Thursday, 5 January 2012

#14 Giving birth in front of Grandpa

FACT OF THE DAY: In cultures that believe in reincarnation, many family members may gather to witness the rebirth of their ancestor – including Grandpa

I gave birth to all three of my babies in hospital, and at the moment of delivery there were three people with me; my husband, a midwife and a doctor (in fact a rather dishy male doctor at my second delivery which was either a welcome surprise or rather off-putting, I couldn’t work out which).

In terms of family, this is definitely what I wanted. I positively wanted my husband there, and I positively didn’t want anyone else there to see my emotional meltdowns and private parts.

In terms of medical staff, I valued their input and wanted them there to make sure things were going ok, and I suppose as they were strangers who I would most likely never see again (such is the NHS system in our area) I didn’t really mind them seeing me in full uninhibited childbirth mode.

The scenario I describe above is pretty much the norm in our culture. Maybe that was what I wanted because that is what I had been lead to expect from books, TV programmes and other cultural influences. Not so many generations ago women in our culture would have been horrified at the thought of having their husbands present, think of the husbands pacing about outside a closed door (well, that’s how it was shown in films!).

While this is what we might find most comfortable, many non-Western women would be extremely uncomfortable with the idea of their husband, and a doctor – a stranger and often a man – being present.

Around the world it seems that every variation can be found, from birthing completely alone, to birthing in front of the whole village, although the most common birthing scenario in the non-Western world seems to be having the support of a few older women who are usually related to the labouring woman, while all men, children, and women who have not yet given birth themselves are excluded.

One extreme example of a birthing scenario that is extremely different to our own is found in Bali. Although this is increasingly uncommon these days, in the past, mothers from Bali gave birth at their household compound, surrounded by their husband, any older children and other family members - including possibly her mother, aunts and even her father, uncles and grandparents - who were there to witness this joyous occasion.

Their Hindu belief in reincarnation means that the birth of a child is the equivalent to watching someone descending from heaven. Birth can almost be thought of as the reincarnated soul exiting from the uterus rather than a new child being born, which is why so many relatives wanted to be present.

The mother gave birth squatting on a mat on the floor, assisted by the local “balian”, a type of spiritual midwife (or maybe midperson would be a better word as half of them were men), who could apparently use spiritual powers to change the position of the infant to ensure relatively painless delivery.

It sounds quite strange for the mother, who seems to be treated more like a receptacle who receives an ancestor, rather than a mother of her own new baby, her own flesh and blood. Even after birth the baby is treated as if it is divine, as the observer says;

"Having just arrived from heaven your infant should be treated as a celestial being.  Provide the attention that a God deserves, address the child with the high language suitable for a person of higher rank. Hold your newborn’s head high, and for the first 210 days never put your baby down on the ground or floor, too profane for a god – until then your baby should be carried at all times. If you don’t treat your infant with respect, he may decide to leave the human world and return to the world of the gods."

The placenta is thought of as the baby’s sibling, and must be treated respectfully so it is washing in flower scented water and then buried ceremonially in a coconut shell covered in money and flowers.
As any traveller will know, daily life in Bali is full of traditions

From what I have read it seems that this does still happen in parts of Bali, and although many mothers now give birth in a clinic, the Hindu belief in reincarnation and the accompanying rituals are widespread.

Frustratingly, there are no comments on how the mothers find this experience; firstly of giving birth in front of the extended family, and secondly of giving birth to an ancestor. It’s so far removed from my experiences that its almost beyond my imaginings. Maybe the most likely sentiment is that this scenario is what they feel most comfortable with as it’s what they have been lead to expect – its the Balinese cultural norm....

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If you would like to read more yourself, take a look at;

DeLoache, J. & Gottlieb, A (2000) A world of babies; Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies   New York:  Cambridge University Press

Hobart, A Ramseyer, U and Leemann, A (2001) The Peoples of Bali Blackwell Publishers Ltd : Oxford

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