stomach massage particularly, but having someone else care for you and being encouraged to sink back into their capable hands. Like that feeling of abandoning your cares when you lean your head back into the basin at the hairdresser. I can’t help feeling that it’s highly unlikely that these Malaysian women would suffer postnatal depression (sadly no data available). Any equivalent we might arrange here would be viewed as a huge indulgence (plus what would you do with the baby) and would be too expensive for most women.
In our culture, or at least the way I experienced it, the postnatal time would be summed up by phrases like “childbirth is not an illness, you don’t need to lie in bed” and “back up and on your feet”. The midwives that came round to visit me after the birth concentrated on the baby’s health, and perfunctorily with my wellbeing. I got the distinct impression that I had done my bit and they had moved on.
Maybe I am the one romanticising the Malaysian experience, maybe they think “oh no, here comes the old biddy to do my massage and binding. I’ve got too much to do and don’t want her hands all over me”. But somehow I doubt it, especially given that even middle-class Westernised women are likely to use a bidan’s services if not for labour, then for the massage during pregnancy and after birth. One of my friend’s sisters gave birth in a state of the art hospital in Kampala under Western medical care, but then was visited by a traditional bidan regularly at home afterwards.
Shall I start petitioning the NHS now for daily postnatal massages for all women?
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Just in case you want to read more yourself, have a look at:
Jacqueline Vincent-Priya (1991) Birth Without Doctors: Conversations with Traditional Midwives London : Earthscan Publications
For a nice photo of a Malaysian bidan, see: